A day in the life of... a willow lobster pot maker

Making a lobster pot © Duncan Viner

Each week during the period of social distancing, we will be delving into the Wild Cornwall magazine archives to bring you our favourite articles from past and present Wild Cornwall magazine issues.
Making a lobster pot © Duncan Viner

Making a lobster pot © Duncan Viner

Bissoe Valley Nature Reserve proved useful to Probus resident Rob Holland in the winter of 2018/19, when he revived the sustainable craft of willow lobster pot making, writes Rowena Millar.

Duncan has been cutting willow for years, to prevent it from taking over the marsh area of the reserve, piling the cut branches as wildlife habitat. These days he is helped by the Wild Allet volunteers. Rob remembers a time when many acres of willow 'gardens' were cultivated on the cliffs of Gorran Haven, where he grew up. In those days, each tree was cut to a stump, known as a 'motte', which expanded as branches were harvested regularly for pot making.

Bob heaved a bunch onto his shoulder, took it home and later cut it to length. He didn't use a ruler – just looped each supple stem around his knee, sharpened the ends, measured the length of his arm, then his hand, then a bit more. Some fishermen used split sticks – quite an art – each making their own distinctive pots to use on their particular patch of seabed. Lewis's was the Dodman Ground, where the spring tide is "like a torrent".

Bob collecting willow © Duncan Viner

Bob collecting willow © Duncan Viner

Not so long ago, using a simple wooden frame and a knife, Cornish fishermen used to weave 'green' (fresh) willow into traditional inkwellstyle crab and lobster pots. The type of willow withies they used were spotted by Rob at Bissoe Valley Nature Reserve, a few miles southwest of Truro, and that is where he met volunteer reserve warden Duncan Viner to cut a bundle one winter's morning. Rob was planning to use Bissoe Valley willow to revive a craft he learned 53 years ago from Lewis Billing, one of Gorran haven's last traditional seiners and fishers.

With strong hands, Rob began weaving the lobster's entrance hole. Ribs are inserted into the weave, sticking upwards before being bent back, around and down, and then tied firmly in place. "If you don't control the basket, it can expand and fall apart," he said. The ribs are 'ringed' by weaving more willow around them, and extra ribs are forced in, to narrow any gaps. The base or 'cheam' is made last, and 'takes the rub', or ribs. Then the pot is ready for baiting.

When 17-year-old Rob's first basket was completed, Lewis had told him, "Looks like a craw's nest". Craws – or crows – are not renowned for their neatness. The traditional pots were fewer in number than today's modern plastic ones, and soon biodegraded – a natural process but replaced by the seemingly superior resilience of plastic. Rob reckons each traditional pot caught more crabs or lobsters though, as they were "something natural in the water". He advised that "you should always shet your pot on splatty ground" (toss the pot over the boat's side above a place where rock and seaweed meet sand). Lobsters come out at night onto the sand looking for food, scouring the seabed for tasty morsels such as crabs and starfish and meeting up with other lobsters.

We are all looking at ways to reduce our reliance on plastics and live sustainable lives. And there is much we can learn from the times when Cornish people relied on the local land and sea for survival – a time when, just like Rob's pots, people and nature were bound tightly together.