The Stanmer Yurt from SPS Newsletter 2012

I fell in love with the Scottish Storytelling Yurt the minute I first saw it in a photograph album belonging to a friend in the Buxted Spinning Group (where Ann, Naomi and I go each Wednesday). The wooden structure had been covered in the most beautifully decorated felt panels, created by members of the International Feltmakers Association as a millennium project. And what’s more, it was For Hire.

Immediately I set about trying to arrange to bring it down to Stanmer for the 2010 Springwatch Festival but, sadly, it was now considered to be a bit too old to risk letting it travel such a distance. Searching online to see if perhaps there were another felted yurt for hire somewhere, I came across the Medina Yurt. A-ha, the Isle of Wight is much closer than Scotland, let’s go and find out how they did it and see if we could possibly make one for ourselves.

Thanks to Sussex Community Foundation funding, a group of us (including three SPS members) took the ferry to the Isle of Wight to meet Chris and Stephen Lines – the team responsible for creating the stunning Medina Yurt in 2009. Steve talked us through the processes involved over coffee at the Medina High School – they had even had funding to have a special felt-making machine brought over from Finland, before we all helped to cover their adorable yurt, erected especially for us the previous day.

Each of the exquisite felt panels had been created by different local groups including primary schoolchildren, the local guild, and (my favourite) a panel showing alpacas. Chris had worked long and hard to finish them all off after each workshop. One school had used too much soap and she had spent hours trying to cope with mountains of bubbles long after the school had closed! This fantastic yurt comes out each year for various festivals on the IoW. This was all the inspiration we needed.

On the ferry home we all helped ourselves to handfuls of coffee stirrers for me to try to make a mini-yurt model. I had a go at drilling teeny holes but soon begged for help from John at the Stanmer Rural Museum. He kindly drilled about 500 holes and I set about tying them together. In September, I met up with Matt Boysons at the excellent Bentley Woodfair, where each year he shows archive films in one of the rustic yurts he makes at Yurtopia, his patch of Stanmer Organics.

The huge dyeing events at Stanmer in 2010 – The Dyeing Art, at Stanmer House for Springwatch, and a workshop for 25 people with Jenny Dean in the potting sheds opposite the museum in the autumn – had produced a beautiful range of coloured fleece which the talented Jane Addey used to make the felt for the sides, roof and the crown of our mini yurt. I added some of my own dyes, blue (from woad) and yellow (weld, coreopsis, dahlia and buddleia) carded together to achieve a variety of different greens. Jane finished felting the night before our first Yurt meeting in October, 2010.

Twelve volunteers arrived outside Home Farmhouse for the inaugural meeting of the Yurt Group. We were delighted to be joined by Peter Martin – is there anyone who knows more about Stanmer woods than he does? It was such a privilege to hear his stories as we walked up to the copse of ash trees where Matt showed us where to look and what to look for. Within minutes we were all using our bow saws to cut down ash trees and billhooks to remove side branches. Although I felt a little guilty about killing so many trees, I was reminded that we were simply weeding – on a giant scale – and that the woods would flourish as a result.

A core group of five of us then worked for a day (or two) each week, joined often by friends and family and, on my birthday, a curious robin who watched us all day and even alighted on the end of a pole I was scarfing. It was a beautiful crisp autumn day, my daughter and grandson had arrived with a chocolate cake, Bill’s excellent kettle was on the fire and I honestly do not think I have ever been happier. And what did they all give me for my birthday? A bucket of urine! Yes, a wee birthday present – something of a challenge for me to drive home safely, but I needed it for my ongoing dyeing experiments. For centuries, urine has been used for extracting the gorgeous blue colour from woad and I’m hoping it will become popular again as it ticks so many boxes – local, renewable, free etc.

One of our first tasks had been to build our own shave horse so that we could scarf the roof poles (shaping them where they join the sides and the crown) and 6 weeks later, by Christmas, we had cut all our 70+ side poles, our thicker roof poles and two very strong, straight trees for our door frame. We had scraped off all the bark – learning the hard way that it’s best to do this on the day the tree is felled
Next came two days of steaming and shaping all the side and roof poles and the creation of the circular crown – four oak planks were glued together with the vilest, stickiest, gloopiest stuff imaginable that got everywhere (including on my blind dog Molly’s nose, sadly). Working like a well oiled machine, under Matt’s expert guidance, the team bent the wood round an iron ring, glued the next bit, clamping and reclamping all the time as we worked, laminating the four pieces into one.

The shaping of the holes in the crown was achieved by thrusting a red hot iron pickaxe into the previously drilled holes – this dramatic task was our last at Yurtopia. We said our tearful goodbyes to Matt, the woods, the deer, the robin and all the good people we’d met and moved our yurt (in one car!) to Hollingbury for the next stage.

In the open barn at Springwatch last year, we used one of Matt’s yurts as a display space and made a start on felting our first test panel – gently laying out the woad-dyed wool as the Stanmer Handbell team serenaded us, and Bill made a start on tying the hundreds of knots needed for the trellis sides.

And now, just over a year since we started, The Yurt’s wooden structure is complete. Once we’d finished tying all the knots, made the door frame and completed the shaping and oiling of the roof poles – it was time to erect our yurt. This exceedingly proud moment was captured on video by Takahiro Kida and Alan Greig, called Nomadic Soul, you can see their film here:


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