Retrospections-propositions: The Noble Shaft

With a shared passion for the age-old art of stick-making, Len Markham pays a visit to friend and neighbour Adrian Wells, who’s devoted the last 10 years to perfecting his craft

Adrian Wells and a completed selection of walking sticks – the great bustard and blue tit taking centre stage

On a regular Woodworker assignment in 1986 I witnessed, from a high scaffold, the monumental repairs to the fire damaged York Minster, watching in awe as huge unseasoned oak rafters were swung aloft. A veritable lifetime later as I dig in a line of oak saplings, my passion for timber is unabated.

I now live in rural Wiltshire where, despite the ubiquitous pre-formed sterile uniformity of the modern age, woodworking crafts continue to thrive, retirement now giving me the opportunity to write about the subject I love in a magazine that, after many years, continues to thrive.

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This stainless steel replacement-hip joint will be used as an innovative stick handle

And I’d like to begin this new occasional series by featuring an article on the age-old art of stick-making, a retiree like me, devoting the last 10 years to perfecting his craft.

Since the dawn of human evolution, our ancestors have carried sticks – the first ever tools – their simplicity and usefulness assuming, beyond their practicality, symbolic, spiritual and mythological character in the form of the holy staff, the mitre, the crozier, the caduceus, the alpenstock and the magic wand (see ‘The Noble Shaft’ sidebar.)

If trees have souls – and I believe they do! – it’s no wonder that the offspring stick is a universal human companion across the globe. Knowing that my friend and craftsman neighbour Adrian Wells shares my passion for sticks, I visited him at his home in the hamlet of Easterton near the market town of Devizes, Wiltshire.

After a cordial welcome crowned by the offering of wedge of homemade, award-winning cake, I soon came to realise that Adrian is a polymath with a chisel twist – cakes, preserves, brewing (he grows his own hops!), water colours, model making home extensions and compulsive stick-making all coming under his spell.

As a died-in the-wool Tyke who woefully produces Yorkshire puddings with the consistency of wallpaper paste, it was sobering to hear the lady of the household pronounce quite casually ...”Oh yes, Adrian does all the cooking... and he’s good at it.”

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A selection of stick handles

Stick-making timbers & finishing

Before retiring in 2014, Adrian was a helicopter observer, navigator and camera operator with the Wiltshire Police Air Support Unit, a service he continues to support in the guise of Wiltshire Air Ambulance – a charitable organisation that saves many lives. In the last decade, he’s also devoted his talents, among other things, to stick-making, his skills being honed by constant practice and guidance from a Facebook Stick Making group that he joined six years ago.

Purely motivated by the art itself, he seeks no financial reward for his creations, which are mostly commissioned by associates and friends, any voluntary financial contributions received going to support the work of the nearby Salisbury Plain Great Bustard Group, of which he’s an active member.

Adrian, like me, is a keen if somewhat slow rambler, constant peerings into hedgerows and copses in search of suitable material for sticks slowing his stride. Such is his growing reputation in this small village that many local rambling residents follow his lead.

“My favourite stick-making timbers are hazel – the easiest to work – holly, blackthorn, ash and, now and again, I use apple wood and lime, which is a dream to carve. I collect the stems in winter allowing up to 18 months for the moisture content to reduce to around 12% – a modern reader device giving me an accurate figure. Sometimes I use a steamer or hot-air gun, but I strive to keep my use of power tools to a minimum.

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A cache of deer antlers destined for use as stick handles

“I find the finishing process very therapeutic and relaxing. I attach the carved tops with peg joints and always fit external collars to give added strength. I fix mild brass ferrules covered with rubber at the ground end and I’ve even been asked by one gentleman, who was about to visit the Alps, to fit an alpine spike.”

Adrian explains that the finishing process sees him using very fine abrasives along with yacht varnish or oil. Depending on the type of wood, he sometimes stains the rods with Van Dyke crystals or potassium permanganate, which gives a pleasing tiger skin effect.

Stick handles

Adrian escorted me to his workshop – a hive of tool and technique adaptation and innovation – his traditional choice of stick handle material including a horde of deer stag antlers and, more unusually, a stainless steel fitting for use in replacement hip surgery!

“The choice of handles is hugely personal,” he explains. “As a keen advocate of the hitherto long extinct, but now reintroduced British bustard, on a personal basis, I like to replicate that amazing head and the bird’s huge egg. I carve images of favourite dogs and musical instruments as well as standard curved handles, and I carefully assess the height of intended new owners, ensuring my sticks are the appropriate lengths.”

Abstracted and absorbed in swirl and grain, Adrian spends many a happy hour in his little workshop and he resonates with my own feelings about this simple craft, one rather special commission from a local lady who’s recently lost her husband endorsing our mutual sentiments exactly.

Years ago, the gentleman planted an apple tree in the couple’s garden, the pair watching it grow over the decades... until it too perished. The lady asked Adrian to carve one of its limbs into a memorial stick, which will soon be displayed above the family hearth. A noble shaft indeed.

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Adrian’s well-ordered workshop

THE NOBLE SHAFT

I devoted a chapter in my book, Ten Yorkshire Mysteries, published in 1995, to such a wand – ‘A BARNSLEY BALLET – The mystery of the dancing stick, 1965

They carve them in communion,
Revered the noble shaft,
The tramper’s boon companion,
A timeless global craft.

A wanderlusting helpmate,
On paths and inclines grim,
A rod for self protection,
From fang and hissing sting.

Each staff becomes its wielder,
Absorbed in heart and limb,
The grips with palms a-fevered,
Sing loud the footloose hymn!

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