At The Cemetery With Barn The Spoon
Barn the Spoon, the spoon carver, asked me to meet him at Bow Cemetery last week. With characteristic generosity of spirit, he wanted to make me a “special eating spoon” and the purpose of our meeting at the cemetery was to find the necessary bent branch from which to manufacture the spoon.
Within minutes of my arrival on that misty morning, Barn came striding from the undergrowth, clutching an armful of tools, and beckoned me to follow him into the tall trees that have overtaken this vast disused graveyard where countless thousands lie buried. These days, the forest is managed as a nature reserve and necessary thinning of the trees provides a constant source of the green wood that is perfect for Barn’s purpose. In other words, the East Enders of the nineteenth century are coming back to us now as spoons.
“What I am famous for is making straight spoons from straight branches, but what I am best at is making bent spoons from bent branches,” Barn declared when we reached a clearing, casting his eyes around critically at the felled trees, cut down to give light and space for new growth. Then he began rummaging through a pile of logs, tossing each aside in disdain as he searched for the ideal one. “It’s surprisingly difficult to find a bent branch!” he complained with cheerful irony, literally unable to see the wood for the trees.
“The beauty of making a bent spoon from a bent branch is that the grain of the wood runs into the bowl and makes it a lot stronger than a straight spoon from a straight branch,” Barn explained, once he had selected his ideal specimen and lopped off a twelve-inch portion. Squatting down and placing the sycamore branch onto a round block cut from a large tree trunk, Barn used his axe as a chisel, striking the top of it with another stub of a branch to split the log down the grain. “The hours I’ve spent kneeling in mud…” he exclaimed with a chuckle of satisfaction as the bent log split neatly, revealing the gleaming naked wood riven by the parallel lines of the grain.
Employing his sharp axe, Barn began shaping the blank of the bent spoon quickly with intense concentration. This is called “axing out.” “I’m thinking what shape the bowl is going to be and it’s decided by the bend,” he informed me, without taking his eyes off the task in hand. While Barn was absorbed in his work, I stood and looked around at the gravestones surrounding us and the trees ascending all around to the forest canopy above. There was a stillness punctuated solely by the echo of Barn’s axe. “We’ve been lucky with our bits of wood,” he assured me, as we surveyed the line of blanks laid upon a log at the end of the morning.
A couple of days later, I paid a visit to Barn’s shop in the Hackney Rd. Making a bent spoon takes several hours, considerably longer than a straight one, and so I had to wait to see my completed spoon. “It’s a folk tradition because it’s much slower than making a straight spoon, so typically it was made for loved ones rather than just for sale.” Barn admitted as he showed me a picture of an old Welsh spoon that had been his inspiration for the special eating spoon he had made me. I understood that a bent spoon requires a greater degree of skill than a straight one and is a spoon carver’s tour de force.
When I held my spoon up for the first time, I was astonished how light it was. Yet it was as strong as it was delicate, and subtly translucent like the bone of a small animal. Instinctively, I picked it up between my thumb and forefinger, and it sat there naturally. It was quick with its own life.
I was fascinated by the geometry of the planes meeting at the neck, reminiscent of medieval stone vaulting, and by the balance between the flat stem and the curvaceous bowl, all framed with neat sharp edges. I loved the detail of the gleaming knot in the wood, perfectly positioned at the end of the handle, and I was curious by the subtle asymmetry at the end of the bowl. Barn explained that this was because wooden eating spoons always wear on one side through scraping the bottom of the dish and so, over time, spoon makers carved them that way, adopting the shape into the design.
My bent spoon was so modest and yet so fine. It was a perfect piece of work. A quiet masterpiece of spoon carving by Barn the Spoon.
“It’s surprisingly difficult to find a bent branch!”
“The hours I’ve spent kneeling in mud…”
“I’m thinking what shape the bowl is going to be and it’s decided by the bend.”
“That’s going to be a nice one.”
“We’ve been lucky with our bits of wood.”
“I’m working from beneath the bowl which will define how I take off the rest.”
“What I am famous for is making straight spoons from straight branches, but what I am best at is making bent spoons from bent branches.”
Visit Barn the Spoon at 260 Hackney Rd, E2 7SJ. Friday – Tuesday, 10am – 5pm.
You may also like to read my original pen portrait
and these other cemetery stories
Find out more at www.towerhamletscemetery.org