Shakespeare and sushi

A once failing Herefordshire business making `Tudorbethan' kit buildings has seen its fortunes soar in the land of the rising sun. Rose Shepherd reports on winter's discontent made glorious summer
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
ine years ago, John Greene was not a happy man. His company, Border Oak of Kingland, Herefordshire, was in trouble. He was stressed to breaking point as he travelled to and from New York, hoping to drum up a bit of business (surely America could use a chain of traditional English pubs, or at the very least a Tudorbethan drive-thru?), and then he contracted TB of the spine.

You haven't heard of it? Nor had his GP. If he hadn't changed his doctor, he might now be the late John Greene. As it was, he lost three vertebrae and two inches of his still-not-inconsiderable height. It was, then, an ailing man with an ailing business who talked to a reporter from the Financial Times about the problems that beset small builders in recession-hit Britain, and thus came to the notice of one Norman Allison, an architect from the John S Bonnington Partnership, who just happened to pick up the FT instead of his usual newspaper.

When the phone rang a few days later, John Greene, bound in shallows and in miseries, can have had no notion that the tide was about to turn. For it just so happened that John S Bonnington had recently secured a contract from the Obayashi Corporation, the largest construction company in the Pacific Rim, to build British Hills, an Olde Englishe village on a university campus at Shirakawa, north of Tokyo, to provide student accommodation, tithe-barn housing, a craft workshop, a country-style kitchen, tea rooms and a pub.

Naturally, they'd snapped it up, but who had the expertise to produce such buildings? Border Oak, that's who. The company specialises in traditional timber-frame buildings - green-oak structures which they manufacture at their sawmills and transport for erection on site. This is the original flat-pack housing, prefabs true to 16th-century building processes and aesthetics (with a little help from modern technology). Witness the fact that Border Oak have dismantled and relocated 100-odd genuine historic homes, such as the 10-room, 17th-century Platt Hall in Cheshire, which was demolished from its site in the shadow of a giant chemical complex to rise again five miles away in more appropriate parkland.

New Border Oak homes are not merely transportable, but durable. Unlike most new buildings, which start to deteriorate from day one, they improve with age. As they weather they look more and more authentic, the maturing oak growing harder and stronger. Sweetbrier Cottage, Lichfield Court, Holly Farmhouse, Oakapple Manor, and any amount more, all tailored to individual specifications. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

You pay 10 per cent up front, as well. Border Oak now insists on a deposit, having been left with one cottage surplus to requirements after the break-up of a client's marriage. Today this building serves as company headquarters, and we are at this moment in the dining-room, where John Greene shows us slides of English Hills and other projects, as the rain beats down outside on stacks of timbers, each one the bones of some new rustic dwelling.

"A cottage goes on a small lorry, a manor house goes on a big lorry, or perhaps two," says a matter-of-fact Greene. "We didn't know where Japan was," he confesses. "We had to borrow a child's school atlas to find it. It's 8,000 miles away!"

This was only the start of a long learning process for Greene and his workforce. One of them, Ronnie Pitt, had never been outside the county before, never mind the country. There were arcane Japanese building regulations to respect, earthquakes and typhoons to be reckoned with (not a problem in Herefordshire). Greene reports with pride how English Hills survived an earthquake: the only casualty was a yard-of-ale glass in the Falstaff public house.

There was, too, the matter of Japanese etiquette, of which he, all unknowing, seemed constantly to be in breach. "I went to Japan to try to get a signed contract out of them," he says, "not realising that this is something you don't do in Japan. It's all done by handshake." A minor faux pas, you might think, compared with showing up stark naked for a wallow in the steaming pool at a country inn, only to find that all the Obayashi top bananas had brought flannels to cover their embarrassment.

The Japanese hosts were, however, unfailingly gracious. "The funny thing was, we wanted to experience Japanese culture, and what they try to do is take you to French and Italian restaurants. Mind you, we've done the same thing. We took them for a very average Japanese meal at the Boot Inn at Yarpole which had a Japanese owner. We ended up eating sushi, and they ended up eating fish and chips.

"I was pleasantly surprised with sushi and sashimi. I think it was more relief than anything, but I must have shown my delight, because now, every time we go there, they take me to more expensive, more exotic sushi bars. I once had fugi fish [blowfish] which, if the chef cuts it wrongly, is deadly poisonous. I didn't know until I'd eaten it, fortunately. It doesn't taste of anything much: it's just very pretty - kind of opalescent with a red stripe right through it."

For the erectors - Ronnie, Kevin, Tiger and the lads - in a funny way Japan was less of a culture shock, once they'd got used to morning keep-fit (if they ever got used to morning keep-fit), to being whistled at peremptorily by the safety police, to having ashtrays on the building site, and to working shoulder to shoulder with women. As John Greene says, "Construction workers the world over talk the same language, they talk construction worker."

Were any of them nervous about going?

"No, they took it in their stride."

"Keep-fit is compulsory, unfortunately," says the Border Oak foreman, Kevin Flynn, a steady sort of chap who spent three months on the English Fields project. "You can't get out of it. Even if you're ill. I had the usual sort of stomach upsets you get when you're travelling, but liked most of the food. A lot of what they fed us was what they thought was Western food. You get cold fried egg, cabbage and peas for breakfast, which was not something I'd been used to. We tried to get down there early in the morning to catch it when the eggs were warm, but we never did."

For a guy who was nicknamed Tiger by the English workers, and Weird Foreigner by the Japanese, keep-fit on the first morning was almost more than he could take. He had spent his first night doing a spot of male bonding, drinking with the Japanese owner of the ski lodge where the team was billeted. At some time in the night, the pair had engaged in a bout of arm wrestling, which had ended in tears.

It was a rather surly hotel manager who sported a black eye at breakfast, and a rather sickly Tiger whom they hauled out from behind the Portakabins to join in the daily callisthenics. "After about four weeks," says John Greene, "the Japanese said they felt they'd gained all the experience they could from Tiger. Could we now, please, take him home?"

Ronnie Pitt, who until then had not possessed a passport, seems to have fared better. He chummed up with a Japanese worker, teaching him to say, "How be you, mon?" which should stand him in good stead if he's ever down Herefordshire way.

Ronnie did, however, have a secret sadness. Well, not that secret. His marriage was in trouble, and he had a week on the sake to try to drown his sorrows. His usual tipple back in Herefordshire was a thing they call "roofer's juice" - a mix of cider and sherry or whatever else is available - but the Japanese rice wine seems to have hit the spot.

"I went out there to try to sort him out," says John Greene. "We were walking across this mountain, looking down at the site, and I said, `Ron, have you ever thought that this is totally surreal? What the hell are we doing in Japan, on a mountain, looking down at a construction site discussing your marriage?'"

Cultural differences and a touch of the surreal notwithstanding, the project was a wild success, and led to more - and more extraordinary - commissions for Border Oak. Consider the Shakespeare "dream park" in Maruyama Township, on the Pacific, 50 miles from Tokyo, where Shakespeare's birthplace, Mary Arden's house and Stratford market cross have been lovingly recreated for Japanese in thrall to the Bard, complete with stocks, a maypole, English tea rooms, a windmill, Elizabethan gardens, and lifelike wax- work figures of Shakespeare's father, mother and, naturally, of the man himself.

Then there's the Takarazuku City Horticultural Centre, an Elizabethan- style manor built to house bonsai trees. There are plans for a teddy bear museum at Ito City. There's a restaurant and wine bar in Tokyo's smart Shibuya district, modelled on an English inn, complete with inglenook, where they serve roast beef - in slivers, to be eaten with chopsticks, and not at all like mother makes.

While we in Britain get noodle bars, sushi and restrained Japanese elegance, the Japanese get half-timbering, mullioned windows and cross-garters. All this, and, Tiger too. It hardly seems a fair exchange.

But then, as Julian Bicknell, the architect on the dream park project, points out from his base in Covent Garden, cultural imperialism is a two- way process. At the same time as they put themselves about all round the globe, wealthy nations pick and mix from what other nations have to offer.

The dream park concept, said Bicknell, falls within the Japanese tradition of visiting temples in your leisure time. "It's a Sunday pilgrimage to a sacred place - using `sacred' in a very loose sense. Your Sunday afternoon is not just roundabouts for the kids but stretches the imagination, so the Shakespeare dream park fits into that cultural pattern."

Border Oak, meanwhile, is not complaining. Its turnover is on the up and up, the workforce has more than quadrupled, and it now has a Tokyo office, which is run by a Canadian who sold vintage guitars to Japanese enthusiasts until the bottom dropped out of that market, before going briefly into the log-cabin game.

Border Oak houses have featured on the Fuji-sankei TV shopping programme, in a special promotion of all things English. A Japanese TV crew was over here filming, and John Greene was interviewed by "the Japanese Bruce Forsyth", if you can get your mind round that idea.

While Asia works through its economic problems, however, Japan is putting less work their way. But, meanwhile, Border Oak is getting busy in Belgium, and working with a pub chain here. And it surely won't be long before John Greene, a nervous and superstitious flier, puts on the one green sock which assures that the plane will stay up in the air, and drives to the airport, his eyes peeled for an Eddie Stobart lorry (another good omen), for another 12- hour trip to talk about all things Tudorbethan to another overseas market.

As for Ronnie Pitt, it seems that he's never looked back. He arrived at Heathrow after his Japanese tour of duty brandishing a samurai sword. Then - perhaps after a full English breakfast washed down with copious quantities of roofer's juice - he was off again, this time to Connecticut, where, they say, he took up with a native American woman and is doing very nicely thank you.

A lot of lives have been touched, a lot of lives changed. And all because an architect on a train picked up a newspaper and read about a company that was practically on its knees

Comments