Tool story: Heard the one about the couple who set up a company repairing beautiful old trowels and spades?

Anna Pavord meets two sharp business talents

Saturday 11 December 2010 01:00
comments

"Sheffield made, haft and blade" sings an advertisement for Hardy's spades, pasted into the front of Beeton's Shilling Gardening. The book, one of my favourites, was published round the turn of the century, when the craft of gardening was at its peak. Thirty-five different kinds of spade were made by British manufacturers such as Hardy's and CT Skelton, also of Sheffield, the nirvana of spade fanciers.

Skelton, I learnt from Piers Newth, who with his partner Louise Allen, specialises in selling antique tools and gardening paraphernalia, was the Rolls Royce of tool manufacturers. If you have a Skelton spade, you can wield it with pride. Unfortunately, I haven't, but I have got an old Skelton fern trowel, a seven-inch blade of forged steel, an inch-and-a-half wide, fixed with brass rivets to a wooden handle, shiny-smooth with use. It's one of my favourite tools, perfect for bulb planting.

Garden & Wood is the name of the Newth-Allen business and it's a dangerous place to be. That has nothing to do with the collection of 30 sharp, curved billhooks that Newth has amassed over the past couple of years. "A billhook was what started it," he explains. "I was on a hurdle-making course and the tutor lent me his hook. It just worked really nicely. It felt right. And I asked if he'd sell it to me."

No, Garden & Wood is dangerous because this pair talks so passionately about things such as fruit-picking crowns, droop-snout watering cans, Barrow's patent pruners and scuffle hoes, that you feel that life cannot be worth living until you, too, have in your hand a thistle-headed daisy spud or a hand-forged hoe by Yardley of Stourbridge, as used by the fussiest of Edwardian head gardeners.

Garden & Wood's first official outing as a business was at the Cottesbrooke Garden Fair in Northamptonshire last year. They took tools, of course, but also delicious ephemera such as old seed packets, a wonderful tin for storing seeds, sold by Suttons with pansies painted on the lid, old catalogues, coppers, rhubarb forcers. The fair went well and gave them the impetus to leave their jobs and concentrate full-time on this new venture.

Both of them are wonderful advertisements for the advantages of leaving school at 16. Louise did that, worked for a while at Blooms nursery at Bressingham, joined the Royal Horticultural Society's training course at Wisley, followed with a diploma at Kew and finished triumphantly as curator at the Oxford Botanic Garden, the oldest botanic garden in England.

Piers's trajectory also brought him to the Oxford Botanic, where he ran the arboretum after starting his working life cutting grass at Wisley. After the great storm of 1987, he transferred his attention to trees and became a very skilled tree-climber. He climbed and cut at the Botanic Garden's arboretum for seven years, "but you get to an age where you're not so good at that any more". As he rose in the hierarchy, the computer replaced the chainsaw and he missed the practical element of gardening.

His practical skills are one of the reasons that Allen and Newth can make Garden & Wood work. He repairs most beautifully and skilfully the old tools that they buy at auctions and farm sales or pick up at markets and on street stalls. He can weld a new tine onto a garden fork from the 1920s and polish it so well you can't even see the join. He fixes new rivets to handles, or splices old wood into the top of a D-handled spade to repair, seamlessly, the old grip.

They both love old tools and love the process of giving them new lives. Both are perfectionists. The tools, of course, have to look good, but they also have to work. Newth won't sell a pair of shears until he's adjusted the blades so they'll cut now just as well as they did 80 years ago. "When you use old tools," he says, "you soon realise how superior they are."

Newth's workshop is round the back of the thatched cottage where the couple have lived for the past seven years. It's set back from the green at Little Haseley in Oxfordshire and you can scarcely imagine a more appropriate setting. Much time has been spent repairing an old shepherd's hut, which they now use as a showroom for their stock. It's an enchanting place, the wooden walls covered with old photographs and seed packets, antique tools hanging from hooks.

Did I need another hand trowel? Since I have four already, the answer should have been no. But it was hard to pass by the basket where these painstakingly rehabilitated trowels and hand forks, onion hoes and little Skelton strawberry spades were resting, waiting for a new garden in which they could settle.

Another vast stack of tools – at least 35 spades and a similar number of forks – are stacked in an old hexagonal summer house in the back garden. Again, how could I pass the superb 19th-century spade, specially designed by Professor Schlick for planting trees, a beautiful thing with a strong shaft and flat treads on the top of the blade, so that you don't cut the soles of your boots when you are digging? Only the fact I'd accidentally left my purse at home prevented me from clinching a deal there and then.

Some old tools are exceedingly esoteric. Asparagus knives, with curious saw-like edges, have come back into fashion again. But who now uses raspberry cane cutters? These are the sort of things a Victorian dilettante might amuse himself with for half an hour on a Sunday morning after church. But you soon learn that with tools, as with furniture, certain names are better than others. Brade, for instance, is a good name. Brade, like Skelton, specialised in high-quality hand tools, such as their beautiful long-handled daisy grubber of forged steel, made in Birmingham around 1900. Real men choose tools with D rather than T handles, tools such as Brades 'Spring Temper' potato fork of around 1930, with broad, flat, generous tines.

Tools made after 1916 are usually stamped 'Made in England'. Before that, it was enough simply to say 'Sheffield'. All over the world, the Sheffield stamp was recognised as the mark of quality. That's why a pair of shears made at the turn of the century, once through the Garden & Wood workshop, will still cut as well as a brand new pair. And why a spade that might have been used every week for the past hundred years will still shear through the ground like the proverbial knife in butter.

And what sort of prices do you have to pay for these beautiful things? £70 for a long-handled, French fruit pruner, £25 for a three-pronged cultivator, £58 for a gorgeous, hand-forged Victorian line spinner, £28 for a Brades trowel. I hope my husband is reading this because I really want that line spinner for Christmas.

Contact Louise Allen or Piers Newth at Garden & Wood, Dreamers Cottage, Little Haseley, Oxfordshire OX44 7LH. Viewings by appointment only (01844 279170). You can shop online at gardenandwood.co.uk

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments