“No, it’s for floor matting and basketry”, is the honest and very simple answer to the question shouted above the chuffing of barges and long boats as they push along the Great Ouse every summer. We were in fact harvesting ‘Scirpus Lacustris’, or as it is otherwise known fresh water English bulrush.
Found in rivers and flood basins in only a few places of the UK it is harvested by hand, from a punt for a selection of crafts and products. Thatching is made from Norfolk Reed, and actually both plants would be equally poor at their job in place of the other. Rush is woven and generally manipulated into a huge range of objects from everyday items found in farmhouse kitchens, to one off creations in East London studios. The most extravagant and indeed eye wateringly expensive creation of recent times must be a chair made in collaboration between Rush Matters of Bedfordshire and the designer Christopher Jenner, which appeared in the Telegraph Luxury section for the paltry sum of £35,000! Durable, flexible and naturally beautiful, its popularity endures and is the reason this most medieval of crafts persists as part of our rural landscape.
Naturally, I leapt at the chance to experience this fascinating craft first hand as a rush harvester. Seconded to Rush Matters, and under the creative eye of Felicity Irons, no sooner I had arrived than I found myself amongst outboard engines, tools and an ebullient terrier, Molly, in the back of a Land Rover, inbound to the Great Ouse in Cambridgeshire. Felicity’s company can boast of being the only British company to harvest all their rush by hand, create and sell their own unique products.
Tom Arnold, of Holywell, the bucolic village on the sweeping curves of the Gt Ouse was a local legend, countryman in the purest sense and all round bon-viveur, and was the man from whom Felicity learnt her craft and took over the business from.
It would be wrong to continue this story without first glancing backwards into Tom and his wider Fenland environment. Like his father before him Tom made his living from the river and its banks. Its rushes, eels, fowl and seasonal influxes of sportsmen and boaters provided the varied basis from which his myriad skills were applied to great effect. Learning from his father from a young age, he could build wooden punts and punt gun from them, make eel traps and use them, cut rush and weave baskets from it, in the great tradition of working people born beside a river. Using the Ferry Boat Inn as his headquarters, he conducted his business and held court there entertaining locals and tourists alike with tales of life on the Gt Ouse, some taller than others!
Naturally gifted with a mathematician’s mind, he found himself a navigator in a Lancaster bomber when the Second World War bought an abrupt interruption to England’s peaceful way of life. Having had what is euphemistically known as a ‘Good War’ he returned home. Back to the river, rushes and punts of his youth, where Tom remained for the rest of his life, a source of a vast amount of knowledge, but also as an important figurehead within the community of the river. At the end of his varied life Tom was one of only a handful of people left to make his living from the traditional riverman’s way of life.
Having taken over from Tom 25 years ago, Felicity’s company has grown and grown into its current successful position, but has not lost Tom’s touch, and indeed his spirit lives on through Felicity’s beautiful work.
Jumping out of the Land Rover alongside the grassy banks of the river, I saw my ‘office’ for the next two weeks. Flowing from Newport Pagnell in Bedfordshire, to Kings Lynn in Norfolk, the Great Ouse is a major British waterway, popular in summer with families wanting a break on a boat from the city, fisherman of varying degrees of patience, and at one time with the legendary Saxon leader Hereward the Wake. Under the shadow of two church spires, and the watchful eye of a herd of Herefords, Felicity patiently instructed me in the age-old technique of cutting rush from a punt. With piles of rush mounting up on other harvesters’ punts I continued to wrench the odd plant free by the root, and make perilously arcing blows above me with the knife as I unbalanced myself in the punt. A rush knife consists of a straight wooden handle, six foot long, with a two foot curving blade attached to one end. The blade is gently pushed down to the few inches of plant above the bed, and then jerked up through the plant, but in a measured and controlled technique that allows a long cut to be made, letting the severed rushes float to the surface, with their ‘butts’ (the root end) all lying alongside each other at one end, and the tips at the other,allowing them to be easily gathered in a dripping bundle and dragged aboard, after being ‘tonked’ (cleaned). The rush is then laid across the narrow punt until enough cuts have been placed neatly together to constitute a ‘bolt’, which is essentially a sheaf of rush weighing about 15-20 kg’s when wet, these are then tied together with a rush and piled on the front and rear decks of the punt. Soaking, swearing and altogether frustrated with why my pile of bolts seemed to be increasing by one an hour when the other harvesters were barely discernable above their green pyramids of rush, I struggled on until lunch, taken on the bank and a welcome chance to straighten one’s back out after a morning of jerking, twisting and bending. Although not before the morning’s bounty was unloaded, one by one, from all four punts and stacked into trailers. This process was then repeated until mid afternoon.
On our return to the workshop and farm in Colesden, the day’s two tonnes of rush, over 100 bolts, needed to be unloaded again and set upright along a 500m hedge in order for them to be evenly dried to the point where they could then be stored in a 500 year old tithe barn for future use.
Like anything one does for long enough I began to get the hang of it and the backache started to recede, and 5 days in or so I thought “might I even be enjoying this!?”. Although not a relaxing gentle motion that lets your mind drift, due to the heavy kit and the fact that harvesters are paid a piece rate, I really felt at home on the river aboard my punt. My early pick-up-sticks attempts, slowly gave way to slowly to long green things somewhat resembling those of Felicity and the team’s professional and perfectly dressed bolts.
As I straightened every now and then to give myself a short respite from the back breaking cutting, kingfishers, cormorants, swans, pinkfoot geese, arctic terns, ducks all swooped, dipped and landed on or around the river and kept me company in quiet hours on the river. This idyllic working environment was only broken by the sound of pleasure craft moving up and down stream, who’s occupants waved a hello and jovially remarked ‘rather you than me’ on more than one occasion. The more inquisitive of the crews of these craft would be the one’s who gave this article its title. If I saw a filthy, and sodden individual crouched low with a long scythe, hauling bundles of dripping rush aboard a small punt, I would feel my curiosity sufficiently piqued to feel I should ask what on earth they were doing. When I was asked this question, I definitely felt a degree of pride to be performing a centuries old job, albeit not nearly as gracefully as Felicity, and one performed by so few in exactly the same manner it has always been done. Even John, the local eel catcher, gave us a toothless grin, wave and display of his day’s catch, which I liked to believe was only reserved for riverfolk who truly who made their living or part of it, in such a way.
L-R, Davey Irons, Felicity Irons (Mollie), the Author, Ivor Gibson