Moretonhampstead – flying the flag for local woodlands
If you pass through the small town of Moretonhampstead during the month of June you may see an array of fascinating flags that line the routes in and out, arching over you as you move through the narrow streets. In a rainbow of colours, they are beautiful and tell many personal stories about the lives and loves of the people of this small Dartmoor town. These tales, emblazoned on fluttering fabric, adorn the buildings for two weeks, setting the scene for a unique mid-summer festival. But the story of where the flags’ component parts came from is equally interesting.
In a barn a few fields away from the town, woodcrafter Owen Kebbell works on the most bespoke wood working task. From locally coppiced sycamore and hazel he has created 140 wooden poles with their individual combinations of knots and bumps that appear on the surface of the wood. Once Owen has stripped the bark with his treasured drawknife, the distinct grain and texture of the wood is revealed after several years of growth. As with all green woodworkers, their favourite tools almost become a part of themselves, an extension of their own skilled hands.
Owen showing the natural features of the wood Draw knife and bark peeled from the wooden poles
He described how he had got involved in woodland management and his passion for coppicing; cutting these hardwood poles and removing them from the woods allows fresh new growth to bring more new life, regenerating the woodland ecosystem. As a trained tree surgeon and woodland manager, he knows his way around trees and explains how, “I take a walk around to find the poles, looking at how they can be carefully cut, being considerate of the woodland.” Many of the poles are donated by the Woodland Trust who own a few of the sites where Owen collected the raw material from. Pullabrook Wood and East Wray Cleave are two of the local woodlands where the poles were growing and, as the site owner, the Woodland Trust are keen to support local craft businesses and community events.
Coppice at Pullabrook Wood – a few miles from Moretonhampstead New flag poles in the barn
Owen went on to demonstrate how the smooth but undulating poles were all soaked in a bath of linseed oil overnight before they would be ready to hold up the colourful textile flags. He also told the story of how he and Chrissy collected the fabric in the first place. “We travel around the summer festival sites doing clean ups. All sorts of stuff is left behind as the revellers leave the site and, while we are tidying up, we collect up some of the discarded tents. It provides us with the fabric we need. It’s a way to recycle what others have thrown away and we also use some offcuts from a balloon company in Bristol to add a bit more colour.”
Wooden poles becoming flag poles
One of the festival’s founders, Andrea Foxwell dropped in to see how the poles were progressing. She talked about how she and her friend Veronica Gould were inspired by a flag festival in Ulverston and began some flag-making workshops in their community over ten years ago. “It’s been growing since then.” She reflected, “The flags hold memories of people who are no longer with us and also show the contribution that many people make to this town. Sadly, we lost our original set of poles in a fire that started with an electrical fault where they were being stored.” Fortunately, the combined skills of Owen and the local supply of poles in the woods nearby mean the festival will continue. “This year the festival will illustrate our recovery from the Covid pandemic and the writings and drawings will take on additional meaning. It’s also a way to say thank you to the woodlands,” said Andrea.
This booklet tells the full story of the Moretonhampstead Flag Festival
by Matt Parkins