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November news

Potter Pete’s foggy day

Sitting on CJ’s bench and looking down at Ledbury from Bradlow Knoll was an autumnal experience in that it was misty, mellow and mushroomy, and there were no sheep bleating and no birds singing – everything was wrapped in a dull light that seemed to smother any sound, as well as the view. It is pleasing to see how a well-worn path has established itself and forked off the main path towards the bench – obviously it is well used, and the many backsides will add a patina of polish to the wood as time goes by.

fly agaric

November is a little late for mushrooms but there are still a few hanging around in the woods daring you to pick them, and there is that strange damp, rotten-wood mushroom whiff that appears at this time of the year. The one that stood out was a Fly Agaric that had had its edges nibbled by something – strangely, since they are somewhat poisonous, specially to insects. In northern European countries it was used to keep flies off the milk, thus the name, and it can induce psychedelic episodes in those shamans and hippies who ingest it.

Old Man’s Beard

Lots of ‘Old Man’s Beard’ along the path, named after the fluffy seed heads that can be found in the autumn and early winter, it’s a wild clematis that produces a mass of scented, white flowers in late summer and is pollinated by bees and hoverflies. Owing to the fact that the dry stems draw well and do not burst into flame, cigar lengths were smoked and hence it is also called Smoking Cane. But it is best known as Traveller’s Joy.

The main gallery at the Oxmarket, Chichester

And thus, dear reader, this seamlessly leads us on to the joy of travelling along the south coast on the A27 delivering my ceramics to some wonderful galleries, two of which we have visited before in this blog. However, Chichester provides a new outlet in the wonderful Oxmarket Gallery, a medieval deconsecrated church which has existed since the 13th century and was used as a church continuously until the mid-20th century, when wartime damage forced its closure.

Kilter vase at the Oxmarket

It was restored and converted into an arts centre opening as Chichester Centre of Arts, later renamed Oxmarket Centre of Arts. It’s right in the middle of Chichester, with a large car park conveniently next door, and an exhibition space that is airy and light.

Flower vase at the Oxmarket

Yes, Chichester, medieval town of narrow streets and birthplace of Tim Peake, British astronaut, and of William Huskinsson MP, whose statue stands by the river Thames in Pimlico Gardens, London, opposite the old Battersea power station – a nineteenth century politician and statesman, an eminent financier, Corn Law reformist and parliamentary reformer.

William Huskinsson, National Portrait Gallery

He was struck by George Stephenson’s Rocket at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester line, and thus one of the first casualties of the railway age. It turns out he was born a few miles from the studio, in Birtsmorton Court at the foot of the Malvern hills.

Klee vase at the Coastal Gallery

On my way to the Coastal Gallery in Lymington, I stopped off at Arundel for the first time and had a close look at the castle and Catholic cathedral which are so striking when seen from the main coastal road. The Coastal gallery now have a partnership with the Palais des Vaches gallery in Exbury, Hampshire, and are showing work there too.

This is not Kevin Keegan

The stuff one learns on one’s travels. Did you know that Arundel’s river Arun is full of mullet, which is why its residents are known locally as mullets? I am referring to the fish, of course, and not the hair style so popular in the 1970s – those of you old enough will remember that finest of all mullets, which sat on the head of footballer Kevin Keegan and no doubt added some aerodynamism to his famously speedy runs up the pitches of the UK and Europe.

Garden vase at Cameron Contemporary

Back along the A27 and to the tranquil, upmarket town of Hove to deliver ceramics to the Cameron Contemporary gallery meant driving through a crowd protesting outside a secondary school at Covid vaccinations being given to children. Many banners, much shouting and a leaflet was handed through the car window. Still thinking of my visit to Arundel, I said I’d mullet over.

Chinese willow pattern protest vase 2

Back in the studio in Ledbury, and with protests in mind, I decided to make a bigger Willow Pattern Protest Vase with the conventional images on one side and the subversive ones on the other (I made an earlier version, see March blog). The firing went well and there was hardly any warping in the arms of the vase, those thinner more exposed parts tend to be affected by the heat than the main body of a work, so it was pleasing when it came out unscathed.

Willow pattern protest vase 2 – detail

You might want to see pearl mullet swimming upstream to spawn, Admirable little creatures, bless ’em – they don’t deserve having a bad hair style named after them.

Meandering

The Leadon, which gives its name to Ledbury.

It was a clear, bright September morning, perfect weather for a long walk, but the thought of trudging up Bradlow Hill for a view of Ledbury overcame any remaining willpower and my feet took the easier option, leading me in the opposite direction, across the bypass and along the (flat) Leadon River walk to the east of the town.

Leadon – Celtic word for ‘broad stream.’

Maybe I would spot a kingfisher, or see fish jumping, or some riverbank fauna. Perhaps it was the lack of recent rainfall, and it could simply be seasonal, but the Leadon was a trickle of its usual self, and looked muddy and, frankly, dead. There was no life in it, no fish, no birdlife, and I wondered if it had suffered another watercourse pollution incident like the one in 2016 which killed more than 15,200 fish after 100 tonnes of digestate had been pumped onto a field and had flowed into the Preston Brook, which in turn flows into the river Leadon.

A tributary to the Severn river

There have been efforts in recent years to help the Leadon thrive as a salmon river. In 2009, thousands of salmon were released, and two small weirs were installed near Ledbury, which were designed with salmon in mind to overcome barriers to migration. Also, roach, chub, and dace were added to the mix. Most fish recently re-stocked into the Leadon have been non-migratory species, commonly called ‘coarse fish’

fish vase – if only the Leadon were like this

So, I wonder if there is a problem, or whether my observations are not accurate, but I would have been very happy to spot any fish, even a ‘coarse’ one. I will return later to see if this is just a seasonal issue.

Three legged ‘Coarse’ fish bowl at the Bevere Gallery, nr Worcester

A tiny bridge leads onto a footpath which meanders away from the river and town, towards Little Marcle, with a distant view of the viaduct to the north. Five million bricks were used to build the thirty round-headed arches on their piers in 1859. It was built for the Worcester and Hereford Railway Co, the bricks made on site from the clay dug out for the foundations by a local company owned by Robert Ballard. Seeing the builders hanging by ropes as the structure went up, locals referred to the camp where the men lived (near what is now Beggar’s Ash) as Monkey Island.

5 million bricks = 30 houses

A Mrs Richards, who was meant to perform the opening ceremony in 1860, was left behind by the special train that was meant to bring her to the event. She did get there eventually and laid the final brick using a silver trowel – I wonder if she was allowed to keep it?

the foaming top of the Heineken fermenter

The footpath leads through Haygrove Farm where land has been turned over to vineyards, as well as to the traditionally grown local fruit, and then onto the Little Marcle Road which you can take back into Ledbury, passing on your right the huge Heineken plant which gives off a heady scent of old cider. In fact, I noticed that one of the giant containers was spewing froth from its open top, no doubt all part of the process, but looking like a colossal tankard of foaming beer. The robust fencing prevented me from tasting the foam on your behalf.

large warped vase

As you may remember from previous blogs, not everything that comes out of the kiln is perfect, and mentioning beer and cider brings to mind one recent large piece in particular that emerged meandering and twisted like the Leadon, looking as if it had spent too long in the pub and looking for a fight. If you saw the vase in the image above side on, you would see what I mean. On the other hand, the next one came out of the kiln looking good:

Green vase

These pieces are not necessarily practical but fun and visually interesting – eye-catching in the way the conventional shape of the vessels has been altered before they reach the kiln. Here are some early examples:

Ruby my dear

People might look at these objects and consider whether they could use them or not, or whether they just go for them because they are sculptures that fill a space in an interesting way.

Striped splash pot

People take them home, sometimes placing them in a particular place in a room, say a mantelpiece or a shelf, or putting flowers in them and changing their position every now again. The work swings between functionality and abstraction – this is what gives it its allure. It’s playful.

Jumble vase

A man walks into a seafood shack cradling a salmon and asks, “Do you make fish cakes?”
“Yes, of course,” the server replies.
“Great,” says the man, “It’s his birthday!”

Rutile

St John’s Wort in rutile vase

Last July I was going on about the names of all the different plants that grow wild in Frith Wood, as well as discussing the benefits of geophagia for some reason (the eating of mud or clay). I also think worms came into it, somehow. Click here if you want to revisit.

 

meadowsweet

This July, however, I would like to introduce you to Filipendula ulmaria, or meadowsweet. It could be because it was used in the Middle Ages as a sweetener for mead that it gets its name, but take a whiff and it might remind you of something familiar. Its chemical constituents include salicin, which was synthetically altered because it causes less digestive upset than pure salicylic acid used in drugs, and thus aspirin was created. It was Bayer that named it aspirin after meadowsweet’s old botanical name: Spiraea ulmaria.  It does have a whiff of aspirin.

meadowsweet

There is a lot of it now  flourishing on the sides of the roads all over Herefordshire: fluffy, slightly floppy, pale cream bundles framed by the hedges they grow by. I confess that the real reason I mention meadowsweet is to promote the Ledbury Poetry Festival and Edward Thomas’ poem, Adlestrop:

 

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—

The name, because one afternoon

Of heat the express-train drew up there

Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

The Barrett Browning Institute

The Festival this year is mostly online, though there are some great events held in Ledbury itself over the weekend of 9 – 11 July. Click here for all the available events (online and non-online). The Festival is on until 11th July. The Barrett Browning Institute in the town centre  is the Festival’s headquarters, and if you go in you will find Sally Crabtree.

Sally Crabtree

Her latest installation is a sweetshop of conceptual confectionery which offers each member of the public a small gold coin which they can spend on just one thing at the counter and it explores the notion of choice in our lives-“Choose well. Your choice is brief, and yet endless” as Goethe says. It has the feel of a fairground stall with the excitement that each person goes away with a ‘prize’ so to speak. Of more value perhaps however is that each sweet that they choose comes with its own quirky, philosophical inner layer of meaning which they unwrap, depending on what they choose.

Festival A board

And for children… they can fill a jamboree bag with their own creations inspired by the Sweetshop of Words –  including lyrical lollipops, glass sweets and pop a pop a poem balloons!

stonewarew rutile signal vase

As I said in the last blog, the difference between poetry and pottery is only a “t”, and some new pieces have emerged out of the kiln which, if not poetic, are at least expressive.

Wavy rutile vase

The latest batch of ceramics has seen the rise of an ingredient called rutile.   Rutile is a glaze additive that produces colours ranging from light and dark blue, to tan, gold, yellow, and even purple.  It has a mind of its own, depending on the glaze base and the firing conditions and, because it is a mined colorant, its makeup also depends on the mine source. Many potters test their batches of rutile before committing to a full bucket of glaze – all the result of the mineral’s notorious inconsistency. But when it works, it produces many crystalline, speckling, streaking, and mottling effects in glazes during cooling in the kiln and thus it is highly prized by potters.

Wavy rutile vase verso

Of course, here at Peter Arscott Ceramics, and following in the contrarian, or maybe heedless, tradition, rutile is not used in this way at all but rather mixed as a powder with water and a viscous agent to produce a colourant that can be applied like paint to the bisque surface of the piece, and then dipped in a transparent glaze. In other words, it is not used as a glaze but as a colour that gives the object’s surface an effect halfway between wood and honey. See for yourselves.

rutile close-up

By the way, Brits pronounce it “root ill” and Americans say “root isle”, which I prefer. On the other hand, and digressing wildly, why do Americans say “rowt” when they want to say “route”? Answers please. And since we are on the subject, why do they pronounce “rubbish” as “garbage” and “chips” as “french fries”? I am sure that at least one of the three American readers of this blog will tell me in no uncertain terms.

my friend Edith

I got know a resident sparrow, called Edith, busy looking for anything to feed its chicks in their nest in the roof’s gutter. Luckily they were not flooded out, and I felt so sorry for her that I bought a  bag of mealy worms. She didn’t want to land on my outstretched hand but was OK on the table, where she would occasionally forget herself and leave a calling card. The fledglings have now flown, and she has lost all interest in visiting.  Spurned by a sparrow.

Spring clean

 

early April morning

Early April morning walk up to Frith Wood, clear sky, a little dew in the grass, birds singing – chaffinch, great tit, blackbird and the deep cawing of the “boss”, the raven, the usual lovely view from C.J.’s bench and then the last uphill trudge into the cool of the wood itself. I had the whole place to myself (I thought) until a hair-raising bark from deep in the trees made me jump out of my skin. It came at regular 5 second intervals and I thought I’d recorded it but realized when I got home that I had not pressed the start button. Research online confirmed that it was a barking Roe deer, probably warning others of my approach – it sounds very dog-like.

barking roe deer

Here we are in April, with lockdown appearing to recede, and Spring well-established, the blooms are beginning to open up, leaves are unfurling – it is the month of the growing season and thus aptly named: it is derived from the Latin word aperit, which means “to open”.

mayflower in April

Also, and more importantly to some, it’s also Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month, as well as National Soft Pretzel Month in the USA. And Edible Book Day is celebrated on April 1st – this is not an April Fool’s joke and is taken seriously by that voracious reader, the book worm.

wood anemone

The wood anemone was just beginning to carpet the ground, and the first bluebells were about to unfurl. It was a quiet and relaxing five kilometre walk after the initial “hart”- stopping  moment.

worm moon?

After last month’s Worm Moon, mentioned in last month’s blog and which was largely obscured by cloud, we may have better luck for the next two over the next two months, with a Pink Moon and a Flower Moon on the way. Wolf Moon (January), Snow Moon (February), Sturgeon Moon (August) and Beaver Moon (November) are just four of the monthly moons to look out for. But in order to avoid this blog becoming a lunar calendar, I must try and be as brief as possible and not get carried away (Yes, do try not to – Spiro).

pink moon

The Pink Moon supermoon will be at its peak on Tuesday, April 27 at 4.31am. The Flower Moon supermoon will be at its largest and brightest on Wednesday, May 26 at 12.13pm. The April and May full moons will both appear to loom large as the moon is at its closest points to Earth on its orbit. The Pink Moon, from the pink flowers – phlox – that bloom in the early spring, is also the Sprouting Grass Moon, Fish Moon or Hare Moon. The Old English/Anglo-Saxon name is Egg Moon. It is also known as the Paschal Moon because it is used to calculate the date for Easter. (OK, that’s quite enough – S.).

wavy fruit bowl

Right. Now the ceramics. Rummaging in the deepest recesses of the storage room is like going back in time. Waiting to see the light of day was a stack of stoneware wave bowls made some years ago and never sold. Spiro ( in charge of Marketing) says it is because they were not properly promoted for their practical use and that customers were perplexed by their description as “wave” bowls. Spiro wants to publicise them as fruit bowls and insists on the following description:

fruity feature

“A really stylish modern ceramic fruit bowl that looks great in any room of the house and can be used in so many ways. This amazing ceramic piece will make a stylish feature on a sideboard, dining room table or kitchen island. It also provides a sense of style to any contemporary space.”

stylish

I suppose I like them for their aesthetic qualities above all and prefer to see them as objects with visual impact, which, I keep telling Spiro, PAC followers do too. He is adamant that function comes before form. Anyway, this is his compromise:

fruit bowl with fruit

“No matter what kind of salad you serve up, this ceramic bowl is sure to make it look scrumptious! This simply designed tableware with its wavy brushstrokes in blue and green depicts a contemporary look with marine associations.  This bowl is perfect for everyday use or special occasions and along with the rest of the range can be used in infinite ways to suit your style. Material: glaze fired porcelain. Dishwasher, oven and microwave safe.”

Edible Book Day

I also found some chargers, or large round serving dishes, so both fruit bowls and chargers need to make room for new stock and will be displayed for sale in the garden at Oakland House, The Homend, Ledbury HR8 1AP from Saturday 18th to Sunday 19th April (10 – 5). They will be spaced out appropriately , but I assume there will not be more than six people together in the garden at any given time. If you want to purchase a bowl, put on a mask and knock on the kitchen door, either Spiro, or Thelonious, or I will serve you. Card or cash accepted. Prices range from £30 to £60.

wave bowl as birdbath

Anyone who’d like a piece but cannot travel, select the one you’d like and just send an email to info@peterarscott.co.uk  Shipping and packaging for UK will add £10.

a. 34 cms max width. 1.7k. £30

b. 42 cms width. 2.4k. £50

c. 42 cms width. 2.7 k. £50

d. 45 cms width. 3.7 k. £65

e. 40 cms width. 1.9 k. £45 Miró

f. 39 cms d. 3k. £40

g. 48 cms d. 4 k. £50

h. 42 cms d. 5 k. £45

 

i. 48 cms d. 5k. £60

Lastly, I thought you’d enjoy this video of a deer attacking a hunter. Just click on it:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

worm grunting

May Hill hovering on the horizon

The fitter your legs, the fitter your mind. This is what I told myself as I slogged up Bradlow Hill to my favourite viewing spot one harsh cold morning last week. It’s good for you, colder temperatures help people think clearly, people perform tasks better. What’s more, people are less inclined to tackle cognitive problems in the summer, as opposed to winter, because the warm weather uses more glucose that’s needed for mental processes.

the slog uphill

Yes, a long, brisk walk is as good as a run when it comes to lowering risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol because it’s the total energy used, you see, rather than the intensity of the workout, that counts.

frond vase

Encouraged, I tried tackling a cognitive problem. When did time begin? Where does a thought go when it’s forgotten? Where do lost socks go when they are missing? No answer presented itself.

hoar frost

But it was cold. Very cold. Everything was covered in wispy white and the mud, usually so slippery and just waiting to play with you, was ice solid and didn’t try any of its old tricks. I decided it was a hoar frost. Later, when I got home, I looked up “hoar” – it comes from an Old English adjective that means “showing signs of old age”. In this context, it refers to the frost that makes trees and bushes look like white hair.  It is formed by direct condensation of water vapour to ice at temperatures below freezing.

frozen worm roof

More cognitive problems: which came first – the chicken or the egg? Why do men have nipples? What would happen if somebody hired two private detectives to follow each other? At a cinema or theatre, which armrest is yours? What happens to worms when the earth above them has frozen? Just think how nice it would be to sleep curled up in a warm place, like a worm when the temperature goes down and the frost appears. They burrow below the frost line where they nest in chambers at the bottom of tunnels they dig, kept moist by the slimy mucus they produce. All that soil above them keeping them warm, like a blanket – bad news for birds, no matter how early they get up on a cold winter’s day.

do worms dream?

Do worms communicate? Do they produce any sound? My research later showed up all sorts of interesting facts, like worm grunting – which is the art of rubbing iron and wood to cause vibrations in the ground that cause worms to wriggle to the surface – but I read that earthworms do not have vocal cords, lungs or larynx to drive air through and generate noise, and why didn’t I enrol in a biology class, it was suggested, and get a life.

lobe vase

Looking around at the whitened landscape another cognitive problem came to me. What makes stoneware and porcelain white? I know this one: kaolin, or rather kaolinite, a mineral. Kaolin is the only type of clay from which a white, translucent, vitreous ceramic can be made. It is a refractory clay, meaning that it can be fired at high temperatures without deforming, and it is white-burning, meaning that it imparts whiteness to the finished ware, be it stoneware or porcelain. Ceramicists like Edmund de Waal usually like their pieces in their pure white state.

Much as I like the white of stoneware and porcelain, because I am a painter, I feel the need to colour the surface with stains and oxides before dipping the piece in a transparent glaze and firing it to 1275℃.

horn vase

By the way, it turns out that Kaolinite is also used in toothpaste, incandescent lightbulbs, cosmetics, paint, whitewash and paper.  Some people even eat it to help digestion or to lower food toxicity, but don’t try it at home.

bottom mystery

When I got to the top of the hill, I saw that someone had already beaten me to CJ’s bench and left his or her mark. In full Sherlock cognitive mode, I studied the patch left by the person’s bottom on the frosted wood: hmmm, not a large person, and very confident of the waterproof clothing worn, and given the heat required to melt the ice, I surmised the person had, like me, climbed the hill to the bench to generate such heat. Therefore, the person was ahead of me and in the woods. I decided not to test the theory. If I rushed ahead and approached walkers ahead of me whilst looking for damp patches on their bottoms I would only get into trouble.

three legged bowl 52

Instead, I looked at the low wintry skyline and noticed a thin finger of cloud below the top of May Hill, which made it look as if it were floating just above the horizon.

raven photo: www.copetersen.com

The rest of the walk through the woods was uneventful with only a few walkers crossing paths, no squirrels, no birdsong, only the neighbourhood raven who always croaks way above the trees. It made me think of Merlina, the Queen raven that recently disappeared from the Tower of London, presumed dead. It was Charles II who officially decree that the birds must be kept at the Tower at all times (otherwise the kingdom would collapse), and when numbers fell to just a single raven guard, Winston Churchill ordered that the flock — known as an “unkindness” — was increased to at least six.

Seeing the landscape beyond through the vertical grid of the trees, I was reminded of a vase I made some time ago, thus the next two pictures:

view through the trees

You may have noticed that I have taken the advice of my marketing manager, St Spyridon (see previous blog), and have scattered images of recently made vases throughout this blog in a haphazard manner unrelated to the text. He assures me it is called scattergun influencer marketing and all the kids are doing it, and why am I calling this  blog worm grunting? It’s got nothing to do with ceramics.

Brittle Star

Nor has this: some of you who read my verbiage, my waffle, my flannel, might be interested in listening to me read a section from a short story called sibling published in Brittle Star.  Please join us for the magazine’s first ever virtual launch, hosted by the Barbican Library through Zoom. Free to attend, just click here to register.  It is  the publication’s twentieth birthday, with readings by contributors strictly limited to five minutes each.  There will be no ceramics on view, no matter what Spiro says about it being a great marketing opportunity. It will be on 26th January at 6pm until 7pm (UK time).

Keep well.

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”.