There’s a lot to making a Lobster pot the traditional way. Constructed in a mathematical formula, when you get it right, its form and proportion fall into place just like a sum! But there’s more than the pot itself to the story.
In Purbeck, the winter seas, proving rough and hazardous, saw the Purbeck fishermen taking a break from Lobster fishing to work in the quarries. In the spare moments from work at the quarries, in a sheltered spot warmed by the winter sun, or in front of the fire, the pot making would begin. Traditionally it was the men that made the pots, however the wives, with their nimble fingers, would make the more delicately woven and smaller shrimp pots.
Each family had its own distinctive construction style. Making any basket pulled out of the sea recognisable and traceable to the fisherman that owned it. Much like an Aran sweater from the west of Ireland.
The basic material used to build a pot are withies. These come from a species of Willow grown for this purpose; cultivated in beds, usually by a pond or river and cut at a specific time of year. January till March are when the withies are at their most flexible and strongest; just right for bending and weaving without cracking.
Traditionally on boxing day the withy beds were visited and the fresh pliable withies cut from the “Mock” or stump of the willow tree and bundled in size order. The stronger chunkier ones called “Ribs” for the vertical structure with the thiner “Tails” wispy and easily woven around them. All an amazing array of tones from yellow to shiny orange to burnt umber: a delight of warm colour in the washed out tones of winter.
The technique of construction
The pot starts with the forming of the mouth: Into a circular timber disc, with a string in the centre, twelve ribs, are firmly inserted into pre-drilled holes. These are over a meter long and 8mm in thickness. Two of the longest tail withies are woven between these and before ending two more are added in, thus keeping two tails going throughout the entire weaving of the pot.
Once 75mm of weave depth is achieved four tails are pushed down towards the timber disc and pulled under and up to strengthen the mouth. The neck continues its weave till about 150mm tall.
The pot is then turned upside down, the ribs splaying backwards to be gathered up and tied above by the string, forming a splendid globe shape.
The weaving continues apace, now working with three thin withies together. These plait naturally as they snake around the ribs, spiralling slowly upwards and forming the pot. Strong supple hands are needed, as the pulling taught of the withies is essential in achieving an evenly round basket. Regular tapping down on the plait with a timber rod as the withies go round ensures a strong firm pot.
The base is the trickiest bit and by now unaccustomed hands are red and sore. This is the part of the pot that sits on the seabed and gets worn by the constant swell of tides.
Originally a stronger “Green” withy was used for the base but these are no longer around, so a combination of long and short ribs are used instead. These are added to the tails in order and passed under the plaited bundles of three. Again and again, around and around, until a coiled matt is formed.
As the coil gets tighter towards the centre, two of the bundles are left out and plaited concurrently. These plaited tongues must extend beyond the side of the pot by over a hands width. Meanwhile the coil continues inwards to almost close. The plaits are then pulled through into the pot and across its base to tuck into the double bonding of the outer frame. The entire pot now has all the wispy ends trimmed off with the snips, making it neat and tidy. Finally the mouth is strengthened with twine right around.
Pots are baited by pushing through a thick pointed withy from the outside. With one hand inside the basket a small fish is skewered on to it and the withy continues inward to get embedded in the central column of the mouth. These lures continue to be added every three inches or so, until a full circle is complete. The pot is then weighted down with rocks, lowered to the seabed and marked with a float above.
Dorset lobsters are particularly sweet and tender due to the fairly unpolluted sea within Dorset’s marine reserves. Being indeterminate growers lobsters can grow to the size of a large dog if they’re not lured into a pot first and then another pot!
In the lead up to my sisters 60th birthday she cycled sixty, 60 mile cycles. “Why don’t you do something that involves 60?” she suggested to me almost a year ago. I replied that I’d enjoy eating sixty cakes or, even better, drinking sixty wines that cost over sixty pounds. Not impressed by either of those ideas she suggested I did sixty drawings of something and that’s where 60 fish began.
In the little movie (link attached below) you’ll see not only fish that form part of my life’s fond memories but also fish that are in peril within the seas; some soon to be snuffed out for good.
In making this little movie I’ve revisited my memories of the joy and wonderment these creatures have given me which I’d like to share with you.
Below is a little background to the inspiration of this piece.
I’ve always been involved with fish. As a tiny child, eating grilled flying fish and squirming at the Idea of creole fish eye soup, watching as an eye got spooned out and sucked with gusto. At five I fished with a stick, natural cord and worms in the swamps of Trinidad for baby Tarpon while the adults scooped up brightly coloured guppies with their fish nets. I’ve fished for Barracuda with hand lines and used spinners to catch stippled Brown trout in brackish water from a small wooden row boat; the spinner setting a minuscule, almost electronic, vibration on the line between my fingers as I waited for that sudden tug and the beauty of a stippled Brown trout, shiny and perfect appearing out of the dark water.
From Java to Oman, Parrot fish, Clown fish and Box fish have mesmerised me. Diving to get a closer view and pushing my lungs to the limit. I’ve wandered the fish markets of Northern Brazil and Kuwait and marvelled at the species on display from Tamuata to Zubaidi. I’ve eaten the earthy tasting Pirarucu with rice for days on end on the hammock boat to Manaus. Leaning over the rails watching in wonder as these prehistoric creatures with huge scales were hauled overboard. Most delicious of all was the “Hamoor” (Orange spotted grouper), grilled Egyptian style and eaten with my fingers in Muscat.
Fish have taught me many things. The little Clown fish couple, I visited every morning on their nest off Menjangan, taught me to have courage as they fronted up to me when I got too close. The Sticklebacks, in a derelict freshwater swimming pool within a quiet wood in Wicklow taught me patience, as I would lye on my tummy squinting through the waters surface. Watching Brown trout rise for flies, in the shadow of tall mountains, with just the sound of the dipping ors, clunk of rowlock and the gentle sway of the Lochs’ willows, taught me to enjoy quietude.
Now many fish are on the edge of extinction. I wanted to include some of these among my 60 fish. The blue fin tuna and the New Zealand tooth-fish along with the terrible by catch fatalities its fishing incurs.
Today I drift over a mirror calm surface in Kimmeridge bay. Looking down on forests of multi coloured seaweed . I could be flying over the amazon. Its beautiful, but there’s not a fish in sight.
Earlier this year I snorkelled across this bay and saw less than half a dozen fish. My old neighbour told me of fishing for Mackerel in the 1970s; in less than half an hour they had more than seventy five of them. No such catch has been recorded by her since. Kimmeridge bay is a marine reserve, so how could this be? I’d expect it to be full of fish. Our seas are almost empty: we’ve eaten and squandered the fish.
Many thanks to Suzy Mcallister for all her help in the post production of the “60 Fish” video
Recommended background reading on the state of our Oceans and Rivers: “Ocean of Life” by Callum Roberts
When Marsha sent me the info on her new workshop “Threaded Heart”, co-produced with Dancer, Giselle Liu, I was lukewarm about it. I wrongly assumed it was in the genre of “Spiritual” which generally makes me uncomfortable. However it was a generous invitation to join the group and incorporated drawing and getting dirty; two of my favourite pastimes.
On the day, and late, I made my way up three, grubby, concrete flights in the Arts Club,W1. Passing eager young actors on their way to rehearsals I eventually opened the narrow swing door into “The Pigeon loft”, a bright timber-clad studio with peeling paint. Despite the overcast sky, through the glass roof a comforting soft light came, falling on a group of youthful lithe figures: mainly dancers. If I was feeling slightly apprehensive before, now I was feeling insufficient physically too; but it was too late to flee.
After an introduction and short relaxation session, to wipe away jitters and travel stress, came the first exercise. While we sat cross-legged with eyes closed, Marsha distributed sticks of Charcoal and 10 sheets of A4 paper to all. We listened for an emotion to be called out to which we instinctively reacted, marking the paper. Emotions from anger to fear came tumbling out, duly expressed in charcoal. This turned out a remarkable sequence and when all were laid out on the floor, was impressive.
We were then asked to pick out the two that caught our immediate attention, “jumped out at you”. Not knowing what these signified till turned over, there were some interesting results. I happened to pick out joy and grief.
In the next exercise things became more physical. Each picked a handful of charcoal, in assorted shapes and sizes. The floor, laid out with huge sheets of joined cartridge paper, became a vast dance canvas. Armed with our charcoal and a music score ranging from warlike to melancholy, we set off in unison on our unique emotional choreographies.
The dancers moved their bodies sinuously into alternating poses of torture and despair, morphing into sensuous erotic movements with strong, black, vigorous marks appearing on the canvass. I watched one dancers’ tight ball of utter sorrow unfold into a rolling wave, creating a pale misty cloud in charcoal. An uplift in melody allowed her body to press tightly along the floor and a delicious cool grey curve appeared. All the while, I pranced about with my charcoal in generally discordant jerky movements, more intent on branding the paper with strange and varied smudges, lines and blotches.
As the music progressed and I noted a feeling of calm and general wellbeing fold over me, broad dark curves and spidery squiggles began to appear. I struck and stroked the floor with varying intensity while the music changed in tempo. This was grand, I’d stopped peeking at the dancers and was thoroughly enjoying myself.
When all good things came to an end, we were left with a canvas of gigantic proportions from which the energy rose like hot air off tarmac. Blackened head to foot and chatting gaily we tidied up and “wet-wiped’ ourselves fit for London transport. Strangely I was the only one who ripped off my corner of the floor to keep: Now, for the time being, hanging on my kitchen wall.
A very good workshop indeed and a very pleasing result. I hope many more workshops grow and evolve out of this one. Thank you Marsha and Giselle with all my threaded heart.