Friday 16 December 2011

Opportunities for heritage crafts in Deptford

These days heritage crafts are very much associated with individual makers; they are often small businesses that struggle to survive, or they make a living but cannot afford to take on apprentices to train in these crafts and pass the skills on.

Deptford is lucky to have the Cockpit Arts studios on Creekside, where crafters such as potters, weavers, jewellers and others are given help and advice in how to turn their skills into a sustainable business.

But while there are plenty of local crafters working in the decorative arts, at the moment there is very little opportunity for people in Deptford to learn or even see rural crafts in action. Even skills as common as green woodworking or basket making can only be seen at rural craft fairs.

There has been a lot of discussion on these pages, and among the members of Deptford Is.. and the organisations we have been in touch with, about the importance of our local heritage. People generally interpret the word 'heritage' to refer to buildings, places, or solid objects, but it's interesting to note that Unesco - the same body that awarded World Heritage status to Greenwich - also has a convention that is concerned with safeguarding 'intangible cultural heritage', part of which covers traditional craft skills. Some 117 countries have signed the convention - sadly the UK is not one of them.

According to Unesco's convention: 'Rather than focusing on preserving craft objects, safeguarding attempts should instead concentrate on encouraging artisans to continue to produce craft and to pass their skills and knowledge onto others, particularly within their own communities.'

Our three projects - the construction of the Lenox warship, the re-establishment of Sayes Court Gardens and the seven bridges of the Thames waterfront - could offer many opportunities for demonstrating a variety of heritage crafts, and even providing apprenticeships in them, in parallel with state-of-the-art technology and digital modelling processes that will offer valuable training and transferable skills for local students.

These heritage crafts could also add an extra dimension to the tourism draw created by the three projects, with the opportunity to host special open days, run courses, and attract additional volunteers to the site.

The Heritage Crafts Association was set up to support and promote heritage crafts in the UK and its website contains a lot of useful information about individual crafts and craftspeople, case studies, surveys and initiatives that are under way to try and achieve these aims.

Earlier this year the chair of the HCA, Robin Wood, visited the New Oseberg Ship Foundation in Norway, where a Viking ship is being built using traditional crafts and traditional tools. He spent several days volunteering on the project, and wrote a fascinating account of his experience on his blog.

The first post is here, with links at the bottom to the following posts, I think there are seven in total. Robin has also kindly given permission for us to use a few of his photographs, but there are many more on his own blog.

In the photo above, the complex process of splitting the logs is shown - in fact the process in itself is not complex, involving the use of wedges and hammers, but the skill comes in anticipating how the log will split, and taking note of knots and so on in the wood which could change the direction of the split

Above the planks are being hewn to size using an axe like the one below. Note how the axe and the volunteer are on opposite sides of the plank - this ensures that only the plank, not the volunteer's legs, gets hewn. Heritage crafts have also been exploited in the production of the tools that are being used - forging and woodworking in the case of the axes. In his final post, Robin reveals that he is intending to use some of his skills in a project in Dover next year, to reconstruct a Bronze Age boat using the tools and methods of the time.

Heritage crafts also have many uses and applications in garden management and maintenance, including specific woodworking crafts such as rakemaking, basket making and even riddle and besom making.


  1. It would be fascinating to further investigate the remains of the earlier Dry Dock below the Tudor Store so casually referred to by Duncan Hawkins at the tour of the site as "possibly Roman" !! Without investigation it could equally be Saxon or even Viking. It is certainly a shame it was covered up with such indecent haste but hopefully in the future it may be the trigger for a craft reconstruction such as the one above.

  2. Viking hoard was found in the Thames at Deptford

    Graham-Campbell, James 1987 `The re-provenancing of a Viking-age hoard to the Thames near Deptford (SE London)' Brit Numis J 56, 1987 186-7,