Monday, 12 January 2015

Hungerford Arcade: Walking Sticks (Things Often Found)

Here is a fascinating article on walking sticks from our very own, Stuart Miller-Osborne.  Hope you enjoy reading it - I know I did.

In my life so far, I have had only one occasion to need a walking stick. This was about thirty five years ago when I managed to do something unpleasant to a muscle in my left leg when I was involved in a rather nasty collision with another player when playing football. 

After being treated by the very nice staff at Wexham Park Hospital, I was given a crutch so that I could support myself until the injury mended. It was here that my problems started. Although I am some six feet tall, the crutch appeared to have been designed for Robert Pershing Wadlow and by the time I had made my way back to Slough, not only was my leg hurting but also my shoulder was complaining. 

It was time for an initiative I thought, so I set about looking for a walking stick. Now Slough might be all things to all men but, after a while I had begun to agree with Mr Betjeman’s thoughts on the town. There were no walking sticks to be found. 

It was just as the stiff upper lip was beginning to cut in and my bus was arriving, I noticed a small junk shop hidden in a Victorian side street. Painfully, I limped across to the premises. As soon as I opened the door, I found what I was looking for, an umbrella stand full of walking sticks. 

Most of the sticks were, unfortunately, unsuitable for my height but there was one cane dating from, I would have guessed, the Art Nouveau period. It had an ivory handle and gold protectors on each end, with intricate nouveau patterns added. After a little haggling with the owner, (I did not take much money with me when playing football, for obvious reasons) I was able to purchase the walking stick for nine pounds.

It served me well and soon I was fit again and able to participate in the beautiful game. Looking back on this incident, if I had injured myself in the Hungerford area, I would not have experienced the problem.  Just to take Hungerford Arcade as an example, there are many walking sticks to be found ranging from the plain old canes to the rather odd examples with the heads of various animals and birds carved into the handles. The range is endless and I would expect that you could walk into any antique establishment in the country and expect to find a walking stick. Hopefully in less painful circumstances that I had to endure all those years ago. 

But what of walking sticks? We all see them each day of our lives either in the countryside or used by people less fortunate than ourselves. But like aircraft in the sky, we ignore them. They have become commonplace. But like all items, they have a history and that is what makes them interesting.

he encyclopaedia notes that a walking stick is a device that is used by people to facilitate balancing, which is fair description but, they are much more than that. Historically, they have been used as weapons (sometimes they can hide a sword or a similar weapon) or used in the countryside to clear obstacles when rambling. Indeed last summer, I used a stick to test the solidity of an area of sand that my wife and I were crossing. In short, they have many uses. 

Like all items, walking sticks originated from various sources, these could have been religious as many churches have Staffs of Office. Moses in antiquity, raised his staff to facilitate the parting of the Red Sea. These sticks/staffs quite frequently were used to illustrate the superiority of office. One has only to stand back to think of their uses in military circles (Swagger Sticks) and schools (The dreaded cane), to see how sticks could denote authority and even fear. I recently saw a movie where a landowner thought nothing of using his stick to employ a degree of discipline into his workers. 

Thankfully, walking sticks now have much more benign uses but, were once even a fashion item. About three hundred or so years ago, the walking stick had begun to replace the sword as part of a gentleman’s wardrobe. Like a cloak, it was an accessory but in those times whilst a cloak might keep you warm, a stick still had its uses. I can remember reading a book as a child where the hero saves a young maiden from a wild boar by beating it with his walking stick. The beast retreated but the cane breaks and is mourned by the devoted couple. A poet I admire, Alexander Pope, also had some fun at the cane’s expense in his work The Rape of the Lock

“Sir Plume, of amber snuff box justly vain
And the nice conduct of a clouded cane”

As far as I can see from the internet, a clouded cane was a cane made from ratten stems. Whereas a normal cane, was just made of rattan. I think I will leave Mr Pope and Sir Plume to figure this one out.

These days, walking sticks/canes/staffs do not have decorative uses. I think you would look distinctly odd walking down Hungerford High Street using a walking stick as a decorative accessory. Nowadays, walking sticks have much more functional uses. As I have already noted, they are used as an aid to balance or in the countryside to help the user when they are walking in a difficult terrain. Whilst you are very unlikely to meet a wild boar these days, sticks are incredibly useful when pushing nettles from your path or testing the depth of puddles during a normal British summer.

If you are at the Newbury Races, then your stick can second as a seat (if adapted) as you watch your ride come last. Quite a few walking sticks these days are adorned with badges and other mementos. The stick I currently own, has records ranging from Fort William to Somerset. I recently met a fellow rambler near Westbury White Horse whose stick was covered in memories of his visit to the Alps so much so, that when I examined it, it seemed a burden to carry.

I only have one walking stick which I have described but, if I was a collector, I am told that I would be called a rabologist. The nice thing is that even if you do not collect walking sticks, it is fun to own one or two and in the long run, they may be useful if you find a fox in your garden scaring Kitty once more. Or if you are unfortunate enough to have a condition/injury that necessitates the use of one for the short term. 

Over the last few weeks, (trying to escape the mayhem of Christmas), I have looked more closely at the walking sticks available in Hungerford and the immediate area. There is great fun to be had as some of the sticks are very curious and exciting. They are not always that straight (its almost as if they were cut immediately from the wood). Some have beaks and eyes added, others have compasses (quite useful when on the Salisbury Plain). There are those which have blunt ends, (as with my stick). Then there are the ones which have metal pointed ends. Sometimes, you just do not have any idea what to make of certain walking sticks; they are in my view, just rather surreal.

A few sticks I have found are works of art with exquisite handles using precious metals and quite intricate finishes. Ivory was quite often used historically which, although unpopular in this day and age (and rightly so), did add to the beauty of the item. 

To some extent, walking sticks reflect their age. Modern ones are very minimalist (almost the Samuel Beckett of walking sticks). They are no longer made of wood but of other materials. Quite frequently people use two when walking. The colours can vary.

My football injury necessitated the purchase of an Art Nouveau type of stick (which, many years later, was accidentally left on a train in Cornwall). The choice is endless. Even if you do not purchase one, the next time you are in an antiques shop, Arcade or just at a jumble/boot sale, examine these sticks as this can be quite rewarding. 
Stuart  Miller-Osborne

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