On a damp but bright January morning we visited the workshop of Alistair Phillips amidst the South Oxfordshire Chiltern Hills. Here Alistair practices wood-turning, producing mostly simple and functional tableware, green wood working, as well as running courses teaching coracle making, which he also builds. Coracles are a kind of lightweight circular boat traditionally used on rivers, for both transport and fishing, their advantage being a shallow draft and the ease with which they are carried. In the past they would be made from woven willow and hazel, or else sawn ash lath, covered in stretched animal skins or tarred cloth - different traditions of manufacture as well as of design being specific to different regions and rivers. Alistair, a keen coracle paddler as well as maker, has developed his own version made using a PVC coated canvas, which allows him to ride out small rapids, bump, and abuse his boat without it too easily springing a leak.
The son of the warden of a local nature reserve, Alistair grew up surrounded by woodland, splitting logs for the fire as soon as he was old enough to hold an axe, which lead him naturally to a very direct understanding of the different qualities of the timber he came across, and ultimately into his current profession.
Using many types of local indigenous hardwoods and depending on what is available (hornbeam, cherry, apple, sycamore, ash), Alistair turns bowls, plates, and platters, following the contours of the wood-grain to produce a unique piece each time.
Beginning with rough sawn cylinders of wood, each bowl is carefully shaped, before being sanded twice to a 'utilitarian' finish - Alistair remains keen that his bowls and plates are affordable items for intended for daily use. The bowls are then (vegetable) oiled and ready to go. They will certainly change colour with washing and use, but dried properly and occasionally re-oiled they should last for very many years.
Inside his house Alistair showed us some chairs he had made using strips of the inner bark of lime trees to weave a surprisingly strong and comfortable seat. In his kitchen his own turned plates and bowls are used exclusively. We've been using them ourselves at home for well over a year, and in many ways they have become our standard tableware. The smaller dishes are great for a baked potato or a rice dish or stew for children, and we use them a lot when camping or eating outdoors - rather like a kuksa they are light, break resistant, and insulating.