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From the earth and into the sea: Harnessing the power of willow

Posted on: 18th November 2023

From the earth and into the sea: Harnessing the power of willow


“I don’t think I’ve successfully made anything on the first go”, says Aaron. His father, Adrian, chuckles in agreement, ‘It’s a lot of practice’. I get the impression that even this may be an understatement. The completed pots are like works of art, beautifully crafted and intricately woven, each willow stem precisely tucked and cajoled into position. For two years now, Mevagissey-born shipwright Adrian and his son Aaron have been making these withy pots. Through this, they hope to not only breathe life into a fading craft but also into the Cornish fishing industry itself, helping create alternatives to plastic fishing gear. Looking around their barn, with its neatly tied bundles of willow, biodegradable ropes, and array of different pot designs, they seem to be well on their way.   

Their path into pot making started eight years ago when Adrian bought a small field above Penryn. ‘At first, it was just going to be a place to store wood’ he recalls. But soon, the field got a hold of him, the birdsong, the insects, the sense of calm. He started clearing the brambles and planting deciduous trees. ‘We initially planted the willow to form a windbreak’. The field is at the top of a hill and very windswept, especially in winter. Planting the willow then gave them the idea of making withy pots. ‘I can just about remember them being made by the “old boys” on the quay at Meva’, Adrian recalls. He would have been around 8 years old at the time. ‘So we thought, why not give it a go? We reckoned it couldn't be too hard.’ 

On New Year's Day, 2022, Adrian and Aaron arrived at the field with some fishermen, friends, and an old pot maker. They cut some willow down and tried to make their first pots. Reflecting on this, Adrian exclaims ‘It was hilarious! I’ve never seen such weird and wonderful things! They were all shapes and sizes. A bit skewed, a bit loose. It was hilarious’.

Since that first session, both Adrian and Aaron have taken great pains to hone their skills. Many days were spent making a pot only to discover it was a bit wonky, and to take it all apart and try again. They also spent a lot of time delving through YouTube, quickly realising that there is no such thing as a standard withy pot. This is because pot making was never learned from books but was passed down generation to generation. As a result, designs varied between fishing villages and even between families within those villages. After getting to grips with making a basic pot, Aaron wanted to pull these different designs together into a standardised pot. He made a total of 40 before he had something he was happy with. ‘The only reason I can do this is because I'm very stubborn’. This seems fortunate given that the result of this stubbornness is an excellent pot. It is a hybrid, possessing a flat Devonshire top but a thick bottom, densely interwoven to withstand the rockier Cornish coast. Creating a standardised design has two great benefits: it makes the pots easily stackable and ensures that anyone who wants a pot knows exactly what they are getting. ‘It’s been so good to have our own willow. It's given us the freedom to try out different ideas. If I'd had to buy the willow, I would have spent thousands on experimentation alone.’

Having a standardised design, Adrian and Aaron are now working with local fishermen to try out the pots. In Mylor, this includes shellfish fishermen Ned Bailey and in Mevagissey, Edward Mitchell. By working with the fishermen, they receive direct feedback of how the pots are doing and if any changes are required. So far, the pots are catching well and interestingly, can catch within hours of hitting the bottom. Plastic pots, by contrast, sometimes have to sit on the seafloor for up to a week before anything ventures in. This may be due to chemical leaching. 

However, the feedback also highlights that withy pots cannot be fished in the same way as their modern cousins. For example, they cannot be strung out in strings of up to 200, left for a week at a time, and then pulled in using a hydraulic hauler. Withy pots would rapidly fall apart if fished in such a way. Rather, they are suitable for smaller-scale lower-impact fishing from one-person boats. The advantage of this is that, released singly or in a pair, they can be used to target regions on the seabed which are especially appealing to lobsters, such as rocky sandy outcrops.

For all of this to stack up financially, increased consumer awareness is needed so that lobsters caught in this way can attract a premium when put on a plate. Until this happens, this form of fishing may not be accessible for all fishermen. Ever creative, Adrian and Aaron are therefore also trialling oak parlour pots. Like the withy pots, these are also made from completely natural and biodegradable materials but they are sturdier and can withstand modern fishing techniques. In Mylor, Ned Bailey is currently trialling one of these for the catching of crawfish. Back at the field, Adrian and Aaron have also taken inspiration from France, constructing a barrel-shaped pot with hoops made from steam-bent ash. All of these will come fully equipped with manilla hemp rope, marker buoys made from an oak-cork sandwich, and flags from cotton. 

‘We need to take from the old to build the new’. This is something Adrian and Aaron passionately believe and I wholeheartedly agree with them. I have been lucky to join them for the past year, making a film documenting their journey, motivations, and aims. Watching their project grow and develop has been wonderful. They are doing this with an honest and real commitment to work with the fishermen to reduce marine plastic pollution. The next steps will be to continue raising awareness of the benefits of these pots so that the consumer can also support this change. Together, we can then help harness a centuries-old craft to create a better world for tomorrow. Following their sold out screening of the film at Cornwall Film Festival 2023, you can keep in touch with Adrian and Aaron's progress on instagram @treetosea_withypots, and with Tristian's work at @tristian_herbert


By Tristian Herbert. Tristian is a freelance filmmaker who has been following the progress of Adrian and Aaron over the past year. 

Credit for all photos: Tristian Herbert


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