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The Wicker Man

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

There’s a pub in Camacha called ‘Moses Bar’. We stopped to ask directions and I noticed an extensive selection of high-priced European beers in their coolers, odd given that Madeira is one of the cheapest places in Europe to buy a bottle of beer. These foreign brews were a hopping €10 to €12 a bottle!

Moses Bar as it turns out is the starting & finishing point for a Levada walk popular with Dutch, Danish, Swedish and German tourists who no doubt are delighted to find a bottle of their national brew waiting on their return - albeit 10 times the price of the local draft!

Over a glass of Coral (€1), I asked the barman if there was any connection between Moses Bar and the biblical anecdote of baby Moses floating down the Nile in a wicker basket. Turned out the taberna owner’s uncle was called Moses!

The Wicker Man

José Fernandes, coincidentally or perhaps conveniently lives straight across the street from Moses Bar and is one of the very last of his kind in Madeira, a worker of wicker.

José was waiting to meet us at the gate. He put me in mind of a mix between Carlos Santana and Sneezy of the Seven Dwarves! I got the impression he and his wife were a bit suspicious of the ‘jornalista’ and his local handlers coming to visit them. They led us through the yard, slowly, almost reluctantly steering us past a chained-up ‘nasty’ dog while their more friendly puppy took a distinct liking to my shoelaces.

Basket Case

Wicker was once a thriving industry here in Madeira and the village of Camacha was its core. In the early days, steamships arrived from the UK to the port of Funchal and passengers would be transported to Camacha to buy wicker-ware: baskets, bags, bowls, chairs, tables, even full sets of furniture which were then transported back to their ship and home to jolly old England. This was in the Halcyon days of Madeira tourism. I don’t think Jet2 would agree to it these days!

In more recent years, coaches came from the city bringing holidaymakers to visit the ‘Camacha Wicker Factory’ which was by all accounts a good-going concern until around four years ago. A fairly attractive Art Deco style building still stands as testament to the trade overlooking Camacha’s main square. Today it’s all barred up and abandoned. I was told the company went bankrupt!

Wicker’s World

Wicker has been used for at least 5,000 years by imaginative humans The ancient Egyptians used rattan, a type of palm leaf to make all sorts of containers, carriers and furniture. This went on through the various civilisations including the Persians and Romans who adapted other plant materials for similar purposes. There was petrified evidence of wicker baskets being used in Pompeii. And of course, there was the Moses connection, one of the few Biblical tales I can remember.

The word “wicker” is actually Scandinavian, originating from the words ‘wika’ which means ‘to bend’ and ‘vikker’ which applies to the ‘willow’ plant. I introduced my friend Michael, who is the ‘vicar’ of the English Church in Funchal to the confusion of my Austrian friend. Sergio, who couldn’t understand why Michael was the ‘vicar’ of the English Church.

By the Victorian era, wicker-worship had reached its peak throughout the UK, Europe and North America. The material was regarded as robust, inexpensive, weatherresistant and environmentally friendly. I remember in my younger day, laundry baskets plant holders and my granny’s carpet beater (which doubled as a tennis racket and air guitar) were all made from wicker.

And don’t forget the famous wicker toboggans that career down the hill from Monte here in Madeira. That will be the subject of another story.

Saturday Market

Getting back to José Fernandes, the wicker-weaver who clings to his old trade making a few pieces per week in his garden shed and selling them at the Saturday market or ‘Mercadinho da Camacha’.

We met him there the following weekend. He’d warmed to us by now, notably when I bought him a second Scotch which he seemed to relish as he displayed his wares to the browsing public. José smoked heavily and bemoaned the fact. “How old is he?” he asked my Madeiran girlfriend in Portuguese pointing at me. It turned out José was only a year older than I. It seems the wicker business is a hard life. Or maybe mine has been a lot easier.

Sipping whisky outside, (I had joined him of course, only to be polite), José told us he used to train young people in the art of wicker-weaving but the village kids were no longer interested. He’d even made a wicker bikini for a fashion shoot thinking that it would start a trend. A novel idea perhaps but I don’t think it’ll catch on!


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