12 March 1999

Bringing back the birch for the Queens brooms

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THE ranks of prestigious companies holding a royal warrant have been joined by Arthur Nash, who has been appointed besom broom and pea stick maker to Her Majesty the Queen.

Arthur has been supplying besoms to Buckingham Palace directly for the last six years. He is very proud of the honour which, suitably framed, hangs in his home in Tadley, Hants, where his family have made besoms for 300 years.

"Dad is especially pleased that it is granted to him personally," said his daughter, Amanda. "It wasnt easy to get because they are very particular. We were turned down in 1997 but last year the Lord Chamberlains office was very helpful and said we could apply again. They wanted to see an ordinary working man receive it. It was a lovely Christmas present."

Arthur is not allowed to exploit the warrant commercially but his letterheads now bear the royal coat of arms.

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Tadley used to be a besom capital, providing 100,000 annually at its peak in the 1920s. The village depended on nearby Pamber Forest for its woodland industry livelihood, making everything from hurdles to clogs. Arthur is one of the few "broom squires" left but turns out thousands a year.

In winter he cuts the young birch in local woods, collecting it into bundles, or bavens, which are stacked and covered to season for at least six months. Picking the birch down to size to market the brooms was traditionally a womans job in the non-politically correct past. "My mother and grandmother did it and myself and my sister, Lisa. We are still here if needed but we always say the pay is not great." said Amanda.

On a broom horse the selected birch twigs are bound with galvanised wire to make the head. The shaved and pointed handles, inserted afterwards, are fashioned from stems of hazel whose thinnings are used for the pea sticks. It takes Arthur about five minutes to put a besom together once he has all the materials to hand.

Coppicing is an ancient tradition and part of good woodland management. But there are people today who dont understand the practice and it upsets Arthur when they ignorantly accuse him of "killing" trees.

From March to November Arthur sets his besom stall out at country shows where he demonstrates his craft. Apart from the Queen his customers include Hampton Court, Woburn Abbey, Kew Gardens, London Zoo and the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall.

Tourists like them as souvenirs and vengeful husbands, no doubt haunted by images of witches on broomsticks, buy them for mothers-in-law and ex-wives.

Tom Montgomery