Taking some stick at Northumberland County Show

PUBLISHED: 17:19 03 May 2011 | UPDATED: 19:17 20 February 2013

Heavy horse section head steward Gawin Holmes at Northumberland County Show 2010

Heavy horse section head steward Gawin Holmes at Northumberland County Show 2010

Wilf Laidler, renowned in stick dressing circles, will share the beauty of his ancient craft at this year's Northumberland County Show. Jane Pikett meets him

Every man, so they say, should have a shed. It may not be literally a wooden cabin in the garden, but it must be a refuge from the vacuum cleaner and a space a man can call his own.


Ernest Hemmingway wrote in one, as did Roald Dahl. The charity Age Concern has a project called Men in Sheds, which gets men together in sheds to share DIY skills. Meanwhile, sales of sheds, it is reported, are on the up.


Wilf Laidlers shed is in fact the garage of his home in North Tyneside. His wife, Lorna, rarely ventures into this hallowed space, but she knows when Wilf is in there due to the occasional sound of a tightening vice and a smell not unlike burning hair which occasionally emanates.


I admit that it may look a bit messy and dirty, but I know where everything is, says Wilf, whose retreat is home to a blacksmiths vice, various tools and files, rams horns and timber, and the ancient craft of stick dressing.


Stick dressing, for the uninitiated, is basically the decoration of walking sticks and shepherds crooks, generally with horn carved with animals, birds, and fish.


That short description, however, fails spectacularly to really capture this craft, which demands great skill, patience and, in Wilfs case, up to 250 hours work for each and every stick.


Wilf, who has made shepherds crooks and sticks for a bishop and for royalty, is secretary of the Border Stick Dressers Association - membership 350, royal patron HRH the Prince of Wales, life membership 10 - and chief steward of the nationally renowned stick dressing section at Northumberland County Show, which last year attracted some 250 competitors including, for the first time, women.


His garage workshop is home to assorted tools and the paraphernalia of his craft and it is here that he works his magic with horn and wood, creating exquisite objects inspired by the natural world. It is, he says, an absorbing hobby that, once taken up, is nigh-on impossible to drop.


Its a pleasure to work with a raw natural material and turn it into a thing of beauty inspired by nature, says Wilf. Its a craft you can continue long into old age and one which attracts enthusiasts from all walks of life. Its a wonderful thing.


Of the 100 or so sticks he has made in the last 20 years, he keeps only about 25. These are the ones of which he is particularly fond or proud and he displays them at events like the Northumberland County Show, which hosts one of the biggest stick dressing sections in the country.


Wilfs sticks are inspired by the natural world. There is one with a head of sheep horn and a shank of holly which depicts a diving kingfisher with a minnow. There is another with a Jacob sheep horn head and blackthorn shank which depicts a blackbird pulling at a worm.


There is a Dorset horn head and holly shank with a stoat sniffing a pheasant eggshell under a bramble. The chick is hiding under leaves on the nose of the stick and there are bramble flowers, a butterfly and a bumble bee on the side.


Wilf is particularly fond of depicting brown trout on his sticks, while he also includes otters - one chasing a trout down the heel of one stick - pike, salmon, kingfishers, blue tits, ospreys and the like.


Last year, he carved a crozier for the Bishop of Durham to honour St Cuthbert, who was from the Cheviot Hills and was watching sheep when he was called to the church. This carved shepherds crook, created from the horn of a ram from the Cheviot Hills, features the figure of St Cuthbert giving a blessing.


I am very proud of the history of Northumbria, says Wilf of the inspiration for this exquisite work. St Cuthbert was a shepherd from the Cheviot Hills and it seemed only right to make a crozier to honour him.


Wilfs involvement in the craft started by chance. He was working as a police press officer in 1981 when the Northumbria forces Ponteland headquarters was officially opened by the Queen and Prince Philip. Wilf was asked to suggest a gift for the royal party and he suggested the traditional Northumbrian gift of a pair of sticks from the now late Norman Tulip.


The trip to collect the sticks proved to be inspirational and shortly afterwards Wilf took up the craft under Normans instruction. In stick dressing I found a hobby that relieved me of the stress of work, says Wilf. To take a rough raw material and turn it into something functional and a thing of beauty was satisfying and rather wonderful.


The Border Stick Dressers Association, of which Wilf is secretary, was founded in 1951 as a means of preserving the craft and its illustrious patrons include the Duke of Northumberland, the Duke of Buccleuch, the Earl of Dalkeith, Viscount Ridley and Lord Joicey.


BSDA members range from manual labourers to hospital consultants. They are aged from late teens to their 90s.
Wilf, who worked as young a shepherd in north Northumberland before he joined the police force, carved his first stick as a teenager, as every shepherd did in those days.
Since taking up the craft again aged 50, he has presented examples of his work to Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, the Princess Royal and the Duke of Gloucester. His own are on display at home and at various shows, and he uses his sticks for walking.



A Great County Show


The Northumberland County Show boasts more than 350 trade stands, spectacular main arena events, and nationally renowned agricultural and equine sections.


It is the highlight of the agricultural year and the regions largest annual visitor attraction.


In addition to the popular parade of the Tynedale hounds, heavy horses sponsored by Co-op Funeral Services, and the Northern Farmer Champion of Champions Parade, this years main ring attractions include monster trucks The Grim Reaper and Big Pete, which are back by popular demand, and the Black Knights Parachute team.


The show field will also host numerous marquees and stands, a childrens funfair, live cookery demonstrations from leading chefs, bands and dancers, a working milking parlour and a shearing shed, bee-keeping and falconry displays, free parking and easy rail access.


The Show also features competitive heavy and light horse sections and livestock classes for cattle, sheep, goats, alpacas, dogs, poultry, cavies, rabbits, stick dressing, competitive home crafts and Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling.


The show takes place at Tynedale Park, Corbridge, on May 3. Schedules are available to download at www.northcountyshow.co.uk or send a sae to the Show Office, Hexham Mart, Tynegreen, Hexham, NE46 2BS, stating which schedule you require.


See the work of leading stick dressers and a host of attractions at Northumberland County Show on Monday, May 30, at Tynedale Park, Corbridge, NE45 5AY, 9am to 6pm.


Advance tickets for the Show are available at Northumberland Tourist Information Centres and online at www.netaticket.com, tel 0845 230 5177. See www.northcountyshow.co.uk for further details

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