Last of the oak tanners

Salted hides, oak bark liquor and pails of fish grease: tanning leather in East Devon is a craft that has been titillating the senses since the days before the Romans

Images: Jesse Wild

Images: Jesse Wild

Hamlet: “ How long will a man lie i’the earth ere he rot?” 
First Clown: “He will last some eight years, or nine a tanner.”
Hamlet: “Why he more than another?”
First Clown: “Why Sir, His hide is so tanned with his trade that he will keep out water a great while.” Hamlet, by William Shakespeare 

Bushcraft instructor and presenter of ITV Wales' Coast and Country Andrew Price has had a lifelong fascination for the ancient craft of leather and was particularly keen to visit a tannery in Devon, who have been tanning hides using oak bark for centuries.

There has been a tannery at the same location in Colyton since before the Romans arrived and the basic processes and techniques used today have changed little over the years. Tanneries are always situated close to a source of water, as well as the other raw materials, namely ox hides and oak bark.

The clean, de-haired hides are taken to the tan yard, which has a series of 72 square pits, known as latches, filled with tanning liquor made by soaking oak bark in water until the tannins leach out. 

Over a period of three months the hides are soaked in 12 progressively stronger liquor solutions. Once they’ve completed this cycle, they are moved into a further series of pits where they are layered flat in the solution with oak bark chips sandwiched between them. This gives the hides the most intense concentration of tanning, and they will stay in these pits for a further nine months, making a total of 12 months in the tanning solution.


You can discover more about this age-old craft in iPad issue 3 of Ernest Journal, on sale now.