Debbie Slater, the mind behind of Alp & Ash, decided not so long ago to pursue a career in creation. Making the bold move to buy a laser cutter, which is housed in her workshop in the bottom of her mother's garden, Debbie creates beautiful handmade items, a few of which are inspired by our own Lake District surroundings. We caught up with her recently on her inspiration, her motivations and on walking the Wainwrights.
Words: Debbie Slater | Photography: Rebecca Iris
Can you provide us with a bit of a background on of Alp and Ash? What’s the story behind your brand?
of Alp & Ash began with a laser cutter and a desire to create products based on my love of the outdoors. I wanted to work with wood, as I love natural materials, but also using the skills I’d acquired on a computer. A laser cutter was the perfect way to transform those digital skills into a tangible product.
You mentioned it took you a long time to pursue this as a career. Tell us a bit about what you did before A&A?
Nothing noteworthy I’m afraid. It was a mix of soul-destroying jobs, horrible bosses, and even writing a wedding blog! I felt quite lost for the decade after my degree, but my experiences during that time (particularly the horrible bosses) left me with an ambition to work for myself, and I invested my savings into buying a laser cutter before I even knew what I wanted to create with it.
Your work is so beautifully designed. Could you tell us a little about your design process?
That’s so lovely of you to say, but I really can’t take the credit for my coaster and map art designs as that’s all the Ordnance Survey’s work! I’d like to think I could take a little credit for the process of turning those maps into the coasters they are though. It’s a labour-intensive method that begins with tracing key elements of 1:25000 maps before programming the laser to either cut or engrave those elements. I mask sheets of oak veneered plywood to prevent burn marks, which leads to a lot of peeling off masking tape once all the contours are cut! Then I oil the coasters to seal them from brew spills, cut acrylic to press fit into any lakes or tarns, and finally cut orange adhesive felt to stick onto the back.
Could you talk us through the inspiration for your work, and where did the idea to do this come from?
I always knew I wanted to create items inspired by the outdoors, and so my name and logo were designed around this, even before I had a product! The coasters came to fruition whilst hiking the Wainwrights in the Lake District. I decided to hike them ‘old school’ with only a map and compass, and it was all that time spent looking at maps that planted the seed. It took a lot of prototyping to get them to where they are today, and even now I’m still trying to think up ways to refine the process.
You challenged and completed all the 214 Wainwrights. In a year! What an achievement. Tell us a bit more about this?
It was tough! I wouldn’t advise hiking them in a year unless you love walking in bad weather as you’re undoubtedly going to get some if you’re limited on when you can get up to the Lake District! There was a lot to love about the challenge though: it was incredible for my self-confidence as I completed about a third alone, and it was amazing for my fitness with a third of the walks being around the 13-mile mark or longer. I challenged myself to complete them in a year to mark the tenth anniversary of my dad’s passing, his ashes are scattered on Loughrigg Fell (one of the smaller Wainwrights) and that’s where I finished my challenge. I cried on reaching that final summit, I don’t know if I’d have managed them all in a year without the thought of making my dad proud spurring me on; he loved hiking, but sadly I only discovered my love of it after he’d passed away.
You recently completed Coast to Coast too. Tell us a bit more about this challenge. Was it different to the Wainwrights?
I found the Coast to Coast to be a completely different challenge. It was tougher physically, with walking long distances on 13 consecutive days: I suffered from blisters, lost all the skin off the back of my heels, and even lost a toenail. I’ve learnt that if I ever do a long distance walk again I’m going to cover my feet with Compeed plasters before I even start!
However, it was less stressful logistically with it only be the one long walk, rather than many shorter walks. I also found the simple routine of getting up in the morning and focusing solely on getting from A to B was extremely beneficial to my mental well being. All the worries of home/work life fell away on the trail, and I finished it desperate to do another one.
Where is your favourite walk?
I’d have to say Loughrigg Fell. I’ve been up that hill countless times; it holds so many memories for me. I visit every year on the anniversary of my dad’s death, my husband proposed there (his way of asking my dad’s hand in marriage), and it’s where I completed my Wainwright challenge. I’ve also taken many friends up this hill as you get incredible views of the Lake District for minimal effort. If I have a child one day, it will be the first fell I take them up.
Have you walked all the other places that are in your designs?
Sadly not, but I plan to in time! Other than the Lake District I’ve actually only walked Snowdon, and that was when I was about 7. Creating the other coasters came after the Lake District designs, as I realised I’d need to branch out to appeal to walkers in other areas, but I do feel a little guilty for not having walked them all. It gives me a good project to be cracking on with though!
Where does your love for the outside come from?
That would have to be my dad. He loved the outdoors and I spent my childhood camping and caravanning all other the UK & Europe. Hiking for me back then was solely about the ice cream at the end (dad always planned super long walks for our little legs), but I remember loving the sleeping under canvas, the barbequing on the beach, exploring rivers in a dinghy, and the outdoors treasure hunts my dad and uncle would plan. My happiest memories are from my childhood camping trips.
What does travel mean to you?
I think travel is the best investment you can make; I completely agree with the quote “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.” We can learn so much from travelling, not just about the places we visit, but about ourselves too.
Why do you think travel and adventure are so important to what you do?
Travel is absolutely the best way to learn about our world, and I think it’s important that we experience different cultures, and appreciate how others live in the world. Adventure also breaks you out of your routine, gives you space to breathe and to be inspired. At home, life can get a little repetitive and there are all those mundane things to attend to like chores and appointments, but you can forget about all of that when travelling. It’s pure freedom, to do whatever you want, whenever you want. I always come back from a trip feeling re-energized.
What’s next for A&A?
In all honesty, I have no idea. I’m currently working on a completely different little business idea using my laser cutter as a means to make a little more money. My love is with of Alp & Ash but due to it being a niche product it has a limited market, so I’m hoping to create something with more worldwide appeal to bring in the funds necessary to free me up to grow of Alp & Ash.
Do you have any other walking challenges lined up?
At the moment I’m walking the Outlying Fells. I know there are so many other mountains I could be climbing, but the Lake District is really accessible to me, and I like the idea of completing all the Wainwright challenges. In the future I’d also like to hike from Alfred Wainwright’s hometown of Blackburn (which just so happens to be my hometown too) to The Lakes. And one day, if I can tear myself away from Cumbria, I’d love to hike the Welsh 3000s, Hadrian’s Wall, and the West Highland Way. As well as all those mountains on my coasters, of course!