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Winchester lute-maker James Cole talks all things music
IF you met James Cole in a pub, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he was a musical man.
Laidback, bearded, and sporting a battered old baseball cap, he wouldn’t look out of place in an American folk band.
But what might surprise you, is that his musical expertise includes making lutes and classical guitars.
“I make them for amateurs and I make them for professionals. It’s across the board,” he explains.
The 47-year-old now lives on Buriton Road, Harestock, and lovingly crafts instruments in the workshop at the bottom of his garden.
His existence seems an enticing one – using his highly skilled hands, he applies centuries-old techniques to carefully selected pieces of wood from a preferred supplier in Sussex.
“People do see it like that but there are always difficulties in any job: getting paid, getting the work out on time. And sometimes the work you put in does not equate to what you get out,” he says.
So does the time dedicated to just one item – such as a lute, which can take up to two months – combined with the beauty of it, make it hard to let go of the finished article?
“No – it’s nice to let them go. That’s a lovely feeling: to hear someone playing it, especially when they’re a really great player. It’s lovely to see, so it’s never hard to get rid of it,” he says, his relaxed manner becoming ever so slightly animated.
As he talks he strums a guitar that he has been working on, and it’s clear he’s no slouch with the strings himself.
“I’ve always played in bands. Over the years I’ve played in different ones and played different guitars, but I mainly play the banjo – old-style Bluegrass.
“One of my clients is (folk-rock singer) Martin Stephenson and I play with him sometimes.”
Born and raised in Chandler’s Ford, aside from carpentry, he worked on farms and laboured on building sites before he “found his feet” – but music was a constant.
James enrolled on an instrument making course at Chichester’s West Dean College in 1992, on the recommendation of a tutor when he was working as a carpenter at a Southampton boat building college.
He moved to Winchester 17 years ago and his instruments can now fetch up to £2,000, but in an age of iPods and MP4s, demand is steady rather than spectacular.
With a brother in the building trade though, he can still put his hand to carpentry in order to support the family home he shares with long-term partner, the jewellery maker Karen Salter.
And before parting company with James, there is another surprise in store.
A boxing history book on his dining table betrays another passion – that of the martial arts.
The easy-going music-maker has a black belt in Wing Chun, once a favoured combat system of the late, great Bruce Lee – but that’s not necessarily at odds with lute making.
“With Wing Chun it’s hands-on – you have to have your head screwed on and you have to be very practical, and the techniques employ the straightest line between two points.
“There are similarities.
“But to be honest, I have never had to put the two together!”
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