The happy reaper of the bullrushes

Click to follow
The Independent Online
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."