Turning willow into winners
How Hasting supplies cricketers with bespoke bats.
Although you’d be hard pressed to find its location, Hastings is home to England’s newest cricket bat manufacturer, GB Willow.
Cricket bats have remained largely unaltered since the game’s inception in the early 17th century (also when two Sussex men were prosecuted for playing instead of going to church). Whereas tennis and badminton racquets have long been fashioned from lightweight alloy, bats – at all levels of the game – are still made from just one wood variety – willow.
The MCC, whose rulings on the subject effectively apply wherever in the world the game is played, will not countenance artificial materials such as carbon fibre, or even other types of wood. “The MCC is very traditional,” says Simon Beale – GB Willow’s owner, “They won’t agree to anything which might give an unfair advantage.”
Malcom Tedham works magic
CREDIT: DAVE YOUNG
The supply and price of willow – a very particular timber almost exclusively grown in the UK – has an important effect to the final purchase price of bats, explains Beale, who has been involved in its purchase for the last 30 years. Grown principally in East Anglia, willow is usually found in relatively small plantations on damp marginal land, you’ll often discover clumps beside rivers.
Although smaller pruned branches are used for traditional crafts, such as basket weaving and fence making, the trunk needs to be between 15-20 years old to suit cricket bat making. Beale buys in willow and also grows his own trees. Harvested all the year round, willow is planted in January and February. The emphasis is on sustainability and long term planning – every tree cut is replaced with another.
The emphasis is on sustainability and long term planning – every tree cut is replaced with another
The company was initially created as a specialist timber merchant, to source, dry and machine willow into ‘blanks’ – rough cricket bat-shaped pieces of wood supplied to manufacturers in Britain, India and Pakistan. “I started with the timber side, my main experience is in sourcing and growing willow,” reveals Beale, who has developed a countrywide network of personal contacts with farmers and landowners. Building on its initial success since April of this year, GB Willow has extended into crafting the finished product.
Making and finishing
Bought in as tree trunks and cut into sections, the green wood is gently kiln dried at 26C degrees for eight weeks, reducing it to 12% moisture content. It’s then either packed for onward sale or hand-fashioned into beautiful bats in GB Willow’s workshop, employing old-fashioned carpentry tools, such as planes and spokeshaves.
Starting with a single piece of light, durable timber, this skilled and labour intensive process involves splicing in a bamboo handle to produce a high-grade product. Ace bat maker Malcolm Tedham (pictured) has been working such magic for over 30 years.
Far Right Owner Simon Beale
ALL CREDITS: DAVE YOUNG
The firm currently produces around 50 bats a week, retailing at around £350 each; since it’s apparently easily possible to spend double that price on a high-quality bat, this is a competitive price. They also produce 25,000 blanks a year, many exported to India and Pakistan to be made into bats and sold on to the UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Asian markets. Nothing is wasted, off cuts go to produce biofuel for “a mansion”, the sawdust provides bedding for the hunt hounds at Brightling.
Sales and marketing
Instagram has proved a great way to market the new brand worldwide. Beale also has a roadshow, often with a bat maker present, to visit cricket clubs. As a result, Little Common in Bexhill has converted several batsmen to his product. Initial feedback from players has, says Beale, been very good. A sales website is currently being constructed.
One, perhaps surprising, source of exports is Belgium – from where Beale has just returned on a sales trip. Along with Germany, Austria and Luxembourg the country has local leagues and takes part in a European cricket competition.
Why situate the enterprise in Hastings? Beale is resident here, born at Battle, lived in ‘Beerish’ (Burwash to non-Sussex natives) and worked for big Robertsbridge-based bat maker Gray and Nicholls for 27 years, as did master bat maker Malcolm. Currently the factory has four employees and Beale is very open to taking on a young trainee – if only he could find someone suitable…
“It’s a slow build, but quicker than I thought,” reveals Beale who has invested everything he has in the venture, “working for myself has proved enjoyable.”
He’s fast outgrowing his premises on the Castleham Industrial Estate. “Factory space in Hastings is currently very scarce, ”says Beale, who’s approached the Council about the situation but found them disappointingly “vague”. In future he ideally wants a site large enough to accommodate timber working, a shop (having recently expanded into other cricketing merchandise) and indoor nets, a resource Beale reckons Hasting lacks.
Meanwhile T20, The Hundred and the Indian Players League have all been recent sporting successes, cricket – and consequent sales opportunities – is growing.
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