17 May 2002

Chairs to save lambs

LAMBING chairs were once a common sight in farmhouse kitchens in the Yorkshire Dales.

When ewes were giving birth, shepherds could sit in them all night, dozing by the fire and protected from draughts by the chairs wings and hood.

They are an extremely useful piece of furniture because in front was a large drawer in which a hypothermic lamb could be popped and warmed up by a bed of hay and the farmers bare feet!

Some types had two drawers at the side. One might contain a bible, the other a bottle of whisky.

In the Old Smithy on the village green at Austwick, near Settle, Simon Robinson, a former farmer, now makes lambing chairs.

They are copies of a 17th century original owned by his mother and come in a range of woods, mostly oak. Beautifully crafted and finished, with hemp rope seats, they sit comfortably by the Aga in the homes of his Dales customers.

Simon likes the idea of perpetuating a piece of local history and creating the antiques of the future but, in truth, he would sooner be lambing than making chairs. He is a frustrated farmer.

"I went to agricultural college and spent the first 15 years of my working life on farms. I would start lambing near Gatwick Airport in January and work my way northwards, hiring out my labour. I reached this part of the world in spring.

"It was hard work but I loved it and would go back tomorrow. But I had no intention of lambing somebody elses sheep when I was 65. I wanted my own farm and by the time I was 30 I knew it wasnt going to happen.

"So, I decided it was time to make a career move."

His choice of cabinet maker was a bit odd because he hadnt even taken woodwork at school, but he fancied the idea. He had done a lot of drystone walling on farms and he reasoned that furniture making would be similar. Time and care would get him there. "I couldnt then see all the bumps in the learning curve," he said.

He studied at college, which taught him the basics, before setting up his workshop and showroom which he calls "Dalesbred" after the breed of sheep. His wife, Sally, looks after the upholstery side and they employ two workers.

Their trademark is a tups head inlaid into every piece of furniture.

Lambing chairs were the first thing he made because he wanted to do something a bit different. "When we exhibited at country shows older farmers, who remembered them being used, would tell us stories about them," said Simon. "They were common in Yorkshire and Lancashire and because they were made locally there were different styles."

Steam bend hoods and difficult angles in lambing chairs test the cabinet makers skill and patience. Simon would sooner work on a dining room suite in burr oak or a dresser, which also feature in his catalogue. His latest piece is a beautiful CD cabinet. But he obviously has a soft spot for the lovely old chairs. It must be the shepherd still in him that keeps him turning them out. Simon can be contacted on 01524-251798.

Tom Montgomery

Country seat…Simon Robinson demonstrates.