Thursday, February 07, 2008

When I first came to France, I had ideas of running some small business based around willow. We’d been inspired by going on one, then two courses run by one of the UK’s very first willow experts, Steve Pickup of The Willow bank. Initially, I moved to the Limousin (in Central France) buying a barn then an old mill, all while wearing the rosiest set of rose-tinted glasses available. The mill was obviously next to a river and millrace and the field to the other side was, unsurprisingly, decidedly damp. According to permaculture principles, when looking at a wet field, one shouldn’t immediately think of how to install drainage pipes to dry it out but rather see an opportunity to plant something suitable to such moist conditions, such as willow. My wet field fed my willow dreams.

In fact, starting a business in France seems to be prohibitively expensive, which may have lead George Dubya Bush to say “The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur” (allegedly) and also means that loads of young French “fout le camp”* and journey to England to work and start businesses. So, willow became just a pastime and thus I have many books on the subject and no less that thirty-three different varieties growing here, on our permaculture smallholding.
* (literally: “to split”. “Les jeunes fout le camp” was used as a headline in an edition of Libération, the French leftish newspaper, 11th Aug 2005).

Having searched France, and thought we’d found the best place, we wisely (rather than impetuously, as in the Limousin) decided to rent a place for six months to be sure that Brittany was right for us. There’s only so much house-hunting one can do and we eventually persuaded our host Caroline, to invest in a living willow structure to be built (grown?) in the play area of her family gîtes complex. We designed a structure for children to play in and around and which demonstrated the versatility of Steve’s technique, comprising a dome, a crawl through tunnel and a snail-curve of a wall. The top photo shows it during the summer when fully leafed up.

And so to the present … Eric and Virginie asked us to help them construct a living willow hedge (or even fence, Steve coined the term “fedge”) at their home and I suggested that we run a course. The “payment” for the course would be a day’s labour each in our woodland. Two other friends plus their neighbours joined us for a very cold and windy day and we punctuated the work with the obligatory relaxed four-course French lunch, involving lentils and split peas, etc., as Virginie is a very rare thing, a French vegan.

The photos show, in order: marking out the pattern (in this case a straight line, and making the planting holes, firming in the uprights, weaving and tying and happy smiles once it's all finished. Have a look at Steve's website for details of courses, kits and a great instructional DVD you can buy.