15 October 2014
The village of Holme, Lancashire is woven into the landscape; grey stone buildings dip and rise from the undulating Lakeland hills and limestone outcrops. Surrounding a handful of cottages and a smallholding, swans nest in millponds alive with herons and trout. A few minutes to the west is the coast, all gleaming haze, mudflats and quick tides. The air is busy with the sound of swallows, pop music from a distant radio and the rumble of heavy machinery. This is the Holme estate, home to Abbeyhorn Ltd., the last horn manufacturing business in the UK.
Abbeyhorn was originally founded by the Humpherson family in 1749, who retained ownership for more than 170 years. In the decades that followed, it passed through the hard-working hands of several owners, always retaining its status as a family business; its story today is no exception.
Under the ownership of the Barnes family in the 1980s, a young Paul Cleasby joined Abbeyhorn as an apprentice. Paul grew up on a nearby farm (like many in the area, his name is of Viking origin) and his career at Abbeyhorn began after his grandmother spotted a vacancy in the paper.
He describes how the practice at the time was to have new employees spend three months at the flame, softening and flattening each horn and finishing the day covered in black horn ash; "If you can withstand that you're good to go!" he remembers. Eleven years later he bought the company, moving the works to Holme, and housing them in a 19th century jute mill, built of heavy limestone.
Entering the workshop, there's an overwhelming smell, like hot dusty hair. It's intense and is the thing that everyone mentions. White sacks are piled up around the edges of the space with cow horn tips piercing them at all angles. They spill surreally over the floor and into corners filled with dark tangles of antlers. Outside, other sacks are hung high and filled with drying deer bone, highly prized in traditional shoe polishing. It's quite a sight.
All the materials used by Abbeyhorn are ethically sourced and save a so-called 'waste' product from landfill. As British cattle are bred without horns, Abbeyhorn's supply hails from family farms in Nigeria, a by-product of the meat industry. Until 1930, people would go to port to meet and choose the horn, as they would a catchment of fish. Elsewhere, stag antler, used to make whistles, comes from Scottish Red Deer. Abbeyhorn primarily uses the tips, known as the 'tyne', annually gathering them once they are naturally shed by the stag.
Each material behaves differently and has different uses. Antler tynes are a type of bone, and can therefore be drilled, sanded and polished to make Abbeyhorn's signature whistle, inspired by the tyne's natural shape. Cow horn, on the other hand, is a form of keratin, like hair or fingernails, and must be heated to be worked into cups, combs and other goods.
"Most people think horn is carved," says Paul, but it's not carved, it more heated and molded." Under a searing flame, horn blackens and becomes malleable. The skill is in heating them enough so that the fibers give way and can be tamed into flat, workable pieces. It's a task that takes skill and knowledge, to make sure the process is exact and the raw material won't return to it's original shape. "It has a memory has horn," Paul describes.
It's fascinating to watch Paul's team of hornworkers, bent and focused over the machines for cutting, grinding and polishing. The rarity of this craft is highlighted by the fact that many of the machines are borrowed from other industries. The presses used to flatten horn into small sheets are from a paper mill and the polishing wheels are those used by jewelers.
The team work quickly and exactingly, stopping now and again to share a joke. They seem to make each unique object using muscle memory, linked to a craft that is hundreds of years old.
From the Abbeyhorn workshop come cups, whistles, cutlery, hair decorations and ceremonial items - but no challenge is beyond them. The team once made a horn window, using the material's natural translucency. These items find their way into many a gentleman's outfitters, but they are not lofty or exclusive. Paul is keen to stress their natural, heirloom quality; they are created to last, echoing the traditions that brought them into being.
Paul acquired the business out of concern for its preservation; he knows the process and can tell when things are being done right.
"Abbeyhorn is one of a kind," he describes. "Even elsewhere in the world there are only a handful of people carrying on this tradition. The company started in 1749 and really hasn't changed a lot since then. We're a small team, but hopefully we're making a difference. I love the idea of working with a natural material and preserving something for future generations."
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Photographs by Sapphire Goss