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political pottery

wobbly shelf or shard luck?

Last week I walked into the studio and slammed the door behind me. There was a resounding crash. I knew then that I should have repaired the wobbly shelf that held stacks of three legged bowls. However, all potters develop a protective skin that steers them away from howling at the moon, so I swept it all up.

beyond glueing

I hope the night of March 28th is clear and cloudless because this month’s full moon, called the Full Worm Moon, is a “Supermoon”, the nickname given to a full moon when it’s closest to our planet. It’s named the Worm Moon due to the softening of the ground that typically happens in the spring that allows earthworms to emerge. And I couldn’t resist bringing worms into the blog again.

supermoon

But March in the UK is usually associated with the yellow splash of colour that daffodils provide, and we rather take them for granted.  I didn’t know that the word derives from “asphodel”, a variant of Middle English affodil, from Latin asphodelus.

daffs

Yes, we Brits do go on about our daffodils, but we’re not the only ones. They are also valued in China. They bloom around Chinese New Year, and symbolize good luck, prosperity, and good fortune. If the flowers bloom exactly on New Year’s Day, it means that you will have good luck for the entire year. The Feng Shui three legged Money Toad will also bring luck – in fact all things three legged are a good thing, unless they are on a wobbly shelf.

three legs = good luck

Now that we’re talking about China, I can remind you that this is a ceramics blog and that porcelain developed in China and exported to Europe was so named after its country of origin. Porcelain and china, by the way, are fired at a higher temperature than stoneware, which is what I use, but are made of a finer particle clay, which results in a thinner construction and more translucent body.

willow pattern story

So, still with China, many of you will be familiar with The Willow pattern. It is a distinctive and elaborate chinoiserie pattern popular at the end of the 18th century in England when, in its standard form, it was developed by ceramic artists adapting motifs inspired by fashionable hand-painted blue and white wares imported from China. Part of the marketing ploy, claims Spiro (in charge of Marketing at Peter Arscott Ceramics), was to come up with a good story to sell it.

the Duke arrives in his boat

This is the story: once there was a wealthy Mandarin, who had a beautiful daughter. She fell in love with her father’s accounting assistant, angering her father. He dismissed the young man and built a high fence around his house to keep the lovers apart. The Mandarin was planning for his daughter to marry a powerful Duke. The Duke arrived by boat to claim his bride.

the lovers escape, Dad with whip in hand

On the eve of the daughter’s wedding, the young accountant, disguised as a servant, slipped into the palace unnoticed. As the lovers escaped, the alarm was raised. They ran over a bridge, chased by the Mandarin, whip in hand, though it looks more like a ball and chain.

the lovers transformed

They eventually escaped on the Duke’s ship to the safety of a secluded island, where they lived happily for years. But one day, the Duke learned of their refuge. He sent soldiers, who captured the lovers and put them to death. The gods, moved by their plight, transformed the lovers into a pair of doves

protest vase

I decided I would give the traditional pattern a more up-to-date interpretation. My visit to Hong Kong three years ago was an eye opener, and I enjoyed the vibrancy and energy of the place – click here to visit the blog – so with the suppression of free expression and democracy in Hong Kong and the repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang in mind, I made a willow pattern protest vase, since I feel strongly about the issue, and I am a potter. Instead of the doves, two helicopters, instead of the lovers escaping over the bridge, prisoners with guards. You get the idea :

Confucius said that an oppressive government is more to be feared than a tiger.

And Confucius did not say the following:

 “Man who keeps both feet firmly planted on ground has trouble putting on pants.”

zaijian – 再见 (Goodbye)

The jumble vases of Mud Month

panoramic view from Bradlow Knoll

Apologies for the brevity of this month’s blog, which like the month of February itself, seems shorter than others and lacking a defined personality. Unfair really. After all, had it retained its original Old English name of Kale-monath it would be forever associated with brassica as Cabbage Month, which we can assume was the daily culinary highlight for the medieval English but must have been an off-putting addition to the domestic winter fug within.

muddy path

The other Old English name was Solmonath, which literally means “mud month.” Whichever way you look at it, February does not come out smelling of roses, until the Romans arrived and thankfully renamed it . So, thank you Romans. They named it after the festival of purification called Februa, during which people were ritually washed.

jumble vase

Three facts about February: in Welsh, February is sometimes known as “y mis bach” which means “little month.” It  is the only month where it’s possible to go the entire time without having a full moon.  February frequently occurs in lists of the most commonly misspelt words in the English language

dinosaur legs

However, Frith Wood. It was a cold day, as you can probably tell by the images, and my powers of observation were subdued. The only thing that drew me out of my reverie was the appearance of two giant dinosaur legs wearing green socks. The “green socks” of moss around the two tree trunks struck me as strange. The moss seems to only grow to a certain height before it applies the brakes and comes to a dead halt: “this far and no more”. Possible explanation? The air within 60 centimetres of the ground is moist because water is constantly evaporating from the ground, so moss, lazy like everybody else, just hunkers down and laps it up. Anybody with a better or more scientific explanation please tell us.

another jumble vase

So, to ceramics (about time, says Spiro). Two larger-than-usual vases came out of the kiln this month, and they do look different. They are part of a series called “jumble vases”, made from stoneware slab-rolled and cut into different shapes which are then applied to each other in such a way that the final piece looks as if it’s made from five or six different vases.

jumble vase showing its decals

After the piece is bisque-fired, each “fragment” is hand painted, then the whole piece is dipped in transparent glaze and fired at the usual 1275 degrees. When it comes out, the areas that have been deliberately left blank then have decals applied. These are fine transparent designs which are soaked in water then carefully placed on the glazed surface. Then the vase goes back into the kiln and fired to 800 degrees.

jumble vase 2

They are sculptural, visually arresting, but also practical, since you can fill them with water and put plants (or other things) in them.

things to put in a jumble vase

Lastly, if you’ve ever heard of flash-fiction (a self-contained story under six hundred words, in this case) and you are interested enough, you can read one of my stories at 365 Tomorrows by clicking here. They are an online site publishing science fiction in all its incarnations, from hard sci-fi to cyberpunk and beyond.

cyberpunk (benign)

Spring is around the corner, snowdrops have appeared, crocuses are out, next the daffs, and then it’s Summer. Antio sas, as Spiro the Greek says.

crocus sativus

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

Arscott Ceramics goes pannaging

Lord Lyons

If you’re given champagne at lunch, there’s a catch somewhere”, said one of the great diplomats of 19th century Britain, Lord Lyons, a man who loved gastronomy and agreed with Palmerston’s remark that ‘dining is the soul of diplomacy’, and offered at least five courses of Moet & Chandon champagne at his diplomatic dinners because he found that, as ambassador to the United States, it made senators more accommodating.

Lymington

Lyons was born in the coastal town of Lymington, which is where Arscott Ceramics was heading with a delivery for the Coastal Gallery. It turns out that it is also the birthplace of  Ben Ainslie, Britain’s foremost competitive sailor, and the singer Birdy. The things one learns.

Landscape vase

To get to Lymington one has to drive through the New Forest, one of the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pastureland, heathland and forest in Southern England and proclaimed a royal forest by William the Conqueror way back in the 11th century.

Vase 3

Pre-existing rights of common pasture are still recognised today and are enforced by official verderers, and Commoners’ cattle, ponies and donkeys roam throughout the open heath and much of the woodland. It is largely their grazing that maintains the open character of the Forest. They are also frequently seen straying into the Forest villages, shops and pubs (horse walks into a bar. “Hey!” says the bartender, “You read my mind” says the horse). The New Forest pony is one of the indigenous horse breeds of the British Isles and most of the Forest ponies are of this breed, but there are also some Shetlands and their crossbreeds.

Brusher Mills

It remains a habitat for many rare birds and mammals. All three British native species of snake inhabit the Forest. The adder, the grass snake and the rare smooth snake. It was mainly adders which were caught by Brusher Mills (1840–1905), the “New Forest Snake Catcher”. He caught many thousands in his lifetime, sending some to London Zoo as food for their animals. You can see Brusher’s grave in St Nicholas’ Church, Brockenhurst, where villagers paid for a marble headstone to mark his final resting place. It does not say how he died.

salt marshes outside Lymington – Isle of Wight on horizon

A quick watercolour of the salt marshes outside Lymington was affected by blustery winds blowing the easel down and by an irrational awareness of the possibility of any three of these species of snake having an opinion on landscape art – all British snakes are now legally protected, and so the New Forest snakes are no longer caught and it logically follows that there must be many more of them lurking in bushes nowadays.

porcus beatus

One or two of the ceramic pieces rattled around in their boxes as the car suddenly braked to avoid running over a pig. Yes, a pig. In fact there were various small porkers rooting around on the edge of the road and it turns out that it is not an uncommon sight to see pigs roaming in the autumn months. Pannage is the practice of releasing domestic pigs into a forest to eat fallen acorns and other nuts. Acorns are poisonous in large quantities to cattle and ponies and can lead to cholic whereas piggies spit out the toxic skins and enjoy eating the acorns. Pannage: late Middle English: from Old French pasnage, from medieval Latin pastionaticum, from pastio(n- ) ‘pasturing’, from the verb pascere ‘to feed’.

Up to 600 pigs and piglets will work their way through the forest but must be fitted with a ring through their nose which still enables them to forage through leaf litter and surface vegetation but stops them from rooting into the ground with their snouts causing damage to the Forest.

porcellani

Those of you who have been following this blog since the start will know that pigs are often brought up because of their link to ceramics, and this blog is no exception. Yes, the word “porcelain” is derived from the Italian porcellana which translates as cowrie shell and refers to porcelain’s similarly smooth surface. Porcella means little pig, which describes the small plump shape of the cowrie.

Klee vase

Which is the point of this blog, of course, to tell you about Arscott Ceramics and what is new. The stoneware pieces seen in these images can all be inspected at the Coastal Gallery in Lymington, a small but wonderful gallery run by Stewart and Bev. Do pay them a visit and combine the experience with a walk into town, perhaps a dip in the Sea Water Baths (the oldest lido in the country) and, to recover, a stiff drink at the quayside where you can sit and gaze across the harbour at the UK’s most expensive coastal real estate, Sandbanks. Finish it off with a slow drive through the New Forest.

Man walks into a bar with a pig under his arms.

Where did you get that disgusting creature?” asks the barman.

I won him in a raffle” replies the pig.

loop bottle

A Stoneware Wolf in a China Shop

towards Paincastle

Delivering ceramics is a way to get to know a country. I found myself in the car, ceramic pieces carefully packed in boxes at the back, on a narrow road in the Welsh countryside of Powys, marooned in a sea of wool as a flock of sheep was driven to an adjacent field by two men and a woman. It was warm enough to have the windows open and as the woman walked by, I asked her what breed they were (the sheep, not the people). Badger Face Welsh Mountain was the reply. I nodded sagely, as if I knew my sheep.

green vs brown

The countryside I was driving through was an upland area above the Wye River and I was on my way to Erwood but had allowed the satnav to dictate terms, so instead of going the direct way, I was doing the “picturesque” route via Paincastle, which meant dealing with slow, winding, single track lanes in an undulating landscape,  but it also presented me with the unexpected opportunity to enjoy a rural backdrop that seems little touched by man…. until you realize that the place owes its personality to the sheep that graze it and the farmers that have shaped it through the ages. On this particular early Spring morning the sky was bright and clear, and the green was taking over from the Winter grey and the brown bracken. Clean air and only a whiff of sheep.

clean air

inside one of the Erwood carriages

Erwood itself is tiny but used to have its own train station until 1962. Nowadays, three railway carriages from the 1880s mark the spot, and form part of the largest privately-run contemporary applied arts gallery in Wales, the Erwood Station Gallery. There’s even a diesel locomotive from 1939 parked outside, a restored Fowler 0-6-0 engine. It is only a few yards from the Wye river, and attracts not only anglers, but also walkers and cyclists.

Fowler 0-6-0

A stone’s throw from Erwood is the village of Crickadarn, which was the remote “East Proctor” in the cult film “An American Werewolf in London”. The gory scenes on the lonely moors with the rampant lycanthrope feasting on Badger Face Welsh were all shot in the nearby Black Mountains, but a Stoneware Wolf (yes, sorry) would undoubtedly calm down at the site of the ceramics on offer at the Erwood Station Gallery. Unless there is a full moon, in which case there would be little chance of protecting the fabulous pieces on show from any lupine loss of control.

Werewolf thrilled at having found an Arscott ceramic

By the way, if you have recently developed a craving for raw meat and a sudden fear of water, have begun ripping your clothes off during a full moon, have a unibrow across your forehead, find yourself screaming with anger when it’s nothing to do with Brexit, then you may well be a werewolf. Click here to see what happens during a full moon – warning: remember it’s all pretend.

Some of the pieces on view at the gallery:

fish vase

ivy vase

Following your visit to Erwood you may well want to have a meal, in which case Hay-on-Wye is 20 minutes away by car. There you could spend a whole day just browsing in the bookshops for which it is famous, visiting the Erwood sister gallery, the Lion Street gallery, mainly showing the work of Welsh artists, or prowling around the open market (Thursdays only). Or you can hire a canoe and paddle down the Wye – if you are lucky you will catch sight of a flash of brilliant blue and green dropping into the water. A kingfisher.

early morning River Wye