Rescuing the Castle Drogo chairs

In 2008, a visit to a cafe set in motion a series of connections leading to my newest chair design.

Restored oak chairsI was at Castle Drogo, a National Trust property in Devon where I was living at the time. After a fairly ordinary visit to the castle, I was amazed on walking into the cafe to see hand-made chairs at every table. Simple and beautiful post-and-rung ladderbacks with a single slat and obviously made from green oak with a woven willow seat. After sitting and examining them over my coffee I went to find someone who could tell me more about them. A chap at reception told me they’d been made about 20 years before but he couldn’t remember the name of the maker. Anyway, if I liked them then maybe I could buy one, he informed me, as the Trust were about to get rid of them.

A week or two later the chairs were still in my mind so I went back to Castle Drogo with tools to measure, photograph and document them only to find a building site and levelled hole where the cafe had been. Fortunately the chairs hadn’t gone yet but were in a nearby farmer’s barn waiting to be auctioned off.

I thought this was such a shame to happen that I contacted the property manager and working with Linda Lemieux, a local basketmaker, we convinced the Trust that the chairs should be renovated and kept.

Repairing an oak chair slatA couple of weeks in a damp barn had given the chairs a coating of mould, especially on the willow seats and it took several days to wash each one with hot water and a solution of oxalic acid, clean and reoil the woodwork and carry out some minor repairs. After 20 years of hard work in a busy cafe this amounted to two broken rungs, damage to the top  edge of some slats and a few worn willow rods, testament to just how strong and durable green wood chairs are. For me it was  brilliant to work on them all, handling each one and getting to see how the maker had used even wood which was slightly bent or curved around a knot in order to make the most from his trees. I imagined how it would be to shave the 200 legs, 50 slats and 600 rungs for them and the feeling of watching them take shape. I was so inspired that I decided to try and track down the maker.

The only other chair with a willow seat I’d ever seen was a ‘Somerset chair’  made by Tom Kealy a few years before. I contacted Tom who told me he’d learned the weaving from David Drew, a very well respected basketmaker, and had taught David chairmaking in return. Tom passed me on to David’s friend John Leach, the potter, who happens to live just by the site of the Somerset Scythe Festival.  So I called in to see John and got an address for David in France where I wrote to him with photos of the chairs and the story of the rescue. I figured, if I’d made a batch of 50 chairs and they were still being used 20 years later I’d like to hear about it so maybe he would too.

In return I received a lovely letter with a wonderful series of photos showing David, his wife Judy and daughter Jane making the chairs. They wrote that 100 chairs were made and took the three of them 2 or 3 months to make while they lived in a mercedes truck during a cold winter. Whatever happened to the other 50 chairs I’ve no idea.

David Drew and family making oak chairs David Drew and family with oak chairs
At Castle Drogo now the chairs are used around the property for staff and volunteers. I have kept one for myself and when I moved to Cumbria with it the trail of connections continued. More of that next time.

About Steve Tomlin

I am a greenwood worker and scythe tutor. I carve spoons, bowls and other products from locally sourced greenwood. During the summer I teach scything around the UK.
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6 Responses to Rescuing the Castle Drogo chairs

  1. David Cockey says:

    Great story.

  2. jarrod says:

    nice post steve. great story. i’d like to hear more about the willow seats.

  3. Mike Abbott says:

    Thanks for that Steve. I think I heard of these chairs, cos I was only down the road at Bovey Tracey about then, but because I am inherently lazy, I never got to see/sit in them.
    Anyway, I got to tidy my desk yesterday and found my login details for my blog, so I might just make a few comments about Walden.
    I hope the plans are progressing well for the do up your way and that you have the Castle Drogo chair on show

  4. Hi Steve,
    I just downloaded the pics of those chairs I took on my phone at Drogo in September. I asked the volunteer guides about them but they didn’t know anything about them. Real synchronicity to read this post right now. Thanks for the story.

    • Steve Tomlin says:

      Hi Richard,
      It’s amazing they don’t know after we only restored them a couple of years ago- lack of knowledge is the reason they were going to get rid in the first place. Any good photos you could email me to share?

  5. Pingback: Jenny Chair frame complete | Steve Tomlin Crafts

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