The late, great John Arlott once said while commentating at a Headingley Test match: “A stroke of a man knocking off a thistle top with a walking stick.”
This was before the days of the reverse sweep and ramp shots beloved of modern cricket players such as Jos Butler. Keith Pickering laughs when I mention the walking stick thistle swipe. “I was taught the reverse sweep 50 years ago at school in Guisborough but was never good enough to use it,” he says.
These days Keith is well known as being one of Yorkshire’s finest exponents of the ancient skill of walking stick carving, he even uses one to help me stir my coffee – when I drop my teaspoon he plucks it from the workshop floor with the magnetic ferrule he has on a stick.
“Handy,” he laughs, “for collecting car keys or shotgun cartridges that have been dropped into stinging nettles. I’ve also picked up many nuts, bolts and nails from the road when walking dogs,” he says.
“A walking stick acts as a third leg for all kinds of people to keep their balance,” he adds. “From farmers swishing sticks at an escaping cow, to Blue Badge disabled drivers and hikers walking the Cleveland Way.”
This prompts an anecdote. “I even had an American gentleman order a hiking stick to be delivered to his guest house in Cumbria so he could dip it in the Irish Sea before doing the Coast to Coast walk and dipping the stick in the North Sea at the other end. In the taxi on the way to York Station he realised they had just entered Helmsley and insisted that the driver find my workshop and give him five minutes to meet me and shake my hand.”
Those who head to the picturesque North Yorkshire market town in search of Keith just need to ask locals for “the Stick Man” and the chances are they’ll know who they are talking about. Folk will point them in the direction of his workshop by the Walled Garden near the ancient castle.
Formerly a trout farm manager, Keith was hooked when his wife, Jacky, gave him a walking stick with a Labrador’s head carved on the handle as a present, so much so that he turned his hobby into a thriving business.
Undeterred, he kept plugging away until he made one that he was prepared to be seen in public with. “It’s very addictive and I do warn people of this. I just had a farmer in today who came last week to buy the pieces needed to make his first thumb-stick. He’d finished that so came back and bought enough materials for another two, so he’s hooked already by the sound of it.”
Several of Keith’s sticks have an interesting story. A woman representing a church congregation in Liverpool asked him to carve a shepherd’s crook for Justin Welby when he left Liverpool and was ordained as the bishop of Durham in 2011. He used the stick to bash on the doors of Canterbury Cathedral (much to Keith’s shock) when he later became the present Archbishop of Canterbury.
Then there’s a cock-pheasant handled stick which was presented to the exiled King Constantine of Greece when he was shooting in the valleys of the North York Moors. Other orders followed from visitors to Helmsley including the archduke of Austria, King Juan Carlos of Spain and more recently Viscount Linley, the Queen’s nephew.
He also crafted – at the film makers’s request – a very simply carved stick endowed with ‘‘special’’ powers. It’s the one that accompanies film star Emma Thompson throughout the smash-hit family movie Nanny McPhee. It features too in the follow-up, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang. “I crafted the stick to Emma Thompson’s directions,” he says. “Not easy.” It had to be “organic-looking”. The first three efforts were rejected before he got it exactly right. Unusually it came from a beech tree which he spotted two years previously by chance, cutting it there and then “just in case” it was ever needed.
His favourite tree for stick making is hazel; found in nut bushes from November until February. “The best time to cut sticks is when snowdrops are starting to bloom after the rigours of winter, he reckons. In summer the sap is flowing. The bark can come loose and go wrinkly.” So does he have a special cache of hazel bushes? He shakes his head. “I couldn’t possibly tell you.”
During my visit to Keith’s workshop, customers browse around, admiring the walking sticks, canes and crooks on display. There are wood and antler handled sticks for out of town use. Plus thumb sticks from rustic “naturals” to highly polished horn with a traditional forked grip.
Keith has also created some wading staffs , useful for fly-fishing anglers venturing into deeper water – as he himself finds when fishing for wild trout and grayling in the River Rye.
When it comes to crooks, one has a polished, narrow aluminium head, ideal for catching a sheep by the leg or for arresting ducks and geese by the neck – as well as picking fruit from hedgerows.
Hill farmers in particular cherish their battered metal crooks because it’s easy to remove the head and fit to another stick if the original gets broken. And many of them swear by blackthorn, ash, apple, chestnut and holly sticks.
Keith not only sells these, but also the accessories and kits with which to make the sticks. To some people it might seem a bit old-fashioned, but there is still an interest in making sticks. “Most do it for a hobby or a bit of pocket money, I only know of a handful in the whole of the UK and Ireland who can make a full time living as Jacky and I do,” he says.
“There are some really good stickmakers out there making a few a year and the carvings on the handles can be excellent, say a hound, fox, rabbit or thistle, something that becomes personal to the owners. They get used to them, the sticks get handed down the generations, perhaps being much repaired into the bargain. I get lots of old sticks in to be repaired. I had one a few weeks ago that was made for the owner 60 years ago when he was a 10-year-old boy.”
On the subject of stick handles, he says finding the right horn is crucial. He has carved the handles of prized sticks from the curly horns of Swaledale and black-faced tups (rams) which are most common locally on the moors or in lowland fields.
One thing is certain: any stick he makes is guaranteed to be “a stick that draws the eye, has balance and is one that you can walk with all day and not feel ungainly.” There’s a term for a stick that feels balanced and easy to use and that is one that “comes to hand”.
“The one thing you don’t want is a ‘numb’ stick,” says a customer who introduces himself as a farmer. “Every man has a different opinion. It’s got to look nice and flex a little. If you go on the moors all day with a clumsy stick it will feel hard work, which is the last thing a farmer, a rambler, or a member of a shoot needs these days.”
Keith nods in agreement.