Rushes

by frankbeswick

People have traditionally used rushes and other water plants for building and making utensils.

If you travel through parts of England you may see a charming cottage roofed with thatch. These cottages are invariably expensive to buy and to maintain. They are always found in the countryside, and are a relic of an England long gone. But we British are a tradition-loving lot, and there are among us crafts people who still make use of rushes and similar plants for basketry and furniture. Thus they preserve ancestral traditions.
Image courtesy of Mazumbi, of Pixabay

Rushes, Reeds and Sedges

A flat-bottomed boat is punted or paddled through the Norfolk Broads in the flat landscape of East Anglia,  an expanse of water-filled peat diggings dating from Mediaeval times when East Anglians used  to excavate peat and use it as fuel, as many people still do in Ireland and the Scottish Isles. A leisure boat passes, its bow wave causing the punt to rock a little, but the boatman heeds it not. He [and it is not always he, for there are women in this peaceable business too] stops the boat by an overgrown patch of fen [ boggy land ] on the bank, and begins to cut the vegetation by the bank.  He loads the severed stems into the second punt that they are towing behind them, then skilfully turns the boats and returns to base, where the rushes are put through a drying process. The boat's crew are thatchers, plyers of an ancient trade that uses rushes, reeds and straw, etc, to make roofs. Some thatchers harvest their own materials, but most of the others buy it in from a variety of sources. Though few in number, these maintainers of a traditional craft provide a threefold service. They provide material for roofs and other items; they keep the fenland waterways clear for boating; and they maintain the ecology of the fen, preventing it from silting up.  

Three fenland plants are used for thatching: rushes, reeds and sedges. But mainly rushes concern us here, as of the three they have the widest use. Reeds are tall, plants with feathery tops in their mature stage, while sedges are triangular-stemmed plants with a hard stem. They and reeds are only used for thatching in Europe, though in the Middle East and Egypt reeds were skilfully used to make boats. If you read the works of the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl you may read about the Ra expedition, in which he sailed an Egyptian papyrus reed ship across the Atlantic to investigate whether the ancient Egyptians could have reached America. There is no evidence that  reed boats were used in the British Isles, but they are unlikely to last long once abandoned, so archaeologists are unlikely to find their remains.

The British Isles are a damp place, and historically, before improved drainage was introduced in the seventeenth century, there were large areas of wetland. Certain areas were wetter than others, and the rule tends to be that Britain gets wetter the further north and west you go. Ireland, with its distinct saucer shape created by its rim of high ground which focuses water in its low-lying flat centre, is wet. It  is significant that traditions that celebrate rush usage are commoner in the north of England than they are in the drier south. We can see why rush-strewing traditions are preserved in Cumbria, in North-West England, for it is one of England's wettest areas, as the stormy weather of recent years has emphasised. Rushes are part of the landscape in that scenic area, and they are easy to find.

Basketwork

Basketwork in a skep
Basketwork in a skep
The Gadman, courtesy of Pixabay

The Uses of Rushes.

Rushes have a peaceful history, they have never, as far as I know, been implicated in war, and there has been little or no change in use for a long time, save that we now use them less than we did.

Strewing was a major use. Depending on how wealthy they were people strewed  their floors with rushes at least once a year. Wealthier people did it more than once. This was in the days before fitted carpets. Rushes provided a soft, warm flooring in houses with stone floors and in churches. In stone-floored houses anyone who walked barefoot would have appreciated rush flooring as it prevented their getting cold feet. The rushes were when possible mixed with herbs, some of which provided pleasant scents, such as rosemary, and others of which were insecticidal, such as garlic, pennyroyal and wormwood.  Rushes could be woven into mats, though these would generally have been small, as rushes are small plants. The Japanese still make tatami mats from rushes, which are 176 centimetres long.

When the floor was cleared of dry rushes they would have been used as kindling for the fire. Nothing was wasted.

Another use is rush candles, which were made by repeatedly dipping dried rushes into tallow. If the candle was kept thin it was simply a rush  candle, but if it was allowed to thicken out the rush served as a wick. As rushes have hollow stems they easily fill with melted wax, and this helps them to burn. They could also serve as the wick of an oil lamp. Fed through a hole into a container of oil they would take up the oil through capillary action in their their hollow stems and burn well.

But an important use was basketry. Rushes were woven and twisted into strong strands or ropes and then several strands would have been woven into a mat, which was then fastened to the wooden framework of a chair to form the seat. How long these rush seats lasted is unclear. But baskets were also made out of rushes by basket makers, using the same technique.

One form of basketry now rendered obsolete by modern developments, is the skep. This was a basketwork beehive, used by beekeepers up to the nineteenth century before modern hives were designed. Mediaeval monks used to place skeps in alcoves in the walls of walled gardens to protect them from wind and other  causes of damage, a necessary move as they were quite lightweight compared with modern hives. You can see an example of the basketwork in a modern skep in the large image in this article.   

There are limited uses of rushes in herbal medicine, though there were some old remedies for their use for sore throats, but modern herbal medicine has largely by-passed them. Apparently, the roots of the common rush are considered edible, but they are not commonly eaten and some people disagree about their edibility. Play safe and don't eat. Rushes are considered toxic for sheep and cattle.

Rushes played a significant part in the lives of our forebears and as plastics fade out they may still have a future. They are a small, but interesting part of social and economic history.

 

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Updated: 03/17/2022, frankbeswick
 
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frankbeswick 10 days ago

They relied on natural growth. There were no farms dedicated to the purpose of growing reeds rushes or sedges, though some estates had their own sources of these plants.

DerdriuMarriner 10 days ago

Did reed, rush, sedge basketry, candle-making, floor-strewing and herbal medicine deplete reeds, rushes and sedges growing naturally or did they require natural reeds, rushes and sedges and reed, rush and sedge farms?

Would their return rely upon natural growth or would it require natural growth and reed, rush and sedge farms?

Veronica 13 days ago

Whyyyyy? Oh why? ...would MY memory go back as far as yours ? :) when you are so much older than I!

I do remember the basket

frankbeswick 14 days ago

.Not only rushes will return, but rush bags and baskets will need to be reusable.

Remember, in your lifetime our mother had a wicker basket. I don't know whether your memory goes so far back, but mine does. This shows that basketwork is not as antique as some might think. Antique though! Does the term apply to me?

Veronica 14 days ago

I am taken with the idea of the use of rushes returning as the movement towards reducing plastic gathers pace. A charming thought.

frankbeswick 23 days ago

I have no personal preference.

I am unsure, but I think that non-recyclable plastic is burned.

DerdriuMarriner 24 days ago

I'm seeing a lack of consensus on the internet as to reed, rush and sedge basketry. Those who appreciate reeds attribute to them the characteristics attributed by those who appreciate rushes and sedges. Which one are you most impressed with or most partial to?

And back to their brief (in comparison to the time that reeds, rushes and sedges have been employed) competitors...

Are there plastics that recycling companies do not take from you all northeast-ponders? For example, right here it only can be those with the letters HDPE and PET coded on the bottom. What happens therefore to non-recyclable plastic? Is it delivered to landfills? Or is it possible for it to be burned?

frankbeswick 26 days ago

Single use plastic is being seen as wasteful, harmful to wildlife and therefore unacceptable. Long-lasting plastics, such as Lego, will continue to be used. But plastics derived from fast-diminishing oil will fade out naturally.

DerdriuMarriner 27 days ago

Is it that plastic will not be socially acceptable because of the dangers that it presents to wildlife, such as beached whales found starving because of the loads of plastics in their stomachs?

frankbeswick 29 days ago

I am convinced that basketry will make a comeback as plastic becomes dearer and less socially acceptable.


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