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Fencemaker set to upsticks

PUBLISHED: 05:42 31 January 2003 | UPDATED: 16:13 24 February 2010

A FENCEMAKER will up sticks for a while next month when he stakes out new territories abroad.

Robert Yates, of Brampton Willows near Southwold, is one of four artist-craftsmen from Britain invited to exhibit their work at an arts and crafts exhibition in Germany.

A FENCEMAKER will up sticks for a while next month when he stakes out new territories abroad.

Robert Yates, of Brampton Willows near Southwold, is one of four artist-craftsmen from Britain invited to exhibit their work at an arts and crafts exhibition in Germany.

His work was chosen after the organisers of Exempla, which will run for a week in Munich and attract 200,000 visitors, spotted his display at Chelsea Flower Show last year. The exhibition, which is a showcase of contemporary work from all over Europe, has chosen "The Garden" as its theme for 2003.

So Mr Yates has had to get weaving, making some new "porter's" chairs – hooded for secrecy and cosiness - to display. He is also packing up "The Watchtower", a summerhouse on stilts standing 16ft high, a pair of vast elephant tusks which form an unusual garden arch, and a double storey dovecote.

"This is top drawer stuff," he said. "It's quite an adventure for us as it's the first art exhibition we've done.

"Willow is usually associated with a rustic look but we want to show how it can work in a more formal, minimalist kind of setting."

With the help of his wife Susie, a sculptor and artist, the fencemaker has branched out into creative designs including gazebos, summer houses, pots for plants and even tables.

Round his own house he has laid out a display garden featuring the woven willow fencing surrounding the flowerbeds and garden features such as a bower integrated with the perimeter fence, a gazebo with a copper conical roof, and a tusk archway, which will be packed up soon to go to Germany. Waving in the breeze on spiral metal stems are conical willow pots, which in summer can be filled with plants.

But the bread-and-butter side of the business remains constructing willow boundaries for gardens. With assistant Glyn Gray Mr Yates has travelled as far as Barbados. There the fencing proved its toughness by withstanding two hurricanes.

"The willow is in fact entirely cosmetic," says Mr Yates. "The structures all get their strength from the steel scaffolding poles which they are woven round."

The Watchtower, which stands on four steel legs hidden by the willow woven basket-fashion round them, can bear a weight of 40 tons.

Mr Yates grows all his own willow on 15 acres of marshland that started him on his enterprise.

After qualifying as a chartered surveyor in the mid 1980s he returned to his family's farm in Suffolk, intending to find a job in his chosen profession. However, at that time his father and brother sold their dairy herd, which meant a new use had to be found for the marshland they had used as summer grazing.

"I decided to find a new use for the land. We'd always grown cricket bat willow on the farm, and when a batch was mature the willow merchant came to have a look. I spent a very interesting morning learning all about it, and when he said they had a shortage of nursery stock, a bell rang. We got a contract to grow willow trees for nurseries. I started to experiment, and then we did a children's play area stand at the Suffolk Show in 1991."

Since then the business has grown and flourished. He has built novelty jumps for horse trials at Badminton, Burghley and Poplar Park, and garden fences all over the country.

"The business has just evolved," he said. "We don't rely on any one thing – in fact I'll make anything except baskets!"

The fencing is always built on site, supported by scaffolding poles, and has a life of at least ten years. If used as a support for ivy and other climbers, it will last longer, as the plants protect it from the weather. It seems to do particularly well in sea air, as the salt preserves it.

The willow branches are cut when bare during the winter and seasoned for a few weeks so they don't shrink and loosen once woven. They are then soaked in water to make them flexible enough to work with. Tools are basic – a steel bar, loppers and secateurs.

"The beauty of this fencing is it can twist and turn and duck and dive to fit the garden, and it can have buildings and features added to it, like a third dimension," said Mr Yates.

"It is an art form. I think it is to a garden what a frame is to a picture – a willow fence frames and shapes a garden."

Brampton Willows will be exhibiting in Germany from March 13-19.

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