Sunday, 12 January 2014

Blanket coverage

It was great to hear that plans have been submitted to turn Witney’s Grade II* listed Blanket Hall into a museum to showcase the town’s almost forgotten blanket-making heritage

Richard Martin, managing director of Cotswolds Woollen Weavers at Filkins, is leading the project. He said: “We want to explain what blankets meant to Witney. This is the first time members of the public would be able to come back into Blanket Hall for almost 40 years. The museum will give visitors the chance to reproduce some of the blankets that were made in Witney, such as the ones used by every sailor in Nelson’s Navy and blankets used by cowboys.”

The Blanket Hall, in High Street, was built in 1721. It was once the meeting place of the local weavers’ guild and, in the past saw many lively gatherings. A restored Blanket Hall could perhaps act as a hub for local spinners and weavers - and provide a home for the last remaining handloom used at Early’s, currently at the nearby Cogges Farm Museum.

In its heyday, Charles Early’s Witney blanket industry employed more than 3,000 people, and its blankets were recognised as the finest in England. The establishment of an overseas trade in the 18th century was a further boost to the industry, especially when the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company in North America began placing regular orders.

The Early family in Witney dates back to the late 17th century and there were several branches of the family running different businesses in and around the town, often as serious rivals. Charles Early rationalised these various operations, and by the end of the 19th century he had amalgamated all the Early firms into a single business.

Charle Early’s main rival was William Smith & Co, whose founder had, ironically, learned his skills from Edward Early in the 1820s. Smith was an orphan who was born in Witney and raised by his grandfather, Henry, a master tucker in the blanket industry.

The young William’s first job (he started work aged just eight) was as a bobbin winder, but it was not long before his potential was spotted by Edward Early, who offered him a job as an errand boy for the princely sum of four shillings a week. Before long he was in charge of the weighing and packaging of blankets.

Over the next few years Smith experimented in other trades, running first a mop-making business and then a brewery. Both businesses were successful, but by the 1850s he had sold off his assets from the brewery and returned to the blanket trade.

His firm was based at Bridge Street Mill, and was the first to use the steam engine in the manufacture of blankets. His business was particularly prosperous during the late 19th century, when he had regular orders from the Government to supply mops and blankets to the Royal Navy.

The 20th century saw the beginning of the blanket industry’s long decline, hastened to an untimely end by the growing popularity of the duvet, increased use of central heating and the closure of the railway in Witney in 1970. William Smith & Son underwent several mergers and takeovers from the 1920s onwards, but closed in 1975.

After the hall closed, it was used as a brewery, an office of birth, marriages and death and a mineral water business. It was converted into a house in 1976 and was the home of Brian Crawford, former managing director of Witney blanket makers Early’s, until his death in August 2011. In his will, Mr Crawford said he wanted to see Blanket Hall reconnected with the blanket industry.

After Mr Crawford’s death, the house was given to the Bartlett Taylor Trust, based in Church Green, Witney. The trust hopes to lease the hall to a new company called the Witney Blanket Hall Company, headed by Mr Martin. If planning permission is granted, it is hoped the museum will open next Easter.

A restored Blanket Hall may not bring a return to the wonderful sight of Witney blankets hanging on drying frames alongside the Windrush (pictured above) — but it would be fantastic to see spinning and weaving, an industry that shaped the local economy for hundreds of years return to this bustling Oxfordshire market town.

In the meantime, you could enjoy a ramble around the town’s Wool and Blanket trail, which takes in buildings associated with the wool business, including the Blanket Hall. Pick up a leaflet from the Visitor Information Centre in Welch Way, call 01993 775802 or e-mail

Market forces

In the words of Hannibal Smith in the A Team, “I love it when a plan comes together!” My plan was to turn the fleeces of my Ryeland sheep into useful items and take them to market. And it all came together at Wolvercote Farmers’ Market last weekend.

And I am delighted to say that the throws and scarves made for me from my wool by Curlew Weavers in Wales got a good reception from Sunday morning shoppers who frequent Oxford’s longest-running farmers’ market.

My ‘stock’ for the year arrived last week – and I was delighted by the quality of finish and design. I was also surprised by the sheer amount of product I got back. There are three sizes of throw, scarves and cushion covers in three designs.

We sent our bags full of rather scruffy fleeces off to Wales to be processed back in May, and they have been transformed into - even though I say so myself - beautiful and useful items. It was fantastic to know that all these items had come from our own flock, a result of good breeding and quite a bit of hard work.

It was also great to get my message about wool and why the heritage of this wonderful resource should be celebrated out to people who are genuinely interested in the subject. I also met some readers of this column – it is always great to know that your words are reaching people and not simply falling on deaf ears!

Farmers’ Markets like the one held at Wolvercote Primary School, First Turn, off Woodstock Road, every Sunday, are the lifeblood of small producers and craftspeople, allowing them to reach an audience which would otherwise be out of reach.

Since Wolvercote’s market began more than ten years ago in 2002 other farmers’ markets have grown up in and around the city in its wake. Unlike some markets who have paid staff, Wolvercote’s market is run as a not-for-a-profit organisation run by a group of volunteers who do everything from organising publicity to putting up gazebos on market day.

All the farm produce on sale is produced locally – in fact the majority of suppliers come from within a ten mile radius of Wolvercote and a few from the village itself. One of my favourite stalls is set up by the Natural Bread Company. But perhaps the most important thing is that produce is sold directly by the producers themselves. There are no middle-men, so you often get better value than you would at the supermarket. It is a bit of a myth that farmers’ markets are more expensive than regular shops. And you can talk to people about the products they grow or make.

There is also a great little café so you can enjoy breakfast after doing your weekly shop. There is a special festive market at Wolvercote this Sunday- the last chance to get some really local gifts and stocking-fillers. I look forward to seeing you there!

Find out more about Wolvercote Farmers’ Market at

No Christmas cheer for the RBST

Our regular Christmas get-together with fellow keepers of rare breeds is always a jolly occasion, but this year’s event had a more serious side. The Northamptonshire Rare Breeds Survival Trust group which I belong to – there isn’t an Oxfordshire group - has decided to end its connection with the RBST in protest at the way money raised by local groups is administered by the parent organisation.

The Northamptonshire group believe that very little cash from the thousands of pounds raised by hard-working local groups is actually spent on the RBST’s core activity, conserving rare breeds. This came as a bit of a shock to me – I have been a member of the organisation for many years, long before I actually began to keep rare breed sheep myself.

The Northants group will continue to actively raise money for native rare breeds – but the funds it raises will not be sent on to the RBST, with members being asked to decide which projects they would like to support financially.

Gail Sprake, chairman of the RBST’s Trustees, told me: “We have 25 Support Groups spread throughout Great Britain who do admirable work on behalf of RBST and who are much valued. I am concerned too that some of our members consider that the valuable funds raised by the support groups are being used for administration and other expenses as you pointed out in your email, rather than being channelled in to work which directly helps towards the conservation of our native breeds of livestock.”

She added that in 2012 the RBST spent £470,000 on conservation projects.

This sort of controversy over the way charities make use of financial contributions is nothing new, but it is still depressing. Hopefully the group will quickly sort out its differences with the RBST – which this year celebrated its 40th anniversary – as it relies heavily on local groups for fundraising..

Meanwhile, it was great to see so many younger folk among the old-timers at the Christmas shindig. It appears that an interest in keeping native breeds of livestock is thriving among the new generation of young farmers and smallholders.

Britain probably has the largest range of native sheep breeds in the world. They are an integral part of our history and are descended from local types which successfully adapted to particular environmental and geographical conditions. The diversity of native British sheep breeds derives from generations of careful shepherding which this younger generation will hopefully continue.

Many of our breeds have important connections. The Portland, for example, is the progenitor of the Dorset Horn, while almost all long-wool sheep in Britain (and many breeds abroad) trace a significant ancestry to the shaggy Leicester Longwool.

The North Ronaldsay which over the centuries has adapted to a diet of seaweed, has provided farmers with valuable information on protein utilisation and copper toxicity – illustrating how animals, largely unchanged for thousands of years, can play an important part in the modern world.

Many native breeds have been free of artificial selection pressures and have evolved in small self-contained populations, making them suitable for hybridisation. For example, many primitive breeds have shown good commercial qualities in crossbreeding.

That means that native sheep breeds are well-placed to contribute to the diversification currently being required of farmers.

Victorian values

Traditional wool-related crafts such as spinning and weaving appear to be enjoying the same sort of revival as knitting has in recent years. But many sheep farmers are facing levels of poverty not seen since Victorian times, according to an Oxford-based charity.

The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RABI), which has offices in West Way, Oxford, has been supporting families of impoverished farmers for 153 years. RABI was founded in 1860 by John Joseph Mechi.

In the mid-1800s a group of Essex farmers had become concerned about the level of poverty within the farming community and the absence of an official body to represent them. In 1859 Mechi wrote to The Times to rally support for the founding of a benevolent institution that would seek funds and distribute them to the needy.

During RABI’s early years, the number of applicants far outweighed available funds, but as support gathered pace, by the mid-1930s, RABI was maintaining 1,000 pensioners at an annual cost of £32,000

In 1999 the charity’s Charter was amended to include farm workers and their families and in 2001 RABI was nominated as one of five charities for HM The Queen's Golden Jubilee Year.

Coming up to date, from January to September last year, RABI helped 292 farmers, nearly three times as many as in the same period in 2012. Help comes in the form of food vouchers, school uniforms, electricity bills and funeral expenses.

RABI’s communication manager, Philippa Spackman, speaking to The Independent newspaper just before Christmas, said: "These people are amazingly resilient, and we won't underpin a failing business, but the families need the basic support. They will often go without themselves rather than let the animals suffer. We are truly talking about Victorian conditions."

A sheep farmer working a hill farm earns, on average, only £6,000 a year – and has unsurprisingly has led to around 5,000 men leaving agriculture in 2012. It is estimated that 60,000 new entrants are needed in the farming industry in the next decade to ensure its sustainability.

Feed prices are up 33 per cent and, just like the rest of us, farmers are facing massive rises in their energy bills. The price of meat from the sheep is also down, fat lambs fetching about £70 each. But help could be at hand if the Government takes notice of a call from Lib-Dem MP Tim Farron.

The MP for the South Lakes constituency in Westmorland and Lonsdale, chairs of the all-party parliamentary hill farming group and has urged the Government to investigate the gap between the price farmers receive for fleeces and the shelf price of wool which has been driven sky-high by a growing demand for British wool from China.

Mr Farron said: "We need to do all we can to support our farming industry, particularly in the uplands where life can be a real struggle. This support and funding could make a massive difference to upland farmers throughout Cumbria and help show the next generation that there is a real future in a career in farming."

But Mr Farron, who is also national president of the Liberal Democrats, said that he wanted the grocery adjudicator to investigate the gap between the price the farmer received for the fleece and the shelf price, and would put down a parliamentary question for Jo Swinson, the minister for employment relations, consumer and postal affairs.

Meanwhile RABI is preparing for its annual fund-raising Farmhouse Breakfast event, which this year takes place from the end of January. Free promotional resourses are available from Melanie Moughton on 01865 811582 or email

For more information about RABI visit the website:

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Move over Movember!

We have all heard about Movember, the campaigning group that challenges people to grow a moustache during the month of November to raise money for charity.

But I bet you’ve never heard of Wovember? Launched in 2011, this organisation promotes wool, and the importance of this great natural fibre with amazing properties. It is also running a campaign for clearer labelling and descriptions of garments.

Wovember is about showing a collective appreciation of wool by wearing as much of this fabulous fibre as possible, and by celebrating its unique qualities in stories and pictures which appear on its website throughout the month of November.

Instigated by Drs Kate Davies and Felicity Ford in response to their frustrations at the misuse of the words ‘wool’ and ‘woollen’ in garment descriptions, Wovember aims to reinstate the true value of those terms by linking them with the animals and people who produce and process wool.

The woolly thinking campaigners, Kate Davies, Felicity Ford and Tom van Deijnen say: “Through our enthusiasm and creativity we can raise awareness of what makes wool different, and jointly create a force for wool appreciation strong enough to effect changes in how garments and textiles are described and marketed.”

“By describing fabrics and garments as wool that contain little or no wool at all, the fashion industry has increased consumer ignorance, profiting from the prestige of wool, while damaging actual wool and the livelihoods of those who raise, produce and process it.

The Wovember team add: “By reconnecting the words wolly, woollen and wool with the noble animals from which that peerless fibre comes, it is hoped that we will be able to end the widespread abuse of these terms in the fashion industry, and their misapplication to garments which bear no connection to actual sheep,”

Wovember believe that the fashion trade needs to recognising that wool is a premium textile and that the terms wool, woolly and woollen should only be applied to real wool garments and not, for instance, to those made using polyester or viscose.

To support Wovember why not endeavour to wear as much wool as possible throughout the month, and tell everyone about the unique qualities of wool? Or sign the Wovember petition on the website to support changes to textile trading standards and product descriptions.

You could also send in stories about sheep, wool, knitting, weaving or other endeavours which celebrate wool in all its sheepy glory or enter the Wovember competition by sending in a 100% wool photograph for the Wovember gallery.

Meanwhile, the two groups have surprisingly found a way to link their campaigns, thanks to Blacker Yarns and Designs, based in Launceston, Cornwall.

The company, which promotes and sells yarns from rare breed sheep, is hoping that those who cannot grow a sufficiently impressive moustache themselves will consider knitting or crocheting one, and wearing it for a photograph to post on the Blacker Yarns and Designs Facebook page or on theor Twitter feed @blackeryarns .

Points will be awarded for the best woolly ‘tash and Blacker Designs will also make a charitable donation to Movember per moustache photo posted. What a brilliant idea!

Sadly I already have a grizzled old beard, so can’t really contribute, although I guess I could sport a Beardo, a wonderful combination of knitted hat and ‘beard’ - the brainchild of Jeff Phillips, a Canadian-born gent with a passion for snowboarding.

Jeff came up with the first makeshift Beardo in Whistler, British. His very first prototype was made using an old knit scarf, but the design has been since refined.

However ‘refined’ may not be the first word that comes to mind when you first see one of these creations. More like ‘WTF!’


Saturday, 9 November 2013

Urban shepherds and rent-a-sheep

Mowing the lawn is a chore I expect many people could happily do without, so I was intrigued to discover an alternative way to cut the grass being pioneered in France. Here companies, public authorities and individuals are renting sheep to keep their lawns tidy.

Cutting the grass in Marie-Josee Gellet's yard in Lyon does not involve the irritating whirr of a mechanical lawnmower. Instead all you hear is gentle munching . "They basically roam freely in my garden, and just do what they want,” Marie-Josee said.

And a fellow resident of Lyon, 91-year-old Louis Roure, also takes advantage of the rent-a-sheep service. "Shrub and thorns are taking over here, it's terrible,” he said.” I do not want to be invaded by them, so I have found a solution - the sheep. I have also found that they are great company too."

The lawn-mowing sheep belong to Christophe Darpheuil, a pioneer of ‘urban shepherding’ in France. He reckons his customers could become the “shepherds of the future”.

Christophe added: “There are such difficulties being a shepherd outside the city nowadays, but inside the city, the future is theirs.”

Christophe, who is director of Naturama, an association which promotes environmental education, brought a flock of rare breed Soay sheep to France from Scotland six years ago. But once he got them home he realised he didn't have enough pasture to feed them - so he started renting them out to keep grassy areas in public spaces in trim.

"At first, people thought it was ridiculous," Christophe said. "But once they saw how efficient it was, they said: 'Oh, yeah! It's worth it.' Now, we have five or six city authorities who rent these sheep all year long."

The little Soay sheep are particularly suitable to this type of work because they need minimal attention - they even shed their fleeces. They can also graze in areas hard to reach with machines - and their droppings feed the land.

But those wanting even, manicured lawns with a nice stripe may not be satisfied with the look of the lawn after the sheep have visited.

"Sheep, you have to understand, are eating for themselves – they are not worried about keeping the place looking perfect. They will select the grass that is the juiciest," Christophe explained.

There are other obstacles to overcome too. Fences must be put up to contain the animals - and that involves working through bureaucratic red tape.

Christophe has learned to deal with these issues and now aims to share his expertise. If you are a smallholder looking to diversify, Christophe ‘s next idea may sound attractive.

To train urban shepherds, he's developing an educational program for the National Agronomics School in Toulouse.

"We will try to create a new kind of job," he said. "You don't need to have 300 sheep to earn a proper living. If you have only 30-40 sheep, you could live nearly all year long, renting out your sheep to the city authorities."

It turns out that he use of livestock to maintain public grassland is not exclusive to France. Sheep and cattle may soon be used to keep the grass trimmed at the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin, which has been turned into a huge public park. Michael Krebs, manager of the park said: "In 2014 or 2015, it might be an option to have some sheep or some cattle here to try this out.”

Closer to home in Wolvercote, cattle are used to graze Wolvercote Green, a site of special scientific interest, and the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust also use sheep and cattle for conservation grazing. As well as saving fuel, reducing noise and cutting CO2 emissions, livestock also help preserve biodiversity.

So our cash-strapped city and district councils might like to look at the rent-a-sheep idea for public parks and gardens. However there is a drawback to this plan – hungry sheep just won’t respect those attractive municipal flowerbeds.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Oxford Down flock grazes the Clumps

Lauren and Dan Marriott, who have just started a tenancy with Farm Step at the Earth Trust, will be selling their Little Wittenham Lamb for the first time at Wallingford Local Producers’ Market in the Regal Centre on Saturday (November 9). The Marriotts have brought a flock of more than 300 pure-bred Romney sheep from the South Downs to graze on Wittenham Clumps, and will also graze a smaller flock of Oxford Down sheep.

Wendy Tobitt, chair of the Wallingford Local Producers’ Market, welcomed the new farmers. “The market is the perfect place for Lauren and Dan to start trading. Little Wittenham Lamb is exactly the type of local business that we support. Our customers will be delighted to have locally farmed lamb available at least once a month.”

The farming venture at Little Wittenham is a new career for Dan and Lauren, both of whom have worked in food and agriculture industries. They have taken over the land farmed by Camilla and Roly Puzey who moved to West Sussex in September.

The Marriotts chose the Romney and the Oxford Down breeds of sheep because they will do well on the grassland of Wittenham Clumps. “It will be good to see the Oxford Down sheep grazing in their ‘home territory’. Like the Romney breed, they are very hardy and we look forward to them lambing in the spring,” Lauren said.