From Coppice to Copper
Heritage Skills in the Lower Swansea Valley a series of events funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF).
This series of events was designed to encourage people to learn heritage craft skills on the site of the world-famous Copperworks of the Lower Swansea Valley, the ‘Hafod Morfa Copperworks’ (HMCW). It was held during 2019-2020 by Swansea University, College of Arts and Humanities (CoAH) as part of an activity plan sponsored by the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF). Whilst the emphasis on heritage-led regeneration in the region has, up until now, been placed on it’s rich industrial past, this activity was specifically designed to engage with the future of the valley, to look back beyond the Industrial Revolution to a once green valley, and to take inspiration from this period as, collectively, the community of the region engages in the on-going re-greening of the valley. Inspiration was taken from the discovery of what appears to be a historic hazelwood coppice, nestled in the heart of what was once a busy industrial landscape. This kind of coppice would have been used to make hurdles for sheep, items of everyday use, such as spoons and spade handles and also to make baskets. Hazel baskets were used in the early days of mining to move ores and coal around in large quantities, and later in the period, they were used to move coal from one form of transport to another. This project set about exploring the early days of the Industrial Revolution and gave volunteers and local school pupils the opportunity to get first hand experience of coppicing, wood splitting and basket-making with hazel. Hazel-made baskets were once common in South Wales but their production now is increasingly rare.
These events were part of an ongoing project called ‘From Coppice to Copper’ which consisted of restoring an old coppice at the HMCW’s works office, presently as the site of the Landore Social Club, and using the wood in the community. From Coppice to Copper aimed to restore the coppice, whilst running workshops on a variety of woodland management and coppice working themes. 187 volunteers worked 263 volunteer hours across this 3 month project. Following this work the majority of thick diameter wood was processed by volunteers and distributed to the community by Landore Social Club, for those people who could use it as fire wood. The remaining wood was then used to create hazel split baskets based on an historic design used at Swansea docks for shifting coal to the various copperworks up-river. The photo below is the first of our reconstructed baskets.
Coppicing is the woodland management technique of repeatedly chopping trees at the base and allowing them to regrow (see photo below left), in order to provide a sustainable supply of wood. The practice of coppicing can be traced back to Neolithic times (4500 BC) as evidenced by the wooden trackways built across the peat of the Somerset Levels. Most ancient woodlands in the UK have long since been cleared though coppicing allowed the natural deciduous woodland to survive, in modified form, so that the timber could be used for fuel and building. The wide-held belief that woodlands were cleared for charcoal, fuelwood for brick and lime kilns and for tanbark is erroneous. In fact, these demands sustained the coppice woodlands, and it was with their demise that clearance increased. Periodic cutting greatly extends the life of most trees, so that coppiced stools may be many hundreds of years old. This process increases bio diversity and maximises the tree’s ability to lock carbon into the soil.
As far as we can tell from old photos and maps of HMCW this area was planted with hazel sometime around the late 19th-century. Hazel was probably used because it can grow on heavily polluted soils and is useful when trying to stabilise a steep embankment. There is evidence from many of the stools that they had been coppiced but why exactly this had happened regularly over the years, remains a project for further research. Until as recently at the Second World War large areas of Wales would have been covered in hazel and oak coppice. However, coppicing has been in decline since the mid 19th century, when some of the most important traditional uses of coppice products diminished as coke and coal replaced charcoal and firewood for fuel, and artificial substitutes replaced tanbark in the leather industry. In addition, the general agricultural decline of the mid and late 19th century meant that less hazel was needed for sheep hurdles and other farm products.
It was therefore decided to restore this small surviving coppice using local volunteers, because we wanted to explore the possibility of using rural heritage skills in an industrial setting. We held extensive meetings with Landore Social Club, Hafod Community Centre, Nature Conservation (Swansea Council), Friends of Whiterock Copperworks, Gower Hedgerow Hub and Kilvey Hill Community Woodland. In these meetings we explored the best way to approach the work and the kind of workshops local people wanted to do. From these meetings we planned to restore the coppice and lay several hedges, allowing local people to gain skills in both of these heritage areas.
The project ran 16 workshops over 3 months of autumn 2019: 2 on coppice restoration, 2 on woodland management, 4 on hedge laying, 2 on wood splitting, 2 on using hazel binders, 2 on using hazel faggots to construct dead hedges (to prevent bank erosion) and 2 on hazel wood processing. The workshops were run by Swansea University’s Gareth Thomas, with workshops led by Malcolm Edwards, a professional coppice manager and local hedgelayer, and Alex Langlands, senior lecturer at Swansea University and patron of the Heritage Crafts Association. 187 volunteers took part in the workshops and contributed 263 volunteer hours on the coppice and the associated hedges at the stadium. 4 local schools took part, as did several charities and local community organisations. Many of the volunteers returned on numerous occasions, helping throughout the entire project. Of the ten community groups that took part we were delighted to welcome participants from a wide range of backgrounds – including people with mental health issues, refugees, homeless and out-of-work young people.
Community Development Officer Gareth Thomas says of the project:
“This project shows what can be achieved when Swansea University teams up with the council and the local community. It’s so important that the University co-produces projects with the community because the University is part of the community.
Local volunteers have learned great skills such as the restoration of biodiversity, bespoke woodwork, woodland conservation and research into the site. We are genuinely co-producing heritage with the Council and with local groups and people.”
Contractor Malcolm Edwards, who was involved with the project, commented:
“We’re establishing a working coppice and connecting sustainable woodland management to a vast industrial setting. We’re teaching heritage practices, conservation practices and trying to fuse history within that.”
Dr. Alex Langlands says:
“ From start to finish, this has been an excellent project that has demonstrated that close partnership work between a range of institutions and groups in the region can lead to amazing results. The industrial past weighs heavy on the Lower Swansea Valley and the legacy of pollution, toxic chemicals, and dereliction is still evident. This project has been a chance to think about the future, about the management of green spaces in post-industrial settings, about bio-diversity and re-wilding, and about heritage craft skills that, by taking us on a journey back beyond industrialisation, can help us in thinking about a greener, cleaner and more sustainable future for the next generation of people who live in the area.”