Monday, 1 November 2010

From the Cradle to the Grave

Whilst most of France is protesting at the prospect of having to work from the cradle to the grave I have been  taking  half-term visitors to look at churches, and have been reminded yet again of the essential role that baskets once played in our lives.

The Poitou Charentes is rich in Romanesque churches. These simple but solid limestone churches with intricately carved portals and capitols were mostly built in the 11th and 12th Century at a time when many of the  roads through the region were important pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. At that time, it is said, an estimated two million  people a year made the journey from all over Europe in order to pay hommage to the relics of the apostle St. James. In order for me to travel  to the same place now by public transport I usually have to detour via Paris, Madrid or London. In medieval times I would have just picked up my staff,  for beating off wild dogs, put on my cape, slapped on the floppy hat adorned with the eponymous coquilles St Jacques and  turned left outside my front door arriving in Santiago some months later, no doubt  with sore feet, but having completed one half of an amazing and no doubt educative journey.

Many of the abbeys and village churches in this region were constructed at that time to offer spiritual encouragement and hospitality to the pilgrims in return for donations to the Church. The resultant construction boom must have seemed extraordinary to the inhabitants. It is tantalising to imagine what it would have been like for them to have a comparatively huge building site in the centre of every small village, with the noise of hammer on stone ringing all day for a hundred years or so as these gems of architecture were being constructed in an otherwise noise free environment.

One of the most notable of these beautiful churches is Notre Dame la Grande, in Poitiers, with a carved stone facade that is breathtaking for its detail. Just above the right hand doorway on the west facade is a 12th Century carving of a nativity scene (pictured above) with Mary showing the world her somewhat adult looking new born in his woven cradle overlooked by two animals which look, rather scarily, as though they might just eat him. The cradle is obviously wicker  and given the ecology of the region would probably have been woven from hazel, chestnut or willow.

Woven cradles seem to have been neglected by basket makers in recent years yet I am certain there are many parents who would much rather have a cradle hand made from sustainable materials than a machine made pvc one. The hand made cradle used to be an object of desire that families treasured and handed on to the next generation. It would seem to be a tradition that is ripe for revival and what could be better than making one yourself?

photo:Jonathan Middup

I was delighted therefore to be sent this picture by Pip Hall (who, by a very strange coincidence, is a stone carver ) of a 'moses' basket made from tetra paks. Pip participates in workshops started by Monica Tweddell in Cumbria which she calls 'crafty container' workshops because, she tells me, they were inspired by my book of the same name. This beautiful basket was made by Elizabeth Dawson, a fellow participant, for her neices son William and is plaited out of approximately 44 soya milk cartons.

Melle in Deux Sevres was considered such an important staging post on the pilgrim trail that three churches were built at about the same time each requiring a small army of masons and here high on a capitol in St. Pierre is a less detailed but nevertheless clear rendering of Jesus being laid in a woven coffin. (left)

The revival of the woven coffin in recent years has been, in my view, a  basket making success story.  Both the owner occupier versions and those crafted by professionals seem  infinitely more humane than the gloss varnished exotic hardwood, or worse still,mdf and brass handled caskets that are not only environmentally dubious but have a grim  formality about them that says nothing about the person inside.

The Somerset Willow Company has made a speciality of woven coffins and this one made for a child has a simplicity and beauty that seemed perfect to me when I saw it being made. Perhaps it is the similarity between the woven cradle and the woven coffin that suggests that a life has come full circle and the physical  body  is now returning from whence it came that makes it in some very small way, comforting.

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