Stir it up

In the Louvre in Paris there’s a tour guide who ushers visitors from masterpiece to masterpiece, directing their attention with a wooden spatula with origins in Northumberland. 

The instrument – its primary purpose stirring soup and sauces – is a carved figure of the Venus de Milo from a range of whacky and wonderful items made by ‘spatula manufacturer’ Tim Fox and his team in their West End Industrial Estate warehouse in Haltwhistle: open, sort of, to the public.

“It’s so weird,” he enthuses, “because there are people all over the world cooking with spatulas that we have designed and made here. And they’re not just ‘being there’ all over the world, but being used, cooked with. Or even just showing people the real Venus de Milo. It’s lovely! I never lose sight of how great it is that we’re doing this.” Tim, one quickly learns, is not a man for whom the gift of life goes unappreciated. Remember the character in The Fast Show, the man who describes everything as Brilliant? Tim LOVES Hexham, having moved here to be with his girlfriend Sue Dunne. Who he also LOVES. She’s a ceramic artist, and her work is BEAUTIFUL. He LOVES Portobello Market in London, he LOVES Newcastle’s Sunday Quayside Market, where he pitches up to sell spatulas, even in winter when the wind’s lifting his overhead gazebo into the Tyne, because that just makes you appreciate summer all the more.

“It’s like busking, great fun,” Tim says. “People come towards you with smiles on their faces because they see the spatulas, and then they tell you how brilliant they are. Then they give you money for them!”

Luckily, his cheerful wonder of it all is rooted in some business grounding, or else Tim wouldn’t be expanding sales in hundreds of outlets around the country and beyond.

His background, it somehow doesn’t surprise, is in toy making; indeed, he has won British Toy Makers Guild awards for wooden games like his chess board jigsaw or his spiral snakes and ladders, which sold particularly well in America for some quirky reason.stir_it_up_img_2

“Then I mostly gave that up and worked as a supply teacher in English and art, which was great, then moved up here to be with my girlfriend, then four years ago a cello maker gave me some wooden offcuts and one of them looked like a duck and I just thought, hey! Being a toy maker, you get these ideas.

“I was actually preparing to exhibit some toys and realised there was nothing nice like this for adults. So I made some different spatulas and they took off.”

His early models, still some of his most enduringly popular, include the Spatula of Liberty, Count Spatula, and the Venus de Milo. They come with laminated labels and a little quip. “It’s all about spatulaughs, so they have to be funny,” Tim says. “By far the most popular is the one with two hands in the air, saying: ‘Oh no, not the soup!’” Among 40 or so others, there’s a Roman centurion from Hadrian’s Wall who used to say, in Latin: ‘Please Mr Hadrian, Sir, can I go back to Italy now?’, but then a friend suggested changing it for, ‘Hail Caesar Salad’, which Tim thought was genius.

As far as possible, they’re made from local hardwoods, mainly beech, ash, and some sycamore. And in the same way that toys have got to be played with, Tim insists his spatulas are used. “I tell customers I employ staff to look through their kitchen windows and check.”

He doesn’t really, but begs us to mention his ‘wonderful team’ in Haltwhistle: Dominic, Darren, Joe and David. He’s also a cello player, and busked until 2am on Northumberland Street the other day, making £160 towards his special fund to take Sue to Achiltibuie at the top of Scotland. The world could do with more like him.

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