Saturday, August 1, 2015

Trug Life

As August arrives, and harvesting begins in earnest on the allotment and in the veg garden, the most important tool in my shed comes into its own. The Sussex Trug, a lightweight and elegant basket made from willow and sweet chestnut, has the shape and capacity to spread the weight of the most bountiful crops. Coming from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘trog’, meaning wooden vessel, this highly effective design has been synonymous with Sussex for two hundred years.

It was in 1829 that Thomas Smith, widely thought to be the original designer, started making trugs in Herstmonceux. When he took his product to the Great Exhibition of 1851 it caught the eye of Queen Victoria; this royal endorsement brought it to the attention of the wider public, demand soared and the Sussex Trug was born.

Herstmonceux continued to be its home throughout the 19th and 20th centuries: Hormes House, a Grade II listed cottage where Smith began, still bears the royal crest and there is a small development of modern social housing in the centre of the village, called Old Trug Shop House, built on the site of a later workshop. It was here that I can remember seeing an elderly trug maker working outside as late as the 1990s.

Today, there are two trug makers in Herstmonceux: young upstart The Truggery, at Coopers Croft, has only been producing the distinctive baskets since 1899 and the successor to the original, Thomas Smith’s Trug Shop , is now at Magham Down. Young apprentices can be seen working at the roadside here, in warmer weather, producing trugs in the original way. The handle and frame of the trug is made first by shaving, steaming and bending sweet chestnut poles. Willow boards, made pliable from being soaked in rainwater, are then nailed to the frame to form the body of the basket; the feet are also made of willow.

My trug has endured 10 years of heavy and continuous work and is still going strong: it probably has another 10 year’s life in it yet. There are cheap plywood imitations available, but they lack durability and are not made in Herstmonceux, or even Sussex. If you want a garden trug for your veg harvest, it has to be a Sussex Trug.

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