Touch Wood: An Interview with Simon Webb

George Bernard Shaw is said to have written that England and America are two countries separated by a common language, and there is perhaps more than a kernel of truth in this statement. Some are obvious: in August I wrote about how American buttermilk biscuits are nothing like British biscuits. The latter tend to be more hard cookies, perfect for dipping in tea; the former are a delicious, melt-in-your-mouth breakfast food or side dish.

In the UK, you don’t talk about your pants in public (“trousers” is the word you’re looking for), and I recently confused my wonderful local refill shop by requesting my bottle be refilled with “dish soap”, rather than the proper British “washing up liquid”. Beyond basic vocabulary, even common sayings aren’t immune from the transition from one side of the Atlantic to the other.

In American English, the superstitious way of averting potential bad luck after saying something positive is to add “knock on wood”, followed by a rap on the nearest wooden object (or one’s head in the absence of said wooden object). In British English, the phrase is “touch wood”. Despite the difference, the reasoning behind both is the same: it’s supposed to avoid tempting fate, in the same way that some cultures perform rituals to avert the evil eye.

The origin of this practice is lost in the mists of time. Some sources attribute it to a pagan belief in spirits who inhabit trees, with knocking on wood distracting them from what was said and preventing good fortune changing to bad. Others say it was a way to call upon the various tree spirits for protection. A few claim it relates to Christianity and the wooden cross used in the crucifixion.  And then there’s the folklorist who insists it originates with a tag game called Tiggy Touchwood from the 19th century.

Regardless of its source, this is a phrase I’ve found myself thinking about over the last few months as I’ve watched the Bath Artisan Market adapt to the pandemic, with artists and creators sharing their wares through Facebook. A number of beautiful items popped up in my newsfeed, but the pieces that really caught my eye were those made from an amazing variety of woods: cufflinks created from 5,000 year-old bog oak, pens produced from a Pink Floyd drumstick, and even products made from the apple tree that grows at Sir Isaac Newton’s homestead, said to have inspired his theory of gravity.

Pen made by Simon Webb from the apple tree at Sir Isaac Newton's homestead of Woolthorpe, Lincolnshire.

I’ve always found wooden products to be incredibly tactile, from the smoothness of a turned bowl to the ripple of wood grain on a picture frame or mirror. I was itching to reach through the screen to investigate the feel of these pieces that were parading before me. Since that wasn’t possible, I did the next best thing and reached out to artisan Simon Webb to have a chat via Zoom to find out more about his incredible creations.

As I discovered throughout the course of our lovely, meandering conversation, Simon is someone who has long been in touch with wood. He has worked with it since he was a child, creating models with his father. Despite a 30-year career in IT, he told me, “When I started the business, I sort of thought back and I actually knew I was always going to end up doing something like this.”

What “this” is is making handcrafted items from a mixture of historic woods, bespoke woods, and all-around beautiful woods, with a bit of metalworking thrown in. The size of his workshop has influenced his creations: although too small for building furniture, it is perfect for pens, pencils, pendants, and cufflinks.

In turn, it’s the size of these items that makes it possible for him to work with the historic wood that had originally caught my eye on Facebook. Admittedly, we don’t tend to think about wood as being historic: ask someone to think of a well-known structure and it is likely stone that will get all the attention, whether it’s the limestone and granite blocks of the pyramids, the marble of the Colosseum, or, closer to home, Sir Christopher’s Wren design for St. Paul’s Cathedral or the Neolithic ring of Stonehenge itself.

But wood has long been a construction material, whether serving as the visible skeleton in timber-framed buildings or hidden beneath the surface with render or cladding. Ships are perhaps one of the best examples of wooden history in action, especially in a maritime nation like the UK. From Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, to the Victorian clipper ship the Cutty Sark, the country’s former naval and trading supremacy was literally built on the back of trees.

The important archaeological dating tool of dendrochronology has its origin in one of the most distinctive features of tree growth, the ability of trees to record their lives by laying down rings of different widths. Each ring corresponds to a year, and the widths correspond to the climate in which it grew: wider rings indicate a lot of growth and adequate moisture, narrow rings drought or poor weather. Over time, this builds up a pattern. Because trees in a particular region exhibit similar patterns, it has been possible to develop records that stretch back thousands of years. This allows wooden structures and artefacts, and their associated material, to be precisely dated.

Indeed, as a former archaeologist, I feel I found a kindred spirit in Simon. Based on my own research, I know that it’s not the artefacts themselves that fascinate people. Whether it’s a piece of wood or stone or pottery, it’s not until a story is attached to it—what was it used for? who used it? how is it similar or different to what we use today?—that the past comes to life … and Simon really knows how to tell a story!

Take, for example, his desire to make a pen to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Great Western Railway. This railway line linked London to the southwest of England and was designed by great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The main railway works for the GWR—where locomotives and other parts were built—was based in Swindon, a heritage that is celebrated today at the STEAM Museum.

Simon asked a friend involved in the museum to keep an ear out if any wood related to the railway works became available. A few weeks later he received a call that they might have found just what he was looking for in an area where new houses were being constructed. Huge timbers had been uncovered that were determined to be jarrah wood from Australia, which former GWR employees confirmed had been used at the railway works; in this case, it is thought they were part of an anti-vibratory system for hundred-tonne presses.

It seemed like job done, but a little later he received another call from museum volunteer Jack Hayward, who said, “Simon, I’ve been doing some research into where we found that wood. You might want to come in and have a look at this.”

Simon arranged to meet Jack at the STEAM Museum, and a map from 1880 was brought up on the library’s computer screen. Jack said, “Right there is where we found your wood. It’s called the Platelayer’s Yard.” He then pointed to the same place and said, “Your father’s desk was there.”

Simon’s father and Jack had worked next door to each other at the railway works for several years. Simon finished by saying, “My father worked in the Swindon works all his life. So where they found that bit of wood was where my dad worked.”

Over the years Simon has been fortunate to have friends in just the right place, at just the right time to secure fascinating pieces of wood. For example, he also told of how he asked for wood during the renovation of Bath Abbey and was offered a pew designed by George Gilbert Scott, a leading Victorian architect who helped popularise the English Gothic revival style (and whose grandson, Giles, designed Britain’s iconic red telephone boxes). George was responsible for designing or renovating over 800 buildings, so it is no surprise that he had a hand in the 19th century restoration of Bath Abbey.

But what to do with a pew? Simon recounts how he had to turn down the offer: “They were beautiful. I said I couldn’t chop one of those up. I just couldn’t do it. But the platform they were on was made of great big oak timbers, the same oak as the pews. So I said ‘What’s happening to those?’”

They responded, “We’re just going to throw them away.”

So Simon asked, “‘Can you throw them in my direction, please?’ So they did. They let me have all this this beautiful timber from the Abbey.”

Pen made from the Jabberwocky tree by Simon Webb.
Cufflinks from the Jabberwocky tree made by Simon Webb.

Other pieces have literary connections, like the Jabberwocky tree in Christ Church College at Oxford University. This Japanese plane or pococke tree is reputed to have inspired mathematics lecturer Charles Dodgson—better known by the pen name of Lewis Carroll—to write the poem the ‘Jabberwocky’. Looking at photos of the tree’s hunched and twisted form and it is easy to imagine the jaws that bite, the claws that catch.

And what about that famous apple tree? Simon describes this as his Holy Grail of woodworking. It was a friend working for the National Trust who tipped him off that the tree was still growing at Newton’s home of Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire … and that it was trimmed annually for maintenance. These cuttings have allowed him to produce a range of products—pens, cufflinks, jewellery, tie pins—from what is perhaps the best known tree in the history of physics.

Indeed, much of British history is reflected somewhere in his workshop. There’s wood from St. Paul’s Cathedral and Nelson’s HMS Victory. Centuries-old timbers that once graced a Welsh barn and a Bath pub. The propeller from Tiger Moth airplane and wood from Windsor Castle. Using staves from whiskey barrels is another one of his resources, and, as he cuts into the wood, it releases the scent of the whiskey that once filled the barrel.

“The fumes are just absolutely fantastic. I shouldn’t be operating machinery at that point,” he joked. Although a great gift for whiskey drinkers, the scent is gone by the time he has lacquered it to produce a smooth pen.

Some pieces are even more personal. He has taken the tools left behind when someone dies and transformed the wooden handles into pens or pendants that can be used by loved ones on a daily basis, turning them into family heirlooms in the process. For celebrations, he tries to find wood connected to the place or the event. For his own stepson’s wedding in the Cotswolds, he was able to get wood from Batsford Arboretum and produce cufflinks and pens as gifts for the groomsmen.

We spoke a little about his “other” hat, that of being one of the founders and curators of the Museum of Computing in Swindon. This may seem a world apart from the natural, handmade creations he now makes, but I could see how the quest for preserving the stories behind the artefacts is a thread running throughout both of his lives.

From floppy disks to flash drives, the artefacts of modern technology have not only evolved rapidly, they also tend to be seen as mass produced and therefore little valued. Simon and his co-founder could see the history of IT disappearing, so fifteen years ago the Museum of Computing was established to showcase this part of our modern heritage. The museum has successfully made a place for itself in the landscape of Swindon, serving both to educate the next generation about past technology and delivering a healthy dose of nostalgia for those who grew up with it: “What amazes me is the emotional response you get from people. They see these cabinets full of 1980s computers, and you see grown men go misty eyed.”

As our conversation neared an end, Simon mentioned that his ultimate goal was to create watches by hand, taking the techniques he’s honed over the years to create cases from interesting materials. I certainly couldn’t imagine a better future for someone who has shown a knack for keeping in touch with, and preserving, the stories of the past and present than capturing time itself.

[ I would like to express my most sincere thanks to Simon for his time, his stories, and his photographs. If you’d like to see more of his work, please visit his website at www.simon-webb.co.uk. ]
Off the Beaten Track Wiltshire

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