By Beverly Sugarman
A unique type of basket that may be a nice gift for any basket lover would be an authentic English willow basket. One of the leading manufacturers of these types of baskets is P.H. Coate & Son, located at the Willows and Wetlands Visitor Centre, located in Somerset, England.
This family-owned business was founded in 1819 by Robert Coate, a local willow grower and merchant. In 1940, another well known willow grower and furniture maker named Edmund Boobyer had a daughter, Katherine who married Percy Coate and the present company was created.
The company is located in an area that is known as the Somerset Levels. This most important wetland in the United Kingdom is ideal growing ground for willow, the key ingredient in the P. H. Coate baskets. As a matter of fact, this area is the only location that this willow is still cultivated to make baskets, furniture, garden items, and artists’ charcoal.
This willow, which is called ‘withies’ by the locals, is grown between May and October, during which time the stalks of this plant can grow as high as eight feet. New plants are planted in the spring from the stalks that were harvested the previous season. The new plants will not be ready for three years, but once the plants have reached maturity, they have a lifetime of approximately thirty years.
Once harvested, a team of highly trained specialists at the P.H. Coate Company weave it into beautifully crafted homemade willow baskets. The combined experience of this team equals 180 years.
As mentioned earlier, the P.H. Coate Company is located in the Coates Willows & Wetlands Centre, a successful tourist attraction that was started in 1987 by David Bellamy. One of the many attractions that are available on a tour of the Centre is the Video Room. Here visitors are able to watch a video that depicts the process of willow harvesting and the company’s efforts to keep many of its traditions while implementing some new strategies for the future.
The Basket Museum allows the visitor to view a large display of willow artifacts, ranging from the common to the unusual. The Levels and Moors Exhibition displays items dealing with the basket weaving tradition of the P. H. Coate & Son and also highlights the wonderful history of the Somerset Levels area. The Environmental Interpretation display deals with the effect that the water that is present in the wetlands has had in shaping the lives of the people who live there.
There are also guided tours that are available during the day that allows visitors to see the making of these baskets in progress. The knowledgeable guides can explain the techniques in great detail and are also able to answer any questions that a visitor may have.
The Centre also has the Shop& Furniture Gallery, which displays a variety of willow baskets and furniture that is on hand to purchase. If you want a custom-made basket, this service is also available. Do-it-yourself kits can be bought here as well.
Other attractions in the Coates Willows and Wetlands Visitor Centre include the Courtyard Tea Room, where visitors can enjoy a light lunch in a courtyard that has a rushing water feature. There is also several walk areas available that travel through the lovely moors that surround the area of Somerset.
For the basket enthusiast, a trip to the P. H. Coates Company as well as the Visitor Centre is an experience not to be missed.
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