I was taught to make swills in 1988 by a retired ‘Swiller’ from Broughton-in-Furness, called John Barker. John served his time in a 1930’s swillshop and when I met him he was one of the last swillers from that generation who was still making them. Now there is no one left alive from that era and I feel very privileged to have been taught by John, to have learnt from within the tradition and to now continue a local trade which has remained largely unchanged for centuries.
When I first started I was supplied my oak and hazel by a local coppiceman, Bill Hogarth, who was reliable, knew what I wanted and became a good friend. Bill was the last true coppice merchant in this area and after he died I had to source my own wood and so for the last 15 years I have been coppicing in the local Rusland valley.
When I learnt the trade I just caught the tail end of their previous uses and sold to farmers and industries e.g a snuff factory. However this market soon dried up and so from the early days I travelled countrywide to demonstrate and sell at fairs and shows. This still remains my main source of trade and I particularly like selling direct. From selecting and felling the oak, through to completing the swill, all is done by my hand and so to complete the final link and meet the customer is most rewarding.
For many years I have been running courses, typically a 3 day course where we start with an oak tree and a hazel rod and end up with a finished swill. Whilst this is not a substitute for a 5 year apprenticeship it does hopefully allow interested people to get a greater understanding of this old craft. It is generally a very sociable 3 days and a chance to meet new folk.
The oak for swills is only a proportion of the wood that is produced from the coppicing so using the rest is another quite large aspect of my business. I have a small firewood round, locally, and make charcoal in the wood during the summer to supply some local campsites and garages.
In the winter I gather and grade bundles of birch for besom brooms and in April when the sap starts to rise I start peeling oak. The oak bark is collected in the autumn by the country’s last oak bark tannery and the peeled oak poles go for rustic garden use.
The larger oaks I cleave to make gate hurdles and other cleft oak fencing. Working in the woods and enjoying their seasonal nature provides great satisfaction for me.