It was a beautiful day as we pulled up the drive to Rowland Wheelwrights. Through the windscreen of the Landy we could see three people moving a loom. Greg was the first to notice us and he headed out to say hello through the open doors with the Royal Coat of Arms hanging high above the entrance. He introduced us to Mike his dad and George his young apprentice.
Greg has taken over this 700 year old family business from his father Mike. The business can be traced back to the building of Exeter cathedral in 1331 when Rowland Wheelwright’s carts carried stone from Beer Quarry to the building site of the cathedral. He took us around the workshop past traditional carts, stacked wooden wheels and a selection of cannons, which certainly caught our attention. He told us that his dad started here in 1964. Mike originally trained as a joiner but to make extra money he’d go out and “fix wagons with the gypsies.” His father is a yeoman wheelwright and Greg is a master wheelwright… a title which was bestowed on him by the Lord Mayor of London, no less! He said “I’ve been trained by my father and he still gives me little nuggets of wisdom.” As we were talking to Greg, his father was busy working round the corner and even though he is 78 he shows no signs of slowing down, spending 5 or 6 days a week in the in the workshop.
Greg has quite a unique skill set. He joined the trade after 5 years in the army where he qualified as a Land Rover Mechanic. He is also a trained blacksmith as well as a wheelwright and he also fits in being a local fireman when needed. He’s worked twenty five years in the wheelwright trade and is very excited to have one of only two Wheelwrights apprentices in the country. He can now pass down the skills he’s learnt from his dad to a new generation. George the apprentice was actually working with Mike round the corner and is relishing the challenge of his 3 year apprenticeship where he will learn a wide range of skills. In the short time we were there Greg showed us a huge number of wheels, all different sizes, different thicknesses, some plain wood and metal, some ornately painted. There were cannons, wagons and even a wooden bike! The sheer variety of work that George has to master requires a huge amount of different tools. There were shelves stacked high with boxes full to bursting, tools we recognised and tools that were handmade for specific purposes, some looking like they were used every day and others covered in cobwebs. Greg pointed to one high up on a shelf and said “I’ve not used that for years, but I know I’ll need it for a job in the future. George will have to use most of these tools and probably have to make some of his own.”
The workshop is always busy, most years producing between 150-200 hand crafted, finished and painted wheels. Occasionally though they get an order that has to jump to the top of the list, because it has been made ‘By Royal Request’. Rowland Wheelwright’s are one of only two companies that look after carriages for the Queen, which clearly demonstrates the level of workmanship that goes on here. They also currently specialise in military equipment but Greg says, “the market is always changing and we adapt to the demand for our work.” The variety of work was clear to see all around the workshop and it was obvious Greg loved it all saying, “I do it because it’s in my blood, I can’t imagine not doing it.”
From wheels to carriages, wooden bikes to cannons it was great to witness the process involved, the techniques needed and the materials used to keep this very traditional trade alive and even better to see those skills being passed on to a new generation of wheel building talent.