Last summer, at the music and arts show Festival No 6, held in Portmeirion in Wales, I decided to take a break from the crowds by following a path that led off into woodland.
According to the map, there were a few independent trading stalls there, so I was expecting relative calm. Instead, I found a clearing in which kids in plaid shirts and Breton tops were swaying around to slightly psychedelic, prog-rock-ish music (early Hendrix, something that sounded like Pentangle) being played in a DJ set by Andy Weatherall and, further on, a queue of similarly dressed people, each carrying a single item of clothing – primarily, pants.
“You can get your clothes dyed!” a bloke clutching a V-neck T-shirt told me. “With woad! There’s some woman down there who does it with all-natural, homemade dyes, apparently.”
The woman he mentioned turned out to be twentysomething textilemaker Katherine May, one of several craftspeople demonstrating their work beneath a large canvas canopy. (Technically, her dye is made from the indigo plant indigofera tinctoria rather than the similar isatas tinctoria, which is the true woad plant; people seemed to enjoy hearing about this). St Etienne’s Pete Wiggs was DJing. Other crafters included a traditional clog-maker and a man who turned wooden bowls using a foot-powered pole lathe. All were surrounded by admiring festival-goers – hipsters, women in wellies and dresses, style-conscious men with beards – and the bowl-maker had to keep asking them to stop touching his woodworking tools. “Pack it in!” he shouted exasperatedly at a man reaching over to touch a knife. “I’m using those.”
“I’m really sorry,” replied the man.
The tent was curated by Hole & Corner, a new quarterly magazine produced in London and Dorset by journalist Mark Hooper and art director Sam Walton. Aimed at readers “for whom content is more important than style”, Hole & Corner “celebrates craft, beauty, passion and skill”. It has recently received attention from national newspapers and, alongside titles such as Kinfolk, it heads a new genre of publications combining the rich visuals of style magazines with what you might call more thoughtful content.
Anyone can see that craft’s time has come. In Britain in 2015, you cannot move for people whose once-resolutely urban, style-conscious and modernist tastes have gone subtly country. They are visiting Soho Farmhouse, a rural outpost of the Soho House chain, and renting desks at Forge & Co, the East London co-working space inspired by William Morris and John Ruskin, which has just acquired a base in the iconic West End furniture store Heals. Some are listening to Mumford & Sons, others are watching Grayson Perry reinvent pot throwing and tapestry, and/or reading James Rebanks’s The Shepherd’s Life, and/or wearing clothes with an artisanal element to their manufacture (from boutiques such as Albam and Sunspel), and/or drinking ale from a microbrewery (one opening every other day, while 20 pubs a week close).
It’s possible that they are fantasising about Bear Grylls and Ray Mears, but it’s more likely they’re just instagraming artful pictures of country sunsets or their new home cider press. At some point in the past couple of years, it became quite acceptable to discuss wildlife and rural pursuits. A few months back, the editor of this magazine attended a lavish, metropolitan dinner hosted by an international menswear label in London. Did the guests on his table talk about style trends or celebrities? No. They talked about Springwatch.
However as all this passes into the mainstream, a purist, competitive element is creeping in. One profusely bearded craft-beer enthusiast I spoke to told me that “no one who really knows about beer would ever give the time of day to a brewery that prints fucking designs on its bottle tops – anything other than plain metal sends out all the wrong signals.” Microbreweries? You need to be doing homebrew, mate (sales of equipment having trebled since 2012). Home-made jam? You really ought to be using honey from your own hives (“backyard beekeeping” is now a thing).
But how far could you go? Your artisanal sourdough loaves and hand-stitched shoes are all very well, but could you get into the lumberjack workout, which involves exercising with axes and chucking logs around? Or would you visit Darn It!, an occasional Sunday afternoon session at The Grafton pub in London’s Kentish Town, where men are encouraged to sew and darn clothes while drinking craft ales? “A real man isn’t afraid to explore original ideas or express his nurturing side,” says Darn It! organiser Stephen Evans; you have to agree with that, but are we ready for his other projects such as “nettle workshops”?
To explore the various stages of craft-readiness among British men, I first went to visit Soho Farmhouse, near Great Tew in Oxfordshire. It’s a private members’ club oriented towards the arts, media and creative industries, offering a high-end version of stripped-down country life. It comprises 40 Scandi-style wooden cabins (plus a cottage and a farmhouse) arranged in 100 acres of land around a farmyard with stables, spa, shop, a bar and restaurant that uses produce grown in the gardens, and two vintage tractors for decoration.
Guests are taken from the gatehouse to the cabins by horse-drawn carriage fitted with a scoop-like thing that catches horse shit before it hits the ground. Once in the living room, they’ll find a copy of Cabins, a Taschen coffee-table book, featuring quotes from Henry David Thoreau, and the following intro: “When excess and luxury are the driving forces of some societies, more and more people feel the need to scale down to an absolute minimum, to live opposite the rising sun or to hear the sound of nature every day.”
To assure you that you’re scaling down, the cabins have a handy and attractive set of utilitarian necessities, such as twine and lanterns. Club activities include lampshade-making, cocktail masterclasses using farm-grown ingredients and a pop-up astronomy club; the staff will proudly show you the restored water wheel, which is powered by a cascade of electrically pumped water.
I went to a Wilderness Wind Down drinks-and-barbecue session for people decompressing from the Wilderness Festival, and saw Elisabeth Murdoch having a drink while Nick Mulvey played in the bar. It’s all easy to take the piss out of, given that Soho Farmhouse membership costs £1,200 a year and a wedding there will set you back £65,000. But you can’t ignore the fact that it also tells you a lot about modern luxury.
Nowadays, a large section of the wealthy are embarrassed by old-fashioned, City-boy, conspicuous consumption; rather than hanging out at a Mayfair club and paying £100 for a drink with a sparkler in it, they go to those Shoreditch emporia that launder splashed cash into contemporary good taste – £100 on Mast Brothers Chocolate, £200 on a pair of Tracey Neuls trainers, £5,000 on a bespoke bicycle. With ostentation out of fashion, simplicity commands a premium and roughing it, or the outward appearance of roughing it (one doubts that anyone’s going to actually use all that twine), becomes a status symbol. It’s why we live in an age of bespoke Land Rovers, Yurtels, £300 wellies and lampshade workshops.
Tracey Neuls' shop
“We’ve found that anything that people can get involved in is always popular,” says Hole & Corner’s Mark Hooper. “Anything that shows a bit of creativity or produces something unique. It’s a natural reaction to the over-homogenisation of the high street, where everything claims to be exclusive but it all comes from the same template.”
I wanted somewhere with more “realness” than Soho Farmhouse (main picture), so I headed for SpoonFest, “the international celebration of the carved wooden spoon”. The weekend gathering is held in Edale, in Derbyshire’s Hope Valley, and run by Robin Wood, who turns out to be the bowl-turner from Festival No 6 and former chair of the Heritage Crafts Association. It comprises spoon-carving classes in tents, with campfire singing in the evening. (“People come for the lovely vibe more than anything else,” said Robin. “And for the love of spoons.”)
Spoon-carving suits the new crafts movement, because it involves what’s called “green woodwork” – carving freshly cut or fallen wood – which can be done with simple tools. Conventional woodwork, using kiln-dried wood, tends to need a workshop and machine tools, which, as Robin said, “is a cost and space barrier, meaning you tend to find older men doing it.”
When he started SpoonFest several years ago, he thought they’d get a few “Ray Mears types”, but he was surprised by the uptake among a “younger, urban crowd”. I wouldn’t want to exaggerate this – in reality, their ages range between 20 and 80 – but there’s a noticeable contingent who would look equally at home in the bars of nearby Sheffield and Manchester. I asked Sean, 33, a graphic designer from Leeds visiting for the second time, if he was there for the love of spoons.
“Yes, actually,” he said. “Obviously, it’s quite a strange thing to do, but I’d been interested in doing something different, and the thing with this is, you can learn it really quickly, so you get to take something home that you can use. That’s quite cool.” He showed me a spoon he’d carved from rowan wood (“everyone’s quite excited about the rowan; they don’t often get it, apparently”).
And the vibe? “Definitely. The obvious thing to say is, everyone interacts through computer and phone screens, and they crave something real, blah blah. I’m sure there’s something in that, but also you make a connection with people. You can’t beat having a sing-song around a campfire with some old bloke on a banjo, can you?”
In the firelight, as a guy played guitar and sang “Quite Early Morning”, Robin Wood told me he’d been involved in the organic-farming movement before it became mainstream, and he thought that people were now beginning to think the same way about “objects with a story and provenance”.
“Every commodity is devalued now because there is just so much disposable stuff,” he said. “People want objects built with a sense of design, not something made to be landfill in six months’ time."
But if you’ve been working with wood for 30 years, doesn’t it annoy you when trendies just want to do crafts for a weekend or hang out with you because they’ve decided you’re cool? Jeremy Atkinson, the clog-maker from No 6, had told me earlier he appreciated the interest, but was “sick of people standing looking at me and telling me I’m amazing. Just a different word would be nice.”
Clogmaker Jeremy Atkinson's workshop
“Good God, no,” said Robin. “I don’t like it when the vocabulary of craft is used to market factory-made things, but if making something has a cathartic effect for someone or fulfills a need, then it doesn’t matter. People have a pressing need to create. I think making objects with the raw materials is what makes us human.”
He’s a persuasive man, and I’m suddenly filled with the urge to carve a kitchen utensil.
“Can you really learn to make a spoon in a day?” I ask.
“Well...” he hesitates. Earlier in the day, he’d seen my first efforts, and I am no Ray Mears. “Certainly a cooking spoon, yes.”
How did we end up in this homespun, 21st-century rerun of The Good Life? Modern consumerist excess undoubtedly has something to do with it, as do ecology and global political and financial uncertainty. In such precarious times, concerns about cost tend to elide with a nostalgia for what seem to be simpler, past pleasures. Similar anxieties fuelled the Seventies’ rural revival that gave us The Good Life on TV and bands getting it together in the country.
It could be argued that the current rerun has its roots in the mid-Noughties, when what the critic Mark Greif called “green” or “primitive” hipsters seemed to react against the aggressive jingoism of the Iraq War by adopting clothes and music that invoked a pastoral and outdated tech redolent of a sort of childish simplicity: Pitchfork, Etsy, Fleet Foxes/Grizzly Bear/Animal Collective, Matt Sewell bird prints, ironic wolf T-shirts, boys in brogues, tweed and beards, girls in wellingtons and floral tea dresses, an interest in organic and local food. No one actually said so, but the style looked to the rural for realness; after all, the interesting areas of cities were being colonised by coffee chains and branches of Gap, and everyone felt guilty for spending too much time online.
Boys’ Own co-founder Cymon Eckel, who now owns Forge & Co, believes it dates back even further. “I think it started with the fashion for single-speed bikes. In 2000 and 2001, I ran a traditional, old-blokes-pub-type bar in Shoreditch, and I noticed all the guys with those bikes coming in, and instead of lager they were drinking ales, like Old Speckled Hen. This was long before craft beers – and it’s been uninterrupted ever since. It’s the idea of stripping things back to what feels properly necessary and real. But people also want to connect with each other away from all the rubbish, that’s why I set up the co-working space.”
Of course, the ultimate “realness” would lie in rejecting modern urban life altogether to become a craftsman. There can be few men who have not sat through pointless meetings and thought, “Christ, how long would it take to retrain as a carpenter/fisherman/organic pig farmer?” but will that now actually begin to happen? Could we? Should we?
Until 2008, Ben Short was a creative director of an offshoot agency of M&C Saatchi advertising, producing campaigns for the likes of Sony PlayStation. He got frustrated, then depressed and finally he did it: he bailed. After spells working for the National Trust and being apprenticed to a woodsman, he set up as a charcoal burner and hedge-layer (“I’m a semi-skilled labourer, not really a craftsman”) in Dorset. Now he lives with his dog Clanger in a flat in a rambling old house in a village, drives a battered Land Rover Defender, and makes between £400 and £500 a week.
I went down to see him, and he drove me out to the woods to look at his charcoal kiln and to see a hedge he laid last winter. The hedge was incredible – all interwoven branches, like something out of Rivendell.
“It’s hard work, but it feels healthy, and I couldn’t go back to my old life in the city,” he said, throwing a stick for the dog. “I notice more things now. If you’re tuned into the modern world, you don’t see things so well, because your antennae are a bit blunted. Also, it’s pleasing how the seasons dovetail. I lay the hedges in the winter, and a lot of the wood I cut out from them I burn for charcoal in the summer.”
Obviously, this sounds great. Standing there in the wilds, while a tousled, contented countryman scratches his dog’s ears and shows me the differences between types of wood would make any city man yearn to be more at one with the natural environment. Then again, I grew up in the countryside – as did Ben – and I know that I prefer the variety of life you get in cities. Doesn’t he get, well, bored?
“When it rains day in, day out in the winter and you’re working outside, it tests you. Working on your own you can feel isolated, and there can be a certain amount of small-mindedness, though I don’t experience that myself. I drink in the local pub, I ring the church bells with the farm labourers, I talk to the incomers who have downsized, and I like it here. And I still love the smell of wood smoke.”
I listen with genuine admiration and interest as he shows me how to burn wood for charcoal in a kiln, and I feel the appeal of a life producing real, physical things rather than using a computer screen. On the other hand, a) I think I might be more into the Land Rover than the actual work, and b) a part of my brain is thinking, “If I could get a photo of Clanger standing on that log, it would look really good on Instagram.”
I do, however, feel good taking a bag of Ben’s charcoal back home, because it feels great to use something made by someone you’ve actually talked to about making it.
That’s the interesting thing about the new Good Lifers. As Sean, the designer from Leeds, said, the obvious conclusion is that the virtual, digital generation is craving the analogue. That might be true, but most of those I met talk about how much they enjoy interacting with people as they make and do and show and tell. In the end, it’s simply a more interesting version of chatting to that bloke in the pub you don’t really know, as you’re both watching the football.
So, what of the fashionable craft fetishists, with their indigo pants and homemade food and tool obsessions? Obviously, they can sometimes come across as self-parodies, but surely most of us feel the pull of the movement towards doing things with more integrity and substance. And because that requires proper commitment, it won’t be a fleeting trend. The only question is of scale.
For the dedicated, that probably means more extremity and ambition, more pub-based darning and nettle workshops and perhaps even hedge-laying. At Hole & Corner’s tent at Port Eliot Festival this year, people could participate in the building of entire wooden sheds and art structures; I watched a man in skinny jeans and Wayfarers make what looked like a woven wattle wall. For the rest of us, I think the occasional, small-scale experience will be filling more and more of a need, and Robin Wood may well have it nailed.
Gentlemen, I have seen the future, and it is spoon-shaped.