Sam Prentice’s workshop is crammed with furniture. It’s always this way when I visit. Sam is self conscious about it, ‘You can’t photograph here, it’s too messy’ he protests. Over the years I’ve come to understand that any upholsterer that isn’t busy isn’t very good. Once people find a good upholsterer, commissions for small footstools quickly progress into a set of dining chairs, a sofa or two; as one job gets finished and delivered, another is picked up ‘I am never short of work but trying to make a plan or manage it, well that’s more difficult.’
Sam set up Hartpury Upholstery in 2005 when he and his wife, who had family ties with the area, decided that Gloucestershire was a good place to bring up a family. ‘I couldn’t do this in London, the overheads would make it impossible. You do need a bit of space’ and getting started with his own workshop? ‘Around here it’s all word of mouth, you do a bad job and everyone knows about it – but that’s been really good for me, because it works the other way too’
Being a one man band Sam has to cover every aspect of his business; part of the week will be spent heaving furniture in and out of the van either when collecting furniture to be reupholstered or delivering finished pieces ‘My friends joke ‘how’s the stitching?’ but, when they’ve lent a hand delivering, they realize it’s a bit more physical than that’.
Every job is different; the age and condition of the piece will dictate what is done, the materials used and how the work is done. The day starts at 8.30am and finishes around 6.30pm ‘If I’ve nearly finished something I will carry on until it’s done if I can, family permitting. I like to start the day with something new.’ Of course there’s the inevitable paperwork; invoicing and ordering supplies to keep on top of, as well as being a sales person. ‘I’m a tradesman, not a salesman. It’s not me. Some of the people I’ve worked for were quite ruthless about it and I’ve wondered if I shouldn’t take some of that, but it’s just not my nature.’ Sam reflects.
So why upholstery? ‘It’s in the blood, my Dad and Uncle were both upholsterers, I did my apprenticeship with them and then worked with them. Seven years in total; they worked for a chain of hotels in London doing restoration and new furniture’. It was 1982 when Sam began his apprenticeship as a 16 year old school leaver. ‘The country was in recession, it’s felt a little like that ever since’. Sam’s Dad had been in the trade all his life. ‘At weekends he would have projects going at home. One of my earliest memories is the sound of the treadle on his sewing machine going in our front room.’ Being trained in the era of piece work and very exacting standards Sam’s Dad & Uncle kept a close eye on the apprentices. ‘I am so glad I had that time with them, the stories they had, working with my Dad I had seven quality years with him’.
Sam’s father’s union cards
After the hotel chain Sam went to work for small independent shop in Islington that offered a re-upholstery service, with a wide variety of furniture coming through the door it gave him a chance to increase his knowledge and suited him in other ways. ‘I’m an Arsenal supporter, so I could get to all the midweek home matches.’ Five years later, ‘We were in recession proper and that business went under,’explains Sam, whose move to work with an interior design business and later for an antique dealer showed him another world with a high end clientele and where qualities like longevity were not so important. ‘It was a real eye-opener: it was all about the look of it.’
When I ask how things have changed in the trade over his working life it becomes clear that things have gone full circle. ‘Customers today say to me,‘I want this to see me out.’ Excellent workmanship and good quality cloths, with an emphasis on value and long life, are once again the order of the day. I asked Sam whether he still liked his work, whether he’d change direction, “I didn’t realise what I was missing until I set up my own workshop. It’s very rewarding to see my customer’s reactions to the finished pieces. I think if you don’t enjoy it, it reflects in your work. You’ve got to have job satisfaction”.
Sam Prentice www.hartpuryupholstery.co.uk Tel:01452 700 004
Sitting in the Velvet Bean’s chocolate kitchen, beside the shop in Church Street, Ledbury, was a deep breathing moment for me. Paddles slowly turning the gently warming chocolate in three “bain mairies” that look like they mean business immediately attract my attention . Ben Boyle, Ledbury’s chocolatier, offers me a seat.
Tempering Chocolate at The Velvet Bean
This is not Ben’s first career, he spent many years teaching horticulture and worked as a landscape gardener and taught horticulture in colleges across the South of England. Ten years ago Ben and his wife, Mel moved to Herefordshire. “We looked around the area and agreed it was a settling down sort of a place”, explains Ben; at the same time the couple looked for a career that would allow them to work from home and combine looking after their young family.
Chocolatier, Ben Boyle with his wife, Melanie.
“I’d always loved cooking, my Mum got me going. There seemed to be a gap in the market for independent chocolate-makers and the process gave me scope to be creative. I am an optimist at heart so I just launched in and taught myself. It was a slow start, working from home and selling at farmers’ markets”.
The naked chocs – waiting to have their chocolate coats.
Ben’s day length varies, the year being punctuated by regular chocolate-friendly occasions – Christmas, Valentine’s Day and, of course, Easter which can extend his normal 9-5pm day to midnight or beyond. The first thing he does each morning is to temper the chocolate which has been very slowly heating in the paddled bowls from early morning, thanks to automatic timers. Tempering is a process in which chocolate, in this case Belgian couverture chocolate with high cocoa butter and cocoa solids, is heated and cooled in a specific way. One of the properties of couverture is its polymorphous crystallization; tempering stabilises five different types of fat crystal by heating to 45 degrees centigrade, followed by careful cooling to 28 degrees and then heating again to the working temperature of 35 degrees. The process prevents “bloom” and allows the chocolate to work well with moulds and as a “robe” to Ben’s truffles and a variety of his original fillings.
Church St entrance to the chocolate shop
“I’m not computer-minded, I enjoy the chance to experiment and play with new ideas. I’m very happy running the shop – people come, buy and then call for one-offs or something particular. I think its good to have a High Street with artisan products – a more independent High Street. I’d like to see more makers here. When you make what you sell the future is yours, you are in control” says Ben. One of the creative parts of making cased chocolates is to formulate unusual recipes: rum and plum, vodka and orange, grappe, champagne, peanut butter and masses more, changing all the time. A novelty millennium falcon alongside a very decorative stiletto shoe also caught my eye.
Milk chocolates here with freehand piping so that the shop staff can identify them.
Talking of future, Ben and Mel have exciting plans to move up the road to number 33 The Homend – still on the “High Street” but into their own premises, formerly known as “The Cartoonery”. The new shop which will open after Christmas 2014, will allow them more scope to, for example, run chocolate-making day courses.
The New Velvet Bean (to the left of the apothecary shop) will open in January 2015.
Just as we finished talking, I asked whether the Chocolatier was keen to nibble a choccy or two of an evening or whether working with it all day long put him off. “Why wouldn’t I? A good strong 96% chocolate without too much sugar, full of anti-oxidants, good for seritonin levels and coupled with a nice bottle of wine”, Ben says with some relish.
Portion Control? Long and thin or short and stout, all the chocolates are very generous portions.
After taking a few close-up photographs of The Velvet Bean’s selection, I could stand it no longer and packed little collection to take back to Tinsmiths, convincing myself that the rum and plum filling counted as one of my five a day – needless to say they didn’t last until evening.
I really wouldn’t mind staying on to clean up the surfaces……
“I’m a compositor” Martin Clark explains, “but not many people will know what that is these days, so you’d better use the term ‘letterpress printer'”. Martin has worked at Tilley Printing for over fifty years, from the age of fifteen when he started as apprentice, to compositor, to printer and now, fifty years on, as proprietor. Composing type as we speak, his unusually long fingernails working the tiny metal letters that make up words for print; address cards, business stationery, album covers, printed bags, poetry posters or artist’s books.
Tilley’s and Martin begin the day at 7.30am with ink at the presses, composing type is customarily done in the afternoon. For standard-sized jobs a Heidelberg press (circa 1970 and the size of a small washing machine) is used and a much earlier Wharfdale press for large works eg., land posters. The Wharfdale is the size of a very, very large dining table and runs from an electric motor using 5″ canvas drive belts that span the room. Considerable power is needed to move cast iron flat bed of the press which holds the chase or a heavy frame into which are locked wooden or metal letters.
Martin Clark at Tilley’s printing poetry posters on the Wharfdale Press
When the presses are running there is a kind of percussive rhythm to the place; the sound of belts, rollers and paper-feeds all combine so that the place seems to breath. Added to this are the smells of dust, ink and parrafin but most memorable is the sight of the place – banks of letters of all sizes, with styles so singular, original engravings, illustrations and ornaments – some polished with use, some languishing in a corner waiting for re-discovery.
Tilley type ready for the press
A tray of engravings.
The print works, to a degree, tells the story of the town – just see how many engravings are connected with, for example, hop growing or agricultural machinery, cider making, soft fruit or local societies and clubs. Tilley’s working day is punctuated by a fairly constant flow of visitors – some simply to see the works which have barely changed in more than fifty years, others come to collect or order printing. Most are known personally or come on recommendation via a regular customer. The day usually ends around 6pm, five days a week – so a normal week is over 50 hours. I’ve been visiting Tilley’s for over six years, but I knew, as most Ledbury folk know, of the print works because of “Tilley’s Almanac”. This local directory was produced by the press from 1878 to 1993, it was to be found, well thumbed in most households and businesses – a local bible. When Martin began his apprenticeship in 1963 there were four letterpress printing works in the town. Now Tilley’s, the only one left, finds its rarity a great advantage. ” Letterpress is sought after – as artwork with the obvious use of archaic type”, explains Martin, whose workload is peppered with ‘arty-stuff’ nowadays as well as formal stationery for business and domestic use.
Large Type used on Tinsmiths’ Calendar 2013
Large type on wharfdale, printed example
Martin’s decision to train as a printer wasn’t exactly his first choice, ” I’d spent my childhood doing odd jobs on the farms around Ledbury – fruit-picking, pruning; I suppose I was romantic for those misty autumn days and thought I’d go farming but my Mum stopped me going on the farm, she could see how things were going – its all changed”. Miss Tilley inherited the works from her family who ran a number of enterprises in Ledbury from the middle of the 19th century. She always had an apprentice – someone who would spend five years indentured to the firm before moving on as a journeyman.
Compositor’s Room with draws and shelves of type.
Martin’s older brother, Phillip, worked for her and it was natural that Martin was familiar with the business. “When I was fourteen she said to me “You finish (school) early and come and work for me as apprentice compositor”, explains Martin who considered it a good offer; compositor was a step-up in terms of the fairly rigid hierachy of roles in the printing industry. Martin’s father signed the indenture and that was it. Cruelly, at the outset an apprentice was to “set” – that is place every letter, space, punctuation mark into a “form” be they psalms, or The Lord’s Prayer or any lengthy piece with tricky spellings, only to see it disassembled day after day until it was perfect.
The Heidelberg Press
” I’m no business man, I worked as a journeyman printer for six months or so after my apprenticeship was complete. I went to large newspaper printworks in Keswick, another in Stratford and a book publishing house in Oxford, but I liked the scale of Tilleys – I knew that although I was trained as a compositor, at Tilleys I’d have the chance to work in all the areas”, explains Martin, who could not have imagined quite how true this would become when, in 1983, he took over the works with just two printers and an apprentice and later worked on his own until the arrival of his current apprentice in 2012. When I asked Martin whether he plans for the future he smiled uncertainly, and looking over at his apprentice, Anneleise Appleby, said, “She’s the future, if you call that planning, in the sense that she will become a printer – all I can do is to do my best to train her.” Just as Martin, the returning journeyman printer, brought the innovation of machine-set type (linotype) to Tilleys, Anneleise adds her original artwork in the form of lino-cuts, to the repertoire of print processes that Tilley Printing can offer, setting it even further from apart commercial litho or digital printers.
Carved Wooden Printing Blocks
The invention of desktop printing undoubtedly had an enormous impact on traditional letterpress and hot-type printers, most either embraced the innovations or went to the wall. Tilley’s appears to have weathered the storm to take up a niche position. How did it survive? I believe partly due to the scale of the place, partly because staff had looked after the equipment, partly its position in a small market town with many loyal, local customers requiring shorter runs than commercial printers would entertain, but mainly because it is run by someone who has modest aspirations and who loves his work.
Poster by Tilleys, words by Beatrice Warde
Bangers that go off in the sky early in November are best accompanied by bangers that warm the onlooker. Guy Fawkes night and a hot dog, just like a horse and carriage.
Dave Waller is one of the counties most recogniseable butchers and I visited him on the 36th anniversary of his business in the Homend, Ledbury to ask him why and how he became a butcher and what he liked the most about his work. “I like the people – I’m not the best butcher in the world”, he said showing me evidence of a variety of mishaps, now well healed. “In my class at school the choice was limited – something practical for the “unteachables”, he said with a wry smile, ” there was the “special” curriculum for us”. In fact, Dave’s teacher, provided practical, confidence-building experiences and became a life-long friend. Testament to his influence is the fact that many of Dave’s classmates have become influential employers of scores of people.
“It wasn’t an easy choice”, he explains. “A six day week, starting at 6am each day: all my mates were rock and rolling; I, on the other hand, needed matchsticks to keep my eyes open by Saturday night”. He was an errand boy at 12yrs old, then an apprentice and simply progressed slowly to build a honest shop, “It is important to me that the business is sound – for the boys – and so that I can sleep at night. I’ve made it my business to provide good meat. Quality, choice and value is our philosophy.”
I love to witness, on Christmas Eve morning and high days and holidays, the queue at Waller’s door. Steaming trays of mulled wine at Christmas offered to those who may wait 40 minutes or more, a truly seasonal sight.
“The queue is a community in itself – everyone is talking. I am very proud of my customers, people from all walks of life meet and begin to get to know one another.” There is always banter, always jokes and bonhomie every time I have stopped in at the shop. All Dave’s staff have an ease about them “You can’t buy it, its a gift.” Dave explains.
It isn’t really a surprise to find that Dave was suggested by Ledbury residents as one of the most prominent figures of the High Street and as such, a good subject for Phillip Wells, Poet in Residence for the Poetry Festival this year, to think and write about. Here is the poem which is one a series written in response to local figures.
Wallers the Butcher
Across the road, the taste and spice of community
Butcher’s flavours of astonishing variety!
Munsley Mystery. Leadon Leek. The Tarrington Tom.
Bosbury Banger. Eastnor Royale – butchers love a song.
“The Hairy Bikers came here: you know how they felt?
As soon as they see the beef – they melt.”
Pistachio and garlic; asparagus and pork In the Queen’s hamper;
tongues are for taste, not talk. David T. Waller: cue cigar and G ‘n’ T,
Dreams in the mountains in view of the sea
Of apple sage and onion bangers, forty foot long –
Let’s keep our English High Streets friendly and strong.
Lifelong friends begin in the warmth of these queues:
It’s a gathering-together-thing this world could use.
Anyway, back to Bangers. Waller’s Winners have a huge number of awards to their names. Thirty varieties? Is this possibly one or two too many? When I asked Dave to suggest the best, he didn’t hesitate to reach for a handful of straightforward pork sausages which will hit the pan tonight, but there may definitely be a day for a Pork LSD – Ledbury’s Stick of Dynamite on a cold night rapidly approaching.
Waller’s have been known to serve the great, the good and celebrated. However, Dave is certain that “the most important person to me – every year, all year round – is “Mrs Jones and her half pound of mince”. David Waller, 1st November 2013
It looks like being a bumper year for orchard fruits. My conference pears could hang for a few more days before picking but the sight of them spurred me on yesterday to cook a favorite pear recipe, so simple and yet really stunning visually and to one’s taste buds.
Pears in Red Wine
I’m not going to be terribly exact (as in previous efforts) with this recipe because it really depends on lots of variables – like the size of your saucepan, in particular. Just make sure that you have:
- 10-12 conference pears
- a bottle of red wine
- a carton or bottle of apple juice
- some sugar
- cinnamon stick/bark, cloves and/or star anise (or your chosen mulling spices)
Mix half a pint of wine with same of apple juice, add 3-4oz sugar to a pan (25cm-30cm diameter). Put in 6-8 cloves, a stick of cinammon or anise.
Peel the pears leaving the stalks on and cut a flat base for them to stand upright in the pan. Using a potato peeler longitudinally gives very attractive “facets” to the surface – if, like me you can get a little intense about such matters! Add them to the pan – check that there is nothing under each pear (like a clove) and make a tight pack for best chance of keeping pears upright. The wine mixture should come half to two thirds up the pears. I would start with half a pint of apple juice and half a pint of wine. If this isn’t enough, just add a little more of each once the pears are standing in place.
Simmer gently (rapid boil will overturn at least some fruit and spoil the effect of the colouring) until the pears are tender. Remove fruit and strain liquid. Continue to reduce the liquor until it is just thick enough to coat fruit – or further to a thick syrup if you prefer.
Serve with cream and supply tools – dessert knife, fork and spoon for complete consumption…… I try to make a double batch to have some cold next day.
Now, what would you drink with a meal rounded off with such a dessert? Our friend, James Marston, popped in to say he is just picking his perry pears for the 2014 vintage of Greggs Pit perrys. Some of these will be used to produce his effervescent perry which is bottle using the Normandy method (so a second fermentation in the bottle, as in champagne, completes the process) which is truly delicious.
There will be all sorts of orchard and mill events on farms and small holdings surrounding the Marcle Ridge during the Big Apple harvest celebrations 12/13 October. Look out for James’ open orchard event. There is an opportunity to join in with the Big Apple tour on two wheels, cycling and stopping at regular intervals for tastings on Sunday. A great family event – take a whole day, there is so much to see.
Damsons have been part of the Herefordshire landscape for centuries and are common in Cumbria, Shropshire and Herefordshire. Their uses are various and include use as a boundary hedging plant, for dye-stuff and for culinary uses. Daiv Sizer has written a quite overwhelmingly comprehensive guide to Damsons that is well worth looking at if you are thinking of planting or using Damsons in any way, shape or form.
It is thought that in Herefordshire and the Forest of Dean squatters and free miners planted Damsons as boundaries on common land. Between the first and second world wars Damson orchards flourished and increased in number – partly because damson was used to dye wool, leather and cotton military uniforms and kit. The culinary uses are boundless, so I’ve just picked a perennial recipe in our household, Damson Vodka, now anticipated by family members at Christmas.
Ok, I know that vodka featured in our last calendar post about potatoes (!) but there really is no better use for these lovely fruits of the hedgerow that to give a fantastic flavour to vodka.
Recipe and Method for Damson Vodka
In a litre bottle (with a neck wide enough for damsons to fit) , half fill with 500ml of vodka, add 150g of sugar (although this is a matter of taste – if you have a sweet tooth then add 200g or less if you are not so keen on a liqueur-type beverage). Wash, remove stalks and prick each damson 2 or 3 times with a pin before dropping as many fruits as as will fit into the bottle.
Agitate until the sugar is dissolved and then daily for a fortnight. The colour and flavour will speedily transfer in to the vodka. Drain and bottle for use. Great with cheese (also worth making, damson cheese) or after dinner drink.
N.B. Far from suggesting that you increase your vodka intake, I multiply the above to fill 3 demi johns (3.78ltrs) each autumn and bottle the liquer in nice stoppered bottles or hip-flasks ready to go under the Christmas tree.
The only problem, that I am yet to solve, is what to do with the vodka soaked fruit. It seems such a shame to throw these away. I have tried making damson vodka ice cream but the alcohol content makes it tricky to get the ice cream to freeze. Any suggestions?