Tanneries were once widespread, producing leather goods for local use and trade. In these days of mass production demand for traditional oak tanned leather has reduced meaning therre are few tanneries left.
J & FJ Baker in Colyton, East Devon is one such surviving tannery. Tanning has gone on at this site back to the middle ages, and there is a wonderfully organic collection of buildings of various periods and styles there. I was lucky enough to have a look round in the company of Paul Glendell who has an exhibition of his tannery photographs at RAMM where I work. My colleague Tom organised our outing and Ian came along too.
It’s bigger than I expected and a mix of old and new. Specific areas of the site are dedicated to different parts of the process. The process takes the raw hairy hides through dyeing to finishing and ready for making into shoes, saddlery and other goods.
The smell is noticeable but not overpowering by any means. The Exe estuary at low tide on a summer’s day is more pungent according to my nose!
Time is the thing
Like many traditional processes oak tanning is a slow one. From creating the tanning liquor from dried oak bark to soaking the hides in different vats of liquor it all takes time which adds quality and cost of course.
Is it a timeless process though? Yes and no in my view. It is strongly traditional in its techniques but modern machinery is used to make production easier. Not tradition for tradition’s sake then but living heritage in the core of the process being dyeing hides with oak bark liquors in vats.
Ancient and modern
One of the pleasures of our tour was seeing machinery from different times. There were wooden and metal dyeing drums to enjoy. Sadly I did not get a photo of the wooden water wheel that is still in use as it is enclosed.
At the modern end of things were two flattening machines. Once a 19th Century model from Merseyside and another very recent one from Italy where they is still a large leather industry.
Want to see more?
Pop along to Paul’s exhibition while it is on in Exeter over Spring 2013.
My own photos are on Flickr as usual
A fruity hill fort?
While planning my trip to Blackbury castle I was amused to see in a recent AA walks book it is referred to as Blackberry Castle. However, it is called Blackbury Castle by English Heritage so that must be the right name!
One of the nice things about Blackbury Castle is it is well signposted from the main road at Branscombe Cross. For a good day out in fair weather a walk around the surrounding area ending with a picnic at the hill fort is hard to beat. On a less clement day lunch at the Mason’s Arms in Branscombe is a good Plan B!
Oh fog it!
I picked the wrong day for this trip. When I left home it was reasonably clear at sea level and I hoped it would brighten up later. Optimism was no match for Autumn in East Devon as I found out on hitting thick fog after Sidmouth. I was impressed how many drivers of silver cars thought having no lights on was a good idea…
Could you see it though?
On arrival the fog had lessened and created atmosphere rather than obscuring the hill fort. As I walked around the hill fort pondering its odd flattened D shape the fog steadily lifted. Less atmosphere but more to see. There is a rather attractive monochrome interpretation panel by the car park with a potted history of the hill fort. It was briefly occupied in the Iron Age, well for two centuries anyway.
This site is famous for its “barbican” entrance. Despite excavation in the 1950s it is still not clear whether this was built to impress, made for practical reasons as a paddock for stock, or an attempt to extend the hill fort. Excavation showed there was a single impressive timber built entrance on the south side possibly with a gate house including a tower – the three other modern entrances are just that by the way.
Another quirk of this place is that the central area is domed in shape as can be seen from either side of the D.
And there’s more?
One of the pleasures of this site is there are plenty of footpaths around it. These range from lanes to footpaths to permissive paths. There’s a good circular walk to be had from Devon’s most rebellious town, Colyton, to Blackbury Castle. Probably best done on a dryer day though!