Here is the head of an otter on a walking stick, courtesy of Harrods of London. That is where father bought the stick in the 1920s after he had written Tarka the Otter.
Pretty good likeness, don’t you think? I wonder who carved it and how many of these Harrods sold? Apparently there were several choices of country walking sticks in the big department store then.
The shaft of this stick is plumb-line straight, exquisitely circular and expertly finished with a smooth lacquer that is silken to the touch. A work of art which has somehow survived the upheavals of our family’s life throughout the war, moving house from Devon to Norfolk and back again in the backs of old lorries and trailers.
Father handed over the stick as a TV prop in several films made about his life and times, and it has come through without a scratch.
The other stick which I cherish shows the head of a woodcock carved from a larch sapling by Edmund Nelson in 1980. Some of you will remember him as an ex-school teacher, I think specialising in the classics, and on retirement a tireless supporter of the RSPB. Every country show has a selection of thumbsticks for sale, but they are all the same. A ‘v’ at the top to hold your thumb, is all we ever see. Some are sold, but most remain.
What we need to shift these art works is an emblem as shown here. If Harrods could work that out 80 years ago, so can our Sussex rural craftsmen/women. Difficult, but challenging. What you need to do is to cut off your head at ground level.
The otter’s mask was once the coppice root. When you cut hazel coppice the new shoot sprouts out from an old stock. Then up it goes often as straight as a plumb-line. That is the theory anyway.
Trouble is, with two million deer on the loose in the country making such a mess of our woodlands, you will only have a crooked stick.
Nature reserves nowadays even have to employ electric fencing around fresh cut coppice to keep the deer out, as here at West Dean Woods.
In the 1920s there were hardly any deer at all loose in the countryside because people were on the bread-line and wild animals were precious meat.
The vast coppice industry supplying raw materials for hoops, snaiths, rakes, forks, hurdles, gates, besoms, helves, yokes, shovels, peels and – yes – walking sticks, could not have survived if deer had rampaged as they do today.
Even otters were strictly controlled in those days to protect the fishing industries on inland rivers. Today badgers have become common for the first time in history. Now there’s a thought: a carved badger head in your palm as you stride the Downs?
What about a tawny owl, or a barn owl at the top of a white holly stick?
More useful to whittle than finger the rosary, or dip into the crisps during the everlasting TV soaps, surely?