Historic artefacts tucked away in archives have inspired tradesmen for a new series of documentaries. BEN HOLGATE found out how ancient Oxfordshire trades are still alive
CHIPPING away at a bulk of limestone, Ducklington sculptor Alec Peever is working on something a little bit different.
He is creating a war memorial tablet – but not just for any serviceman.
This work is inspired by Oxford’s oldest known resident, a Roman soldier who died more than 2,000 years.
The specialist project was commissioned for a series of documentaries, following local tradesmen using traditional skills to recreate historic artefects.
Oxfordshire Army Cadets helped come up with the layout for the tablet, which was inspired by the tombstone of Roman Lucius Valerius Geminus.
Sculptor Mr Peever said: “I based it on a traditional Roman design. It reflects back.”
The documentary series was part of a three-year project, called History in the Making, which looks at “production and manufacturing in the county”.
It took Mr Peever 20 days to make the tablet, which is half a metre by half a metre.
The sculptor used Clipsham limestone from Lincolnshire because “the local Oxfordshire stone is poor quality if you’re trying to get a large slab”.
He encouraged the cadets to come up with floral designs and the wording of the phrases inscribed onto it.
The first two, meaning “to the memory of”, are from the Latin inscription on the soldier’s tombstone: “Dis manibus. To those men and women of Oxfordshire who have lost their lives in armed conflict.”
The tombstone that inspired the tablet was excavated at the site of the Roman fort near Bicester in 2003. It included personal items – allowing historians to gather information about the soldier.
Lucius Valerius Geminus is the earliest county resident experts know anything about.
The tablet is to be erected in the garden of the Oxfordshire Museum, in Woodstock, alongside a replica of the soldier’s tombstone.
Oxfordshire Museums Service commissioned the documentaries to shine a light on some of their archived items.
County collections project officer Anna Griffiths said: “It’s the earliest biography that we’ve got of somebody living in Oxfordshire.”
The project also includes exhibitions and events, and is funded by an £80,000 grant from the Arts Council England as part of the ASPIRE programme.
Each of the three documentaries has a connection with an artefact belonging to the museum: the Roman tombstone replica, an ancient sword and rowing oars.
The three films, which were created by Oxford-based filmmaker Sharon Woodward, are being shown on the Community Channel on Sky and Virgin Media.
She worked with Mr Peever, oar-makers and a blacksmith to find out more about skills, passed down the generations.
Ms Woodward said: “These people are so passionate about crafting. I filmed somebody shaving an oar over and over, and it was amazing to see how delicately he did it.”
Mr Peever’s story will be broadcast in June, together with Unearthing the Anglo Saxons, which is about blacksmithing.
The oar makers documentary was screened last week.
Stonemason whose skills are in high demand
FOR sculptor Alec Peever, pictured, his skills are even older than the Roman soldier who inspired his stone tablet.
The methods he uses to create his works are steeped in ancient history.
The 59-year-old said: “The technique hasn’t altered in three thousand years,”
“It’s using a steel chisel, sharpened and flattened.
“You bash it with a hammer and carve out the numbers. It’s a very particular skill.”
Mr Peever, of Ducklington, is also an expert in the ancient discipline of lettering, drawing characters by hand in pencil before carving them out on stone.
“It’s a process not dissimilar to water colour painting.”
Mr Peever sees himself as an artist. “I design and make everything myself. It’s a creative life.”
Almost 40 years ago, he became interested in sculpture and stonemasonry, after working as a sign painter.
But since then he has found that stonemasonry has become “one of those dwindling professions” due to mechanisation.
He knows of only five other artist stonemasons in Oxfordshire, although more are employed in the building trade.
His trade has taken him throughout the UK and across to Europe and the US, making gravestones, monuments for churches, sculptures, and even gargoyles on the Bodleian Library.
He also made the 90 plaques that make up the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk across St James’s Park, Green Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens in London.
X-ray vision needed to recreate sword
Blacksmith Stuart Makin, below, only makes swords “very occasionally”, so his commission for the Unearthing the Anglo Saxons documentary provided a particular challenge.
His task was to recreate a sixth-century sword found near Watchfield in the 1980s that had been forged with a herringbone pattern.
The trouble was, the sword is so old its design has eroded, and much of it can only be detected through X-rays.
Mr Makin, 26, of Wroxton, near Banbury, said: “I made a design that was as close to a replica as I could make it.” It took two weeks for him to use the ancient art of pattern welding, in which two or more different grades of steel are heated and twisted into patterns.
For this particular sword, Mr Makin used high carbon and mild steels, with the softer metal dissolved by acid in order to create the designs.
Mr Makin, whose company Iron Forged Designs is located in Brackley, caught the blacksmith’s spark, so to speak, over a decade ago.
“I saw someone doing it at a village fete and I wanted to have a go,” he said. “It’s the combination of being able to make things with my hands and the design form as well.”
The artistry – if not alchemy – involves “the transformation of what goes into the fire and what comes out after the work”.
“You don’t have to be particularly strong, it’s more the endurance.”
Although Mr Makin has a BA with a blacksmithing major from the Hereford College of Arts, he said there are no recognised trade apprenticeships available.
He believes a general crafts revival over the past two decades has benefited blacksmiths, with more people now wanting to buy, or commission, bespoke products.
Most of his work involves traditional and contemporary blacksmithing of garden objects, gates and furniture, as well as historical replicas.
Making the perfect oar is an awesome business
Hand-crafting oars and masts is so demanding that Jeremy Freeland, pictured, estimates only one-in-10 young employees who start at his company stick it out.
“You’ve got to have a natural ability,” said the managing director and owner of Collars, which is based in Dorchester on Thames.
“It’s not an easy job, not everyone makes it. It’s very hard, physical work.”
He claims an apprentice will take three to five years to become fully proficient.
Although the specialist oars and masts that Collars produces are initially fashioned by machines, they are finished off by hand.
“It’s all bespoke. That’s why you can’t mass-produce them out of China.”
Collars’ team of ten people “take a lot of pride in what they make,” he added.
The firm makes up to 900 oars a year, with each pair taking around a day to shape.
Some masts can take up to four months to complete.
It’s the straightness that’s the secret, and where “the black art that we’ve perfected over the years” comes in.
That’s why only two types of wood are used – Douglas fir and Sitka spruce – both of which are grown in North America.
Oxford-born and raised, the 43-year-old said: “They’re slow grown with beautiful, straight grain timber.”
Mr Freeland, who lives in Wallingford, bought the company in 2002 after training as a boat builder.
Collars was established in 1932 in Oxford by Frank Collar, to repair oars for the Oxford University rowing club boathouses.
For three decades from 1952 it supplied oars for the Olympic Games.
Since the 1980s, however, following the introduction of carbon fibre rowing oars, most of the company’s sales have been masts and booms.
Up to 20 per cent of its sales are now exports, to places such as France, Scandinavia, the US, Brazil and Australia.
“They come to us because we’re specialist. There’s very few of us left worldwide.”
Mr Freeland appears in The Oxfordshire Oar Makers documentary with Lee Gabel, who recently left the company after 14 years to become an Anglican priest.
He has been replaced by Roland Harris, a Collars veteran of two decades who rejoined the firm after a break of 15 years.
“Roland is one of the old school,” said Mr Freeland. “These days it’s hard to get the young lads to put in the work.”