The fight to save our dying arts
Peter Bird carefully applies the heat as he painstakingly silver-solders two pieces of metal tubing together.
"It’s all about the flame and learning how the brass moves," says Peter.
"Frame building isn’t a black art these days but it is complicated. There’s a lot going on, a lot to get right."
Peter Bird and his business partner Robert Wade, are a dying breed. Based in the historic metal-working centre of Ironbridge, they are two of an estimated 15-20 bespoke bicycle-frame manufacturers left in the UK, and their skills feature on a list of 'endangered crafts' which will feature at an exhibition in Ironbridge next month.
The Festival of Imagination, to be held at Ironbridge Gorge from September 14-29, will demonstrate some of the centuries-old crafts in danger of dying out completely.
Sadly, some of these precious crafts have already been lost. Despite being the nation that invented the sport, the 2019 Heritage Crafts Association Red List reveals that cricket balls are no longer made on these shores. The production of lacrosse sticks has also disappeared, as has the ancient skill of gold beating. The skill of paper-mould manufacturing, native to Britain since the 18th century, is the latest traditional craft to bite the dust, having died out during the past two years.
Others such as coracle-making and clay-pipe production are still with us, but are in danger of disappearing.
The Red List is only the second of its kind to published by the association, the first one having appeared in 2017. It shows the number of endangered crafts having risen from 169 two years ago to 2019.
The list has been put together by the association's endangered crafts officer Mary Lewis.
She says: “These endangered crafts are part of our cultural heritage.
“We have this bank of knowledge and skills to be able to make all of these different products.
“Eventually, without these skills, our built heritage will start to deteriorate. We have been traditionally very good in this country at preserving our built heritage, but very poor at maintaining the skills and knowledge of the crafts and techniques behind it."
She points out that the West Midlands, and Ironbridge in particular, was traditionally a hotbed for skilled trades in areas such as metalworking and ceramics.
The Prince of Wales, who is president of the Heritage Craft Association, says it is important to nurture these skills and traditions for future generations.
“I have always had a particular admiration for those craftspeople who can strike the delicate balance between producing work that speaks to the needs of the present, while honouring a lineage of practice stretching back into the past," he says.
“These craftspeople not only fulfil the role of makers of local and sustainable products – as important as that is in an increasingly globalised throwaway world – but they are also stewards of living traditions, protecting and passing on legacies of knowledge and skill that will, with hope, be treasured and put to good use by succeeding generations."
The association is expecting between 9,500 and 12,000 people to turn out for the event at the Big Yurt in Dale End Park, Coalbrookdale.
Mary Lewis says the aim of the festival is to make more people aware of the Red List and what some of the crafts are.
"It’s a good opportunity for people to learn about endangered crafts, but also it’s good for the craftspeople to demonstrate themselves and their work," she says.
“The more members we have, the more support we can give to endangered crafts.
“We also hope to promote some more viable crafts too like wool spinning, because if they don’t get support then they won’t stay viable.”
The art of making cricket balls has been lost relatively recently, with Dukes, one of Britain's most famous manufacturers, transferring production to India about four years ago, although they are still finished in this country. Lacrosse stick production died out around the same time, when Britain's last practitioner of the craft, Tom Beckett of Hattersleys, retired in December 2014.
The association is at present fighting to ensure British flute-making does not go the same way, by seeking potential trainees interested in learning this intricate and highly-skilled craft from a retiring master. The association believes there to be only one full-time maker of hand-made Boehm flutes left in the UK, Stephen Wessell from Somerset. But as Stephen prepares to retire shortly, having enjoyed a long and illustrious career, the association is looking for somebody whom he can pass on his valuable skills.
Back in Ironbridge, Peter and Robert's business Bicycles By Design, which trades under the Swallow brand, has been operating in the area for 38 years. They also run short courses, where people can spend a week in their workshop building their own bike, although they say it takes much longer than this to learn the skills necessary to become a proper bike maker.
“The thing is that 99 per cent of the people doing the courses are doing it for the experience of building their own bicycle frame – they have no intention of going into business,” says Robert.
“The reason for that is the market is tiny. There are only about 450 purely bespoke handmade frames built a year.”
He says there is no specialist training for the craft, and there is really no substitute for practice and experience.
"You can’t go to frame building school, you either have to be an apprentice or you teach yourself,” says Robert.
“There are quite a lot of people playing at bicycle frame building but not many doing it as a practising craft.
"Those who do it full-time use some of the more difficult materials to work with such as stainless steel – a lot of people who dabble in it are not skilled enough to do.”
Robert says it is important for heritage crafts to keep up with the latest technology and trends if they are to have a viable future. He cites the growing popularity of electric bikes as an example of this.
“Technology has moved forward. Batteries and motors for bikes have got smaller and more efficient, so being able to incorporate that into a bespoke frame is something that is going to be very important in the future,” he says.
“It’s a traditional craft that has evolved to prevail as a viable proposition.”
Mary adds: “We are not just about a nostalgic view at a dusty past, we are about businesses like Bicycle By Design who use hand skills, building on a long tradition of hand-built bicycles, but making a very contemporary product. These crafts can exist alongside future technologies.”