A Nicheworks interview with James and Kathleen Dent - Retired furniture maker and school teacher
Two people, recent inhabitants of Ravenstonedale and now retired to Kirkby Stephen kindly talked to Nicheworks about their past involvement with the community.
James Dent, who grew up at Hartley Castle, realised at an early age that a farming life was not for him. His older brother had already shown a stronger interest and James was quite happy to pursue his main passion instead - furniture making. He took his apprenticeship from 1947 to 1955 under the watchful eye of Stanley W Davies of Windermere. The influence of Stanley's Quaker background can clearly be seen in James' work - clear, strong, simple lines, almost resembling Shaker style.
Quite another influence on styling is Mackintosh. This shows up more clearly in the beautiful carving to be found on much of the furniture. Perhaps most intriguing and definitely distinctive is the charming two acorns carving, which has become James' trademark. Asking the obvious question, I was not surprised by the simple answer: '. . . because I'm nuts!'
Oak has to be the wood to use if possible. James is passionate about English oak - the dramatic grain, which only a true craftsman can bring out. Natural oak is a very light wood, it only becomes darker with age, or if put in an airtight box or room with amonia - the fumes darken the wood to whatever degree you require. After the wood has been fumed you can also darken it further with stain.
Other woods can prove rewarding if worked on carefully. 'My sister had a cherry tree chopped down, and gave me a section 12 inches in diameter - I made a dressing table stool for her - she was amazed by how I'd seemingly just split the round and created a piece of finished art. '
One skill that is certainly a must for any fine furniture maker is draughtsmanship - the ability to draw a piece of furniture to scale. 'This will provide your cutting list and forms the basis of any piece of work. There is no point coming up with a brilliant idea if you cannot record it accurately - it just won't work in practice.'
Much of James Dent's work is privately commissioned, but some fine pieces can also be found in public places - in particular some of our local churches: Kirkby Stephen, Ravenstonedale, Crosby Ravensworth, Brough, Kirkby Thore, Clifton, Ormside. Over the years he has created clockcases, bookcases, nests of tables, chairs, tables, stools, pulpits and cabinets - all hand made using traditional tools, with only limited use of machinery.
'If I hadn't been a furniture maker, I still would have wanted to create things with my hands - maybe I would have been a stonemason, or sculptor, but these hands can create magic out of raw materials.'
Kathleen Dent grew up in Blackpool and her burning ambition as a youngster was to be a journalist, not a teacher. At the age of 16, following matriculation, she left school determined to follow her chosen career. When an application to the Blackpool Evening Gazette proved fruitless she agreed to return to school. Unfortunately, on returning she had to sign an agreement to stay for the full two years - a binding agreement that saw her miss an interview opportunity that came up at the Gazette in November. Whilst at school she decided to take shorthand and typing courses, perhaps still with the journalist's dream in the back of her mind? A teacher's training course at Liverpool College followed and she made the decision to only ever teach primary age - for her, children come into their own at about 9 years old, being then 'truly delightful, amenable and receptive'.
The classes in Blackpool often had 40 plus children, which to her was untenable. After swopping stories with a colleague who had taught in a country school she sought a position further north. The postion of Head Teacher at Ormside school became hers and she enjoyed several good years there: she wanted children to have a good general understanding of a range of subjects, but above all learn to read. She had to devise a scheme of work, submit it to Her Majesty's Inspectors and receive advice from them in return. Other than that she was very much left to her own devices when it came to timetabling lessons, and taught everything from sport, art and crafts, to history, geography, English and maths.
When she and James met he was just about to start his apprenticeship in Windermere and she applied for a teaching position there which would enable her to be with him. Following his seven years there, they moved back to the Kirkby Stephen area, settling in Ravenstonedale, after a long wait for a teaching post at the school. They lived at Orchard House as part of her job, later moving to the Chantry and then Chantry Lodge, before they retired to Kirkby Stephen.
In 1955 Ravenstonedale school was closed, children were going to Newbiggin-on-Lune. But Kathleen reopened the school with just 8 children. By the time she left in 1977 the school was thriving, with 2 teachers and most of the local children attending.
Having spoken to some of those local children, now grown up (in years) Nicheworks can vouch for Kathleen's ability to teach - many of her 'children' are now running some of the most successful and innovative small businesses in the Ravenstonedale area. They all remember her as 'firm but fair', which is probably the very best kind of teacher any child could wish for.