The happy reaper of the bullrushes

Felicity Irons has grown used to attention during the summer bullrush harvest. At six foot, the 29-year-old actress-turned-furniture maker cuts a striking figure among the pleasure boats on the Great Ouse. "People call me the wild woman of the Fens," she laughs, before shouting at passing river day-trippers to slow down. For the last three summers she has propelled her wobbly 17-foot punt alongside the river banks, chopping the clumps of dark-green bullrushes with a seven-foot scythe.

Only decades ago, more than 20 punts used to harvest the river by Holywell in Cambridgeshire during July and August - now Felicity steers the only one.

A trained actress, she made a serious career switch after she broke her back in a car accident in Australia in 1990. Her mother, who runs an antiques business, taught her to restore rush furniture and in 1992 Felicity set up her own business and moved on to creating her own designs.

She started cutting the rushes herself when the last members of a family that had harvested the Ouse for hundreds of years finally retired. They persuaded her to take up the trade. After a two-hour lesson from 69-year- old Jack Arnold, she took to the river. Even now, during the harvest, he awaits her return to see how much she has cut.

"He thinks I'm a real grafter. I've surprised him that I've continued with it and surprised him how hard I work." Felicity maintains the Arnold family tradition, beginning the harvest on 1 July every year - the birthday of Jack's rush-cutting brother Tom, who died in 1994. She also receives a blessing for her rushes from the local vicar, who holds the annual ceremony in the nearby Ferryboat Inn.

Rush-cutting is gruelling work, requiring balance and stamina. Unlike her predecessors, who opted for outboard motors in more recent years, Felicity chose to hand-steer her punt with a long pole. "I'm a romantic. I don't like the noise and kerfuffle of motors: you can't hear yourself think on the river."

Anchored up, she sharpens her blade, deftly cuts the rushes without destroying the roots, then gathers the unwieldy bundles (up to 10 foot long) and bangs them hard (an action known as "tonking") to remove the weed. She sometimes stacks them so high on the punt that she can barely see over them.

Rush beds take about two years to regrow and this, combined with rush damage from river dredgers, forces Felicity to move further down the river each year. Before cutting in a new area she needs to get permission from local landowners and from the environment agency. "Next year I'll have to buy a motor - I'll need to go too far," she says. She has also invested in another punt and hired an apprentice as her business has expanded.

She works from 8am until 4pm, gathering between pounds 700 and pounds 800 worth of rushes a day. It sounds an impressive amount of money, but the season is short and the work is hard. "Every year I forget how demanding it is - it's taken me three years to get used to the river."

She sells about 75 per cent of her harvest, using the rest for her own designs, from baskets to intricate woven bedsteads. As one of Britain's few surviving rush-cutters, Felicity tries to persuade manufacturers to use her stock rather than the more woody imported saltwater rushes from the Continent. "Freshwater rushes are more silky and velvety - a lot of people are changing over."

Despite the demands of her furniture business, Felicity does not intend to leave the harvesting to paid help alone. "I don't know how many people would carry on doing this - but I love it. Seeing the thing through from start to finish is very satisfying."

Life and Style
life
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Life and Style
Chen Mao recovers in BK Hospital, Seoul
health
News
Joan Rivers has reportedly been hospitalised after she stopped breathing during surgery
people81-year-old 'stopped breathing' during vocal chord surgery
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Diana from the Great British Bake Off 2014
tvProducers confirm contestant left because of illness
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live
tv
Life and Style
fashion

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, UI, JMX, FIX)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, U...

Structured Finance

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - An excellent new instruction w...

SQL Server Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Server Developer SQL, PHP, C#, Real Time,...

C#.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: C#.NET Developer C#, Win Forms, WPF, WCF, MVVM...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone