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At The Cemetery With Barn The Spoon

January 16, 2013
by the gentle author

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

Barn the Spoon, Spoon Carver

and these other cemetery stories

At Bow Cemetery

Snowfall at Bow Cemetery

Spring Bulbs at Bow Cemetery

Bluebells at Bow Cemetery

Find out more at www.towerhamletscemetery.org

10 Responses leave one →
  1. January 16, 2013

    beautiful!
    absolutely beautiful!

  2. sprite permalink
    January 16, 2013

    whittling away
    with words and carving tools
    food for thoughts
    dished out from a spoon dormant
    in the bent of a branch

    sprite

  3. Hilary permalink
    January 16, 2013

    “In other words, the East Enders of the nineteenth century are coming back to us now as spoons.” What a wonderful way to see things. This blog is a constant joy.

  4. January 16, 2013

    a special talisman, with which i think you should invoke the spirits by supping iconic spitalfields food with it. jellied eels. chicken curry. pease porridge hot.

  5. Libby Hall permalink
    January 16, 2013

    ‘…the East Enders of the nineteenth century are coming back to us now as spoons.’

    How lovely!

  6. jenn permalink
    January 16, 2013

    Lovely! I hope he passes this talent on to someone else!

  7. Gary permalink
    January 16, 2013

    A true craftsman, he has revived skills that were long gone.
    Be careful how you use your spoon.
    If he offers to provide you with a bowl to go with your spoon I would advise you not to meet in the cemetery, you can’t be certain what he would dig up to make it out of
    Gary

  8. Ellen in NEW England permalink
    March 9, 2014

    As a house-carpenter’s wife, I appreciate the scale of Barn’s materials, tools and product. Andy’s work is massive and generally untouched by hands once he is done; tools are heavy, expensive, electrical, dangerous and prone to break down; and he can’t stuff a sample of his work in his back pocket.

  9. May 1, 2015

    The shape of that spoon you carved out is totally exquisite and a wonderful test of your craftsmanship sir!

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