This winter I'll be supporting a new community project right on my doorstep, restoring a withy bed in Ironbridge. The project is being led by Severn Gorge Community Trust, and is funded by the Green Communities Grant from Bupa Foundation and Groundwork.
Historically, every community would have had a withy bed - where willow was grown to make baskets and other structures. Withy beds would often be located along watercourses and land prone to flooding as willow thrives in these conditions unlike most other crops. Withy beds would not only have been a vital community resource, but also provided a valuable habitat for local wildlife - known to support over 250 species of insects and birds.
With the decline of the local basketry industry over the past 75 years, Britain has lost the majority of its withy beds. There are now only a handful of large scale commercial willow growers in the UK, mostly based on the Somerset Levels. However, there has been a resurgence in small scale willow growers in recent years, driven by basketmakers who want to grow their own materials to use in their craft.
The Severn Gorge Countryside Trust planted a willow bed in Ironbridge over twenty years ago, but over time, it has become unproductive, overgrown and neglected. It is very much a secret garden. So secret in fact, that I have been unknowingly walking and cycling past it for the past six years. I couldn't quite believe it when it was revealed to me!
I will be working alongside SGCT to restore the withy bed, and raise awareness of the many uses and benefits of willow as a sustainable material and craft. We'll be running regular volunteer workparties to improve access to the site, clear the overgrown vegetation, and lay a long length of hedge to bring much needed light back to the bed. We'll be saving what willow coppice stools we can, and supplementing them with new plantings so that we have a sustainable source of willow for community projects in the future.
I'll be posting regular updates about the project. If you're local, and would like to get involved, please get in touch with me at email@example.com.