Norah Kennedy believes everyone has a basket inside them. 'I haven't met anyone who couldn't weave one,' she says. I called her bluff. And lost

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The Independent Online
"Always start with a smile," said our tutor Norah Kennedy as I knelt on the floor preparing to make my first basket. It was a lovely image, but not all that it seemed. A "smile" turned out to be a wide opening created by piercing several pieces of willow with a bodkin.

Basket-making has its own rich vocabulary. I soon learnt about waling and randing and slewing; that reeds that snapped were "unkind" and that the process of inserting uprights into the frame was known as "upsetting". Some of the language was frankly anatomical. Sticks have bellies; baskets have foots (not feet); and when Norah reminded us to place "butt to butt" I wondered what I had let myself in for.

"I haven't yet met anyone who couldn't make a basket," Norah began encouragingly, which to me was something of a challenge. I was one of only two beginners, and the other was an artist, so I was the only likely candidate. My lack of manual dexterity is such that I was sure I could prove her wrong - but by the end of the day I had been converted. Five hours was all it took to create an attractive fruit bowl and I had not only started but also finished with a broad smile.

I was one of a small group taking a three-day basket- making course at the Kingcombe Centre in west Dorset, where a variety of walking, environmental and crafts-based holidays are held. The centre is on the Kingcombe Estate, which was once a busy farming community and is now owned by the Dorset Trust for Nature Conservation.

Modern farming methods were never used on much of the land, with the result that rare flowers, lichens, fungi and butterflies thrive there. Guided walks around the grounds made a pleasant diversion during our stay.

As the days went by, the barn was taken over by huge spiders' webs of willow as every kind of basket imaginable took shape - apple baskets, clothes baskets, shopping baskets, a cheese platter. Michael, a retired priest, was working on a "Welsh tea-things basket" with a central funnel for teaspoons and a surrounding shelf for plates and cups.

The smell of boiled tannin permeated the air and willow stalks littered the floor as Norah moved from table to table offering advice. She used to be a cowherd in Iceland but now makes baskets from her home in Gloucestershire. It's not simply a job - it's a passion. Throughout the three days she managed to give each of us just the right amount of time and praise. Her enthusiasm is clearly infectious - most of the basket-weavers were here for the second or third time.

I was not sure that I would take to basket-making, but now I would recommend it to anybody. It was relaxing, therapeutic and totally green: all that we used were simple tools (no machines) and our own hands. I got a real satisfaction in looking at the finished product and realising with some surprise that it was my own creation.

"Isn't that lovely?" said a woman on the train home as she admired my new laundry basket. "I made it myself," I said.

The Kingcombe Centre, Toller Porcorum, Dorchester, Dorset DT2 OEQ (01300 320684). The next willow basket-making course runs from 31 October to 2 November 1995. The cost is from pounds 90 plus pounds 10 for materials. For details of basket-making courses elsewhere, contact Ann Brooks (secretary of the Basketmakers Association), Pond Cottage, North Road, Chesham Bois, Bucks HP6 5NA (01494 726189)