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28 Jan

Henk working

If you want to do something interesting in Life, you’ve got to pay your dues.

This is called experiential learning. I have huge respect for autodidacts (my Father), bodgers, make-do-and-menders, the makers of happy mistakes – in other words those humans with a pioneering spirit.

Too much formal education leads to closed minds in my experience.

Way back in January 2002 I went to see a specialist careers advisor-come-psychometric consultant in London seeking help for a new career direction.

I was asked to send in my curriculum vitae. At the appointment the first thing the consultant said to me was: “Looking at your resume I would say that there is a cyclical pattern occurring over about a three year period throughout your career. You seem to start a new job, be very productive for a while and then, sooner or later you torpedo everything and move on. I’d say you were probably manic depressive.”

I was a bit shocked to be honest.

“Funny you should say that” I said, ” but I have just been diagnosed with Manic Depression.”

I had recently been discharged from a Psychiatric Hospital with a prescription for Lithium carbonate, regular cognitive therapy and ….no bloody job. I was facing some hard decisions about how I was going to make a living. The psychiatrist had advised me that teaching (my erstwhile job) was the worst possible thing I could do – because of the particular pressures experienced by all the people in a school. A person with MD (Bipolar Disorder) is under constant emotional stress (because of the lack of an internal ‘governor’) and therefore finds it difficult to maintain psychological stability.

I had to accept teaching was off the menu.

“But I can’t do anything else!” I wailed to Clare, my wife, to which she responded:

“Don’t be so stupid, Henk! You can do anything you want with your brain you wally.”


Impressed by my wife’s pithy rebuke and the  insightfulness of the consultant I asked what job I might be suited to other than academia or teaching.

The careers consultant said “What do you really like?”

I rambled on about challenges, problem solving, team working, communicating and so on and so forth…

She said “This is not a job interview, what do you really like to do?” A tough question because I did not like anything about myself.

So I thought about it long and hard and said:

“I like being outside and I like making things with my hands”

“Well why don’t you think about environmental conservation? You’ll never make much money, but you will get a lot of job satisfaction. With your background knowledge of Natural History, your experience as a teacher and your woodworking skills you should fit right in”

So I did some research and found out that the only way to get into conservation work is by volunteering.

The way you pay your dues in Conservation is by giving your own time for no pay to learn the trade – it sorts out the committed from the merely curious. Since the majority of conservation jobs involve working with and managing enthusiastic volunteers you have to have been one to earn any credibility in this trade.

This made perfect sense to me, and after a little bit of searching I discovered a voluntary position with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (now TCV – The Conservation Volunteers) in Wirksworth, Derbyshire as a Biodiversity Officer.

I flogged my motorbike – a beautiful Honda VFR –

Honda VFR800 98  2

to learn about billhooks, biodiversity action plans, tool talks, brewing tea with a storm kettle, endless hacking away at rhododendron bushes, how to drive a mini bus, tow a trailer… and in return was able to contribute my carpentry skills to making and hanging gates, wooden bridges, styles, steps and all manner of access barriers – all in the glorious Derbyshire Peak District with a lovely team of young volunteers – project officers and TCV staff. Outdoors, working with my hands.

Fresh air and friendship. The best head juice I know.

Very slowly it began to dawn on me that I could be happy perhaps for the first time in decades.

The door that was opened in my mind by this Zen-like slap to my forehead has led ultimately to me returning to my boyhood passion, via a joyful 10 years as a countryside Ranger. Believe what everyone says, it is the best paid job in the world.

It is remarkable to me that, through great good fortune I now find myself hosting an enthusiastic young carpenter/artist who is paying her dues to the traditions and practises of a road less travelled.


Esme McCall, December 2017

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”   Robert Frost





4 Jan

IMG_6709.JPGDavid Stuart Littlewood, 21.03.1930 – 25.12.2017 surrounded by his apprentices.

From the left, yours truly, Dad, Nathan, Simon and Tim. Abi, our sister, sadly passed away in 2008 so the picture above is incomplete.

A couple of weeks before Dad’s passing we were all able to get together in Devon to celebrate each other’s connection through David Stuart Littlewood. He made a big effort, coming down from his bed to sit amongst the grandchildren and share our good humour, providing the strong glue that binds us. He was a bit somber at the start.

The remarkable turnaround in my Dad’s mood was largely down to our youngest brother’s insatiable appetite for life. His enthusiasm for pickles, meat pies, a full English Breakfast, long striding walks over the Devon Moors and an encyclopaedic knowledge of beer, old architecture and woodwork was just the ticket. Simon always brings his ‘A’ game to a family gathering.

As you know I believe in Alchemy.

A week before Christmas I was feeling low, and, yet out of the Blue, a young artist/maker contacted me for help. She wrote a mature and erudite email introducing herself and expressing a need to develope her woodwork hand skills. We agreed to meet in my studio in Sheffield.

After some initial hedging around by me, I agreed to let her spend a little time in my workshop, so that I could gauge her quality.

I found the timing of her arrival both fortuitous and perplexing, so I asked my father (as I always do) for advice.

I quietly approached him and asked him if he needed ‘owt.

“Aye, lad, cup of tea”

I brought him a cup of tea – strong one sugar, and as he was sipping it I said:

“Dad, I’m thinking of taking someone on, do you have any advice?”

“Is it a lad?”

“No, its a lass”

“Oh, well, get her to make something and if she’s shite, bin her off”

These were the last words he spoke to me before he died.

I was his first apprentice. He never binned me off. Ever.

There is now a young carpenter honing her craft in my studio, bringing her art and skill to enhance our ‘A’ Game.


The fish carving was the first piece of ‘wood art’ I made for my gaffer, Mr Poulson, at 11 years of age.

‘A’ is for Alchemy.

Paulo Coelho The Alchemist.


11 Apr

I never knew my father’s dad, grandfather Arthur Littlewood. He died fairly young having served his country in the First World War as a tank engineer and worked hard in the mills of Huddersfield all his adult life. Thus my role model for grandfatherhood has to be my mother’s father, Jhr Cornelius Abraham Van de Poll and my Opa pictured here in Noordwijk in 1984.


Here is my daughter Polly – aged 2 – being entertained in the arms of her overgrootvader way back in 1986.

Opa came from a very large family. Physically very strong, handsome and charismatic he loved fast cars, speedboats and football. He came from a large extended family pictured here in 1959 in the back garden of his eldest brother Jan in Arnhem. I was introduced to them them as a nipper in 1959. Mam, Dad and I are 4th, 3rd and 2nd from the right (I’m the one in nappies).


Opa was a bit scary, but a lot of fun. He could eat vast quantities of pannekoeken  (pancakes) in one sitting, stick a large yoghurt spoon (the size of a ladle) in his mouth, and loved to go on all the rides at the fun fair with us. He taught me to play chess, although I was never able to beat him, and as a result, the first lathe project I ever attempted as a budding woodworker was a chess set I made for him when I was 11 years old.

He was a survivor of the Burma Railway Line, having been a taken prisoner by the Japanese Imperial Army in Sumatra in Indonesia during the 2nd WW, and my first real Hero. His most impressive trick was his ability to screw wood screws into bare timber with his thumb nail. It took me until recently to conclude that he must have concealed a screwdriver in his hand to pull this off, the old bugger. One of many of his clever jokes.

And so now I am an Opa.

DSC_0013 (1)

Here is my grandson: Joseph Leon Seaton Howden, photographed here by his dad Alan Howden. Joseph was born to my wonderful daughter Polly Howden on Tuesday 28th March 2017.

Joseph (1)

Joseph’s Dad, Alan Howden is, like me, a craftsman, and he knows how to capture the very essence of his subject by combining patience, infinite care and obsessive attention to detail. Like this telling and very natural portrait….


Opa can now contemplate the multitude of wooden toys, treehouses, dens, sailing boats, go-karts, aeroplanes and kites he can build with Joseph and his parents, the pancakes we can eat together the fun we can all have as he grows to manhood. For, as we all know, Joseph was the carpenter of carpenters.

Thank you dear Polly and Alan, for making a Joseph and an Opa.


P.S. Thanks Vanessa Boddye for Joseph’s hat


12 Nov


Yggdrasil – the World Tree of Norse Mythology – traditionally a gigantic ash, is the tree upon which Odin hung in his never ending quest for wisdom. He drank from the stream which courses beneath the roots of the great tree and he lost an eye in payment. Mimir is  literally ‘The Rememberer’.

I made this bed as a commission for the generous and thoughtful mother of a beloved daughter and her partner as the seal upon their hard won quest to design and build their own home. The bed frame is made from a very old and spalted Fraxinus excelsior or European Ash, and the posts and book matched laths of the head board are derived from a huge yew tree which had languished in a stack of 4 inch boards in a builder’s garage in Beighton for many years.

When I consulted the family of three, the daughter requested that I carve a celtic knot – also known as a Triquetra – in the foot board.


The triquetra has a well known modern Christian resonance: Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and in ancient Celtic and neo-pagan traditions representing the Sacred Feminine – the three ages of woman: Maiden, Mother and Crone.

My Mam a single mother in the 1960’s and 70’s used to say that together, she, my brother and I were invincible because we were a ‘three’. She believed that the number 3 had immense power.

Pythagoras taught that 3 is the first true number because it forms the first geometrical figure, a triangle. Odin’s valknut, a symbol of three interlocking triangles is a symbol of great power and significance in Viking Folklore. This one is carved on the Stora Hammars Stone on the Swedish Island of Gotland and it is intimately associated with the All Father.

valknut-stora-hammars-iIn the words of historian H.R. Ellis Davidson, “Odin had the power to lay bonds upon the mind, so that men became helpless in battle, and he could also loosen the tensions of fear and strain by his gifts of battle-madness, intoxication, and inspiration.” She and others interpret the Valknut, with its knot-like appearance, as a symbolic expression of this idea (Ellis Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 147.).

To carve a Triquetra, one has to first draw three interlocking circles to form the outline these are also known as ‘Borromean’ rings (after the Italian family Borromeo’s coat of arms)


And then you can get down to the business of carving…


…which involves repeatedly stabbing vertically along the outline of the motif and then gouging into the wood toward the stab line. This takes a lot of concentration, especially when one has already made the foot board as a single modular piece.

Carving directly onto a completed piece of furniture requires concentration and what we might call ‘bottle’ or courage. I learned from my client that her daughter and co-owner of the bed is a hand surgeon – I can think of no greater need for bottle than when working to repair that quintessentially primate character, the hand. The hand is my instrument, my means of expression and so I decided to go for broke and carve straight into the finished head board out of respect for my clients.

Speaking of bottle my younger brother Simon who lives in San Francisco and is both a master carpenter, music maker and brewer of fine Pale Ales might approve of this Trinity – it is perhaps quite apposite for us Littlewood brothers.


It appears on an American IPA, Ballantine and is of 7.2% alcohol by volume – potent!






22 Oct


Conception can mean the precise instant a sperm fertilises an ovum to make an embryo, or, how something is perceived – as in a ‘concept‘.

My son-in-law and daughter Alan and Polly Howden told us that they were expecting a baby in Spring – this had the effect of making me feel very happy for them and for my wife and I. Unfortunately my head was instantly filled with woodwork projects ranging from spoons, to bowls, rattles and roundabouts, cots and cradles, basinets and boats, rocking horses and tree houses. My head was literally filled with wooden concepts!

Sometimes, as in the figured sycamore of the little sideboard below, Nature can be quite literal.


This little sideboard, made for a wonderful and witty client is called, for obvious reasons – ‘Fertility’. When it was finished, she said to me, “The nice thing about this cabinet is that no-one in the whole world will ever have one like it!”

This is how I try to respond to my customers desires. It is the true essence of ‘bespoke’. We spoke and it was, in my hands and thanks to a splendid tree…. to be. Like children and treasure, all my designs are unique.

Recently, I completed a corner cabinet for a new Exhibition at Yorkshire Artspace called ‘Curious Cabinets‘. I thought of it as ‘Mrs Caligiari‘s  Cabinet’.

The organiser, Sharon Moss, a fine artist, arranged an adventurous trip to the Alfred Denny Zoology museum at Sheffield University to inspire the participants.

I make my living as a carpenter and sculptor by ‘making to commission’, this process and the nature of the material I work with are integral to my artistic practise.  It was obvious to me that I needed a client to make for in order to be truly inspired. I was not interested in trying to find a cabinet and fill it with things in order to make a piece of art, or tell an interesting story. To me the cabinet is the concept.

My friend Chiara Bet, an illustrator and jeweller and I had a useful discussion and agreed to be my conceptual ‘client’ – I like working for people with a vivid imagination and I had already made a piece for her in the past. As both of us have an interest in anatomy, the Divine Comedy by the incomparable Dante Alighieri and the bizarre, I decided that I would design a cabinet fit for her work and entertain the curious notion that a cabinet might, in time, be transformed by its contents. I committed several hundred pounds worth of my best timber stock to the venture and a significant chunk of time – about 200 man hours in all. I also enlisted the help of a glass artist Debra Burrell who slumped (curved in a kiln) two pieces of glass for me so that I could make an elegant a bow fronted door.


Here it is in my studio, and here it is as it appears right now in the Exhibition at Exchange Place, filled with Chiara’s jewellery and some of her drawings hidden away in a secret drawer.


There are no shelves in the interior, but I have carved deep grooves and folds in the flesh-like lacewood to display the jewellery and give a sense of fertilised and developing embryos.


A spinal column is visible and at the rear a tail. The legs are ‘Queen Anne’ – so it looks like it might scuttle away when you are not looking. The floor is carved as the interior of a womb, and the whole represents the placental mammalian cabinet of life. Access to the secret drawer ….. well, you will have to come and see for yourself to find out how and why.

This wholly piece of furniture was designed by me from the fertilisation of ideas arising from a dialogue – a concept I firmly believe sits at the root of all intelligence.

The Judges at Art in the Gardens seemed to like it enough to give it a Gold Award at the Sheffield Botanic Gardens this summer.


Speaking of the Howden/Littlewood concept, I shall enjoy being a making sort of grandfather.


14 Oct


Anguis fragilis, or the Slow Worm, is no worm at all, but a semi-fossorial (burrowing), limbless lizard. I found this pair of lovely reptiles many moons ago on the Isle of Cumbrae, Scotland whilst teaching the undergraduate Field Course for the Zoology Department of Newcastle University.

They are breathtakingly beautiful creatures;  bronze, muscular and elegant. But one must take great care in handling them – like all lizards they can drop their tails.

Slow worms used to be common on the UK mainland of my youth, but the depredations of the domestic cat have significantly reduced their number.

Various dictionary definitions of worm would have us believe the word as a noun describes a creature which creeps or wriggles, a person who is weak or despicable, or as a verb -describing ‘moving with difficulty’. In Old English or High German, Wyrm means ‘serpent’ or dragon. Poor terms term for treasure.

I learned the concept of ‘finding treasure’ from my mother. who had an uncanny ability to enthuse me in the natural world and matters philosophical. As a single mother bringing up two boys in the 60’s and 70’s she had to watch the pennies. Her way of engaging my brother Tim and I was to say “Let’s go and find a treasure”. We would set off on a ramble up Stanton Hill towards an old lead mine. Whatever the season, weather or mood, we would always find something to wonder at; flowers, seeds, lichens, fossils, bits of galena and felspar, insects – all manner of living and natural things.

When she was asked, years later “How do you explain raising two Zoologists?” Mam said “I made them look at every ant on the way”.

Essentially, she taught us ‘how to get our eye in’. Although this idiom generally refers to someone who is good at hand eye coordination – in sport – I think it is the essence of doing and looking with a prepared mind. An eye for detail, for natural structure and form are essential in my work. So it is with the same delight I experience in finding slow worms, that I solve design and structural problems with wood….and every time I go to the wood yard I am looking for treasure.

This is some of the Yew I am using to make a four poster bed at the moment – it reminds me of a distant nebula viewed through the Hubble Space Telescope.


An Image from Hubble:

Westerlund 2 — Hubble’s 25th anniversary image

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of the cluster Westerlund 2 and its surroundings has been released to celebrate Hubble’s 25th year in orbit and a quarter of a century of new discoveries, stunning images and outstanding science. The image’s central region, containing the star cluster, blends visible-light data taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys and near-infrared exposures taken by the Wide Field Camera 3. The surrounding region is composed of visible-light observations taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys.

Our greatest treasure, our children – and I include great ideas and projects in this – find us, if we are fortunate.

My daughter, Polly, was a most able zoologist’s assistant when she was little, braving inclement weather to indulge her father’s obsession with Natural History. I realise now that I was only doing what my mother did, as a parent, and getting her to squat down and look closely.


The cleft chestnut fence in the background seems to run through my head in this photo taken in 1986 – I do sometimes wish I had listened to my heart many years ago and really looked at this picture. I would have realised that the way to happiness for me was in playing with wood and looking for treasure, it took me a while to get my eye in.



16 Mar

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they cuddle up. Like a big hand shake – my cuddles tend to be bear-like and slightly asphyxiating. A cuddle is an essential part of the day as far as I’m concerned. My wife likes to add a hard squeeze – which, technically, makes her version of a cuddle a ‘cwtch‘ (fair play, the Welsh do much better cuddles than the insipid English).

Carpenters tend to develop a good grip and strong arms over many years of repetitive cutting, lifting, sanding, sawing and carving – actions which make for a  wiry strength. Because these activities are cyclical and repetitive (like breathing), they are meditative too. One can lose oneself and find a kind of tranquility.

henk carving

Thousands of years ago in China (long before before the birth of Christianity) a thinker distilled his thoughts in the spare and beautiful text we now call the Tao the Ching.  Lao Tzu, the author  老子  means ‘Old Master’ no-one knows his real name. The oldest excavated texts of date back to 4th century BC and are written on ancient bamboo silk. These writings are the font of tranquility.

The act of writing, to me is like carving – repeatedly searching for the right shape of a word or sentence; the right syntax, a pithy word association, a metaphor and a mood – and is, in my view, a craft like woodwork.

Craft requires discipline within tightly constrained boundaries, thus the Japanese Haiku poetry form of 5,7,5 syllables really appeals to me when I try to distil my meaning:


Like a breath, the Tao –

prayer beads on silk

joined by air, all of us string

HL 9/3/16


Constraint is the ‘grain’ of poetry, and in Haiku the grain is very tight – a bit like the timber from holly. The turned footboard pillars of this four poster bed I made are turned from a very old holly timber, as tough as old boots. The pillars represent the Celtic heroes Cuchullian and Emer – meant as inspiration for the bed’s new owners – who, like all our heroes are young and vital.

The frame of ‘Boudicca’ is made from Yew and spalted Ash and it is, I hope, a chariot fit for royalty.

When I make things in wood, I create from a ‘beast within’, a vital energy closely linked to the state of my mind.

Manic depression can be very exhausting – not least for the sufferer’s friends and family – it is not a tame condition. Like riding a flying chariot on axles of holly (as Boudicca did when she smashed the 9th Legion at Camulodunum in AD 60) rage and despair are separated by a heart beat. This is what fuels the ‘beast within’.

There is, however, an emollient more effective than Lithium – it is the Welsh cwtch. For it is from this cwtch that the boiling inner turmoil abates, the beast can purr and the poetry can flow.

Lao Tzu:

Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.

Lao Tzu, Dao te Ching

The Romans never subdued the Welsh, and if 4.5 thousand hardened Zulu Impi led by the redoubtable Prince Dabulamanzi kaMapande couldn’t manage it at Rorke’s Drift then no-one is going to, ever.

The Welsh anthem – Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau – will release the beast within, for the name of the Beast is Passion.