Form and Function Meet In Finely Woven Creels by Athene English, Selvedge Magazine
‘Mr Jeremy Fisher put on a mackintosh, and a pair of shiny galoshes; he took his rod and basket and set off with enormous hops to the place where he kept his boat.’
Most of us can remember Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher – the frog who went fishing for minnows but almost came to a tragic end. About to be swallowed whole by a large trout, the unpleasant taste of his galoshes saved his life, but in making his escape he lost his rod and fine fishing basket to the greedy fish.
Mr J Fisher’s fishing basket was in fact a fine English Willow Creel, exquisitely illustrated in Beatrix Potter’s drawings. Mr Jeremy Fisher is depicted sporting his creel on his back as he leaps from lily pad to lily pad in search of his boat at the beginning of this eventful fishing trip. These baskets were popular up until the 1950s, but then suffered a decline from that point.
They were of service to the fishermen as they were light and portable. There were fewer cars in those days, and fishermen would walk miles in search of piscatorial quarry. The creels were strong – strong enough even to sit on whilst fishing or picnicking. The most important reason was that willow kept fish fresh. The natural tannin in the willow is slowly released as a result of the wet fish and preserves the catch.
Traditionally these baskets were made from English Somerset willow, and are usually white in appearance with the bark stripped off, although you can find some old creels made from willow with the bark left on, which are caramel coloured. There are also ‘split reed’ creels. These wonderful examples of basketwork are made from the whole willow stem, which is split down its centre making a fine strip of willow. These are the finest creels, incredibly strong and – as they are more commonly found in France – sometimes known as The French Creel.
Like all willow basket work, maintenance is negligible. Creels only need washing out in clean cold water, with a little detergent, then – before the willow dries, a light brushing with vegetable oil will help to retain the colour and lustre of the willow.
‘This is getting tiresome, I think I should like some lunch’, said Mr Jeremy Fisher. He punted back again amongst the water plants, and took some lunch out of his basket.’