Sloth: By Our Hands We Make Our Way's Martin Sommerville on Life in the Slow Lane

Words: Lizzy O'Riordan
Photos: Ekam Hundal
Friday 19 November 2021
reading time: min, words

After spending years ruled by rise and grind hustle culture, lockdown left us with no choice but to slow down. We investigate the growing trend of slow living and talk to Martin Sommerville from By Our Hands We Make Our Way woodworking studios about intentional living, building a sense of community, and the joy that comes with taking it easy...


When we hear the word Sloth, we tend to think of the slow moving, funny looking creatures at London Zoo. The use of Sloth to refer to the deadly sin has pretty much gone out of style, but the protestant work ethic is still alive and kicking in our modern-day hustle culture, branding anyone not working eighteen-hour days as lazy and unambitious.

Yet, over the past few years, people have started to tire of the pervasive rise and grind narrative that was once everywhere. In its place, the alternative of slow living has appeared, a philosophy that encourages a calmer paced and more intentional way of living. For many of us, the first lockdown forced us to embrace slowness, taking long walks, baking bread and tending to our gardens. Now, as shops have opened, and our diaries are getting increasingly full, it might be a good time to incorporate a little bit of slowness back into our lives.

When you look up the hashtag slow living on Instagram, you’re bombarded with photos of autumn leaves, aesthetic books and artisan crafts. The connection between slowness and creativity is obvious, as most crafts are time consuming and meditative. It’s because of this that I immediately think of Martin from By Our Hands We Make Our Way Workshop, a woodworking workshop that’s just a stone’s throw away from the LeftLion offices. Meandering down with romantic ideas about slow living and woodwork, I’m greeted into his studio with the offer of tea and a friendly face.

Martin runs the shop with his partner Carly, and I start by asking about what they do here. “It looks very much like a woodworking workshop, and it has been that, but it’s not only that, it’s a space where anything might happen,” Martin says, openly. “We make lots of things out of wood, and we teach, and we play, and we make some music. I don’t know, it’s a bit of everything.” He goes on to explain that it began as a workshop but has since become community space. “Someone once described it as a pub because people come here and hang out,” he says, “which makes me the pub landlord.”

It was a conscious choice to slow down. This felt more real to me, and more tactile, and more physical, more human

I wonder about how Martin got into woodworking. He tells me that he used to work in London in the video game industry but describes that job as having lots of pressure and heavy deadlines, comparing the industry to an enormous machine that was grinding people up. He went back into education to study participatory art in Derby, and met his partner Carly, with whom he spent the next twelve years running creative workshops across the country. Things were creative, but still busy then, and it was only through tragedy that the couple were forced to slow down. “We ended up here really after an experience of deep grief when we lost our first son,” Martin says. “We stopped working for a little while and spent the next six months crying. Then I started carving wood more than I ever had before, and chopping wood, and just feeling like I needed to hack at things.”

The workshop feels rooted in home and community, and Martin tells me that this is intentional. “We live nearby, thirty seconds up the hill, so this feels like our home, really. That was a decision we made when we started working again. It feels important to be rooted here. It’s like we had been flying around and now we’ve finally landed.”

Everything Martin says sounds congruent with slow living, but I still don’t know if he would label himself that way. “I try not to put labels on things, but slow living fits - maybe we’re slower than the average and it was a conscious choice to slow down. This felt more real to me, and more tactile, and more physical, more human,” Martin muses. “I think the phrase ‘human living’ makes sense to me. Since humans have engaged with machines and technology over the past hundred years, we’ve tried to meet machines at their speed, but we don’t have to. We can work at human speed. Technology can be appropriate at the right time. But slowness is good, I think. Slowness lets you see things, you don’t miss anything.”

Martin’s lifestyle is counter cultural in lots of ways; he’s also a home-schooling parent, and as a family they do most things together, leaning more towards collectivism than individualism. I ask if he ever feels judgment for straying from the norm. “People often make the observation that we're really lucky to live like this - carefree, with seemingly a lot of freedom. But we're not free of care! There have been difficult choices we've made along the way to get where we are, to be happy with where we are. Living deliberately, doing what you love, intentionally, can be super hard work! Doing what you want with your life takes trust, and honesty, and loss, and a foolhardy willingness to just try stuff. A lot of the luck we had to make up out of nothing, or by smashing up other bits of our lives, or by waiting for the seeds to slowly grow.”

Nonetheless, Martin seems content. “My dad was always waiting for retirement to do the things he wanted to do, and I think that struck me as something I didn’t want to do,” he says. “I didn’t want to wait, I wanted to do things now. If this life means I don’t have Netflix, or a car, or a holiday, then that’s fine - I’d rather be happy in the everyday.”

By Our Hands We Make Our Way is located on Freckingham street in Sneinton Market where everyone is invited. You can support them on Patreon to keep costs low for those everyone who uses the workshop.

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