Gareth Jones

[bas relief by Oleh Lesiuk]

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The Western Mail July 19th 1933

Craftsmen of Wales

James Walters — Master Basket Maker

A Craft for Leisure and not Profit

By GARETH JONES

There are few more difficult tasks than to find a Cardiganshire farmer in the haymaking season.  But the search for the farmer who is the greatest craftsman in basket-making in Wales, James Walters, was well rewarded. 

I entered the village of Farmer; which is on the road from Llandilo to Lampeter, and began the hunt by knocking loudly at a pink-distempered cottage.  There was no reply for a long time and then I heard the sounds of someone awakening from slumber and the scuffling of slow, age-worn feet, as an old man came to greet me.   

“Ble mae James Walters yn byw?” I asked.

“Come with me and I shall show you,” said the ancient.  “I am John Alltgoch and I am spending my last years in this cottage.” 

I went into his garden, where there were the finest and tallest potato plants I had seen.  Now, tell me,” he said, “how old do you think I am?”  He waited eagerly for my reply, and I ventured to say that he could not be much over seventy. 

“You’re wrong,” he said gleefully.  “I am 85, and I was farming right up to the age of 80.  But now you can see James Walters’s house on the hill.” 

I left our old Cardiganshire farmer and drove, through the village, turning to the left when I reached the post-office, over the stream, until I came to James Walters’s white gate.  I went up an avenue, where a sheepdog came to meet us, but when I knocked at the door there was no reply.  The farm seemed deserted.  Peeping into a shed, I saw baskets hanging up, and this stirred my desire to meet the famous basket maker.  I wandered through the fields, but there was no James Walters. 

The Master Basket Maker 

Returning to the centre of the village, I asked if anyone had seen him and then received the reply: “He is helping a neighbour.”  Before long I was in the neighbour’s field, shaking hands with an elderly man with side-whiskers, the master basket maker.  He took me back to his farm, for the haymaking was over. In age he seemed to be in the sixties, but he is over seventy and is proud of the way he keeps his youth. 

I entered the workshop, where there were canes and willows, baskets and walking sticks, wooden spoons and a variety of tools. 

“The craft no longer pays as a profession,” he told me.  “The, work must be done in one’s spare time; but it is a great way of filling one’s leisure hours.”  He showed me some of the baskets, which had fine lines and curves and perfect symmetry.  Similar baskets made by him have been sold to Lord Mostyn, Lady Davies of Llandinam, and Lord Harlech. 

“Where do you get -the willows?”  I asked.  “I grow some myself and also get a large number from a willow farm in Somerset.  An attempt has been made to grow eight acres of willows at Llangadock, but it is not very satisfactory.  The willows will not grow.  I also use cane, but cane is expensive.  That basket you see there, is made of, split ash and willow.” 

His Best Pupil 

The baskets which Mr. Walters make are very strong.  You have only to feel them to realise that they will last for years.  But Mr. Walters is angry to think that people leave the baskets out in the rain, and in that respect he is as careful of his baskets as any fond parent is of a child.  His baskets are used in laundries, where they sometimes last for five or six years; they are used as potato baskets, and in country houses logs are carried in them to the fire. 

James Walters is fond and proud of his a class, and nothing gives him greater pleasure than the success of his best pupil, James Jones, a young man who is well on the way to becoming a master craftsman.  The master’s ambition is that one day his pupil may surpass him in his own work. 

“Look at this basket which James Jones made.  It is a treat to see his work.  This one is just a little too big and might have a little more polish and finish, but one day he’ll beat me and I shall a rejoice.” 

Mr. James Walters takes a long day to make a big basket, which costs 7s. 6d.  It gives him no profit, for the raw material is costly.  He has been asked to demonstrate, at the Royal Welsh Show, Aberystwyth. 

Carving Expert 

Basket-making is not, however, James Walters’s only craft, for he is skilled at carving spoons ‘by hand and- he has the essential old tools, the “cyllell gam.”  From boxwood, which is the hardest wood existing, he carves ordinary spoons, salad spoons, appliances used for wasp killing, and “butter-scotch hands” for making butter.  

He showed me spoons which he had made more than 40 years ago and which had won a number of prizes.  One of them was of hazel and the other of apple wood.  There are also many natural grown walking sticks in James Walters’s workshop.  When you enter Mr. James Walters’s home you see a row of big hams hanging down from the ceiling, and, besides these remains of the past year, there are interesting relics of the past century. 

A needlework picture, excellently done by Annie Walters, shows the first marriage in the Bible.  In the bookcase there are many commentaries on books of the Bible, such as “Esboniad ar Epistolau Pedr” and “Esboniad ar Efengyl Marc.”

From the wall there hang three brass spoons of curious make, four generations old, the biggest of which was intended to catch the dripping from the roasting duck. 

It is splendid that James Walters’s craft will be carried on by his pupil, James Jones, of whom he is so proud.

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