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The Coleford Time-line

November 1, 2013

I was invited to take part in an exhibition entitled “Stitches in time” at Radstock Museum. The museum is famous for its annual  quilt show: this exhibition, which is on until 30 November, is for textile-art of any genre other than quilts.

Cocoons: Wensleydale wool felted onto chicken-wire - made by Ama Bolton

Cocoons: Wensleydale wool felted onto chicken-wire.  Ama Bolton

Lichen study I. Hand-felted local wool with stitching. Ama Bolton.

Lichen study I. Hand-felted local wool with stitching. Ama Bolton

Lichen study II

Lichen study II


Lichen study IV

Lichen study IV

When I went to hang my work I was thrilled to see that the exhibition included the nineteen panels that comprise the Coleford Time-line. I was the artist-in-residence for this millennium project.

In November 1998 I had a phone call from someone on the Millennium Committee. He’d found my name in the Somerset Art Week brochure and was looking for a textile artist to run a community project. It would last a year, two hours a week, and the fee was £3000. Would I like to come for an interview? I went to meet the committee the following week. Coleford is a large village but it is off the beaten track and difficult to find. The interview seemed to go all right and I was quite hopeful. I heard nothing for a couple of months and thought no more about it.

Then I had another phone call. Would I please come and address a public meeting on February 22? The meeting was sparsely attended – just the committee members and a few friends and relations. I outlined my ideas for a series of self-contained panels showing highlights from the village’s history. I hoped that the volunteers would work in their own chosen techniques and that some of them would work to their own designs.

I was given a list of contacts, and after ringing many individuals and going to speak to various groups – the British Legion, the pensioners’ club, the Church Wives, Brownies, Beavers, Cubs, Mothers and Toddlers and so on, I had about 20 volunteers. Four of them undertook to design as well as make their panels. The committee expected that I would hold court in the village hall once a week and that the volunteers would come to meet me. It very soon became obvious that this would not be possible. Some had daytime jobs, some could not go out in the evenings, some had young children or sick relations to look after at home. Every week I made several home visits, delivering the painted canvases and supplies of wool and sorting out the occasional problem and consuming countless cups of tea. I made a lot of friends. I attended two funerals and a christening. I spent many happy afternoons in the village primary school with some of the friendliest children one could hope to meet. And I had to learn new techniques very quickly, and teach them to other people! The local history group gave me a brief historical outline. Various other subjects were added over the months.

We ended up with nineteen panels, each with a picture about 16×24 inches and a top and bottom border. Most of them were worked in wool on canvas, this being a medium that was familiar to many of the volunteers Nine of the panels were designed by David Higgs, a member of the committee and a very fine draughtsman. Four were designed by the people who made them. I designed six, and the top and bottom borders. This included designing four alphabets in different sizes. In the end, a total of 93 adults and children were involved in this project. It was one of four Millennium projects in this amazing village. The others were a local history book, a youth video and a butterfly garden. All four were unveiled at a day-long village festival on the 1st July 2000 – sixteen months after my first faltering steps!

The Coleford Timeline, as it was called, was exhibited in the Methodist Church Room, which was filled to capacity for most of the day. A representative from one of the sponsors, the New Horizons Trust, said it was the most impressive project of its kind that she had seen. When Somerset County Council produced a booklet “Marking the Millennium in Somerset” the cover featured photos of our work.


13th Century Knights Templar Settlement.

This community, near what is now Page House Farm on the northern edge of the village, was linked by a track called the Hullingwey to grist-mills on the river at the bottom of the village. The Templars also owned fulling mills in the district.

Lipyeate (in various spellings) is a fairly common place name. It refers to the practice of placing a gate on steeply sloping land, so that deer could jump over it down into the enclosed park, but not up out again. IMG_7594

16th Century mining.

There are records from the 3rd century onwards of coal-mining activity in the region. The remains of diggings and spoil-heaps can be seen in many of the fields around Coleford. Once, a tractor disappeared into a forgotten mine-shaft.

The upper border shows earlier methods of mining, and a huge prehistoric dragonfly that was found in fossil form in one of the Radstock mines.


The Coffin Path from Coleford to Kilmersdon Church

Until 1843, Coleford was part of the parish of Kilmersdon. Funerals were held in the parish church two and a half miles away, and coffins had to be taken there in all weathers. The church tower can be seen to the left of the tree. A labourer has put down his bill-hook and stands cap-in-hand as the mourners pass by. His dog wonders what’s going on!


18th Century Mills on the Mells Stream.

In 1720 there were at least 20 mills along the valley from Nettlebridge to Vobster. They ground corn, fulled cloth and made paper.

This lively and dramatic picture was designed and hand-woven by Linda Wigley. She is a historian and was working at  Radstock Museum. This is the only piece that can be called “tapestry” in the true sense of the word. I did not see it until it was finished, not long before the deadline, and meanwhile the two borders had been made. I had no idea whether the colours would harmonise. Fortunately they went together very well.   I drew the birds in the upper border, and the background scenery was added by Kay Dawkes, a keen birdwatcher, who stitched it.


John Wesley Preaching in Coleford.

Wesley’s first visit to Coleford was on New Year’s Day 1745. Only 13 months later, work had begun on the building of a chapel, paid for by public subscription. Ten years later the congregation was growing too big for the chapel. The present building was completed in 1865. A Wesleyan Sunday School opened in 1805, to give the village children some basic education on their one day off work.

Beryl Earwaker gave me the quotation that inspired the design for the top border, and it was she who stitched it.


The Aqueduct

A canal was proposed, for the transport of coal from the Nettlebridge Valley. This impressive aqueduct (known in the village as the Huckduck, and giving its name to the Huckyduck Carnival Club) was one of the few stretches of canal completed before the scheme ran out of money in 1803. By then the railways were taking a lot of freight away from the canals.

Sybil Hodges, who lived beside the aqueduct and was a keen supporter of the Carnival club, stitched this panel. I couldn’t find anyone to do the top border so I stitched that one myself.


The Newbury Pit

Newbury is one of the best known of Coleford’s many collieries. It opened early in the 18th century. The newer deep workings commenced in 1799 and were greatly expanded in 1859 under the ownership of the Westbury Iron Company. Two banks of coking ovens were built at this time, made of refractory brick with iron doors to control the ventilation. The top border is based on a photo taken before they were demolished. The pit closed as a result of the 1926 General Strike. The picture combines two of David Higgs’ original drawings. The lower part shows the infamous “guss and crook”, a rough harness with which young lads hauled sleds of coal along passages which were too low to accommodate a pony. The boys had to pay for this instrument of torture out of their first week’s wages. There is a life-size reconstruction of this scene in Radstock Museum. Madeline and Peter Smith stitched the main panel in only two months. They introduced tweedy yarns for an earthy effect.


The Parish Church

Sandra Hull, wife of the organist, spent many evenings poring over musty old documents in the Church tower before designing her beautiful portrait of Holy Trinity Church. She worked it in a very fine-gauge cross-stitch, with tiny glass beads in the windows.

The Saxon chapel in the upper border was based on St Aldhelm’s chapel on the Dorset coast. No trace can be seen today of the Luckington chapel, or of a 15th century chapel of the Virgin Mary. The buzzard was added by Kay Dawkes, the bird enthusiast who stitched the border.


The Victorian School

This picture, in handmade felt, was made by a class of 7 and 8 year old children at Bishop Henderson School in Coleford. They looked at old photos and made drawings which they then used as patterns to cut out shapes in lightly felted dyed Merino wool. These were then carefully arranged on a base of carded wool in dyed blue and natural white and grey, and felted into place using cold soapy water and gentle rubbing by the children in teams of four. When it was firm, it was rolled up in a cane mat and rolled energetically. Then I took it home to rinse out the soap and dry it and stretch it. Finally the children added the stitched details. The golden eagle was the idea of an imaginative young birdwatcher.


 The Mackintosh Pit

Sonia Cage, who lives near the site of the Mackintosh Pit, designed the panel and started work on it when she had finished the Memorial Gates canvas.

To comply with a new law, to improve ventilation a second shaft was sunk about half a mile west of Newbury. It was known as the Mackintosh, and began producing coal in 1867. An underground airway linked the two pits, but in spite of this an explosion at the Mackintosh killed 11 men and injured two in 1869. It was one of the worst disasters in the Somerset coalfields. A relief fund was set up to help the widows and children of the victims.


The Co-op

Claire Henning based her design on an old photograph. She painted it on silk and then lightly quilted it with machine-stitching. One of the shop-assistants, now retired, came and identified herself in the picture when the work was first exhibited.

The Coleford Co-op had branches in nearby villages. It became part of Radstock Co-op from 1973 to 1984. After that it stayed open for a few years as a privately-owned grocery shop.

The top border shows the Somerset Miners’ banner, which is in Radstock Museum. It depicts pit-head gear and an apple branch.


The Miners’ Bandwagon

A depression in the coal industry in the 1880s led to wage cuts, which the Somerset miners resisted fiercely. Talks with the employers broke down, and the Coleford miners were locked out. The Union provided strike pay but funds ran out after a few months. The local community gave some support, and the miners themselves hauled their wagon considerable distances to collect contributions to keep their starving families alive. This picture was based on the first of David Higgs’ wonderfully atmospheric drawings for the project, and unusually it does not feature a dog or cat!

Coleford Athletic Football Club (known as the Colliers) had a reputation in its early years for very rough play. They rarely lost a match.This border was stitched by my daughter Mary.


The Flower Show

The annual flower show replaced the former hiring fair.

I went to the 1999 Flower Show. Later I took a large marrow on holiday with me and spent the evenings drawing it from different angles. The quotation is from a music-hall song by Erich Siebert. I designed several different lettering styles for this project: this one in the speech bubbles, which I used for some of the upper borders, another one for the cross-stitch borders, the large capitals with serifs, ten stitches high, for the lower borders, and slightly smaller capitals nine stitches high for the list of war casualties. All of them were worked out on graph paper. Someone lent me a book of cross-stitch alphabets, but they were all rather too fancy. I went for maximum legibility.


Henry Cave and Cecil Sharp

I’ve always enjoyed folk music and dancing, so I was very excited to discover that Cecil Sharp, the great collector and preserver of folk song and dance, was part of the village’s history. He collected three tunes from Henry Cave at their first meeting in Coleford, and many more on subsequent occasions. This scene is set in the Greyhound Inn, which no longer exists.

Henry Cave was a popular local figure at the turn of the last century. He was originally from Evercreech. He used to travel from place to place sharpening knives and mending pots and pans by day, and in the evening playing his fiddle at an inn while his wife danced. They would often construct a bender to sleep in.


The Memorial Gates.

The Playing Field and its lovely gates were provided as a memorial to the village men and boys who died in the two world wars. I got the list of names from the secretary of the British Legion.

This was the first design I did, and by far the most difficult. It was all worked out on graph paper. I think Sonia Cage found it quite a challenge to stitch, too. It took over a year to complete. The first and last letter of each name is highlighted in fine gold thread: a labour of love.



Bill Jones (1884-1967) was another larger-than-life character. Many people in the village still remember him. Not long before his death, he bought the redundant building which had been the Miners Welfare Hall, and gave it to the church. It still serves as a church hall. His comical stories in the Somerset dialect are well worth reading. The books are in Wells library.

The picture shows a church choir outing by charabanc in the 1920s. It is interpreted in shadow-quilting. I traced all the shapes and cut them out in various fabrics, assembled them like a jigsaw puzzle and stuck them to a plain cotton backing with Bondaweb and tacked a piece of gauze on top. Tina Button then worked the quilting stitches which hold it all together and help to define the shapes.


 Bishop Henderson School

Another picture in handmade felt, this time done by a class of 9 and 10 year-olds. The children drew features of their school that were important to them (interestingly these were without exception outdoor features!), and the work progressed in the same way as the other felt picture. Once again I went in one afternoon a week for a whole term, and worked with the children in small groups outside the classroom. Such a happy and friendly school.

That’s me in the long blue skirt. Brilliant head-teacher. That’s him with the football.

The upper border shows some of the spare-time activities of the village children. One of the mums did the drawing of the submarine, the others were done by children, I put them on graph-paper and it was stitched by two of the mums.


Coleford Theatre Group

I went to one of their productions – Starburst 2000. For an amateur show it was very impressive. There are some talented people in the village. Probably the two Carnival Clubs have something to do with that, and the fact that the village school is very strong on music. The panel was based on a drawing by Jeff Power, the group’s designer, and made by another member of the group, Julie Warwick. It includes canvas-work and shadow-quilting, and the curtains are pieces of velvet. The lettering was difficult to get right, because the stitches slope the wrong way when the writing is vertical.


Volunteers and Sponsors

This one is so big that it was made in two parts, stitched by two different people. It took a long time. The day before the deadline of 30th June, I joined the two pieces with a narrow strip of canvas on which I then had to stitch two lines of names. Then I dampened and stretched it on a board overnight, and finally sewed it onto the backing. I finished this in the car as Peter drove us to Coleford for the preview of the exhibition.

Embroidery by Non Hobson

Embroidery by Non Hobson

I do like this colourful, chaotic piece by Non Hobson. It is done in French knots and was inspired by an aboriginal painting on a calendar.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2013 1:32 pm

    What a splendid and impressive series! Wonderful, really – congratulations!

  2. November 1, 2013 9:52 pm

    WOW! What a labour of love… I am in awe of your many skills, Ama

  3. November 1, 2013 11:12 pm

    Thanks Ana. Thanks Jo. Mostly I was flying by the seat of my pants!

  4. mary pearce permalink
    February 19, 2020 9:11 pm

    Hi, Coleford are attempting to add some more to the tapestry timeline, now that twenty years have flown by. We are hoping to link this in some way to the VE Day celebrations. Would you like to be involved in some way? It can be as little as you like. Looking forward to hearing from you.


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