Country Matters: A bodge job turned into art

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The Independent Online
IF YOU look up the words 'bodge' and 'bodger' in dictionaries, you find many different meanings.

Some authorities claim that the verb is the same as 'botch', and means to mend things unskilfully, or to bungle, so that a bodger is someone who never finishes any job. Others claim that the noun derives from the German Bottscher, a cooper or maker of barrels. Yet in the English countryside the term has for centuries referred to a craftsman who makes chair legs.

One of my earliest memories, as a boy in the Chilterns, is of an old man doing just that in a barn among the woods high in the hills. As he stood at a lathe and conjured lovely shapes from lumps of beech, his skill was hypnotic: I could watch for hours, mesmerised by the streamers of shaved wood that flew from his chisels - and no small part of the magic was the quietness with which he worked. The lathe gave out occasional slight creaks and rustles, and as each chisel bit, it made a hissing or scraping; but apart from that, the chair legs came into the world in silence.

That was years ago, and I supposed that the old man's breed had long died out. Imagine how glad I was, then, to find a latter-day bodger within a few miles of home, and bubbling over with enthusiasm for the ancient craft he has helped revitalise.

Mike Abbott certainly looks the part: in his early forties with a dark beard, burly physique and calm, reassuring manner, he would fit easily into a sepia photograph taken a century ago. Just as the bodgers of yesteryear moved round the country, working and living in different woods during the summer, so he shifts his quarters according to the season.

At the moment he is lodging on a farm near the Cotswold town of Nailsworth, where he is setting up a new workshop; but, come summer, he will drift back to his native haunts round Bristol to run training courses, and then travel to craft fairs in the south of England.

One of his favourite pitches is at Westonbirt, the Forestry Commission's arboretum in Gloucestershire: there, as 'a combination of performing monkey and production craftsman', he draws large crowds and at the same time builds up a useful stock of chair legs.

He grew up in a village outside Bristol, and believes that playing in the woods, cutting sticks and building dens determined the course of his career. Oddly enough, he did not enjoy woodwork at school, and after taking a combined science degree at university became a countryside ranger with Cheshire County Council.

Two years there left him disillusioned - 'all I seemed to be doing was throwing ice- cream men off picnic sites' - and a spell of landscaping proved little more rewarding. A job as gardener-forester gave him a chance to be more creative, but it was the discovery of a book called Woodland Crafts in Britain, and the pole lathe, that changed his life.

The pole lathe is an age-old device, primitive but efficient. From the top of a slender, springy pole, leaning over at an angle, a cord descends vertically and is wound two or three times round the piece of wood that the craftsmen is working. The bottom end of the cord is secured to a treadle, which the operator drives down rhythmically with one foot. Power derives from the downward pull of the treadle and the upward pull of the pole, with the wood spinning rapidly one way and then the other, held horizontally between two sharp points which act as bearings. (Modern versions dispense with the pole, and get their spring from a thick, elasticated cord slung horizontally like a clothes-line).

Since Mike Abbott discovered the pole lathe, he has rarely been without one. While working on a Youth Training Scheme, 'with the job of keeping half a dozen kids off the streets', he set up a lathe behind the group's hut. The children were gradually drawn into using it, and after turning new handles for their own axes, ended up making whole chairs.

As Mike put it, 'Working first in the forest, and then with the wood, gave each activity far more meaning.'

Since 1985 he has run his own training workshop in Bristol. This year, helped by a German colleague, he will hold 20 courses, ranging from two days to nine: although he reckons that a couple of days are enough to make a start, he believes that most people need three to become comfortable on a lathe and begin making simple objects such as candlesticks and spoons.

He himself soon realised that turning out chair legs by the score would not in itself produce a living. He therefore took to making whole chairs. Not only the legs, but the bows and spindles for the backs and the actual seats are made by hand, and the final fitting-together is itself a demanding task. His best chairs - turned, carved and built to order - now cost pounds 500 each, but each is a work of art.

Over the years he has become a passionate advocate of the use of green (unseasoned) wood, which is softer and easier to work than timber that has dried out, and he has become addicted to the pole lathe. His book, Green Woodwork, is mainly an instruction manual punctuated by lyrical phrases like, 'the sweet sound of the chisel removing succulent ribbons of fresh wood'.

He is delighted that, after a generation as little more than a museum piece, the pole lathe is making a comeback. Although there are no more than a dozen turners like himself producing objects for profit, between 300 and 400 people have taken up bodging as a hobby - and their numbers are growing fast.

There could be no more persuasive advocate. Working a pole lathe, he says, is an ideal form of therapy: mentally absorbing, it also keeps you warm and gives you steady physical exercise, far more productive than jogging. It is also very safe, since if anything goes wrong, it stops instantly, and it creates no noise or pollution.

Mike expounded all this to me in his winter accommodation at the back of a farmhouse, made snug by a stove burning steadily through off- cuts and boss-shots. Then, in an open stable out the back, I had a go myself.

Mike split a piece of green ash, pared it on his shaving horse, set it up for me on the lathe, and handed me one of his razor-sharp chisels. As I set to, parings flew, a sweet smell rose, and lovely shapes began to emerge from the wood.

No wonder Mike's ambition is to buy a forest and live and work in it, a man of the woods surrounded by the trees.

Details of courses and copies of 'Green Woodwork' ( pounds 12.50) can be obtained from Mike Abbott, Westley Farm, Cowcombe Hill, Chalford, Gloucestershire GL6 8HP (0285 760776).