One of the endangered crafts we pledge to protect here at the Museum is Hurdle Making. Originating in the Early Medieval times in the south of England, hurdles are moveable wooden panels usually used to section off part of a field for sheep to graze.
There are different types of hurdles each with different uses. Wattle hurdles were originally found in Somerset and used for anything from hut walls to portable fencing panels. However, the type of hurdle we make here at the Museum is gate hurdles. These are a form of open hurdle, made as a portable fencing panel primarily for penning sheep. They need to be lightweight so several can be carried over the shoulder, but also robust enough to withstand rough treatment. Gate hurdle making was widespread in Hampshire and Berkshire where sheep farming took place on the downs. By 1959, the last gate hurdle makers were forced to find alternative work by economic circumstances, which has resulted in the craft becoming endangered.
Julian Bell, Museum Curator, is responsible for keeping the craft of hurdle making alive here at the Museum and passing the skill on to new people. As well as teaching hurdle making in our popular workshops, he is also responsible for the creation and maintenance of hurdles at the Museum.
As is the way with many traditional heritage crafts, Julian was originally taught hurdle making by word of mouth and not written instruction, by Ben Hedden who used to work at the Museum. There is no one way to make hurdles, and methods can vary depending where you are in the country and what the hurdle is being used for, so throughout the years Julian has acquired a font of knowledge of different tricks and tips, honing his skill and gaining understanding into alternative methods and uses – an ongoing learning process.
The hurdles Julian makes, and teaches, are predominantly sheep hurdles with five lateral bars, as was the style historically used in this area. The horizontal bars are slightly closer at the bottom than the top to ensure small lambs cannot escape, however because local South Down Sheep tend to be fairly chunky, five bars was more than sufficient to keep them penned in. Other parts of the country – for example Hampshire or Devon – often use six or seven bars depending on their needs and sizing of their flock.
The hurdles are created out of sweet chestnut which cleaves and splits well and is also hardwearing and common in this area. Well splitting wood is a fundamental part of a good hurdle as each round pole has to be split right down the middle with a froe. This ensures most efficient use of materials, but also that the end hurdle is light enough to lift. Splitting the wood and steering it to ensure an even break is an acquired skill which requires patience and practice.
To create the heads, the wood is then stripped of bark with a draw knife and pointed with a billhook so the hurdle can easily be embedded in place. Holes for the horizontal rails are then cut using a morticing knife.
The connecting rails are longer, lighter poles which are also cleft with a froe, rinded with a draw knife and the ends flattened with an axe.
To assemble the hurdle, the various sections are placed in position on a special brake and the heads trapped firmly onto the rails. The braces are then fixed firmly in place with nails, ensuring each nail is completely flattened. Finally, the hurdle is stacked in batches and weighed down with stones to make sure they are completely flat, and left to season. After which the hurdles are ready for use.
Julian teaches the art of hurdle making at limited classes at the Museum each year, ensuring the craft continues to be passed down, and the skill of hurdle making is retained for future generations.
If you are interested in learning more about hurdle making or attending one of Julian’s workshops, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.