Dave French, born 1958, remembers from his earliest days as a child being brought up alongside the practice of withy-pot making. His earliest recollections of pot making as a young boy, perhaps the age of four, are of his grandfather making and mending pots in the back garden. He inherits the craft from his mother’s side of the family, which was one of the oldest fishing families in East Devon- the Mears. His grandfather was one of a total of five (accounted) generations to inherit the craft, Dave French being the fifth. Dave’s grandfather, Walter Mears had two sons, Gerald and Geoff who would help their father make the pots. Walter Mears would make the pot mouth and turn the frame of the pot down, inheriting their signature rounded tops, making as many as four of those frames a day. And then Gerald and Geoff would finish off the pots by rounding in the bottoms.
The family owned three full sized fishing boats. Walter Mears owned two boats, named the Mike and the Sylvia Anne, which is named after his daughter, Dave's mother. Walter’s brother, Donald, owned the third, which was the Doris.
Dave recalls at around the age of five, he would take any given opportunity to be down on the Budleigh Beach, whether that was playing amongst the withy-pots or watching his grandfather mending them. Like many fishing families, Dave’s family were of the lower class. Dave didn’t have very much growing up and so the main feature of his childhood was playing outside. The winter of 1963, Dave was five years old, and one of the worst winters he can ever recall.
Despite the harsh winter, Dave and his friends were not deterred from playing outside. He recalls an instance that has stuck with him for life, a day that he and his friend went ice skating on the River Otter. He fell through the ice, and when his friend tried to help him out, the ice broke beneath him too and suddenly the two young boys were both submerged in ice cold water. Dave recalls ‘the biting, biting cold as I went into the water.’ The boys were thankfully spotted by an old boy and were pulled to safety by him alone. Dave, to this day, believes that if it weren’t for that old boy, his fate could've been tragic.
After the passing of his grandfather, the craft of willow pots always stuck with Dave. He recalls playing with the idea for his Uncle Gerald to bring the craft back, for no other reason other than to keep it in the family.
What Dave didn’t realise were the different styles of crab pots, all he ever knew was the style that his grandfather used. Gerald was reluctant to revive the family’s craft, but in the end both Gerald and Dave brought it back.
Dave knew that it was something he’d always wanted to do. But after his first attempt, to be told by his Uncle, ‘Well it’s not bad, boy. Throw it in the garden, let the birds play in it, that’s all it's fit for.’ was rather disheartening. However, this did not deter Dave from practising the craft. In fact, Dave believes that it was this ‘tough love’ that drove him to ‘practise, practise, practise’ until he hit perfection.
Despite growing up with the craft, Dave was 40 years old when he made his very first crabpot. Dave’s grandfather worked with a teacher called Colin Pratt. As part of Colin’s scholarship, he wrote a book on Walter Mears and how he made his willow pots.
When Dave revisited his hometown, Budleigh, as an adult, he came across this book and found an old picture of him and his grandfather, him being no older than an infant.
Around the time of 2010, Dave was approached by a spokesperson for Radio Devon, who was looking for someone to make the old style withy-pots at Brixham Fish Festival. Dave has since demonstrated the art of willow pots at Paignton Harbour Festival, Plymouth Seafood Festival, Sidmouth Sea Festival and Exmouth Sea Festival.
When asked about the benefits of willow pots in comparison to other fishing alternatives such as nets or plastic pots, Dave says, in short, ‘They are biodegradable and eco-friendly.’ Because the withy-pots are made with natural materials, they blend easily into the sea bed.
Dave always believed that it’s because of this that the crab and lobsters felt more at ease entering the pots. ‘The more plastic, the more problems’. He explains that the issue with plastic pots being put into the ocean, is that while the plastic is bashed about by waves and rubbed against seabeds, microplastics shed from the pots. Commercial pots are typically fished in groups on strings. The term Dave used was ‘fleets of pots’. One of the problems apart from the plastic is an issue most commonly known to fishermen as ‘ghost catching’. This can be caused by a freak storm or, more commonly, when a vessel goes over a string of pots. This causes the pots to be dragged along the seabed and tumble, and eventually become a tangled mess. This means that if the pots are lost at sea, any crab or lobsters in these pots become trapped and they will eventually die. Once these lobsters and crabs are dead, more fish will be attracted to the pots because they will feed on this. Fish will enter the tangled crab pots and then they will become trapped and eventually die as well. A vicious cycle of death is created as a result of ghost gear.
This begs the question of ‘how are willow pots any better than this?’. Firstly, withy-pots are usually fished singularly or in pairs at most, they are not fished in large quantities such as plastic ones. Dave states, ‘because it is a pot, not a trap, it has an open funnel/ mouth, if by any chance the pot is lost, dragged or tumbles into the depths of sea, it will break apart and the crab or lobster has the ability to escape.’ Furthermore, withy-pots becoming lost at sea isn’t as detrimental to the environment as it would be if they were plastic. Dave progresses the argument by bringing up a commonly asked question about the withy-pots’ ‘end of life’ stage. Essentially, the pots are either sold as decorative pieces for gardens or they are taken to a reclamation centre and are put in a woodchipper.
Withy-pots in general cannot be acclaimed as carbon-neutral, because there is machinery involved to cut the willow before it is then bent and crafted into pots. In spite of this, it has a very low carbon footprint. Because the pots are sustainable, grown and harvested every year as well as being completely biodegradable, there are fish merchants and restaurants that will pay significantly more for fish to be caught using these pots because they can promote it within their establishment.
Dave French states, ‘We need to start looking at the past again, if you want your generation and the younger generation to have a future. We have to start rethinking how we use the oceans.’
When asked about the next steps for the craft as a whole, Dave French answers with his relationship to Sarah Ready, a fisher-woman of thirty years. He has known Sarah for the past 6 or 7 years and made 40+ pots for her in the year of 2022. He recalls having many people over the years reach out to him to be taught the craft of making willow pots but none as dedicated to the craft as Sarah.
Dave says although it isn’t a bad thing to make pots as decorative pieces for seafood restaurants or gardens, the essence to keeping this craft alive is for them to be used for their original function. Dave claimed that he needed someone to not only learn how to make the pots but to fish with them sustainably as well.
Handmade willow pots are in the red zone on the endangered crafts list according to the Heritage Crafts Association. Dave states that there are ‘six or seven of us making them as working pots’ and believes that this number not only needs to grow at a mass in order for the craft to survive but also needs to widen to the younger generation, particularly because all of these withy-pot makers are of a similar age to himself and older. Dave recalls one of the oldest participants of this craft to still be making pots for fishing as Alan Lander, who would be in his mid-eighties.
Dave promotes the craft, not only on social media but also at live shows around the South-West in hopes of keeping it in the public eye. Being the last generation of his family to practise the craft of withy-pots, Dave hopes that by passing the craft onto his close friend Sarah Ready, this craft will eventually flourish back to life.
My final question for Dave while interviewing him about his craft, was what his greatest accomplishment is from practising the art. I told him that this could be something that massively impacted his career or something personal that only he himself would really value as big. His answer to this rounded back to the topic of Sarah Ready and her interest in the craft. ‘Having someone like Sarah find me’. Sarah has not only been the driving force alongside Dave of promoting the craft and fighting for its survival, but also showed her dedication to a true, authentic, fishery willow-pot. ‘She’s never given in. She has dogged determination to succeed.’ Not only does Sarah have this under her belt, but also the fact that she is a woman thriving in an extremely male-orientated industry. Dave thoroughly believes that she will be the catalyst of this craft’s exposure to the younger generation and the rebirth of authentic willow pot making.
Article written by: Milla James