December squelch

December from Bradlow Knoll

The month of December signals the full emergence of the cold winter season and, as the last month of the year, it promises a new beginning in January – who would not be looking forward to that?

into the woods

On the other hand, we’ve learnt to change our habits so much in 2020 that, as a result, bread-making, chess, virtual wine tasting, online bingo and TV bingeing may be on the up but to the detriment of other activities such as going to your local shop, meeting other humans and playing golf. I do go walking more though.

mud and leaf

Yes, there is always the great outdoors, and on this particular day the sum was out and the day crisp and bright as I made my way into the Frith. There was no point looking for colour other than the general grey-green-brown hues, no plants, no fungi, just the wet mud of the path and Autumn’s fallen leaves, lots of dead bracken and, somewhere high above, a croaking raven.

bracken

Most of the brown areas are the result of bracken. It was traditionally used for animal bedding which later breaks down into a mulch that can be used as fertilizer, and it’s best not eaten, as it contains a carcinogenic compound, though it is used to store freshly made ricotta cheese. Highly invasive, luckily in autumn it turns brown and dies down. Ferns are definitely prettier.

Cameron Contemporary Art Gallery

Walking in squelchy mud is tiring and forces one to use muscles you didn’t realize you had until you clamber into bed, aching and stiff. That night I slept as soon as my head touched the pillow. I dreamt of trees, squirrels, mud snorkeling and giant stoneware vases.

 

nocturnal advice

At some point, I woke up with a start. There, at the end of my bed, sat an old man with a long white beard. He wore a woven straw hat, so he wasn’t Father Christmas. There was a musky smell of sheep in the air. He looked at me and asked:

“Do you honestly think that they care that bracken was used for animal bedding?”

“Sorry?” I mumbled, “who are you?”

“Remember me?” he asked. “Come on. Your blog of November 2019?”

I searched my memory and suddenly it came to me.

“Ah, yes, of course. St Spyridon, patron saint of potters.”

“Spot on, though you did misspell my name on that blog.”

“How can I help?” I asked politely.

“I believe it’s the other way round. I am here to help you.”

“Oh, how?”

“You’re having trouble with your blog. It’s been preying on your mind, and last night before you fell asleep you muttered the words “hydrous aluminium phyllosilicates”. If these are the last words a potter says before sleep, I am duty-bound to make an appearance.”

“Well. It can’t happen very often then.”

“You’d be surprised how often a disturbed and troubled potter utters the magic words before drifting off.”

I sniffed the air, which was rude of me.

“Oh, I used to tend sheep before I became Bishop of Trymithous. That’s why I wear this shepherd’s hat. Anyway, your blog. You’re finding it increasingly difficult to relate its content to ceramics, when, after all, it’s meant to be a ceramics blog. Is that right?”

“Yes, I admit that.”

The Chuffed Store

“Your blogs tend to be text-heavy, filled with rambling non-sequiturs and partly related images. The last one was all about mushrooms.  I am here to provide a solution. Instead of trying to twist the text towards any ceramic-related narrative, I propose you write about whatever takes your fancy and intersperse that with unrelated images of your work. Each image, when clicked on, will link the viewer with details of the piece, where it can be bought, and for how much. The more images, the lighter the blog. Vision trumps all senses; the human brain can process entire images in as little as 13 milliseconds.”

Jewel Street

“Wow. You’re quite media savvy for a third century Greek monk. I suppose once you get to Heaven you absorb everything past, present and future, and take on a wisdom beyond anything human.”

“Natch. By the way, how many followers do you have?”

“Well, seven that I know of,” I hesitated, then added pathetically “not including my wife and mum, of course.”

Jewel Street

Wanting to change the subject I asked:

“So, who else have you helped in this way?”

“Oh, I gave Josiah Wedgwood a hand with his marketing, Bernard Leach too, Kawai Kanjirō, Pablo Picasso…”

“Gosh, all that knowledge at your fingertips.”

“Yes, but there are limitations. We get given one luxury when we arrive at the Pearly Gates but this is restricted to each person’s contemporary experience and era. So, for example, my friend Albert Schweitzer has a gigantic church organ, Siggy Freud has a gramophone player, Nelson Mandela has a constant supply of Dom Pérignon, and so on. Alas, I could not have any of these because they did not exist in my time.”

“So what did you choose?”

“Goat’s yoghurt. I’ve always had a passion for it, and it was considered the height of indulgence in my day.”

“But presumably you can share things, listen to Freud’s records, sip Nelson’s champagne…?”

“Yes, true. Albert is teaching me the organ, though, of course…… for a fee.”

“You use currency there?”

“No, we exchange things.”

“So how do you pay Mr Schweitzer?”

“In yoghurt.”

Jewel Street

St Spyridon raised a hand and signalled the end of our conversation.

“I will only appear when genuinely needed. It’s no good muttering “hydrous aluminium phyllosilicates” unless you have a real potter’s dilemma, otherwise I’d be forever at the beck and call of potters.”

He stood up and waved, then slowly disappeared through the bedroom wall.

The Chuffed Store

Later my wife woke up and, despite my protestations, accused me of allowing sheep into the house while she was asleep.

Parfum d’Ovine

Just click on the images of ceramics to find out more about each piece. Jewel Street is a new outlet you might like to visit, and if you do want to buy a three legged bowl for Christmas the voucher code is PETERARSCOTT10, which will get you a £10 discount. St Spyridon is full of ideas. Meanwhile, back in the workshop, recently made up vases are drying in readiness for their bisque firing in a few days.

waiting for the kiln


αντιο σας

Fungus

image of ceramic pot in 192os setting of Haslington House in Malvern

Star vase at Haslington House. Photo Amanda Jackson

After driving to Upper Colwall to deliver a vase for a photo shoot at Haslington House for the Chuffed Store‘s Christmas catalogue (well it is November), and after gazing down at the counties of Herefordshire on the West and Gloucestershire on the East side of the hill, I was inspired and needed a walk.

portrait of King Alfred

This is King Alfred

A damp and overcast day for a walk in the Frith Wood, but this time in the company of son and daughter-in-law, which shifts the dynamics from the usual meandering inattention of two eyes to the more stimulated and observant six, focussing on all things mycological. Both are keen fungus foragers and they know how and where to look, pointing out all sorts of strange little outgrowths along a track I had only been along two days ago without spotting anything unfamiliar. Even before entering the wood at the top of Bradlow Hill , in the sloping meadow just a few feet from Chris Johnson’s bench, they noticed a large Parasol mushroom.

Parasol mushroom held by hand

Parasol

WARNING. Dear reader, one way of minimising the risk of poisoning by Parasol-like mushrooms is to steer clear of any specimens with caps smaller than 10cm across when fully expanded, so avoid small specimens. The other, better, way to reduce to zero the risk of harm is to not take any of this blog as trustworthy – remember that I am a ceramicist and I know as much about mycology as a fish does about bicycle gears. Which reminds me that this is meant to be a ceramics blog and I don’t know how I’m going to link mushrooms to pottery.

stinkhorn fungus

This is not a Parasol. It is a Stinkhorn.

Anyway, keep in mind that all fungi deteriorate in flavour and texture as they age (don’t we all). This Parasol was obviously way past its sell-by date, so we didn’t take it home.  Experts recommend gathering Parasols at the ‘partly expanded umbrella’ stages of development before putting them in a pan and frying them in butter. Keep the stems chopped up for mushroom soup.

small stump puffballs

Stump Puffballs.

Just behind the C.J.’s bench was a cluster of Stump Puffballs. Must be eaten while the flesh is white throughout (they can be fried with onions or used to make soup) and its best to leave “mature” ones alone, once they have a darker or brown surface, they are inedible. However, even when young, the tough outer skin needs to be removed – a fiddly job – and if any are turning yellow it means they are maturing and should be chucked out. At the end of the cooking session you may want to throw them all out and nip down to Tesco for a bag of button mushrooms.

Blood Red Web Cap mushroom

Blood Red Web Cap

Rosy Bonnet mushroom

The Rosy Bonnet

Once into the Frith and its murky light, some of the fungus we came across are quite ugly, others bizarre, but they play an important role within our ecosystems, helping to recycle nutrients from dead or decaying organic matter, and providing food and shelter for different animals. A pile of old logs in your garden will encourage fungi and the wildlife that depends on them. Some are strangely beautiful in their own right, and the Wood Blewitt is one, the Blood Red Web Cap another, the Rosy Bonnet, the Amethyst Deceiver… by the way, the images of mushrooms and fungi held to the camera by a hand with red painted nails, that’s my daughter-in-law’s and not my son’s.

The Blewitt mushroom

Sordid Blewitt

In many parts of mainland Europe, Wood Blewits are available in supermarkets throughout most of the autumn and winter months, and they are particularly popular in France, Spain and Portugal. Young caps are best, and they have the added advantage of retaining their bluish colouring as an aid to identification. They are very good if sauteed and served with veal, pork or chicken; they are also fine with cheese, rice and pasta dishes.

the jelly-like Witch's Butter fungus

Witch’s Butter

What about the Yellow Brain or Witch’s butter?  According to European legend, if Yellow Brain fungus appeared on the gate or door of a house it meant that a witch had cast a spell on the family living there. The only way the spell could be removed was by piercing the fungus several times with straight pins until it went away.

Honey Fungus growing at the base of a tree

The Honey Fungus

The Honey Fungus can be a destructive forest microorganism since it causes “white rot” root disease. It also feeds on dead plant material, allowing it to kill its host, unlike parasites that moderate their own growth to avoid host death – so they are bad news if they appear in your garden. In parts of Europe it is highly prized and ranked above Morels and Chanterelles for their distinctive “mushroomy” and nutty flavour.  On the other hand, the largest known organism in the world is a Honey Fungus that spans over 8.9km2 in Oregon. It is estimated to be 2400 years old. Yes, the largest living thing on Earth is a humongous fungus.

The cup-like Polyporus grows on dead wood

Polyporus Varius

The Polypore fungus is one of the good guys. It is an indicator species of healthy natural forests, and Ötzi the Iceman, who lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE and was found in the Similaun mountains of Austria in 1991, was carrying a polypore species, probably for medicinal use.

King Alfred's Cake fungus looks like a lump of coal

King Alfred’s Cake

We came across the inedible King Alfred’s Cake, or Cramp Ball, or Carbon Ball, which it resembles. I expect you all know the legend of King Alfred (b 871) who once hid out in a countryside cottage during a battle and was put in charge of removing cakes from the oven when they were done. He fell asleep and the cakes burned and when the old lady of the house returned, she beat him with her broom. The fungus is said to resemble a charred cake. The fungus is a useful form of tinder for fire-lighting. you can drop a spark on to the inside surface and if you are successful you will see a small orange glow begin to form and spread throughout the fungus, similar to a charcoal briquette. 

An opened chestnut burr reveals two chestnuts

Open chestnut burr

Underneath the spreading chestnut tree

I loved him and he loved me

There I used to sit upon his knee

‘Neath the spreading chestnut tree…..

There beneath the boughs make no mistake

Good Queen Bess play darts with Drake

Watching Alfred burn the birthday cakes

‘Neath the spreading chestnut tree.

(click here to hear Glenn Miller’s famous version)

A Hungarian dessert made from chestnut and cream

gesztenyepüré

A significant percentage of the trees in the Frith is chestnut. The ground in the wood is littered with fallen chestnuts and opened burrs, many already nibbled by that nemesis of all saplings, the grey squirrel, who strip bark from them when the tree is about eight years old and onwards. It might be the vitamin C they’re after to set them up for winter since the chestnut is the only “nut” that contains that vitamin. Roasting the fruit involves scoring the fruit beforehand to prevent explosion due to expansion in the oven. Once cooked, its texture is slightly similar to that of a baked potato, with a delicate, sweet, and nutty flavour. In Hungary they puree cooked chestnuts mix them with sugar and rum, force it through a sieve and top it with whipped cream: gesztenyepüré (go on, say it). 

the lobe-shaped Jelly Ear fungus

Jelly Easr fungus

the brain-like underside of the Maze Gill fungus

the porous underside of a Maze Gill fungus

It may be that now that Autumn is here the variety and colour of the flora in and around the wood has diminished, but the incredible array of what so often goes unnoticed is exceptional. I’m only posting some of the photos taken – there are actually twenty six images of different mushrooms and fungi from this one walk: a whole world below knee height.

A cluster of small ink cap mushrooms

Ink Caps

The black mess left after the Ink Cap mushroom rots used to be used as ink after boiling with a little water and cloves, and, of course, a splash of urine. Also, be warned: it can cause sickness when ingested with alcohol, so do not combine mushroom hunting with a pub crawl.

a small white Yellow Stainer mushroom

Yellow Stainer

Not recommended, the Yellow Stainer can cause stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, sweating and diarrhoea. It looks as if something had a nibble of the one above.

image of large ceramic pot with moon-shaped lid

Big Blue

Many fungi, like the Witch’s Butter fungus, are lobed. A lobe is a curved or somewhat rounded projection or division of a bodily part. Behold: a large blue stoneware piece with four lobes at the base and a moon lid. Hmmm, a tenuous link, but if one of you come up with a better one, as I’m sure you will, I will include it.

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Tree Music

Chris Johnson’s bench

With more than a hint of Autumn in the air, despite some bright days and clear skies, another long walk in the woods around Ledbury is a good reason to see the subtle changes in the landscape, if any, and a chance to take the steep hill climb up to Bradlow Knoll and to pay my respects to a person taken away from us much too soon.

the long slog uphill

Chris Johnson was an energetic, helpful and community-minded human being – kind, generous with his time and always full of ideas, and very much a man with a lot of understanding and respect for Nature. It’s fitting that there is now a beautifully-made oak bench in his memory at the top of the hill, with a view of Ledbury, Herefordshire and the country beyond that includes the Vale of Evesham and the Cotswolds. It’s a boon to the breathless walker and to his or her backside, and as I sat there, I thought that next time I’d bring a bottle of wine and a glass to raise to the horizon.

Thinking about it, it would be more sensible to have a companion or two; a whole bottle to oneself might lead to calamity in the woods, falling into badger setts, getting tangled up in blackberry bushes, falling asleep under a chestnut tree and waking up to concerned faces looking down at you. Nowadays, any danger lurking in a wood is mainly self-inflicted, I mean, we don’t really have to worry about vicious footpads or brigands waiting with loaded pistols, do we? Though I admit that when you are alone in the woods your imagination can run away with you, specially if there’s a wind blowing. The trees creak, rustlings noises arise then disappear, stuff scuttles about at foot level and the birds fall silent.

The wind in the trees brought to mind Robert Frost’s poem, The Sound of Trees:

” I wonder about the trees.

Why do we wish to bear

Forever the noise of these

More than another noise

So close to our dwelling place?…”

stuff underfoot

It struck me that the sound of wind in trees is a little like that of waves on a beach, except that, having listened to a BBC Radio 4 programme on the subject (it was with the poet Alison Brackenbury), there’s no doubt that the tenor of the music varies depending on the types of trees. The sound I recorded was of wind gusting through tall pines – turn your volume up and have a listen by clicking the video below.  My mobile had run out of juice by the time I got to a clump of robust oak trees otherwise you’d hear a subtly different song, given their squatter trunks, their more twisted branches and bigger leaves.

Click here for video

Further on into Frith Wood I encountered an angry chattering coming from an oak. A sure sign of approaching Autumn is that territorial denizen of the trees, the squirrel, challenging whoever threatens their patch.  This one was not visible but certainly did not want me anywhere near it. I had noticed, scattered all over the path, a lot of empty chestnut shells or burrs, which I assume is a favourite of any self-respecting Nutkin.

A burr in hand…

I have a friend who dislikes squirrels because of the damage they inflict on saplings and fruit trees, so he controls their numbers with an occasional cull. Nothing goes to waste since he eats them, though he maintains the flesh is dense and rather flavourless, and therefore best cooked in a stew.

Click here for squirrel chatter

Before you get too upset, they give as good as they get and though squirrels are primarily herbivores, they are capable of feasting on small birds and rodents, as well as eggs. There has also been at least one 2005 report of squirrels preying on other animals, such as an incident where a pack of black squirrels killed and ate a large, stray dog in Lazo, Russia.

star vase with dried artichokes

The fact that a squirrel was not chuffed to see me reminded me that this blog is meant to be about ceramics as much as anything else, so I am thrilled, pleased and gratified that a new outlet for Peter Arscott Ceramics (PAC) is promoting a good array of vases and bowls. It is the online Chuffed Store, which I urge you to visit. It’s new and only recently set up. Its products are made and produced in the British Isles. It has a magpie approach to everything: this week there is a section on letter-writing by writer and artist David Thomas. You can also Meet the Maker, who happens to be yours truly. Click here.

horned vase

Back to chestnuts and, sidestepping the issue of young trees being damaged by squirrels, my research found that the world’s oldest known chestnut tree grows on Mount Etna in Sicily and is said to be between 2,000 and 4,000 years old. It is the Hundred-Horse Chestnut (Castagno dei Cento Cavalli) – the name originates from a legend in which a queen of Aragon and her company of a hundred knights were caught in a severe thunderstorm and took shelter under the tree.

pencil sketch by unknown artist 1872

The nuts are a rich source of vitamins C (the only nut that is) and B, and minerals including magnesium, potassium and iron. Their high level of starch is similar to that of wheat and twice as high as the potato, and they can be baked, roasted, boiled or microwaved. Remember to score a cross in them to stop them from exploding when they are cooked. Enraged squirrels and exploding chestnuts – the woods just keep getting more dangerous.

At this time of year the landscape takes on a monotone quality that is only sparked off once the leaves start turning, so I was looking for some colour that caught my eye and I came across a clump of pink flowers which I assume is red campion, but one of you will correct me if wrong. I also saw these “berries”, each one growing at the end of its own twig, and could not work out whether it was a shrub or a tree. These small berries (or drupes) have a rounded four-quartered shape to them.  What is it?

red campion

 

mystery solved: a Spindle tree

Keep well. And on the subject of trees, I’m off to empty half a bottle of maple syrup sent by a good friend in New England onto some vanilla ice cream. It’s tapped from his own maple trees, but sadly I can’t reciprocate with our own plum jam because our tree yielded only seven plums. I blame the squirrels.

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Wanted

back from Gwalia Ceramics

Driving back from the Gwalia* Ceramics gallery in Llangollen, the consequences of this pandemic were apparent. Businesses are having to make difficult decisions, and the ceramics rattling gently in the back of the car were not unwanted but rather a reminder of how vulnerable small enterprises are. The lovely Gwalia Ceramics is having to wind down and I was bringing my unsold pieces home.

The A49 meanders through some beautiful countryside but there are few opportunities to overtake on it. From outside Shrewsbury all the way to Leominster I was stuck behind a food delivery lorry. No doubt with Brexit in mind and in preparation against the invasion of chlorinated chickens from the USA, a large image of a plump roast chicken surrounded by potatoes and veg,  a Union Jack background, and with the slogan “Eat British Chicken” hovered before my eyes for forty miles. By the time it turned off at Leominster I was truly hungry and stopped to gulp down a small pork pie I had bought in Llangollen for supper that night.

Loop vase – dark mossy greens

With the Gwalia ceramics unloaded and stored back on their shelves it is always interesting to see work again after some time. Sometimes you are surprised by a colour achieved and you can’t remember how you did it, or you notice a shape or contour for the first time, which you decide to apply to a new piece. The mossy green on the Loop Vase is a tone I will repeat.

oak canopy in Frith Wood

Talking of which (“green”, that is)  we get spoilt in Spring, what with all the bloom and fresh growth. I set off for a walk in the woods a few afternoons ago. It was hot and sultry, overcast, with a hint of rain in the air, but the trees were not offering any cool shade and the undergrowth looked tired; without a hint of anything flowering it was a dull grey/green carpet. It even smelled different – tacky mud and dried up puddles. I was just about to show my disappointment with Nature by turning back home and watching another episode of “Call my Agent” (it cheers me up) when at last I spotted a pink flower.

Hairy Willowherb

Now, I would be a complete fraud if I claimed to know a lot about plants and flowers. With the recent lockdown and the increased walks I am learning on the trot, but I have recently downloaded an app that helps identify most things in a couple of seconds. This one turned out to be a Hairy Willowherb.

Because its dense and aggressive growth habits can crowd out and destroy other native plants, a sort of rural bullyboy that goes around beating up the feeble pretty ones that tremble and hide behind trees, it is considered a problem, an “unwanted” plant that is difficult to eradicate. Local names include “apple-pie” and “codlins-and-cream”. So, it can’t be all that bad. In fact, the shoots of the willowherb can be boiled and eaten like asparagus. This I can believe, since it seems that any stem or shoot of a non-poisonous plant or veg can be boiled and served cold with mayonnaise as “poor man’s asparagus” – I have eaten beetroot stalks in this way.

Bull Thistle

Anyway, I was struck by the “unwanted”  epithet given to so much that grows in the landscape. Not only willowherb, but also the next one I stumbled on – the Bull Thistle.

It may be considered a noxious weed by some authorities, but it produces a large amount of nectar and attracts pollinators. Its entire bud is featured with stiff spines that make it look like a fierce bull. It is also called a Spear Thistle and is designated an “injurious weed” under the UK Weeds Act 1959 (no, I didn’t know about that either) despite the fact that it feeds butterflies, beetles and small birds. Guess what? Yes, the stems can be peeled and steamed or boiled.

Bitter Doc

The third plant to get my attention was the usually disregarded bitter dock, which  is another unwanted plant apparently growing and spreading out of control, and in such competition with other “wanted” or cultivated plants that it aggressively overpowers them.  But I have always seen it growing in the countryside and to me it seems to happily coexist with nettles (which I expect is yet another “unwanted” plant) and most other unidentified vegetation. Furthermore, the large clusters of shoots which contain small greenish flowers change to a deep reddish brown as they mature and serve as visual punctuation marks in the landscape specially against a greenish background.

watercolour of Malvern Hills – bitter doc, bottom right

The doc’s name variation depends on the leaf – if they are huge it is a broad-leaved dock. Blunt-leaved dock was used to wrap butter in the 19th century. Hence, it is called butter dock. And the bitter dock may be an invasive weed, but It serves as an effective laxative.

fly by Paul Arscott @baguetteboi69

By now I was dreaming up plans to cultivate a Garden of the Unwanted dedicated to all these unappreciated and unloved rural thugs, when I felt something strange on my left arm. Unlike insects which surreptitiously puncture the skin with needle-like organs, female horse flies have specially adapted mouth-parts which they use to rip and/or slice flesh apart. Research later showed that they thrive in hot rainy weather and that “the female horse fly is secretive, with an annoying ability to land without being detected and escaping before the victim begins to experience any pain”, but in this case I most definitely felt it.

horsefly nightmare

I brushed it off and noticed another had landed on my right arm and was already tying its bib around its neck in readiness when I flicked it off. When I felt something land on the back of my neck, I decided I had had enough of Nature for the day and beat a retreat. They can persistently chase you at a flying speed of around 15mph and they did until I crossed paths with a couple walking their dog, who offered my tormentors far tastier fare.

peacock butterflies on buddleia

I am sorry but horseflies are unwanted “unwanted” and will have no place in my Garden – you have to draw the line somewhere. To compensate for the dark shadow cast by these beasts here are two sunny images, one above of peacock butterflies feeding on lilac, and one below of sunflowers in a large vase.

abstract vase with sunflowers

*Gwalia is an archaic Welsh name for Wales. It derives from the Medieval Latin Wallia, which in turn is a Latinisation of the English “Wales”.

Clay is good for you

view of ledbury from Bradlow Knoll
May Hill on the horizon

You can see May Hill on the horizon when you stand on Bradlow Knoll and look down towards Ledbury and the Cotswolds beyond. In the image you can see it slightly to the left of centre, with its distinctive clump of pines standing out from this distance like a pimple, It is where Edward Thomas wrote his poem Words, not long before Ledbury-born John Masefield referred to the outline of the pines in his Everlasting Mercy:

I’ve marked the May Hill ploughman stay

Here on his hill, day after day

Driving his team against the sky

charcoal drawing of Mayhill in Glouycestershire
Mayhill ploughman (imagined)

I don’t know about Masefield, but Thomas was certainly a great walker and I often wonder if he ever took this path. If he did, I’m sure he took it in his stride.  I am not a hypochondriac but every time I climb the hill to Bradlow Knoll to reward myself with the view of Ledbury I seem to need a longer break to recover my breath and my heart thumps away even more in protest at what I am making it do. A few days ago I sat by the top gate gasping away and thinking of how complex the machinery of our body is, and how all our bits and pieces are connected, rather like an engine – you know, the lungs draw in air and deliver oxygen to our blood, the blood circulates thanks to the heart pumping away, the kidneys clean the blood of toxins, and so on. I thought that if my body were an engine then it would be a second hand and slightly rusty ford escort given to early morning ignition problems and always needing an oil change.

image of small toy car
ol’ engine

And sometimes I feel like some ol’ engine, gone and lost my driving wheel, as Tom Rush sang all those years ago, but really it is an excuse to give you a link to the great song if you click here.

cool, dank and very quiet

And where is this going, and where is the connection to ceramics? I do not know yet, but nevertheless, and in the meantime, let me continue with our bodies, their complex needs and some of the problems to which they give rise: ulcers, sore throats, haemorrhoids, high blood pressure, allergies, for example. Well, having got my breath back, I turned away from the panorama at my feet and entered Frith Wood – cool, dank and very quiet – and came across a lot of these small mauve plants growing low to the ground. Self-heal, heal-all, slough-heal and woundwort are all common names for prunella vulgaris, and it is said to help cure all the above, as well as burns, insect bites and herpes.

prunella vulgaris

It is mainly used for sore throats, even severe ones like quinsy, which is an abscess of the tonsils. It is good as a hot tea at the beginning stages of a cold with sore throat. Apparently, self-heal tastes slightly bitter and slightly sweet with a hint of rosemary.

Are ceramics as good for you as prunella vulgaris? Well, potters are the only people, other than children, who play with mud, a base material that is malleable, sensuous and expressive, and, as a result, I reckon the feel-good factor plays a part in reducing stress. Making a clay pot and drinking a self-heal tea is a perfect combination that will lead to improving your quality of life.

dish with knife and fork with lump of clay in middle to illustrate geophagia
geophagia

Now, do not get confused and start putting clay in your mouth instead of the tea. Pregnant women sometimes crave dirt, clay or charcoal if their bodies are deficient in key minerals but geophagia, as it is called, is best avoided.

Ruby my dear – irrelevant, but I wanted some colour

Clay comes in many varieties for the potter. The type one uses depends on the firing temperature, and mine is high so I use stoneware, and because I am a slab potter, I need a certain robust quality which grog provides, tiny pieces of malachite or firesand or chamotte, which has a high percentage of alumina. Anyway, it may taste OK  but I do not even take furtive licks. Quartz, feldspar, mica and kaolinite are other minerals you may find in stoneware. Since I fire my pieces at 1275°, they are vitrified and entirely food safe once glazed, and you can then lick them without harm.

meandering tree design / Coastal Gallery

All this walking in the wood seems to have somehow crept into the vases, a fusion of Paul Klee and a meandering rambling design. This one above can be seen at the Coastal Gallery in Lymington. Click here.

do not lick

By way of contrast, there is ragwort. I came across this clump in a clearing near the edge of the wood. Ragwort is a tall erect plant bearing large flat-topped clusters of yellow daisy-like flowers. Do not lick them! Cattle and horses are particularly susceptible to its poisoning.

A type of ragwort was introduced into the UK from the slopes of Mount Etna around 1690 via the Oxford Botanic Garden where, following many years of cultivation, it  ‘escaped’ and could be found growing in the masonry of Oxford colleges and walls. During the Industrial Revolution, Oxford became a thriving railway centre and Oxford ragwort found a new habitat in the clinker beds of the railway lines that fanned out of Oxford to all parts of the country. The clinker providing the plant with a replica of the lava-soils of its native home in Sicily and, to be fair, it should not be confused with the common ragwort. I do not know which type the Frith Wood ragwort is. Perhaps Bridget of Malvern or another of you botanical savants could tell me.

stinking Bob

Please forgive my botanical meanderings. I just love the names. Herb-Robert is a quick growing plant with explosive seed pods which if allowed to flower, will spread rapidly over a wide area. Also known as red robin, death come quickly, storksbill, fox geranium, stinking Bob, squinter-pip, crow’s foot. Fabulous names.

Autumn cocktail

There was a lot of bramble about, just beginning to flower, so the blackberries will be out by September. To look forward to this I suggest a Bramble cocktail, to be made when the hedgerows are groaning with ripe fruit.  Start by squashing six  blackberries in a sturdy glass. Add 50ml of good gin, 25ml lemon juice, 25ml sugar syrup (you can just dissolve some sugar in water) and fill the glass two thirds with crushed ice. Mix with a long-handled spoon. Top with more crushed ice, a blackberry and a paper straw.

three legged bowl at Bevere Gallery. Click here

I always try to say no to gin – but it’s 42.5% stronger than me.

landscape vase

Free ceramic pieces

Hello all. Those of you who live near the studio can help yourselves to a ceramic piece if you are passing by the house. As you can see from the view from The Homend, all you have to do is climb four steps and take a vase or bowl. They are all rejects – some have hairline cracks, others are wonky , some cannot stand up straight and some are plug ugly. They are all frost proof and can be used in the garden.

Address: Oakland House, The Homend, Ledbury HR8 1AP. There will be a donation yoghurt pot – all proceeds will go to CUP Ceramic Community in Hereford

help yourself

The winner of the three legged bowl (see previous blog) identified three birds correctly: great tit, blue tit, cock pheasant. The fourth was a black cap. The winner is a Mr A.Lloyd of London. Well done.

ankle-deep in bluebells (Part 2)

Frith Wood

I apologize for this second blog in one month but, you see, I never know how many people read this, so, when somebody actually makes contact (info@peterarscott.co.uk) I am taken by surprise. Anna got in touch after the last one; she is a potter in Manchester who lives in a small flat in the city and she liked all the references to the countryside, mainly because, for her, the outdoors are inaccessible at the moment and she enjoyed the pictures of Frith Wood and even found my comments acceptable, and not at all flippant. She wants more. So, Anna, this is for you.

Queen Anne’s lace or Cow Parsley?

The first thing to point out on your way up the road towards the gate that leads to the steep meadow up to Bradlow Knoll is the appearance in just a few days of Queen Anne’s lace and Cow Parsley growing along the verges. The former is said to have been named after Queen Anne, who was an expert lace maker. When she pricked herself with a needle, a single drop of blood fell from her finger onto the lace, leaving the dark purple floret found in the flower’s centre. Its root is edible when young and similar to a carrot, but it is easily confused with Poison Hemlock, which is deadly, so best not to bother eating it. Stick to your local supermarket.

effort rewarded

Since the last visit to the wood, Bradlow Hill has become even steeper. This means that before you can turn to look down at the view of Ledbury at your feet (the reward for all your uphill effort), you have to sit amongst the sheep and their calling cards and take deep mouthfuls of air. Never do lungs seem more like bellows than when you need air, and never have they been more appreciated than in these Covid times. They are fabulous organs and have climbed the rankings in the “Favourite Organ” league to overtake kidneys, spleen and bladder. The appendix, surely, is bottom of the league. By the way, the other reason for contacting me is to challenge any drivel I come up with. Is the appendix an organ? There is a comment box at the bottom of the page if you want to avoid emailing me.

mayflower

From the top of the hill, with the gate that leads into the wood at your back, the view is now speckled with white as the hawthorn hedges start to show off their mayflower bloom. A frequent shrub for hedgerows in this country as it is an effective barrier against livestock, in this case sheep, thanks to its twisted, thorny branches. The Bradlow sheep were unbothered by this and were using its shade to take a nap in or for scratching their posteriors.

the laid-back denizens of Bradlow
a sea of stitchwort

I could tell something had changed from the last visit. When I entered the cool dark of the wood and allowed my eyes to get used to the gloom it was obvious that the bluebells were in decline. Instead of the profusion of blue, a newer carpet of colour had taken over: white stitchwort taking in the light through the thinly leaved canopy of the woodland. It was once used as a herbal remedy for a stitch (the pain sometimes felt in the side during exercise), hence the name ‘stitchwort’. Also known as “Star-of-Bethlehem” and “daddy’s-shirt-buttons“. Do not pick them – if you pick greater stitchwort, you will cause a thunderstorm. I shall return to them next month when their seed capsules ripen and start making popping sounds. They could be mistaken foe wood anemones, a mistake I made, but I was steered away gently by Bridget of Malvern – for which many thanks. Misinforming Anna of Manchester is not what I want.

birdies in Frith Wood

Deep in the woods the birds were singing away as they do. I stopped and recorded a minute’s worth for you. If you can identify correctly three of the birds (there are in fact four) and send me your answer in an email (see above), the first correct answer will get a prize. You may have to turn up the volume. Sadly, Mr W.B. cannot take part, being our go-to expert who officially identified the birdies. Ladies and gentlemen, this three legged stoneware bowl shall be sent to the winner. Hand painted and glazed, part of the Hudson series, slightly retro, in a good way, American abstract expressionist in character. 23 x 23 x 8 cms (0.75 g). Normally retails at £60. How can you resist the challenge?

win this fab three legged bowl

The Yellow Archangel is another plant that comes into bloom as the Bluebells are fading, it probably gets its name from its virtue of not stinging, despite being part of the dead-nettle family. Here’s a picture of some amongst the few Bluebells left. Is that single pink flower a Herb Robert?

Yellow Archangel

Further and deeper into the wood a yew tree leans into the path. These old trees can live for centuries and often harbour badger setts among its roots. The badger, “that most ancient Briton of English beasts” (Edward Thomas), is not seen very often – it is nocturnal and secretive, often associated with The Wind in the Willows in his dressing gown and slippers, but by others, including some friends, blamed for many criminal acts in gardens.

only yew

One friend is surprised that after years of country-dwelling we haven’t learned that every act of seemingly pointless rural vandalism is always caused by badgers. Furthermore, and to counter the “cuddly” view of badgers, another friend quotes Beatrix Potter from The Tale of Mr Tod:

rural thug

” . . . Tommy Brock was a short bristly fat waddling person with a grin; he grinned all over his face.  He was not nice in his habits.  He ate wasps nests and frogs and worms; and he waddled about by moonlight, digging things up.  His clothes were very dirty; and as he slept in the daytime, he always went to bed in his boots.  And the bed which he went to bed in, was generally Mr Tod’s.”

I’m not sure how bucolic I’ve been, but I hope you enjoyed it, Anna. I even squeezed in a ceramics reference, which is, after all, the point of this blog. Lastly (and here I am blowing my own trumpet, I know),  if you are in the mood and like short stories, let me introduce you to The Common. It is a literary organization whose mission is to deepen our individual and collective sense of place. Based at Amherst College, it aims to serve as a vibrant common space for the global exchange of ideas and experiences and publishes works that embody particular times and places. It has published one of my short stories. Please click here if you would like to read it: Malus

malus

Thank you, keep well, and keep off the Hemlock.

A policeman saw a man driving around with a van full of badgers. He pulls the man over and says… “You can’t drive around with badgers in this town! Take them to the zoo immediately.” The man says “OK”… and drives away. The next day, the officer sees the man still driving around with the van full of badgers, and they’re all wearing straw hats. He pulls him over and demands… “I thought I told you to take these badgers to the zoo yesterday?” The man replies… “I did . . . today I’m taking them to the beach!”

ankle-deep in bluebells

Columba Palumbus, or garden thug

Hello, everyone out there. Here we are, not waving, not drowning, not twiddling our thumbs, just plodding along and occasionally having one glass of wine too many, or watching just one more episode of Tiger King (aren’t people appalling, we say, smug in the knowledge that, of course, we wouldn’t fall for a loud-mouth narcissist), or sneaking off to buy chocolate (“sorry officer, but in my household it is considered an essential foodstuff, not a luxury”), or inventing new lyrics to “Happy Birthday” as you soap your hands for the fiftieth time in the day.

reused clay soak for Thelonious

The Great Sulk

Only recently have Valentines Clay in Stoke started to take orders, though delivery is not going to be immediate, so, for now, we are down to half a bucket of used and left-over stoneware clay that has been soaking in water.  Shortly it will be just the right consistency for pugging, subsequently negotiations have begun with Thelonious Pugmill (who some of you may remember from a previous blog) to begin work tomorrow. He has been sulking these few weeks because he was refused permission to be furloughed, but there is confidence that by playing him the complete works of Steely Dan he will be persuaded. This one is his favourite; just click here. I have never met Napoleon, But I plan to find the time.

Thelonious in happier times

Once the clay has gone through Thelonious, it’ll be as good as new and ready to be slabbed and shaped into something that vaguely resembles a vase. As you can see, new approaches, inspired by Alison Britton’s work, though yet to be painted and glazed.

stoneware fandango

By the way, unsure about how long the covid virus’s ability to stick to surfaces lasts, we put everything that comes in (shopping, post, deliveries, shoes, etc) in a room at the entrance. No one is sure how this helps, but if, after a couple of hours’ interrogation the object in question persuades us that it’s OK, we let it in. There is one package though that has us in a quandary. We ordered a flexible draft excluder for doors. This can be stuck on the outside of the frame so that no rain can make its way into the office (this happens when the rain is blown by wind coming from the south). The order was placed three months ago.  The package arrived yesterday. It is from the epicentre of the pandemic: Hunan. Should it be boiled first? Put out in the garden for a few days? Sprayed with alcohol?*

all the way from Hunan

The weather has been kind in this part of the UK, and what with the decrease in road traffic and fewer people going to work, the relative silence seems to make the birds sing more loudly, when in fact they’ve presumably always sung their little hearts out at the same volume, only we weren’t listening.

The wood pigeons have taken over the garden, using the birdbath as their own personal swimming pool, hanging out in the porch in a challenging sort of way (you know, the “what you gonna do about it” variety), making amorous advances to each other on the garden furniture, nesting so high up in the Lawson Cypress that their droppings make a spectacular Pollockian splash when they hit the patio, the aforementioned garden furniture, the potted plants, us…though it is unfair to describe Jackson Pollock’s work as “splashes” since he was an artist who knew how to harness the energy of a dribble more than anything else. On the plus side, next time you spot a wood pigeon drinking, observe it: most birds drink by dipping their bill in water and throwing their head back to swallow. Pigeons and doves are able to immerse their beaks and can drink continuously. So perhaps they have more in common with Jackson P. than I thought.

Jackson Pigeon

Other than for shopping or visiting the pharmacy, we can only go out to take exercise, as long as we do not drive to a spot and then go for a stroll. You must start your walk from home, which is why if you are lucky enough to live in a place like Ledbury you get to appreciate such easy access to the countryside from your front door. A walk to the top of Bradlow Knoll forces you to use your lungs but rewards you with a sloping view down towards the town and towards the Cotswolds beyond. And then you head into the cool of Frith Wood and feast your eyes on bluebells and wood anemones and you remember that it is Spring, and that most people cannot stand ankle-deep in bluebells and breathe in that clean air.

Ledbury from Bradlow Knoll

Back down the hill, and depending on the time of day, you may be thinking ahead to the evening’s activities: food, drink, telly. Will there be an obesity and alcoholism problem when we eventually come out of lockdown? Will our brains have turned to mush from the indiscriminate viewing of soaps, Scandi-noir, repeats of “Dad’s Army” and cookery programmes? Well, perhaps the experience will have made us all much choosier about what goes into us – why drink a can of supermarket beer when you can get delicious locally brewed ones delivered? Why watch “Made in Chelsea” when you can get to watch National Theatre plays being streamed?  Why not, ladies and gentlemen, pay that little bit extra for a unique ceramic piece with the visual impact to transform your mantelpiece? Well, I had to get that in somehow.

Monkey puzzle vase and scoop bowl

Finally, and please indulge me, if you ever want to relax and let your mind go wandering far away from earthly matters, I have a serious recommendation. I have had the record for years and occasionally lie on the floor and play it – it is transcendental and best experienced in a cathedral. Spem in Alium (Hope in any other) was written by Thomas Tallis in 1570 as a 40 part motet, in other words for 40 individual voices, to be heard “in the round”, with the choir surrounding you. I was lucky enough to go to a performance of this at the Malvern Theatre, with the singers spaced all around us. If you click here it will take you to the Byrd Ensemble singing it, but probably best purchased as a CD (the King’s College Cambridge Choir recording is best) and listened to with earphones.

Thomas Tallis

By way of contrast, back to hand washing, and those alternative lyrics when we were children:

“Happy birthday to you,

Do you live in a zoo?

You look like a monkey

And you smell like one too.”

*If in the unlikely event that you are a very young person or child reading this blog, please be assured that it is not in the least bit serious – in fact, it is very silly, and you must not take anything in it to heart, nor should you try boiling your parents’ post .

Frith Wood

abstract painting on canvas

Batten down the hatches

With Covid 19 swirling around, we are all having to prepare for a difficult situation, in different ways, and with varying consequences – I’m thinking in particular of the galleries and staff that exhibit my ceramics and who are facing a bleak few months, and of all those involved in the leisure, culture and retail industries. But we are all in the same boat.

ruminant from Rouen made in 1882

“Battening down the hatches” means to fasten the entrances to the lower part of a ship using wooden boards. When bad weather was imminent, the hatches were covered with tarpaulin and the covering was edged with wooden strips, or battens, to prevent it from blowing off. Sailors called this ‘battening down’.

There in the wood a Piggiwig stood with a ring at the end of his nose (Paul A. aged 9)

But I confess I am no sailor. My priorities include getting the essentials into the Covid Cupboard (red wine, beans, caviar) in readiness for any eventuality. However,  it may be that after 2 or 3 months we will be over the worst of it, and though it could be a distressing period  it is also an opportunity for all of us to do those things we have kept postponing year after year. Perhaps it is time you sat down and read all of Dickens, or took up knitting or the harmonica, or both. Ever thought of perfecting your stone skipping, or tapping maple trees, or inventing a cocktail?

Sneaky Pete cocktail

How about downloading a birdsong app and learning the tunes of every garden songster in the UK so that when we are released from any lockdown  we can burst into the countryside, the parks and gardens, with a new and receptive vigour? The robin, in my opinion, turns out to be a surprisingly refined singer – click here.

the Trini Lopez of the bird world – photo: Zhang Xiaoling

The obvious suggestion from a ceramicist is that you should try your hand, if you haven’t already, at making something out of clay, but I know most people cannot afford and do not have the room for a wheel or a kiln, which is why at this point I would have promoted a visit to a ceramics community project such as CUP in Hereford. Alas, for obvious reasons, it is closed until further notice but will reopen with the “all clear” and with great fanfare. Keep an eye on its website for updates – there is nothing to stop you buying a bag of earthenware clay to play with at home, specially with kids, who love it.

Dalek – by Paul A. (aged 9)

And children, and adults, love it because clay appeals to basic impulses, the pleasure of building form or shape-making,  – a base material, malleable, sensuous.  The hand is everywhere – pulling, thumping, pinching, squishing, rolling, painting, – playfulness which, once harnessed to technique, leads to objects being made and to a whole world to explore. Very satisfying. Look at the individually expressed  interpretations of animals made by different people of different ages and backgrounds

Waving vase – stoneware

Once you have made your cups, bowls, animals, Elvis Presley figurines, and they have dried, you might consider joining CUP and learn how to blunge, dunt, engobe, frit, pug, slip and wedge.  Potters are the only people, other than children, who play with mud.

This why they seem so earthed and so calm.

Dear readers, pottery is good for you: it is a creative outlet, it reduces stress, exercises the hand and wrist, encourages sociability and generally improves your quality of life.

ochre vase with black lines – stoneware

I hope to be delivering new pieces to the various galleries who sell my work, though that trip has been postponed until further notice. We are not being encouraged to go out and visit places, so may I suggest you go online and have a look at what they exhibit; it is one way to support them. If you click here it will take you to my web page with their links.

a valuable stash discovered buried in the back garden of a Covid hoarder

For now, things depend on a whole army of issues playing out, and on Saint Spyridon, the patron saint of potters. Daily life will get better and we’ll be back having parties.

Bumblejig will hold a party – acrylic on canvas

The Patron Saint of potters

Llangollen

It must have been hard for Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby living in Plas Newydd, a stone built house converted into a gothic ‘fantasy’, since all they wanted was to be left alone after running away from their families and setting up home in Wales in 1778. They lived there for 50 years but became such objects of curiosity that they often had to politely receive visitors.

“Who is it at the door this time, Sarah?”

“Oh, it’s the Duke of Wellington again. Shall I show him in?”

And so on and so forth: Wordsworth, Shelley, Sir Walter Scott, Josiah Wedgewood, Byron all beat a path to the heavily ornamented Gothic door of their remote “Cottage.”

the two ladies of Llangollen

I, however, was on another mission linked more to the great Josiah Wedgewood than cultural curiosity, because I was delivering some pieces to Gwalia Ceramics in the heart of Llangollen and discovering that ‘The Ladies of Llangollen’ must have been attracted to the area by the beautiful Welsh hills, the fast running River Dee and the woodlands that surround the town.

Gwalia Ceramics

How to pronounce Llangollen: [LAN] + [GOTH] + [LUHN]. Or click here to hear it pronounced.

big Klee vase

The Gwalia Ceramics is a jewel of a gallery run by Jacqui Atkin, herself a very fine ceramicist and potter, as well as editor of Clay Craft magazine. Any visitor would enjoy dropping in – it is a small space but the ceramics are beautifully displayed. Wedgewood would have loved it because even though he is credited with the industrialisation of the manufacture of pottery, it was the beauty of ware such as the Portland vase that spurred him to innovate.

loop vase

And Llangollen is a place with an easy charm that invites walking about and exploring.
The Ellesmere Canal runs along the Dee here and it is unusual amongst Britain’s artificial waterways in having a strong flow (up to 2 miles per hour). The route, twisting through hills and across the Dee Valley, has made it the most famous and busiest in Britain. The canal is an important part of Llangollen’s attraction as a holiday destination. A marina, built at the end of the navigable section, allows summer visitors to moor overnight in Llangollen. I mention this in case any of you decide to visit by boat.

another vase

You can get there by train, changing in Liverpool, and then getting a bus, alighting at the Llangollen Memorial. And for steam enthusiasts, there is the Llangollen steam railway located beside the Dee Bridge. The journey is a relaxing 10 miles travelling through the stunning Dee Valley to the lovely town of Corwen the crossroads of North Wales. This small section of line, which in its day went from Ruabon to Barmouth taking people to the seaside on holiday and transporting various goods including slate and chemicals, follows the River Dee for its entire length, passing through some of the finest natural beauty North Wales has to offer.

torrential Dee

The bridge over the Dee is 16th century and gives you a dramatic view of the torrents below (it was a particularly wet and rainy day), and the High Street has enough good coffee shops for a break. I discovered a seriously good pastry shop selling something I have not come across before: Yorkshire Wraps. This is essentially a large circular Yorkshire pudding with raised edges which is then filled with a delicious thick meaty stew – not very Welsh, I agree, but somehow it did not matter, and it means I can slip in the one about the man from Barnsley who goes to the vet. Vet says:
“I hear you’ve got problems with the cat?”
“Aye” the man replies
“Is it a tom?”
“No,” replies the man, “I brought it wi’ me!”

Yorkshire wrap

Llangollen was established in the 7th Century when the monk St. Collen was instructed to find a valley by riding a horse for one day and then stop and mark out a “parish” a place to build his hermitage. This got me thinking about saints and I realized I had no idea who the Patron saint of potters is.

St Spyridon

Well, it is St Spyridon. He converted a pagan by using a piece of broken pottery to illustrate how one single entity could be composed of three unique entities (fire, water and clay); a metaphor for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. As soon as Spyridon finished speaking, the shard is said to have miraculously burst into flame, water dripped on the ground, and only dust remained in his hand. So, good man though he undoubtedly is, it is probably best not to lure him into the Gwalia gallery