Towpath crafts

Fashion yourself a thumb-stick, make a May Day crown or twist up some nettle twine, with our handy guide to canalside crafting

Towpath Crafts

Abigail Whyte

Posted on 02/05/2019

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From wild garlic in spring to blackberries in autumn, we all know that canalside hedgerows can provide a bountiful feast for foragers, but let’s not forget that branches, berries and greenery can also come in handy for a rainy day’s crafting! Whether you want to make your own walking stick or a seasonal nature table for the kids, here’s your handy guide.

Rustle up a hazel thumb-stick

“The best, the most exquisite, automobile is a walking stick; and one of the finest things in life is going on a journey with it.” So wrote Robert Cortes Holliday in his Walking-Stick Papers (1918) – and a walking stick is all the more exquisite if you make it yourself! So next time you pass a hedgerow or walk through your local woodland, keep an eye out for a straight hazel stick with a ‘Y’ in it. Sticks are best harvested in winter when sap levels are at their lowest, but if you find a decent stick in the summer months, there’s no reason why can’t repurpose it – you’ll just need to add an extra four months onto the year-long recommended drying time for seasoning wood. If the stick isn’t straight enough, soften the wood with a hot air gun or hold it over a saucepan of boiling water then bend it against your knee in the direction you need it to go*. Use fine sandpaper to smooth the inside of the Y (the last thing you want on a walk is an irritated thumb) and burnish the stick with linseed oil applied using fine wire wool. Now, you’re ready to ramble.
*Not with a bare knee, the wood will be very hot!

Create a pine cone menagerie

A pine cone can be many things – a make-believe hairbrush for a child’s doll; a birdfeeder; even a bit of kindling for the woodburner. It can also be a key ingredient in an afternoon’s crafting with children, if you gather it from a hedgerow or woodland floor along with acorns, conkers, twigs and berries. With these humble ingredients you can make a host of woodland creatures, such as dormice, squirrels and owls, using the cone as the main body, and the other foraged bits as eyes and bushy tails. All you need is some craft glue and perhaps a hand-drill if you need to make holes in the conkers or twigs*.
*Adult supervision with the hand drill is a must!

Make a May Day crown

If you’re new to willow weaving, May Day crowns are the perfect starter project because they’re so easy to make. You can use willow or holly – either are ideal because they’re flexible when fresh, and solidify into a sturdy, fixed shape when dry. Cut approximately one-metre long branches* of willow and soak them in the bath or makeshift outdoor pool for 2-3 days to make sure they’re supple. Form the branch into a loop large enough to fit on top of your head (resembling a Q with a long ‘tail’), then wrap the tail in and out of the loop, slotting the end into a small gap. Wrap one or two more branches in and out of the loop, then start decorating with seasonal flowers and greenery, weaving them into the crown’s gaps. I like to keep my crowns simple with hawthorn blossom and yellow ribbon – the perfect combination for a joyful May Day celebration.
*Always ask the permission of the landowner before cutting wood. Alternatively, you can buy willow from your local market, hobby store or online.

Twist up some nettle string

Nettles may be the bane of bare legs in summer but they’re a supremely useful plant, whether whizzed up into a soup or blended into a refreshing tea. But did you know that you can also make string with it? This is something our prehistoric ancestors would have found invaluable for building shelters and attaching arrowheads, and today a bundle of nettle twine would be a handy bit of kit in any gardener’s shed. First, cut a generous crop of nettles (around 8 to 10 plants) and strip the leaves off with a gloved hand. The fibres you need are on the outside of the stem – to remove them, flatten the stem with a rock then split it lengthways. Break the stem in half so the inner pith splits away from the fibres. Strip the fibres away from the pith then leave to dry. Once dry, fold one of the fibres in half then roll it against your thigh using a flat hand – the two strands should naturally intertwine when you lift your hand. Keep rolling, adding more fibres to the ends as you go, until you have the length of cordage desired.