Bold plans for Sussex trug-making

There are few things more Sussex than a trug. Alongside stoolball, twittens and bonfire processions, the 200-year-old craft is one of the most iconic traditions of our county.

Robin Tuppen and apprentices at Sussex Trugs SUS-170903-000445008
Robin Tuppen and apprentices at Sussex Trugs SUS-170903-000445008

But with few craftsmen still making these sturdy wooden baskets, there is little doubt that more need to be done to help secure the future of the Sussex trug.

For Robin Tuppen of the Cuckmere Trug Company, the way to do just that is to bring in more young apprentices to learn the traditional skills and he is calling on professional volunteers to help him do it.

Sign up to our daily SussexWorld Today newsletter

He said: “For the past 34 years I have worked hard to promote our craft but, in recent years with the long recession and the influx of the Chinese copies, our craft is in danger of disappearing unless something radical is done to reverse the trend.

Robin Tuppen and apprentices at Sussex Trugs SUS-170903-000519008

“I have, therefore, decided to create a Sussex Trug and Woodland Craft Heritage Centre in order to teach young people our craft and to set in place a not-for-profit company or trust in order to preserve our unique craft for future generations.”

Robin, who has been working in the trug industry since 1983, currently has three apprentices working at his workshop in Magham Down near Herstmonceux.

Two of the apprentices – 21-year-old Bradley Hillier and 16-year-old Oliver Collins – are in their first year of training while the third – 19-year-old Caleb Pimm – is close to becoming a fully qualified craftsman himself.

Caleb said: “That’s probably what I like most about it, the history behind it. It’s something people have been doing since the 1800s and I’m still doing it.

“You need drive and need to want to do it and stick with it. When you start you’re not going to be very good at it. I was terrible when I first started but you get better as you go along.

“I definitely want to stay with the company, take on my own apprentices and get more people into it. I would like it to survive as it’s a very Sussex thing.”

While all three are learning the skills to make the craft survive for another 200 years, Robin hopes even more young people can be brought into the trade. He says this will be one of the key aims of the proposed heritage centre.

Robin said: “I am now over retirement age, and, in order to ensure the future of our industry, I need to make some positive moves towards making that future more secure by bringing in new blood and planning for what happens after I go to the Big Trug Shop In The Sky.

“To do this I am seeking, initially, four volunteer trustees or directors, who can help me form the right sort of company – a trust, not-for-profit organisation or community interest company (CIC) – that can help create a Sussex Trug and Woodland Craft Heritage Centre.

“These would ideally be people from the ‘professions’, with the skills to form the correct company and then guide it through the process of applying for Heritage Lottery and other grant funding, such as the Leader Funding.

“The purpose of this funding would be to purchase our own premises and then set up the centre, creating a more robust apprenticeship scheme to bring new people into the industry.

“Of course we would need to also put into place a robust sales and marketing strategy, so one of the trustees could well be a successful entrepreneur who is willing to help with the project from time to time or as another trustee. There would also be a place for a volunteer fundraiser.”

Sussex trug making is currently considered to be under threat, appearing on the Radcliffe Red List of traditional heritage crafts.

The list, which is curated by the Heritage Craft Association, classifies Sussex trug-making as ‘endangered’ as there are fewer than 10 skilled craftspeople still practising.

This classification is designed to be a warning sign for the trade and encourage preservation work to begin.

Robin said: “This is not going to be something that starts and ends quickly. Trug making is, after all, the most famous of Sussex crafts and should not and cannot be allowed to fail because of lack of effort anywhere along the line.

“Sussex people are proud of their trug industry and, you know what, there are lots of people all around the world who think the same.”