At some point, a man just does not want to wear sneakers anymore. There will come a day when he will be looking for a pair of boots, which are like good friends: solid, reliable and forever. Our reporter traveled to the English countryside in order to find his.
Of course, it was all extremely silly: running after a complete stranger in Copenhagen, tapping him on the shoulder, pointing at his shoes and then asking: “Where did you get those?” I had readied myself for a mocking glance or a brusque rebuff. But the man, roughly mid-30s, just smiled as though this was not the first time someone had stopped him on the street. “They’re William Lennon boots,” he said. “I’ve been wearing them every day for years!”
His half-length boots were made of fine black leather. They were rugged, yet elegant and gleamed like a vintage black-and-white portrait of Romy Schneider – distinctive, full of patina and equipped with a knowing weariness, which tells of long, arduous roads taken.
I immediately knew that I, too, wanted to possess such boots. Never again would I have to decide what footwear I would be donning the next morning. I had never heard of William Lennon shoemakers in Derbyshire. And to be honest, I did not even know much about Derbyshire, the county located in the Peak District in central England. Boasting the 636-meter Kinder Scout peak, the region is home to England’s first national park, which was created in 1951.
The area has a certain faded beauty. To imagine it, just think back to the Jane Austin movie Pride and Prejudice, which was shot here in 2004. Huge manor houses, charming cottages, pale green misty meadows, crooked gravel paths and a whole lot of sheep.
Even William Lennon’s address sounds like it was made up: The small manufacturer is located on a street called “The Bank” in the town of Stone Middleton in the Hope Valley – but you really have to look for it. Its HQ is a small cottage surrounded by fields, meadows and neighboring properties located on a small hill. I feel like I’m traveling through Middle Earth. The feeling gets even stronger when I duck into a workshop through a small wooden door. Here, apart from an old lady wearing thick glasses (Pat Helliwell who has been working at William Lennon for more than 50 years), you can only make out mountains of boots piled on top of each other.
Once my eyes get used to the dim light, I recognize stacks of sides of leather in shades of brown and black, in a corner. There are shelves with woodworm holes, worktops covered in shoe lasts, knives and rather creatively filed order slips. Between it all, are curious machines – mechanical monstrosities that I had only ever seen in an industrial museum. It is all quite chaotic. This is what workshops must have looked like at the turn of the century – the 20th, not the 21st century, of course.
“You’re not wrong,” says Libs Slattery. She laughs and shoots me a slightly mocking glance. “The factory used to be a flourmill, which William, my great-great-grandfather, bought in 1904. Since that time, shoes have been made here in similar conditions and using the same machines as back then.”
The 45-year-old is one of William Lennon’s three company directors and the heart and soul of the company. “We make sure that there is a family atmosphere.” This is not limited to the workshop: Libs’ father, whose name is also William and who is 76, and her cousin Dan Walker, 45, are the other two bosses of the small company, which has been producing fine work boots for four generations.
For the last 100 years, we have been producing boots using similar machines, and in similar conditions.
In the basement, they manufacture roughly 250 to 300 pairs of “Ruff Lander” boots a week, which are mostly for industrial use. On the two upper floors, they make the more high-end William Lennon brand, producing 30 to 35 pairs of the distinctive retro boots a week – enough to keep the twelve William Lennon employees in work.
It is not easy, concedes Libs: “Cheap products from China have forced many smaller companies out of business.” But William Lennon keeps on going: “We are scaling down our Ruff Lander brand,” says Libs.
“In the future, we will focus on our more exclusive products. There are more and more men who are willing to pay a respectable amount for our boots, people who don’t necessarily want to work in them.”
In fact, William Lennon boots are not actually that expensive: between 150 to 250 pounds, depending on the wishes of the client. “After all, we make our products exclusively by hand,” says Slattery, who is married to the local butcher and seems like a formidable lady.
“The Shepherd’s Boot is our top selling model. It has been available in this form and with this finishing for more than 100 years.”
In a kind of storage room, which is used as the company’s official showroom, its products have been put on display on a few shelves. Among them, is the soccer boot, a kind of leather briquette with small wooden blocks underneath the sole. The item is more of a weapon than a shoe, but has long been out of production, as I hear to my relief.The Shepherd’s Boot, on the other hand, is – at first glance – reminiscent of an orthopedic shoe whose tip is curved upward, like a sultan’s slipper. “Solid, unbreakable,” says Libs. “For shepherds and people who constantly clamber up and down hills, it is the best there is.”
Why? She leads me to a piece of machinery that looks as odd as if it had been developed by a mad professor to feature in a “Star Wars” movie. “This is an original BUSM Rapid Standard Brass Screw machine,” she says with pride. “She’s a heroine. There are only a handful left in the world and we own more than one of them.” If I understood her correctly, this unique machine is able to staple together the leather and sole so tightly that not even a sheet of paper would fit in between them.
Enter Dan, who is in charge of the craftsmanship at William Lennon, while Libs is responsible for the commercial side. And Mr. Lennon senior? What does he do? “He doesn’t come in every day anymore.” I enquire whether he is ill. “No, not at all. He just wants to enjoy life!” says Dan, and goes on to ask how I had found out about the company.
I tell him my Copenhagen story and he nods. He has heard quite a few tales of men who were looking for boots that are as reliable as a good friend. We walk along shelf after shelf. Dan makes notes regarding the types of leather I am interested in and measures my feet.
We agree the metal fittings, toecaps and accessories until we have put together my unique model. For now, it only exists on a piece of scrap paper. “It will take six to eight weeks before you will be able to take delivery of it in Germany.” Maybe even longer – and no, there is no need for a deposit. “That’s not how we do things here.” I like the idea that you cannot just travel to Derbyshire and return home with a shopping bag, as though you had gone to a supermarket.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” I say to Dan, who smiles in response. “Well, the long delivery times just come about because things can get a bit chaotic around here. Besides, we’re not really on this earth to work ourselves to death.” A charming approach, without doubt. Add to that, the fact that you have to practically tease stories out of the company director like the one about a certain Brad Pitt – who actually owns a pair of Lennon boots.
Excessive marketing is not the done thing here in central England. Nevertheless, an online shop that is exclusively focused on William Lennon is scheduled to go live soon. This is solely born out of necessity: “With it, clients from around the world will be able to design their boots choosing different elements,” explains Dan and shrugs. “It will help preserve all this,” he says pointing at the workshop and his employees. He pauses and looks at me. “And it’s worth preserving, isn’t it?”