In Conversation with Nick Hand

Interview byRachel Taylor
Edited by Maria Taylor
Portrait PhotographyMurray Ballard
PhotographyNick Hand

Hitting the road on his metallic stead with a camera and a sound recorder; Nick is a collector of stories from ‘ordinary people who do extraordinary things, without even being aware of it’. The same could said about Nick.

INTRODUCTION

As he proudly states, Nick is a 'born and bred Bristolian' who lives and works in his home city of Bristol as a graphic designer. But, over recent years, it has been his love of the bicycle that has increasingly come to dominate his life and, as he readily admits, has almost led him to take on a second career.

'In an idle moment', as Nick puts it, whilst on a cycling holiday in Cornwall with his wife Harriet, Nick contemplated how long it would take to cycle around the coastline of the British Isles. From this thought, along with encouragement from friends and family, in the summer of 2009 he set off on an epic journey that would take him over 6,000 miles, 137 days, and 930 hours on the saddle. As well as the lengthy journey, his ambition was to collect the life stories of artisans and craftspeople that he would meet along the way, and recount their tales to give others the opportunity to 'meet an inspirational group of people living and working on the coast.'

He called the project Slowcoast. And from here he got a taste for it and he continued to embark on more journeys, with the same ambitions. Since Slowcoast Nick has cycled, and collected the stories of interesting and inspirational craftspeople, in the States, the Netherlands, Italy, Ireland, and most recently, the Isle of Skye in Scotland.

Often taking months off at a time, Nick would hit the road on his metallic steed, armed with his camera (a very nice one at that), a sound-recorder and a saddle-bag of road maps. His medium to tell these insightful stories is a series of compiled 'soundslides': slideshows of images accompanied by the narrations of the crafters telling their own stories themselves.

Nick describes those that he met as, 'quite ordinary people who do quite extraordinary things but without even being aware of it'; and yet, the same could be said of Nick. At the age of 56, when many would see this as a time to take it easy, Nick sees it as a time to get up and get those things done that matter most to him. He is passionate about cycling and he speaks with nothing but respect and admiration for the people whose stories he has helped shed light on. It is obvious that he is someone who cares deeply about the 'little man' and believes that they have much to offer and teach us. For him, these are the people who value quality over quantity; workmanship and skill over speed and cost, and they are prime examples that show doing what you love most can bring its own rewards.

Nick tells stories of different people's amazing and diverse skills, stories that speak of dedication and commitment; but most of all they are stories about the passion, drives and a love for the craft that motivates this aspirational and inspirational group of people.

We met up with Nick at a coffee shop in Bristol, keen to hear his story, his passions and his drives. •

Interview took place 29th August 2013.

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INTERVIEW

Other than just wondering how long it would take, what else motivated you to cycle the British coastline?

There were a couple of things. I got to an age where you do your travelling, you go to Barcelona or you go to Madrid, but I also realised there was so much of Britain that I still hadn't seen. I was at that stage in life when I began to think that if I don't go soon then I may never go, for example, to the Isle of Mull or the Isle of Wight. I also love to cycle but I do think 'what happens if my knees pack up or something similar?' There is a sort of urgency with the stage I am at in life, an urgency to get things done before its too late. So, I thought that maybe I could do a journey and take some time off. Then when I went to the pub and I said to someone, 'I'm thinking of doing this bike ride, what do you think?', and they came back with, 'yeah, you should definitely do it' - like people do - and then I went on to mention it to two or three more people, and by the time I'd got to the fourth person I was a bit committed to it; I got to a tipping point with the number of people I'd told! That was good though because the idea starts formulating through talking about it and by the reactions I got from other people.

Were there any parts of the bike ride that you found particularly tough? I can imagine some of the coastline posing some difficulties.

Scotland and some of the big hills as my bike when it's loaded up is so heavy and it is a totally different sort of riding. But really, a long ride is just lots of short rides pieced together. There's nothing difficult - it's not like being in a race - just lots of small gentle rides, it's just lovely. You get naturally very fit after cycling 50 miles every day for two weeks. You begin to think, 'wow I feel brilliant', you feel fitter than you've ever been and it feels great.

Normally, our lives are quite complicated, we have about ten things to do at once - 'I've got to phone so-and-so, I've got to pay a bill' - but when you are out on the road with your tent and all you have to do is go and meet, for example, a potter down the road, it's the loveliest thing and it's all you have got on your mind. Then you meet this potter and have a brilliant experience, and then you cycle off feeling all inspired and happy. I can't think of anything that is nicer to do! I just felt really good in myself and I got to meet all these brilliant people; it is such a privileged thing to do.

And what inspired you to explore the stories of craftspeople and artisans?

I stumbled upon it by accident really. The bike ride came first but that felt quite self indulgent so I began thinking about what I could do around it. I was doing work for the howies catalogue at that time, a small active clothing company in Wales, and my friend Tim March from howies, said why don't you go and do some stories. So I went to places like Brooks, Charge bikes, and Argos Cycles in Bristol - they were all connected with bikes and I interviewed the people there. Then I thought 'oh, I like telling these stories' and it made it all much more interesting, and again, much less self-indulgent and more about being a story-teller.

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Was this kind of story telling something that you were interested in before?

I did a little arts project for the Brunel 200, a celebration of the 200th anniversary of Brunel's birth. You know how you see little vans go by with Brunel Removals on the side, or signs for the Brunel Buttery, well I thought it would be fun to do a project on the people that named their business after Isambard Brunel. I also thought it would be a good way to learn about the camera I had just bought. So I did portraits of them and little interviews with them and I think it was this that got me interested in people. I remember meeting this guy that owned Brunel Taxis, and his son came along. His son was saying, 'I'm really proud of my dad, just like Brunel he is all about moving people around and getting them from place to place'; he was a little ten year old kid! So you get little moments that are really nice.

Has your life been influenced by meeting these interesting individuals?

Yes it has, so much so that I'm now involved in establishing a letterpress co-operative in Bristol with the idea of running workshops in typesetting and printing. Apart from the odd exception, I've never met anyone who isn't totally inspiring. There is something quite special about people who make stuff by hand. They are always quite humble, nobody ever really says, 'oh I'm really good at this aren't I' - not that anyone would say that - but in a way, they are special. I met an 80 year old fellow who makes knives and he'll say, 'I'm still learning, I'm still getting better'. These are quite ordinary people who do quite extraordinary things but without even being aware of it.

“And when I’m interviewing someone, I always try and get to the point where they talk about the passion for what they do. I try and reach that little thing where it begins to get a little bit emotional.”

Would you say that creativity isn't really appreciated until it is recognised and only then can it be taken from being a hobby to your livelihood?

I think there's quite an interesting difference between doing it as a hobby to something that you can make a living from, because some of the craftspeople really struggle. I remember meeting one bloke in Northern Ireland when I was about to go meet someone else. This guy was a basket weaver, who was really struggling, and he said that the next person I was to meet was a hobby craftsman. I'd never really thought about it before but there is a real distinction between people that make a living from it and people that it is a hobby for. Sometimes I have to identify who's who. You get the hobby craftspeople and then you get people who make their living, but then you also get people like the knife makers in Sheffield. They have done it for around 60 years and can't retire because they can't afford to retire. It's a really interesting mix.

Do they still have a passion for what they do, the guys in Sheffield?

Yes they do, definitely and they are real characters! They love what they do and they have amazing skills. I have never met anyone who doesn't have a passion for what they do. I don't think you'd end up doing it for work if you didn't.

Yeah, that's true.

And when I'm interviewing someone, I always try and get to the point where they talk about the passion for what they do. I try and reach that little thing where it begins to get a little bit emotional. There are different ways into it; sometimes you can ask them about people that they learnt from, and you'll find that a lot of craftspeople will get very emotional talking about the master craftsman who taught them. There was a coppersmith up in Scotland, in his 70s, working in a distillery. He talked about the guy that he learnt from but then went on to talk about the apprentices that he had taught over the years. They were interesting; one was touring in Australia and another was working on an oil rig. He had kept in touch with them all and I bet that they also talked about him very fondly. I spent a whole day with him; he was a lovely fellow.

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You did a similar bike trip to Slowcoast along the Hudson Valley last summer, how did that come about?

My wife was working in New York, so I went out there and decided to do a journey from New York City up to Hudson Falls. Again, I met all these artists, artisans and craftspeople along the way and recorded their stories. There was this guy who made vodka from apples. He had inherited orchards and, because all the apples are ready in September, there was the whole winter where he wouldn't know quite what to do. So he developed this system to make vodka from apples. Although, he was only able to sell it in New York State, which was really weird. It's because when they had the prohibition in the 30s, they brought out these laws where you can't make alcohol and sell it outside of your own county.

That was a personal project but whilst I was there I met an Italian lady who commissioned me to do a similar project in Naples. She was helping out with trying to get a craft quarter established there and wanted me to do some of my photo-films. It was a bit strange because I don't speak Italian so I had to work with translators.

Did you find that it created a barrier between you and your subject?

Not really no, and weirdly I did connect. I didn't expect to but because I spent quite a lot of time with them, and I don't know how but there were some people that I felt I really had a connection with, even though they couldn't speak English and I couldn't speak Italian.

And you've also done something similar in the Isle of Skye?

Yeah, that was a funded trip. There is this organisation called Atlas Arts, and I took part in a year long multi-disciplinary project called Spincycle-Skye. The focus was on spin. I saw about 19 craftspeople; they were all things connected with spin, so spinners, potters, wood turners, and there was even a little community ferry that has a turntable to transport cars from the ferry to the land.

Although the bike rides started as a personal thing, overtime it became something I was known for even though I'd never intended for that to happen. When you do something for yourself and then you become known for doing that, people then come to you. I was lucky because it led to further commissions.

“But that’s one of the reasons why I love doing these photo-films and I love telling people’s stories. Like when I went down the Hudson Valley and I made the photo-film about a guy that carves stone faces. I loved telling his story because I think nobody would ever know about him otherwise; he is so under the radar.”

Arguably, doing what you're doing is adding to the preservation of the crafts as it is shedding more light on craftspeople.

I think that the really interesting thing about any craft is that you have to survive, and it is just as much about how well and for how much you can sell your produce. Like any business the main thing is surviving. So you have to learn those other skills, like marketing, and whatever that involves for what you do, and it is interesting that with craftspeople, they all vary. I remember meeting this guy in Northern Ireland who made these beautiful wooden canoes, and you just think, 'how does he survive?' But he has built up a reputation on the Internet and there is a queue of people waiting for his canoes. Other people though really struggle because they haven't quite learnt the technique of selling their product.

But that's one of the reasons why I love doing these photo-films and I love telling people's stories. Like when I went down the Hudson Valley and I made the photo-film about a guy that carves stone faces. I loved telling his story because I think nobody would ever know about him otherwise; he is so under the radar. And Trevor Ablett, the knife maker, I keep coming back to him but, Toast have just brought out their little book and they are now selling his knives! I'm sure that they must have seen my little film because I was thinking, 'how do they know about Trevor?' I really hope that it is because of that because I want him to do well. Poor old Trevor, he won't know about selling stuff but if a few people tell his story then that would be the nicest thing for him.

Do you think people's attitudes are changing now, both in terms of being a craftsperson and as a consumer?

It would be really nice if that is actually what is happening. When I was a kid you were brought up to think that making your fortune was the thing to do, but gradually, as life goes on you think, 'those people that made their fortunes, are they really any happier?', and I don't think they are really. I think that this is something that has changed – especially for my kid's generation – they are never going to make their fortunes and I don't think that they necessarily want to. So the alternative is doing something that they enjoy and doing something that is of value to other people. And I do think that there is a bit of a renaissance happening and that people are becoming aware again of things of quality, wanting something that lasts and to question how and where they buy.

Do you think you will carry on with these cycle trips?

Yes definitely! If I was 35 years old then I'd think that I'd do it some other time but I'm 56 and I don't know what will happen in five or ten years time, so I better do it now. •