An Oxfordshire couple with a love of vintage is faithfully bringing new life to old tools, furniture and ephemera.
Piers Newth’s Oxfordshire workshop smells of wax polish, wood shavings, hot metal and fresh paint. On the bench is a much-loved 1930s border fork with a broken handle, which he is skilfully restoring by splicing new wood into the old and burnishing the slender metal tines until they gleam. Soon it will join the ranks of beautifully renovated tools in the summerhouse just across th egarden: spades, trowels, hoes, loppers, shears, pruners and more, each one meticulously catalogued and priced by Piers’s partner, Louise Allen.
The variety in their current collection is staggering, from everyday tools to specialist pieces: an elegant, long-handled French flower picker that both cuts and holds blooms; an asparagus buncher; an alarmingly named Spearwell Slasher; a Gentleman’s Dandy Weeder and even a glass cucumber straightener. Alongside these are seed packets, vintage gardening books and catalogues, harvesting baskets, cloches, sieves and buckets, old garden tables, chairs, plant stands and many other treasures from the past.
Piers and Louise run Garden & Wood – a vintage garden tool, furniture and ephemera business – from their home, Dreamers Cottage, on the village green in Little Haseley near Oxford. Stock is sourced throughout the year but especially in winter, when affordable pieces are easier to find at auctions, trade fairs and markets. “We rarely go anywhere without working out whether we can buy some antique tools en route,” Louise says.
By setting up their business, she and Piers are not only able to pursue three of their passions – gardening, sustainable living and antiques – but can use their 25 years of experience in professional horticulture. The couple met in their teens at the RHS’s garden at Wisley in Surrey, where Piers had started as a grass cutter before moving into arboriculture, while Louise was taking the Wisley Certificate – a practical and traditional course for aspiring gardeners. After studying for a Kew Diploma (a high-level qualification to train people to work in botanic gardens around the world), Louise moved to Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum as the first education officer, and then she and Piers – who joined her five years later as arboretum foreman – advanced up the ladder to become its curators.
Although they both enjoyed their jobs, they had set themselves a goal to leave for new adventures when the time was right, working hard to pay off their mortgage so they would be free to do so. “Piers always said, ‘Something will come up’ and it did. On a trip to Herefordshire in 2008, he bought a few tools in an antiques shop and we were blown away by their quality.” They decided to look out for more and see where it took them. “We thought, worst case scenario, we’ll end up with a great toolshed ourselves,” Piers recalls.
He used his considerable skills to nurse them all back to full working order, having had a talent for such practical tasks since childhood. After a few months, the couple had accumulated around 200 tools – enough to sell – and in June 2009 they took time off work to run a stand at the prestigious Cottesbrooke Gardeners’ Fair. “The response was tremendous and we loved it. So the following year we did the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and that was that,” Louise says. “We both handed in our notices at Oxford Botanic and left in the autumn to focus on our new venture full-time.”
Keen gardeners and collectors alike now snap up the finds. The couple sell by mail order, via the online shop that Louise has created and, during spring and summer, they take to the road, going to a few select garden shows including Chelsea in London, Courson in Paris, Hex in Belgium and later at The Chelsea Physic Garden Christmas Fair. “We really look forward to attending these events and meeting our customers,” Louise says.
They are effusive about the quality of the items they sell. “In the past, people were better versed in using tools from a young age than they are now, so the pieces didn’t have to be over-engineered in order to stand up to misuse, as I believe they are today,” Piers says. “In a 1930s catalogue from the Brades Steel Works in Birmingham, for instance, the selection would start with a boy’s spade with a D-shaped or T-shaped handle and go up to a full-size spade, with a straight or tapered handle – and they all came in varying lengths to suit. At the shows, we encourage customers to pick up the tools and try them out.”
Piers prefers to conserve rather than restore if he can. “Going at a tool with an angle grinder is the worst thing you can do: you might remove the rust but you will also take off a proportion of the metal, which ruins it,” he says. “Often the tools have attained a better working shape over time. We tell customers to keep on using them because the abrasive action of the soil is good for the metal. The mentality of the earlier times was to retain and repair – that appeals to us in everything we do.”
When Piers and Louise are not running the business, they are busy tending their garden, which now supplies more than 75 per cent of their fruit and vegetables, on one third of an acre. “We grow what we like to eat including borlotti beans, potatoes, onions, cabbage, sprouts, kale, carrots, raspberries, blackcurrants and gooseberries. I’m keen to have enough home-grown produce to keep us going through winter,” Louise says. Paths are made from recycled materials and stone found within the garden, loose-laid on sand rather than set into concrete. “It works just as well and it is kinder to the environment. We don’t make the lines dead straight: Piers prefers things to look comfortably lived in.”
In another part of the garden, a shepherd’s hut, restored by Piers, has been converted into a showroom and Louise has decorated its painted walls with racks of illustrated seed packets and vintage advertisements, relishing the creative side of ‘setting out their stall’ both here and at the shows. Now Garden & Wood has become better known, customers can shop online or make an appointment to visit and buy – or to sell. “If someone has inherited a shed full of tools they can’t use, they’re glad to see them go to a good home,” Piers says. “If we know a tool’s history or the name of its previous owner, we pass that on to whoever buys it. It’s lovely to have that continuity if something has been well used and loved over many years.”
Words: Paula McWaters
Photographs: Andrew Montgomery visit his amazing website here
Country Living: January 2013