Industrial progress may be likened to a wide road of modern design, along the centre of which traffic is speeding at tremendous and dangerous velocity. At the sides there are footpaths where old people may saunter and children may loiter; there are many who are not made for the speed track, but for the quiet by-roads. We have to find a way for the slow and quick to live together. Might there not be more bridges from the centre to the stiles and grassy lanes that lead into quiet, green places where, like children, we have time to live and think and grow wiser?
— K.S. Woods, Rural Crafts of England (1949)
Not long ago, I received a thoughtful email from Glen Campbell with a book suggestion: Rural Crafts of England by K. S. (Katharine Seymour) Woods. I found an original, published in London in 1949. It is a charming and insightful book, with thoughts that still resonate today. In the preface, Woods herself describes her experience and hopeful vision: “The author has had the opportunities of paying many visits to craftsmen, both after the First World War and again in recent years. She has been privileged to watch two generations at their work, and to hear them talk about the things that are their life…. The craftsmen have greatly enriched her experience of life in a field which she believes may shelter, deep beneath the scars and furrows of a troubled period, the seeds of a new growth that can be brought to fruition for generations yet unborn.”
Her philosophical insights are sprinkled throughout the reader’s journey through the workshops, fields, and rooftops of England. There is practical information for the craftsman and revelations into changing preferences: “In skilled hands the cleaving-axe works with astonishing speed. The older axemen, accustomed in the past to making their own handles, prefer English hand-cleft ash, which is springier than American hickory and does not sting the hands. Hickory is hard and smooth and is increasingly popular with the younger woodmen.”
Below are some additional photos showing the contents and some examples of the illustrations and photographs within the book.
Woods was writing this book shortly after the Second World War. While there was a call for modernization, efficiency and production, it was also a time when shortages and sacrifices necessitated a renewed reliance on traditional crafts and skills. These adaptations were encouraged and guided by the Rural Industries Bureau, a division of the ever-watchful Ministry of Agriculture. Woods refers to the Rural Industries Bureau many times. One way to step back into that period of time, and revisit many of the skills that Woods discusses in her book, is to view the BBC eight-part series Wartime Farm. I’ve put a link below to the first episode, but the other seven are on YouTube as well.