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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!”

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)

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.

December squelch

December from Bradlow Knoll

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

into the woods

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

mud and leaf

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

bracken

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

Cameron Contemporary Art Gallery

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

 

nocturnal advice

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

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

“Sorry?” I mumbled, “who are you?”

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

I searched my memory and suddenly it came to me.

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

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

“How can I help?” I asked politely.

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

“Oh, how?”

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

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

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

I sniffed the air, which was rude of me.

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

“Yes, I admit that.”

The Chuffed Store

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

Jewel Street

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

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

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

Jewel Street

Wanting to change the subject I asked:

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

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

“Gosh, all that knowledge at your fingertips.”

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

“So what did you choose?”

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

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

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

“You use currency there?”

“No, we exchange things.”

“So how do you pay Mr Schweitzer?”

“In yoghurt.”

Jewel Street

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

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

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

The Chuffed Store

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

Parfum d’Ovine

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

waiting for the kiln


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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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Arscott’s ceramic wanderings

cloud vase petulant

I found myself wandering about in the grounds of a ruined castle, somewhere near the Welsh border, probably Skenfrith, or White Castle, when I came upon an open enclosure, the portcullis and dry moat lay ahead and the grassy area was walled in and contained a massive oak tree. But what most intrigued me a very large vase that stood in the middle – it was familiar to me, in fact one of my own pieces called Cloud Vase, but it was huge.

“What are you doing here?” I asked it, I don’t know why.

“I could ask you the same thing”, it answered rather petulantly.

“But what has happened?”  I was very confused.

“Nothing much. What’s up with you?”

“Nothing. What do you mean?”

“Well, look at yourself. You’re stark naked.”

I looked down and saw this was the case. Which is when, thankfully, I woke up.

vine vase in the Welsh hills

This is how reality, or the day to day, elbows its way into your sleep and there’s always some reason behind it. In this case I blame Mr Dale Chihuly. Let me explain.

dream vase at Cecilia Colman’s

On the way back from leaving some ceramics with the Cecilia Colman Gallery in St John’s Wood (see June 2018 blog), a friend suggested we visit Kew Gardens and look at the exhibition of glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, Emperor of Blown Glass, whose work he often sites in natural settings, landscape or gardens, and whose technique, as he says himself ( he doesn’t like to use a lot of tools), it is all about fire, gravity and centrifugal force: “It’s these natural elements that make the pieces begin to look like they were made by nature”.

Chehuly’s Persian Column in the Temperate House at Kew

This outdoor exhibition brings together work from the past 50 years, the only site-specific piece being the Persian Column suspended from the roof of the Temperate House.

Lime Chrystal Tower

Main ingredients of glass?  Liquid sand, or rather sand, soda and limestone. melted at around 1320 degrees Celsius. This makes a typical glass which can be formed by blowing by mouth or machine, by casting, by pressing and by drawing.

Glass Hornets in the pond at the Temperate House viewed from the gallery

So, it’s a cousin of stoneware, which is also fired at a high temperature and is essentially a vitreous ceramic made from naturally occurring stoneware clay containing kaolinite, mica and quartz, and is thus water resistant and frost proof – like the pieces I make, only mine are really for a domestic setting, though what if….?

Sapphire Star

How big could a ceramic sculpture be, I wondered? The glass work on view is large, and mainly made out of many hand blown pieces which are carefully slipped onto steel rods that stand out from an inner steel core or tube planted deep into the ground. Like the Summer Sun by the lake, or the Sapphire Star by the Victoria Gate entrance. They are very large and dominating, and impressive. Which is why I ended up dreaming about man made ceramics in outdoor settings.

Summer Sun

If you haven’t been to Kew, you have a treat awaiting. It is a garden that houses the largest and most diverse botanical collections in the world (30,000 different kinds of plants), a World Heritage Centre, 132 hectares of gardens, glasshouses, listed buildings and the fabulous Palm House built in 1848. Parking is challenging unless you go early, otherwise it is best to arrive on the underground, either Kew Station or Richmond. The sandwiches are good.

small vine vase at Cecilia Colman’s

So, back to nocturnal wanderings of the mind, finding yourself in a state of undress in a dream is no big thing, nothing to worry about. Everybody has had one of these dreams, or at least that’s what the giant vase on the hill tells me.

giant vase that tells me things

ceramics, olives, squirrels

the view from Úbeda towards the Sierra de Cazorla

A long time ago, arriving anywhere in Spain meant being greeted by the smell of tobacco and coffee. Nowadays, with smoking restrictions in place, it is just the coffee you can just about whiff as you get out of Málaga airport and walk into the dry heat of Andalucía. The drive from Málaga to our destination, the city of Úbeda in Jaén, was a trip through a dry but varied landscape of mountains, valleys and great stretches of olive groves as far as the eye can see. This is the region that produces the most olive oil in the world, alone producing more than the second world producer of oil, Italy. Something like 20% of world production comes from here. There are about 60 million olive trees in this fertile land, and a squirrel could travel happily across the whole province without once touching soil (they claim). Anyway, the photograph above was taken from the hill of Úbeda looking down and across towards the Sierra de Cazorla. The next image is of a squirrel.

Spanish trapeze artist

The cultivation of olive trees goes back centuries in the different Mediterranean cultures, and includes the Greek, the Phoenician and the Assyrian – even the Bible mentions it over 400 times, since it was used not only as food but as a light source. Of course, the oil had to be stored, and what better way to contain it than the ceramic amphora or jug.

amphora jug of oil, aren’t you?

olives in a three-legged bowl

In Spanish a potter is known as an alfarero, a word that comes from the Arabic “alfahar” meaning “ceramic” and “ero” denoting a profession, and without doubt the best known alfarero in Úbeda is Tito. And pottery has been made in Ubeda for over a thousand years; there have been many influences and styles that have left their mark, and at Tito’s ceramic workshop you can experience absolute fidelity to traditional forms as well as a decorative eclecticism that incorporates and recreates the contributions of each historical period, from Iberian geometries to colourful Baroque via Arab greens and the blues of the Renaissance.

Inside Tito’s workshop

From the cool oasis of Tito’s you can walk to one of the most striking Renaissance collection of buildings in Spain – the Vázquez de Molina square where you can visit the Palacio de las Cadenas (so named after the decorative chains which once hung from the façade), the chapel of El Salvador and the Basílica de Santa María. The interior of the chapel is stunning, built as a burial place for the local nobility in 1536, it is a Spanish architectural jewel with a main altar that forces one to sit down and contemplate.

interior of El Salvador chapel

The town lends its name to a common figure of speech in Spanish, andar por los cerros de Úbeda (literally ‘to walk around the hills of Úbeda’), meaning ‘to go off at a tangent’, which yours truly did by succumbing to a mild case of shingles. Luckily the local chemist is very helpful so no doctor was required, but it did mean that any consumption of local delicacies such as perdiz en escabeche (partridge), andrajos (a stew made with flour, oil, tomato, pepper and rabbit) and paté de aceituna (olive paté) had to be postponed, as did any drinking of the local Torreperogil wine.

Écija – the Frying Pan of Spain

This small sacrifice was soon forgotten with the next stage of the trip. The drive to Jerez de la Frontera meant a brief stop at Écija, the Frying Pan of Spain, and though it turned out be hot enough, the temperature was not as high as in the UK at the time. Something of the dryness of the Spanish landscape and its underlying human endeavour and activity inspired a set of pots once back at the workshop – an abstract interpretation with a marked personality. What do you think?

landscape pots

However, back on the road, the landscape changed gradually the further West we drove, and by the time we were nearing Jerez the fields were white. Albariza is a chalky soil that retains moisture within while forming a dry pale crust above that prevents any drying. This is ideal for the growing of the Palomino grape used in the production of sherry and brandy. The result is a stripy landscape of green and white, grape and soil.

Barbadillo’s cathedral-like warehouse of soleras

A tour of the Barbadillo sherry makers in the port of Sanlucar de Barrameda taught us that manzanilla is made there whereas fino is made in Jerez. Because of the sea breeze that enters the giant bodegas where the maturing takes place, manzanilla has a slightly salty tang. Manzanilla is camomile, which is another aroma typically found in this type of sherry, and where better to sample some than at a bar in the centre of the city. After admiring the cathedral-like building that houses the hundreds of soleras (oak barrels) of manzanilla we headed back to Jerez.

Bar Juanito

Bar Juanito is a cool and airy space clad inside and out with locally-made ceramic tiles where they serve all the sherries along with their specialities, artichoke and deep-fried whitebait. As with most towns and cities in Andalucía tiles are used to decorate buildings on the outside, such as the tower of the church of San Miguel, and to help keep interiors at a lower temperature, for example in the courtyards and patios of houses, and in public and domestic rooms.

the tile-clad tower of San Miguel, Jerez

But if you are feeling the heat then go to the beach. The one at Santa Maria del Puerto is wide and clean and, despite the fact that it is the Atlantic, easy to swim in. The view across the bay allows you a glimpse of Cadiz in the distance.

Cadiz in the distance

In a further attempt to link ceramics, however tenuously, with this blog and the trip to Spain, here is an image of a large pot made two or three years ago which was inspired by the movements of a flamenco dance. It is called Flamenco Pot.

Flamenco pot

Should you want to meet any of the ceramics face to face, keep in mind that other than the workshop in Ledbury there are outlets too in St Ives, Worcester, Cambridge and London – addresses and contact details on the website. Click here to go to the website.

Leaf pot

Hasta luego, amigos.