Trading places: middle-classes shun urban living for hard labour in countryside crafts

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Once, trades such as dry-stone walling were the domain of the rural labouring classes, handed down through the generations. Now they are thriving again as middle-class, urban dwellers throw off the shackles of city life and take up traditional rural occupations.

Once, trades such as dry-stone walling were the domain of the rural labouring classes, handed down through the generations. Now they are thriving again as middle-class, urban dwellers throw off the shackles of city life and take up traditional rural occupations.

According to the Countryside Agency, if growth continues at its current rate, within 15 years the contribution of the crafts to the rural economy could exceed that of farming.

Thirty years ago, there were fears that trades such as basket-weaving, wattle hurdle-making and thatching were likely to die out. But Professor Edward Collins, the editor of Crafts in the English Countryside: Towards a Future, said yesterday: "These are no longer marginal trades or irrelevant to the needs of the modern world - they can take their place in today's consumer-driven society. They are alive and flourishing.''

According to the report, new entrants to the trades are no longer sons learning their father's skills or apprentices from the next village, but older people, between 25 and 40, well educated, often with degrees and from a middle-class, urban and professional background. "Most of these people were previously employed in a relatively higher status profession, had no previous experience in the craft or trade, but wanted to live and/or work in the countryside in a job which made use of their hands," said Professor Collins. "Many use their professional skills from previous careers to head trade bodies, expand their businesses and become mini-entrepreneurs."

Dr Richard Love, 59, a psychology graduate from the University of St Andrews, spent many years living and working in Edinburgh, where he was a researcher in occupational health. Ten years ago, he decided that he was stressed in his job and looked for something different, less onerous and possibly out of doors.

He saw a newspaper article about a Church of England vicar who had taken up dry-stone walling. "It seemed to fit the bill of what I was looking for. I took a training course and was immediately hooked,'' he said.

He said that his new life was fulfilling in a very different way. "There isn't really instant gratification from working in medical research, it's a very long-term thing. This work may be physically sapping in the short term, but you have the satisfaction of knowing it will last a long time and that a lot of people will see it," he said. He earns about two-thirds of what he did before, but thanks to careful budgeting in the early years and some savings, he and his wife, a retired university administrator, have not been forced to change their lifestyle or move away from their home in central Edinburgh.

Dr Love reverse commutes from the city, working on hill farms, gardens or country parks, usually getting his work by word of mouth and a small amount of advertising.

"It's manual work and you have go out in the wet and cold. But you often have the most fantastic views," he said.

No serious study into the rural trades has been made for about 80 years, and there are no real comparative figures since Victorian times, when the trades were at their peak. The report says that then there were between 15,000 and 20,000 greenwood workers. The numbers fell to about 500 in the 1970s before climbing to between 600 and 700 now.

Similarly, there were about 29,000 wheelwrights at the end of the 19th century, which dropped to between 30 and 40 in the 1970s, only to climb today to between 50 and 60. There are now 30,000 active rural trades professionals in England, a figure that rises to between 60,0000 and 80,000 if part-time, seasonal workers and serious hobbyists are included.

John Bellamy, Master of the Guild of Wrought Ironwork Craftsmen of Wessex, said that many of those who attended his blacksmith courses were from different backgrounds. A survey of 100 blacksmiths for the report found that newcomers to the trade included a pilot, a police officer, two hotel managers, four design engineers, three telecoms engineers and 11 teachers. Mr Bellamy said: "I think it has become the new IT or media studies course for many people.''

Veronica Upton, a contributor to the report who was formerly a zoology teacher and now runs courses in basket-making and greenwood chair-making, said: "Almost all my new students seem to have degrees in computers.''

But the report says the countryside has changed."The 'consumerist' countryside has replaced the 'productionist' countryside. No longer is it primarily concerned with agriculture and forestry, but with leisure, recreation, heritage, tourism, environmental concerns and places in which to live.'' It adds: "The typical craft consumers are now the better-off households or 'green consumers', who buy for private consumption, where in the past they were farmers, manufacturers and ... poor cottagers.

"Farriers now service riding horses, not workhorses, wheelwrights repair and restore veteran vehicles for show or display [and] the modern pole-lathe turner makes expensive hand-made furniture."

According to the report, rural populations grew by 13 per between 1981 and 2001, compared with a 2.9 per cent rise in the cities. Typical migrants includemanagers and professionals often employed in service industries and commuting or working from home. Many are from the London area.

The report says that there may be some problems on the horizon, such as a potential shortage of products made by coopers, walking sticks and spoked wooden wheels, which have recently often been replaced by imports. There is also a shortage of good quality coppice timber for greenwood crafts. And, inevitably, the report warns that the trades still need to maintain a tradition of training apprenticeships to ensure the skills are passed to future generations and to prevent some trades from dying out as fashions change. Despite the interest of the Harry Potter generation in witches' broomsticks, there are still fewer than five traditional besom broom manufacturers in the country.


For thirty years, Nick Abbott worked as a solicitor for a large law firm. Bored with "helping rich people escape taxes" and troubled by a heart condition, he decided he needed a new lifestyle.

Eleven years later, Mr Abbott, now 65, and his wife, Kathleen, 61, run a greenwood chair-making business from the garage of their home near Dunmow in Essex. It was, he said, "a wonderfully life-changing event".

Working to commissions won though country fairs and craft shows, they make Windsor and ladder-back chairs using timber from their own 25-acre wood near Chelmsford, which they manage with a group of friends. The couple then went on a course on how to work with "green", or unseasoned, wood, using only hand tools. "It is very old technology, which had been virtually forgotten in an age of mass produced furniture," said Mr Abbott, who has had an interest in carpentry since childhood.

Cushioned by savings and Mrs Abbott's career as a primary school teacher, they have coped easily with the drop in income. Now they manage their commitments so that they work at what Mr Abbott describes as an "agreeable rate" and keep plenty of time free for their four grandchildren and to camp in their woods each summer.


Since primary school, through to her graduation with a law degree, Amanda Davies wanted to be a lawyer. But contemplating the training to become a solicitor and the long hours stuck inside offices, she had a revelation.

"I was on a trip to Norfolk and saw people thatching and I thought, 'that looks like fun.'"

She was accepted at the country's only thatching college, run by the Countryside Agency in Northamptonshire, and is now one of about 10 women among the 900 thatchers in Britain. Thatching fitted in with herlong-standing interest in green issues.

Born in Hounslow in west London, Ms Davies took her law degree at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston.

She moved to a small village near Evesham in Worcestershire to pursue her new career and, after working for others for six years, set up on her own two years ago.

Ms Davies, 30, said: "I don't earn so much as I might, but then I'm not as stressed as I would be. I could never work in an office where you couldn't feel the changes in the weather and the seasons.

"Every day is different, every roof is different. You meet new people and they are always interested in you. I'm doing something that I feel is special and environmentally friendly.''