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For your Christmas shopping list: country crafts

Friday 26 November 2004

Countryside commentator John Sheard, who admits to being a last minute Christmas shopper, promises to reform this year - and buy his gifts country-style

THE LADY wife and I do not always agree when it comes to that annual chore of Christmas shopping. If I had my way, I would do it all on Christmas Eve - and then go to the pub. My wife, on the other hand, would prefer to start in August.

This year, however, another factor has come into the equation: a series of campaigns by various countryside bodies to persuade people to buy country craft items and locally produced food. In other words, the countryside is beginning to market itself.

Now it obviously makes sense for country folk to financially support other country folk and shop local. But what one of the "shop country" campaigners, the Country Land and Business Association, pointed out recently is that items from country craftsmen and woman are usually much more original than mass-produced goods in the city chain stores and are often as cheap or even cheaper.

Rural crafts champion Rhys Jones
Rural crafts champion Rhys Jones

But - here's a calculation that we often overlook - just going to the city can cost a lot of money in fares or petrol plus, for the motorist, stupendous parking charges. Add to that the traffic jams and the overheated hassle of city stores, often made worse by a tired or bad-tempered staff, and suddenly countryside shopping looks a bargain both financially and mentally.

This is a theme that has just been picked up by the Countryside Agency, which is funding a scheme to encourage more people to buy country craftwork. The project is being fronted by a high-profile "face", the comedian Griff Rhys Jones, and is backed by some in depth research.

In the past couple of years, Jones had adopted a much more serious profile by presenting the BBC2 Restoration series, which highlights to fate of superb old buildings doomed to dereliction - and asks viewers to vote to save some of them.

At the launch of a Countryside Agency report called Crafts in the English Countryside: Towards a Future* he commented: "Everything we enjoy in our countryside has been created by craftsmen and this study brings together history, technique and anecdote in one excellent volume. It will be a boon to anyone with an interest in the countryside and craftsmanship."

The research team which produced the report was led by Professor Ted Collins, a former director of rural history at Reading University, and it came to the conclusion that country crafts could help provide an important long-term boost for the rural economy.

It recorded a growth in many traditional crafts since the 1980s as more and more creative and well-motivated people moved to the countryside to make a new life away from the urban rat race and joining the swelling ranks of country folk anxious to revive dying skills.

Crafts studied included mill-writing, gardening, basketry and woodland skills like hurdle making - now producing highly fashionable garden furniture. Somewhat ironically in view of the ban on hunting, it also noted a growth in saddlery, farriery and blacksmithing.

That aside, there are dozens of small craftsmen and women working in the Yorkshire Dales, producing paintings, jewellery, sculpture, ornate metal work, wood carvings and pottery, plus many more items that will be genuinely surprise gifts: city stores do not sell such individualistic items.

So, with Christmas shopping upon us once again, lets take a drive in the country and support local (very small) industry. For more information of the country crafts survey, see* www.craftsintheenglishcountryside.gov.uk

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