Hay-on-Wye, set above the river Wye and on the border between Wales and England is best known for its many bookshops and its famous annual literary festival. But, there is another interesting place to visit for those lucky enough to spend time in this most charming of country towns.
English by name and English by nature, Athene English’s shop, The Great English Outdoors, is now a well-known destination shop for the discerning customer with an environmental conscience. The customer can buy with confidence, everything is ethically sourced and made from natural materials. The shop is packed with old and new Welsh blankets and textiles from around the World; a range of clothing with tailored jackets and coats and wool knitwear, all carefully selected for their quality and workmanship; and a collection of useful but beautiful homeware, made from slate, horn, wood and wool; as well as an eclectic assortment of one-off pieces. Woven into the curated array of objects for sale are handmade leather belts, dog collars and leads and other accessories, all made in the workshop.
In issue 38 of Selvedge we visited this iconic store and interviewed Athene, a shop where you could spend hours and a fortune – a true cornucopia of collectibles housed in a wonderful old fashioned atmosphere. Now, twelve years later, The Great English Outdoors is up for sale - an elegant, Georgian Grade II listed property arranged over four floors with a living space and picturesque gardens outside. Find out more about the sale of The Great English Outdoors HERE.
Continue reading Land Lady: The Country Pursuits of Athene English to learn more about the store’s story…..….
Land Lady: The Country Pursuits of Athene English, issue 38, Selvedge Magazine, January/February 2011
There is everything from pretty wooden table lamps with leaf patterned shades to a handsome 'Gingerman' handbag. Smaller items like wallets are packaged in boxes which feature a motif of the small owl ‘Athene Noctua’, the symbol of the wise Goddess Athena. “My aim has always been to try and source the majority of my stock locally, either from ethical traders or individuals who use sustainable or recycled materials and organic and natural materials,” says Athene. The aroma of leather and wool with a hint of lavender is intoxicating, while the textures invite one to touch.
The shop is on the ground floor of an 1820's house in Castle Street. Athene bought it in 1998 after several years training as a saddler at the Cordwainers College and five years as resident craftsperson at the Cirencester Workshops during which time she made and repaired saddles for Princess Anne. Having been an event rider herself she was in a perfect position to understand what competition riders and horses required in the way of specialist gear.
“Leather remains my passion although sadly, because of an accident, I can't do the work myself any longer. I have trained a young woman and we still make everything in the workshop using wonderful traditional tools which I have collected.” The designs of leatherworking tools – the wood handles and steel blades – have not changed in centuries.
“English leather is outstanding but I was lucky enough to be invited by the Duchy of Cornwall to work on a stock of Russian reindeer leather recovered from a 1786 shipwreck on the Cornish side of Plymouth Sound. It's a remarkable story because the hides had been buried in mud for 200 years. I call it the Stradivarius of leather. It has a wonderful crosshatched finish and it still smells of the ancient tanning method where hides were soaked with willow bark and curried with birch oil.”
People always ask about caring for leather. “Never wash it,” says Athene. The shop offers three products that waterproof, preserve and condition different leathers. Ko-Cao- Line for the heaviest, like gun or cartridge cases, Fiebings Mink Oil for lighter weights and Old Russia Leather Dressing, a special mix of lanolin, beeswax, linseed and birch oil which is tailor made for Athene’s 200 year old Reindeer leather.
After becoming a saddler Athene found Welsh blankets, or carthenni, and began a journey of discovery, visiting libraries, mills and museums both in the UK and abroad. “The blankets felt like a perfect mix with my leather goods. The soft earthy colours, the history, the way they were made in mills and finished by hand with fuller’s earth to remove the excess oil, steamed, shrunk and pressed to condense the wool content and the way in which the blankets were traditionally used fascinated me,” she says.
Some of the blankets stocked in the shop date to the 1870's – many are plaid and unfringed indicating they came from poorer families while fringed examples, larger and softer, would have been more expensive. Old or new, they make ideal curtains in country cottages, can be used to upholster chairs or damaged pieces can be turned into cushions. Nothing goes to waste. Exhibiting at museums around Wales and lecturing on Welsh blankets to spinning and weaving groups and the WI, Athene has become an acknowledged expert in a field that had previously been little documented.
Athene and her teenage son Louis live above the shop in rooms that feel more like a country house than a town-house. The walls are painted white against which textiles, saddles, pictures, sculpture, fishing rods and mirrors create a homely bohemian ambiance. Almost everything is handmade, from wooden bowls to storage boxes.
The fishing rods are not just decorative – Athene is a keen angler, “I love being out on the river, casting at night,”. She used to take Biscuit, her Lakeland terrier (who died recently) everywhere but now two new dogs are part of the family, an adopted, retired working Border Terrier and a Deerhound Lurcher puppy called Pearl. Animals are clearly important to a woman who likes to spend her spare time in the solitary pursuit of fly-fishing.
In summer the back lawn is home to a yurt. “I saw one at a friend’s house and thought, I can make one for myself, like people who build their own log cabins. It's a great place to have dinner or just get friends together,” she tells me. Beyond the raised lawn a long narrow garden is filled with flowers for the house and attached to the back gate Athene has an 'honesty box' offering fresh cut bunches for 50p. “I love growing things, it's the yang side of working with leather I am sure.
Text by Johanna Thornycroft
Find out more about the sale of The Great English Outdoors HERE.