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The race to save the country craftsman

Friday 06 October 2006

Our countryside and rural affairs commentator John Sheard, who over the years has struggled to get simple things done, welcomes new moves to persuade young country folk to take up a skilled trade or craft

A COUPLE of years ago, my wife bought a new gas cooker. The retailers delivered the new one, kindly took the old one away, and apologised for the fact that we could not use our new gadget until the Corgi man had been.

This threw me more than somewhat: what possible connection could there be between the Queen's favourite pet and a gas cooker? Plugging in the gas had by law to be done by a trained gas fitter who had passed his Corgi exams, thanks to Health and Safety regulations.

yorkshire dales walls
Craftsmen needed for upkeep of Dales heritage
like walls and barns

When they had gone, I looked at the plug involved - a sort of bayonet which fitted into the sheath where my old cooker had been connected, and thought: I could do that! But had I done so, and there had been an explosion, the insurance company would have refused to pay for any damage.

The Corgi man did not turn up, of course. When I complained to the retailer, he explained that the fellow had been too busy. He had eight other connections to make that day at the staggering cost of £45 each plus VAT. I insisted we got another man to do the job and I am still angry that someone earning £360 a day could not be bothered to telephone to say he was not coming.

The reason why this "skilled" tradesman was able to take such a lax attitude to his business was simple: at the time, there was a chronic shortage of such people in the Yorkshire Dales and, earning as much in a good day as many others would be pleased to receive in a week, could pick and choose whether or not he wanted to work or not.

To a certain extent, that problem still exists today. There are many reasons for this - the cost of property, the lure of the bright lights in the towns and cities - but one of the main causes, until now, has been the reluctance of schools to turn out pupils willing to take up so-called "manual" trades. They are often despised by teachers who dismiss them as "factory fodder."

In the past, I have had to turn down the services of a dry-stone waller because his wall would have cost a third of the price of my house and, in the long gone days when my daughter had a pony, had to organise a local equine co-operative with enough mounts to make it worthwhile for a travelling farrier to visit our remote little community. Our Welsh mountain pony got shod on those days whether he needed it or not!

Now that is the bad news. This week, there were refreshing signs that "the authorities" - i.e., people and organisations that can get things done - have at long last realised that the disappearance of the country craftsman represents a serious threat to the cohesion of rural life.

yorkshire dales barn
A typical Yorkshire Dales barn - craftsmen
vital for their maintenance

On Tuesday, we reported that the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust had organised funding to send five apprentices to college to study rural crafts and, yesterday, the Yorkshire Dales National Park announced that it was holding a training day to give advice to the owners of ancient houses on how to maintain their properties (See News). That advice will include information of how to find skilled craftsmen like lime wash plasterers, stone masons and proper carpenters.

Better still, two weeks ago I visited the department of construction and traditional skills which was set up just a year ago by Craven College in Skipton to teach the very skills we are discussing. It has been so successful in just 12 months that it has to double its floor space to deal with the influx of youngsters who want to do "proper" jobs.

This, in my long and often frustrating experience, marks the long-awaited fight back against the trend launched in the 1960s by the educational elite in general, and the National Union of Teachers in particular, to treat all children as though they were all academically equal.

The result was that the bright ones became social workers and the others got virtually no education at all, despite the fact that they might have been very skilled with their hands and had the eye for a job well done. They may not earn £360 a day, but £50,000 a year is possible for hard working craftsmen, and they can stay here in the Dales. Bravo!

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