The Willows and Wetlands Visitor Centre is the home of P. H. Coate & Son, founded by willow grower and merchant Robert Coate in 1819, and still run by the Coate family today. When Kathleen Boobyer, daughter of well known willow grower and furniture maker Edmund Boobyer, married Percy Coate in 1940, the joining of the two families created the present company.
The Somerset Levels
Is the most important wetland area in the U.K. This unique landscape provides the perfect conditions for willow growing. Basket making willow, known as "Withies", have been grown here for two centuries, and it is now the only area left where it is still cultivated for the production of baskets, furniture, garden items and high quality artists' charcoal. Here indeed is the heart of the English willow industry, an industry that in many ways has not changed for centuries.
Production of Withies
Willow grows extremely quickly, in one growing season which lasts from late May to early October a single rod can reach up to 8ft long. New willow beds are planted in the spring using pieces of willow from the crop harvested during the preceding winter. The new willow bed will not be fully productive in the first three years, but once it is well established, with careful management the plants can last up to 30 years.
Each mature plant or "stool" gives rise to over 30 rods. The crop is harvested each winter time after the leaves have died and fallen, these old leaves provide nutrients for the following years, eliminating the need for artificial fertilisers.
The willow beds provide homes and shelter for many species of birds and animals during the summer months. Willow growing is part of the rich environmental heritage of this area of Somerset. Both the commercial willow crops, or beds and the pollarded willow trees contribute to the character and image of the region.
Machines are now used for cutting the withies and stripping off the bark, but in many ways the industry has hardly changed.
The team at P. H Coate & Son, are specialist basket makers with 180 years experience between them.
Production of Artists' Charcoal
Once the crop is harvested it undergoes various processes in preparation for turning into charcoal. This includes boiling the rods for ten hours to soften the bark so it can be removed by special machines. The processed rods are then cut into regular length pieces that will soon become the familiar charcoal sticks. The cut pieces of willow are graded according to diameter and packed tightly into cooking tins.
As the full length rods are tapered along their length, the pieces from the top of the rod become thin charcoal and the pieces at the bottom of the rod become the thick charcoal, with the pieces in the middle becoming medium charcoal.
Once the tins are packed they are made air-tight and then cooked in custom made kilns for 10 hours. This cooking process is finely controlled at all times, failure to keep control will result either in a fire or uncooked willow sticks, which are suitable for drawing with. A small proportion of the willow crop is left to grow for two or even three years, these rods are turned into the very large tree sticks.
As we only produce 100% natural willow charcoal we are unable to supply charcoal pencils or compressed charcoal sticks.
Pigmentation - colour:
There is more to charcoal than sticks!!
Using powdered charcoal with your fingers. 'finger-paint' style creates soft, subtle effects. If you feel really creative, why not try making your own paint by mixing ground charcoal with a binder substance to make black paint or to darken colours.....
We are able to supply finely ground, powdered charcoal for filtration purposes. Because of its unique absorption qualities willow is ideal for filtering.
Fireworks - Pyrotechnics:
Ground charcoal is one of the key ingredients in making Black Powder. Black Powder known because of its use in explosives - the Gunpowder Plot and firearms. The charcoal provides lift, it acts as a propellant. The same lifting qualities that make charcoal vital to explosives are also valued in the creation of fireworks. Charcoal helps launch the rockets we enjoy on bonfire night.
For more information on Coates Charcoal visit our charcoal website at: www.coatescharcoal.co.uk