Words by Rosie Cattrell
Specialising in a very particular craft in the last foundry in the UK to carry on the lost art of traditional Victorian bed making, The Cornish Bed Company are making heirlooms to last longer than a lifetime.
When we think of returning home after time spent away in distant lands, there’s often one thing that we picture fondly calling us back to a familiar fold, a place of calming rest and comfort – our bed. As arguably the heart and soul of any home, your bed should hold pride of place in your own personal sanctuary, and be of a quality to stand the test of time to last through generations.
The Cornish Bed Company, which was first established as a side business of a family that ran a Cornish antiques emporium and made reproduction Victorian furniture, has painstakingly revived every process that forms part of the craft of traditional bedmaking. The company’s foundry, still in the same location, was set up in old steam engine sheds near Fowey at the end of the old Great Western Railway. The red-bricked, slate-roofed Grade II listed building boasts one of the first train turn-tables in the country, which was built for the Cornwall Mineral Railway. Today, behind its original round-arched, keyed windows, craftsmen continue the traditions of iron bedmaking.
Mark Tremlett didn’t grow up making beds. By trade he, like his father before him, is a boat-builder. But it was while working on the family boatyard on the River Exe in Devon that he discovered something surprising: that even people with the most beautiful boats were sleeping on “horrible cheap, thin mattresses”. Rather than watch them ruin the look and feel of his father’s beautiful vessels, he started to make bespoke, eco-friendly mattresses, sprung with coconut fibre and filled with English wool. Soon, he was getting asked to craft breathable mattresses for babies’ cots and children’s beds. “And before long I had two Naturalmat shops in London and Devon, and was exporting to Europe,” he says. His progression into making beautiful Victorian-style metal beds happened by chance five years ago, when he came across a foundry still making cast-iron beds using the same moulds and methods as they had in Victorian times. The owner of the business had just died, and the building it was housed in, he says, was “absolutely incredible: a vast brick warehouse at the end of the Great Western Railway line, where the trains would turn around, be brushed down, and then go back to London”. The company’s real value, though, lay in its workforce. The six men at the Cornish Bed Company had more than a century of experience between them and “one guy had been there 30 years,” Tremlett says. “There was nothing he didn’t know about making beds. Having listened to them, I was sold.”
Unlike most other so-called cast-iron beds – which are often a collection of metal pipes that are screwed together – the men crafted theirs in the same way their fathers and grandfathers had in the 1800s, from four poured-metal pieces: a headboard, a footrest, and two sides, all of which tightly slot together, “so there are no screws, no squeaking”.
Unexpectedly, Mark adds, Covid has been a boon for Victorian-style beds, “because people have realised the importance of good ventilation to your health. Our body loses about a pint of moisture a day – and the only way to wick that away is to allow your skin to breathe, which only a well-ventilated bed and natural mattress will do.” The fact the beds are all made in Cornwall – an area of little employment – also chimes with buyers, he adds, “because they’re positive for local people and the planet. They’re beds that will last for ever, that you will pass down as heirlooms, which is why you find them everywhere, from Shimla to South Africa, because they were dismantled, put on to horses or boats or trains and taken all over the Empire.”
In the past few years, bespoke models have begun to appear in bedrooms all over the country too: in hotels such as Soho House, No Twenty9 in Burnham Market and Paul Ainsworth’s No 6 Townhouse in Padstow, and in the homes of fans like Ellie Goulding, James McAvoy and Emma Bridgewater. Because the foundry is just a few miles from the Eden Project, clients often pop by to watch the process, Mark says. “It’s not everyone who can say they’ve seen their bed being made from molten metal. It’s a pretty special thing – kind of like having a boat made. Which is where it all started…”
It was not long ago that the idea of passing furniture down from generation to generation seemed old-fashioned and out of touch. ‘Fast furniture’ replaced purchases that would last a lifetime and the values of permanence were replaced with the idealisation of mobility and a lighter lifestyle. Now there is a growing desire again for considered purchases and heirloom furniture that won’t be replaced in four to eight years (the average lifespan of self-assembled furniture). Our collective shift towards more responsible choices is affecting what we buy for our homes and is driving demand for products that are naturally sustainable and can be repaired, updated and refurbished to prolong their lifespan.
Bedsteads from The Cornish Bed Company are still made in the Victorian tradition, in the last remaining foundry in the UK that manufactures traditional metal bedsteads in exactly the same way that they were created over 150 years ago. The cast knuckle fixings are hand-poured at high temperatures to create strength and stability in the frame, joining the head and foot sections of the bed with the knuckle joint. Brass beds grew in popularity rapidly, and by the 1880s a brass bed was de rigueur in fine homes across the country, adding a touch of opulence and elegance to the room. The Cornish Bed Company’s brass beds are manufactured to the highest standards using real rolled, hand-cast, and hand-spun brass, and with a unique look to provide a mixture of old-style decor and 21st century elegance and durability, the antique brass style is one of many that will stay in fashion for eternity.
Bottom right image courtesy of @OldHouseOurHome
With awards like the Feefo 2020 Gold Trusted Service Award, the 2021 UK Enterprise Award for Best Speciality Bespoke Bed Makers, and the 2021 Southern Enterprise Award for Best Artisan Cast Iron Bed Manufacturer under their belt, not to mention the recently awarded Design Guild Mark for the Somerset four poster and the Tetbury cast iron beds, Mark and his team have left an impression of prestigious quality on the industry. With a traditional, long-lasting, timeless style that would suit any home from a London townhouse to a countryside cottage, The Cornish Bed Company offer a bed for life and longer, and are in the business of creating beautiful future antiques to be passed down from generation to generation.