Weaving their way along the Waveney
PUBLISHED: 17:44 27 October 2014 | UPDATED: 17:44 27 October 2014
Thought to be one of East Anglia's oldest recorded industries, this Suffolk based business is almost single handily providing the lifeblood of the ancient craft of rush cutting
I paddle my kayak up the picturesque River Waveney near Homersfield through freshly cut bullrushes, the reflection of the sun bouncing off the water, the air filled with the sounds of country life.
After 15 minutes of surprisingly tough paddling, I finally gain sight of the rush cutters, up to their waists in the crystal water, pulling, cutting and tying lush bullrushes. The rushes are gathered and pushed downriver to the next cutter, who trims, ties and forms a bolt – a bundle of rushes – which is loaded on to a barge.
The team of three men have been busy for a few weeks clearing this stretch of the river, gradually making progress deep into the heart of the countryside.
“It’s been really tough,” admits Paul, maintenance manager of Waveney Rush, as he hauls yet another bolt on to an already fully loaded barge. Mind you, working in this peaceful corner of Oulton Broad, on the edge of the river with some wonderful views, can’t be all bad.
Waveney Rush has been given a grant to clear this stretch of river after canoeists reported that it was becoming impassable, explains manager Anna Truman. The hope is that they will benefit from the arduous work by being able to use locally grown rushes for their products.
Every swipe of the slim scythe, and pull of the bullrush, reveals another small section of the river, making way for a gush of water. The barge is stacked tall and wide with what must be 60 bolts of bullrush, ready to make the 15-minute journey down river.
The scene is simply idyllic – cows munch on fresh wet grass at the water’s edge, butterflies and birds work in harmony and Paul stands on the barge, gently paddling and pushing his way along the river . . .
A few days later, on the northern edge of Oulton Broad, I visit the industry headquarters, where the age-old craft is put into practice and beautiful products are created. I say created, as it’s obvious from the moment I step inside the workshop that this is akin to carefully creating a work of art. The love, attention to detail and passion that goes into every weave is astonishingly beautiful.
Holding a 20 yard length of weave is workshop manager Millie. I chat to her, my eyes transfixed by the speed with which she forces the dried rush through and over, twists then pulls unbelievably tight. “It’s all about keeping it clean and tight” says Millie, who has been involved in the industry for 25 years.
“You know within a day whether you’ll like this work and if you’re any good,” she laughs. “I guess that means I liked it.”
There is room for some new faces at the company and Gemma joined straight from college and has been progressing really well, learning nine-ply and three-ply weaves and is about to start basket making.
“It’s not the best paid or the most glamorous job becoming a weaver. You need a passion and desire. Thankfully Gemma has these and has been really great to have involved in our weaving” says Anna.
The weave Millie is currently working is for a new mat destined for America. The three-inch wide weave will finish at 24 yards in length, which is a typical day’s work for one of the weavers.
The subtly golden rush is almost unrecognisable to what I witnessed on the river a few days earlier.
After being brought from the river, the rush is laid out for a few days, allowing the sun, wind and atmosphere to begin drying it. During this process, the weight is reduced by about a fifth. It’s a natural process and no chemicals are used to help it along. It takes as long as the weather chooses.
Once dried, the bolts of rush are gathered and kept in a dry storage barn, the velvet tones of the greens rubbing shoulders with the sun dried bleached tones of the honey like rush, all waiting their fate at the hands of the weaver.
Bolts of rush are then chosen by the weaver and left to soak in a tank, increasing its flexibility before the weavers feed it through a mangle. The workshop is filled with a crackling sound as the spine of the rush is broken and the once dried and fairly brittle material becomes soft and malleable. The mangle removes excess water while spotted or old rush is pulled away, leaving the finest material ready for weaving.
Moving upstairs into the heart of the operation, Millie and Julie begin interlocking the rush, using the nine-ply method to create a large mat for a regular client. By its very nature rush weaving is an extremely labour intensive process. The 8x5ft mat will take days to finish.
“The main cost is labour,” says Anna. “You want to keep it English, maintaining the craft and expertise, but that all takes time and costs money.”
The master weavers will take at least two days to finish the sewing on this mat. Using needle and thread, they kneel working left to right, carefully threading the natural twine through to finish this beautiful mat.
The finished product can last up to 20 years, depending on conditions and use. On my left is rush matting from a National Trust property awaiting repair. A section of the matting has worn away, but thankfully the ethos of the throw away society doesn’t apply here. The old sections are simply cut away, freshly weaved sections sewn in place and before long the matting is ready to return to the period property.
The majority of the rush used comes from Holland. “We’ve spent years looking for the best rushes and the Dutch farm their bullrush to an extremely high standard.” However with the grant this year to cut the bullrush from the rivers on the Southern Broads, there is a level of optimism that maybe, just maybe, large scale bolt rushes could be supplied from the local area.
“We would love to source rushes locally, of course we would, and certainly the grant to start cutting on the Southern Broads has helped start things off,” says Anna.
“ It took a lot longer than we anticipated, but now we’ve started the process, hopefully in a year or two the new harvest will prove sustainable and we’ll be able to use Suffolk bullrush full time in our unique operation”.