Bovey Tracey 2023 Craft Festival

The Bovey Tracey Craft Festival took place on the weekend of 9th to the 11th of June. It was a local event suitable for the whole family. From educational workshops to live music and tasty food to humorous shows to entertain the children. The weekend was jam-packed with hundreds of activities to put a smile on faces, old and young. First founded in 2004, the craft festival is nearing its 20th anniversary just around the corner. Over the years, the event has grown from around 2000 visitors to five-times this amount! This festival has proven itself to be one of the most successful craft events in the whole of the South West, having won gold medals for the Festival of the Year at the South West Excellence Awards in 2018.

One of the event’s greatest qualities is a shared opinion amongst the exhibitors present at this year’s festival, is its support of heritage craft. More specifically, endangered craft. There were lots and lots of tents pitched on the field over the course of that weekend, one being the Red List of Endangered Crafts. In association with the Pilgrim Trust, The Heritage Crafts’ Red List of Endangered Crafts ranks traditional crafts by the likelihood of extinction, based on intangible cultural heritage safeguarding principles. By displaying these crafts at large organisations such as Bovey Tracey’s annual craft festival we are keeping these endangered crafts alive and in the public eye. 

For example, making traditional crab/lobster pots from willow, called withy pots. Withy pots are on the brink of extinction, only having a handful of people in the UK continuing the craft.

Displaying the craft this weekend was Dave French. Dave is a fifth generation willow crab pot maker, his earliest recollection of the craft was as a young boy, perhaps the age of four, when he’d watch his grandfather mend pots in his back garden. He travelled from Plymouth, early Saturday morning with his Land Rover full of willow as long as nine-feet in order to show how he makes withy pots from scratch. Crafting lobster pots and working with such grand lengths of willow, Dave couldn’t work alongside the other endangered crafters inside the tent - instead, he had to work outside! However, this worked in many favours. The working of willow and bending of branches sparked quite a lot of interest from passing crowds, many unable to figure out what it was that Dave was making. And this encouraged people to venture inside the red list tent to explore the other endangered crafts. 

The terrace of grey clouds that hung over the festival from early morning until late afternoon was a worrying thought for some. However, the public wasn’t deterred from their annual craft festival and there wasn’t a resting moment for any exhibitors on that field. As for Dave French, who relentlessly worked on his pot throughout the seven hours of pouring rain, this miserable weather wasn’t such a miserable thing. In fact, it worked in his favour. In order for the willow to be bent and manipulated easily without snapping, it needs to be kept moist. Dave has displayed his craftsmanship at many shows over the years throughout the South-West. Before each show, Dave follows a procedure that can take up to two weeks in order to soak the willow and keep it moist and fresh and ready for his shows. He also does this during the shows by bringing plenty of water with him for that exact reason. The sun can be a major issue for drying up willow, even on a cold winter's day. The rain, though getting him ever so slightly wet, saved Dave the task of soaking his willow!

Inside the tent of red list crafts, there were many tables hosted by people from all over the South-West, displaying and explaining and presenting their dying crafts. The crafts ranged from antique fairground horse painting to handmade paper sheets to handcrafted traditional chainmail. Despite the wide ambit of displays, everyone in that tent shared one thing in common; they’ve all dedicated their lives fighting for the survival of their crafts.

At the opening of the tent was a family of four, working together to display their father’s craftsmanship of woven jacquard ribbons. Based in Dartmouth, Robert G Ely has practised the craft for 27 years. Their business is called Papilionaceous, meaning a flower petal that resembles a butterfly’s wing. Which is such a fitting title for this craft in the way that it is just as delicate and beautiful. Although this craft did once run in Robert’s family, it wasn’t generational and nor was it broad knowledge. After taking up the craft, Robert learnt that his great, great grandparents were also linen weavers, they even grew their own flax! 

Robert has been weaving silk ribbons since 1996, he makes a variety of items that are available to buy on his website, (listed at end of article), ranging from hat ribbons, to braces, to bookmarks, to Silk Boutonniere.

Anna Rennie is a silversmith who had travelled from Truro to present her silversmith work. Known as the Steelmaiden, Anna practised this craft for over 8 years and teaches it at Truro college. Although typically using silver for her chainmail, Anna also works with copper, steel and gold for various other items such as jewellery. Anna practises the traditional style of chainmail with the use of traditional tools and techniques, the equipment she makes are accurate replicas of the actual jousting equipment used in the 14th century. This is a very time consuming craft and the headset alone takes her roughly 6 months to complete. Anna has made full body chainmail equipment that costs up to tens and thousands of pounds and is completely historically accurate. For example, the mail shirt has slits at the elbows for easy mobility. 

Her range of talents exceed making the equipment, she also wears them during live historical re-enactments! Anna feeds her fascination with history by participating in mediaeval-style jousting. You can find her at mediaeval fayres, craft festivals, and live history events and re-enactments. Her website can be found at the end of this article.

In the far corner of the red list tent, was an artist of many talents. Kate B Morgan’s scale of work ranges all the way from hand-drawn maps, to fine interior decorating, to folk art. Today, Kate was present to display her love and talent in folk art, more specifically, fairground art. Based in Gloucestershire, Kate’s artistic journey started when she was 16 years old and studying pottery painting at school. With a degree at Bath Academy, she then moved onto narrow boat painting and restoration work. Her talent for restoration swiftly transpired when she moved onto fairground work. Her mentor, Billy Hall, taught her everything there is to know about fairground marbling. 

Kate B Morgan not only paints brand new equipment, but also restores the old. She works on gypsy wagons and carousel horses and fairground rides. All of her work is completely hand painted, which, despite being beautiful and authentic, is also time consuming and as a result, neglected by the new age of industrialised manufacturing.

Another craft that is declared as critically endangered by the Heritage Crafts association is Devon stave basket making. Displaying this craft today is hard worker John Williamson, who has devoted the last few years to researching and mastering the craft. Based in Dartmoor, John is the first of his family to adopt this craft and is amazingly, completely self taught.

John started this journey by doing heavily in depth research on the baskets and their history. He learnt about the traditional techniques and the different sizes and formations. John stuck closely to the 1850s style of stave baskets, through which he began to form his own style. He uses the original materials (Ash and Elm), however, both of these are threatened by tree disease which could be detrimental to how the baskets are being made traditionally. Unfortunately, the candle is burning from both ends for this historically authentic craft, due to industrialised manufacturing and materials being replaced by ecologically harmful materials such as plastic and metal.

John’s work has attracted more attention than just its original purpose, for example, basket collectors and makers and home decor. Primarily, stave baskets were used in the 1800s to harvest crops, particularly heavy ones, such as potatoes. John has revived this craft and given it a new name for itself while still keeping the roots intact.

By mid-afternoon, the grey clouds cleared and the crowds only grew from there. It is local events and communities coming together such as these that really benefit dying crafts and give them a fleeting opportunity to be resurrected. The Bovey Tracey craft festival attracts over 10,000 visitors a year, and this number is still climbing. Everyone is welcome and is urged to come along - don’t miss out, we hope to see you next year!

Written by: Milla James


Willow crab pots-

Silk-woven ribbons-

Silversmith chainmail-

Folk art-

Devon stave baskets-