Willow power

PUBLISHED: 01:16 30 July 2012 | UPDATED: 21:40 20 February 2013

Willow power

Willow power

Willow isn't just for making cricket bats and baskets. Traditional craftsman Robert Yates has put the fast-growing wood to some very different uses

Willow isnt just for making cricket bats and baskets. Traditional craftsman Robert Yates has put the fast-growing wood to some very different uses

Growing willow wasnt a career plan for Robert Yates, he just kind of fell into it.

And now, growing willow at his family farm in Brampton, he is one of the largest commercial producers in Suffolk, using the wood to produce garden fences and beautiful outdoor furniture.

His story starts 27 years ago when Robert qualified as an agricultural surveyor.

"I decided I ought to come back to Suffolk and find a job. It just so happened at the time my father and brother were selling off the family dairy enterprise, leaving a lot of marshland unused.

"While I was searching for a job I began thinking of an alternative use for the land and started growing ornamental willow for Edgar Watts (world renowned for its willow cricket bats). We would plant them in the spring, grow them for one year and sell them on as one year transplants.

"I realised very soon that although they (willow) grew furiously, trying to pull them up in clay wasnt ideal. The land was better used for coppice.

"I started to grow for the last traditional Suffolk basket maker Frank Philpot. He had to get all of his willow from Somerset before and really couldnt believe he could get local willow."

Robert gets through massive volumes of willow, with his team carrying out all work on site by weaving the willow around steel tubes in a continuous construction.

Although growing willow is a centuries old tradition, some things have changed: "When I started, everyone thought I was barking. I used to cut it all by hand with a hook. This skill has been lost though so I had to develop a machine to do the cutting for me. It was specially made by Dick Plant and now by Stephen Eyles. It looks like something out of Scrapheap Challenge because its made up of parts of other agricultural machines."

As well as curvaceous screens and fences, Brampton Willows has taken on 3D projects, summerhouses, benches and even horse trials.

A project Robert is particularly proud of is a selection of 3D wave obstacles created for the 2006 horse trials at Badminton. The waves have been used at the world famous lake fences since 2007.

And a stint at the Chelsea Flower Show led him to a far-flung destination: "The RHS commissioned me to make six background panels for the courtyard garden. I thought, this is great. Then I came back to the office and found a fax from someone whod seen the work at Chelsea and he wanted us to do his home in the Bahamas!

The project has seen at least five or six hurricanes in its lifetime, says Robert, with one storm in the 90s bringing in 140mph winds and a 20ft tidal surge. "The water pushed them over and bent the steel, but other than that they were largely undamaged."


Brampton Willows
Tel: 01502 575891


Roberts top willow facts


Willow contains salicylic acid aspirin


The Romans used to plant willow either side of their roads to stop them sinking Nowadays you see pollards along the roadside which do the same thing


Basic basket making goes back to Roman times. "We are using old techniques for very modern products," says Robert

Long-lasting good looks

Willow structures should last at least 15 years, says Robert. "Its widely thought that you should grow ivy over willow to preserve it as it blocks out the UV light. We have clients in Orford who had work done by another company when they were newlyweds in the 50s and here we are 60 years on and its still there. If you can block out the light it makes all the difference."

Robert also recommends a turpentine substitute to further preserve willow.

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