In twenty years, Dutch Elm disease (DED) changed the English landscape that it had taken centuries to make. The elm tree was big, rough and rugged. A specimen tree could grow to 45 metres. Now, fifty years after DED, only a few protected colonies remain. Those who never saw it won’t miss it, but those who knew it feel there’s something missing from their countryside.

I grew up on the margin of London, and as child learned the names of trees. Elms fringed our school and I became familiar with their corky bark and their asymmetrical saw-toothed leaves.

A fine specimen of English elm. (Know Your Broadleaves, HMSO, 1975)
Herbert Edlin of the Forestry Commission described the English elm in 1968, before DED had taken hold:

“The English elm has a magnificent habit of growth, which cannot be matched elsewhere; it adds an individual note to the landscape of England’s vales. The trunk is stout and erect, growing far taller than any associated tree, and from it there extend great billowing clouds of foliage, borne on distinct branch groups. Growth is rapid, and elms are rightly planted, preserved or encourage ed to grow from suckers along the hedgerows as a profitable source of timber. Records for height are 141 feet [43 metres] and for girth 25 feet [7.6 metres], though today no tree taller than 122 feet [37.2 metres] can be found, this stands at Youngsbury near Ware in Hertfordshire.”

In Sylva Britannica, Jacob Strutt (1784-1867) placed elms second in precedence only to oaks. Of the ancient elm in the village of Crawley (above) he reflects that it is –

“an inexhaustible source of pleasure to the train of village children who cluster like bees around it; trying their infant strength and courage in climbing its mimic precipices, whilst their parents recall, in their pastimes, the feelings of their own childhood; when, like them, they disported under the same boughs.” 

Crawley is now under the Gatwick flight path.

The Wych elm is quite different from the English elm. There are many hybrids, including the Dutch elm. The disease is not named after the Dutch elm but after the country where it was identified; it particularly affects the English elm. The tendency to hybridise means that there are local forms, given names like Huntingdon elm and Cornish elm. A confusing tree.

The English elm produces few fertile seeds and propagates by suckers, from which most in our landscape have been cultivated; they are local clones of a local variety. Few elms are truly wild. Both the appearance of the elm and its place in the landscape are products of human activity. Landscape is not natural, it is stage managed and carefully constructed.

It makes a noble subject for the landscape painter. Cuyp’s River Landscape (top picture) shows a clump of half a dozen elms and cattle resting in their shade. (National Gallery).

Constable loved and studied English elms. His painting of Dedham Lock and Mill (V&A) (below) shows them in all their roughness, irregularity and grandeur.

Paul Nash, for whom the landscape was numinous and full of significance, was bound to paint An Avenue of Elms (below).

What made me think of elms in the landscape were the remnants of elms all around us. DED kills the crown but not its roots. Except for the Wych elm, which reproduces only by seed, they throw up suckers that continue until they’re knocked back by the disease. They rarely die completely and the rootstock survives. I keep a lookout for them, and in my home town of St Albans there are several hedges and small trees.

Elms growing to 11 metres (centre of picture), Lady Spencer Grove, St Albans

Elm leaves and trunk, Lady Spencer Grove, St Albans 
Elm cropped to make a useful hedge, King Harry Lane, St Albans
Oliver Watson, the ecologist, takes an unsentimental and scientific view of trees. He wrote to The Times after the Great Storm of 1987 to tell people that it wasn’t such a tragedy because it culled the weakest trees. To those who complain about their favourite wood being coppiced, he says that woods were planted as crops and that the end of economic coppicing means they’re not being properly managed. He says that there have been repeated waves of DED throughout history and the trees have eventually acquired immunity. That will happen again, though it may take centuries.


On this anniversary of the Arts and Crafts Movement, craft has been given a boost by the UK government. Last October, John Hayes, the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning gave a talk to the Royal Society of Arts on “Skills and their Place in Modern Britain” saying that ours must be the age of the craftsman. Parts of his speech could have been written by William Morris (left).

“In most of Britain,” he said, “the hard-won skills of individuals have been subsumed by brutal, impersonal ubiquity. Butchers, bakers and others reduced to anonymous shop assistants in soulless megastores.” John Hayes praised the humanising influence of the crafts and said he wanted to raise the status of hands-on education in schools and colleges. Craft skills are essential to manufacturing industry, he said, and the government will continue to promote apprenticeships. It’s encouraging to hear this, but the way the government is going about it will not help ceramists.

Training for the crafts is the responsibility of a government agency called the Creative and Cultural Industries Skills Council In 2009, in partnership with the Crafts Council, CCS produced the Craft Blueprint, the workforce development plan for crafts in the UK. It recommended the creation of a national system of craft apprenticeships. Any programme of craft apprenticeships obviously has to meet the needs of makers and those who want to become makers. The best way to ensure that it does is to consult craftspeople and to build on what has been proved to work already.

Ceramists are a significant part of the crafts environment, accounting for a third of craftspeople, so it’s essential to talk to them. But the Craft Potters Association were never consulted about the Craft Blueprint.When I talked to CCS, I wasn’t sure if they’d heard of the CPA, although they say they would be happy to enter into dialogue. The Crafts Council did consult ceramists, but it’s not clear how far the views of consultees were taken into account. One experienced potter who was consulted never heard anything about the Blueprint again.

Many craftspeople are adults seeking a second career. For two-thirds of those working in studio crafts, art school was their route into making. The purpose of an apprenticeship is to give graduates the workshop experience they need to practice professionally. That’s what Lisa Hammond set up Adopt a Potter Funded by voluntary contributions, and working on a shoestring, Adopt-a-Potter builds on Lisa Hammond’s successful experience of training potters to run their own studios. It provides workshop experience for ceramics graduates and subsidises employers who would otherwise find it difficult to take on an apprentice. It works well. Why not model national craft apprenticeships on that?

Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen.

The focus of craft apprenticeships will be school leavers without qualifications, who are the government’s priority for vocational training. The apprenticeships will offer a non-graduate entry route into the crafts and graduates will not be eligible. Apprentices will be trained to NVQ level 2 or 3 (equivalent to GCSE or A-level). There’s a clue in John Hayes’s statement that craft skills are essential to manufacturing industry. The craft apprentice scheme may meet the needs of industry and some heritage crafts, but not the needs of studio crafts. CCS are essentially considering training for employment, not for running a studio.

 It might be argued that existing routes into ceramics are too exclusive and that they should be opened up to people with lower qualifications. There may indeed be scope for training school leavers. The Leach pottery in St Ives is exploring this with Plymouth College of Art, and some other potteries are also willing to train young people. But training school leavers to the level of skill needed for independent professional practice takes far longer than the sort of apprenticeships being developed by CCS.

The dominant pattern of work in the crafts is independent self-employment and there are few opportunities for people who want to be employed as assistants. Only five per cent of craft businesses cent employ full time staff. The proposed scheme of craft apprenticeships will not offer financial assistance to employers. Similar apprenticeships in the cultural industries have so far been offered by institutions with public funding. Makers are not in that position: three quarters have a turnover of less than £30,000. Without subsidy, they are unlikely to take on trainees.

Unless these proposals are altered, looking at the way makers actually operate and taking account of what already works, they will not meet the needs of ceramists and I doubt if they will meet the needs of other makers.

(This piece was published as “Off-Centre”, in Ceramic Review, Nov/Dec 2011.)