In this Blog, I like to share what's going on in my world of making pots. I update it whenever I think there's something which may be of interest: there may be times when I am adding to it daily; sometimes I can't think of anything worth saying for months. I hope it gives you a flavour of what goes on in the average day of a working potter...
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Vulcanising SW - 1st May 2018
This morning, I visited a wonderfully helpful local company, Vulcanising SW, to source a new drive belt for the clay mixer: these guys had helped by rejoining drive belt number 1 when it snapped - no sooner had I refitted it and begun to mix a batch of clay, drive belt number 2 disintegrated!
Vulcanising SW manufacture rubber and make things like conveyor belts, but they still found the time to help little people like me. This time I got to go into the workshop and I found it fascinating, watching them at work, using an array of machinery to cut lengths, join ends, de-laminate edges, cut fringes. To me, this workshop activity is much more interesting than any gallery: it reminded me that I do not aspire to be considered an artist, but rather a mini-engineer of mud and fire.
Thank you Vulcanising SW for a helpful and inspirational morning - next is the task of re-fitting the belt and mixing the next batch of clay - hopefully without any further ado!
Clay Mixing Trouble - 2nd April 2018
Those of you who follow this blog will know that I have a wonderful machine in which I mix clay (I have a feeling it was originally powered by steam!) which was designed to mix dough in a commercial bakery. It has two drive belts, one of which snapped as the metal joining clip had corroded. Darn it! Now, being such old technology, finding a new clip for a drive belt was not an easy task: and I desperately needed to get one quickly as the pressure is on to complete sufficient pots for the next firing.
Soon, there was a breakthrough - I was pointed in the direction of a specialist local company called Vulcanising, just across the water into Cornwall, who design and fit conveyor belts. Fabulously helpful people and, having journeyed into foreign lands with a broken drive belt, I left with a newly-joined one within minutes of arriving. Marvellous.
Back at Powdermills, it took me a few attempts to fit the belt back on to the mixer because the newly-joined belt was necessarily a smidgen shorter. However, eventually I managed it. Rather proud of myself, I immediately fired her up to mix a much-needed batch of clay. Just before the mix finished
. the second drive belt snapped
Firing Ahoy! and New Opening Hours
Today, I will be mostly getting my little wendy house on wheels ready, as tomorrow we are off on an adventure together: tomorrow I am taking my bed, warm clothes, food and reading material off to Kigbeare just outside Okehampton. I am setting up camp for a few days while a team of 6 of us fire the wood-kiln there, under the watchful eye of Svend Bayer. It means that I am hopeful that I will have pots on the shelves at Powdermills in a few weeks time.
The dates when we plan to fire the kiln in 2018 are set, so hopefully stock levels of pots will become more consistent as the year unfolds - well, that's the plan, anyhoo.
To release the time to fire more regularly this year, I have reduced the number of days in the week that Powdermills is open. In 2018, throughout the year, I plan to be open at Weekends and Bank Holidays - although some of these will inevitably get interrrupted by the firings themselves.
I hope you come along one weekend to see the new work as we go along - the kettle will still be on (and the wood-burner!).
Big Changes and Throwing Courses - 8th September 2017
The third firing of the team kiln at Kigbeare Studios happens next week. Becoming a team member of this project has created a fabulous opportunity for me to focus on creating a new range of pots. I love being on site, working alongside other like-minded (and yet, so different) potters, whether stacking wood or packing pots or any aspect of the team firing process.
This imminent firing has, however, created a great frustration: during the Summer the shop and cafe at Powdermills is open 7 days a week. Consequently, I have produced the grand total of three, yes, three, pots to be fired. This will not do. So, big changes are afoot. Changes must be made to allow me to create more pots. To be frank, I keep changing my mind what those changes will be, but I will ramble here whenever a mad idea hits me and you can tell me why it won't work!
One thing I have decided is that I plan to teach more 'How to Use the Potters' Wheel' classes. Dates have been set for the two-day weekend course in November (11/12) and December (9/10). If you would like to find out more, take a look at the Courses page of the pottery's website. So, if you know a Pottery Throw Down fan who might like to have a go, point them my way. It's a chance to tackle a skill you've always wanted to learn before the year is out.
Silent Arrival - 20th August 2017
If you visit the pottery and I look rather surprised to see you, please forgive me: it's a new era here at Powdermills. For years, as the cattle grid at the top of the drive deteriorated, each arrival by car was heralded by a Clank! as a vehicle dropped onto the grid, clattered its way across the bars and climbed out the other side. Given that the drive is about a quarter of a mile long, it was a bit like a door bell letting me know that someone had arrived.
In recent weeks, however, these guys, at the request of our landlord (thank you, Sir!), have renewed the cattle grid. Ignoring the fact that it is slightly narrower than the last and any self-respecting sheep could tippy-toe around the bars, the work is so well done that any vehicle glides across with a purr. So, no more warning bell for me to put my coffee down and jump up to attention!
Next time you visit Powdermills, look out for the Bond-style infrar-red trip-lasers that I am thinking of installing at the top, to replace the Clank! as a five-minute warning!
The Firing Cycle - planning making time
It's been that stressful time of year for teenagers: over the last couple of months, they became a little less and less available for social events each week as the momentum built towards those dratted exams that they endure at 16yrs and 18yrs. Not long ago, they were forcibly holed up in their bedrooms with devices confiscated by parents desperate enough to start behaving like their own (which we all swore we would never do). Now, however, the young have exploded out of their period of confinement and are attacking their social life with extra gusto - bouncing along to country fairs, showing cows, riding ponies.... discovering the beer tent.... discovering each other...
I thought of them all today, as I sat down to complete my equivalent of a revision timetable: having just unpacked the team kiln at Kigbeare and pencilled in the date of the next firing, I paused, pen in hand, to work out how many pots I had to make to fill the space in the kiln allotted to me. Would I manage to find the time to make them in the summer months when the shop here at Powdermills is open every day?
'How many pots?' is an interesting one because, of course, it depends on their size. I decided to work it out by weight of clay. I listed all of the pots in my range, the weight of clay I use to make each type, the number of each I would like to make and calculate whether I would have used three times, yes three times, the amount of clay I used for the last friing.... because I must make three times as many pots to fill the space. Yikes!
It is traditional when writing a revision timetable that you work out that you should have started four weeks ago. But, if I work until midnight, buy shares in DJ Miles Rich and Reviving coffee, put the alarm clock in a biscuit tin for extra amplification, I think it's possible.
The difference between my timetable and the one written by so many teenagers not so long ago is.... I'm really looking forward to the next firing. This potter is thoroughly having fun....
You cannot sneeze without Widecombe knowing.. - 7th May 2017
Only the other day I was thinking that I had not blogged for a while. I was feeling that my entries were getting repetitive as the cycle of life on Dartmoor is an annual one: swaling, return of swallows, hearing a cuckoo, Ten Tors... So I was delighted today when something out of the ordinary occurred.
I was firing the little kiln here at Powdermills today, hoping to get some mugs on the shelf to sell as so many want them and I have difficulty keeping them in stock. I was just nearing the desired temperature - I had no pyrometer to give me a temperature reading as, yet again, it is malfunctioning; I had no cones in the kiln that I could see; so, I was firing entirely by eye, looking at what was coming out of the chimney, looking at how yellow the atmosphere in the kiln was; using my nose to smell progress. Then, I smelt a new smell: 'Ooh', thought I, 'that smells good. I'm nearly there'. I finished the firing, but noticed that the smell didn't go away. A quick glance over the wall confirmed that on the far side of next door's newtake, there was a grass fire! This is not controlled swaling as it is too late in the year - the ground nesting birds returned a month ago.
Within no time at all, the world arrives - the farmer, the fire brigade, the National Park Ranger. the local Visitor Centre has been notified; even an army helicopter has flown over and reported it in (it is Ten Tors weekend, after all) My phone rings, someone had witnessed who set the fire and a car registration number has been noted.
This is how 'remote and isolated' Dartmoor is. Far flung and spread out though we may be, if you sneeze at Powdermills, someone in Widecombe will say Gesundheit. For no-one here relies on statutary services, they rely on each other.
Today, I was reminded of a dark Winter's evening years ago, when heavy pregnant: my phone rang 'You awlright, maid?' said a voice at the end of the line. 'Yes, why?'. 'Well, an ambulance just left Powdermills and I wondered if it was you going in'. I live at Powdermills and had not seen the ambulance (for she was quite right) and the caller lived eight miles away as the crow flies.
Having lived in a crowded, anonymous city for so long, I found this rather claustrophobic at first, but now I am rather comforted that if I lose my keys when I am out, they will probably get home before I do. However, I now have to consider whether that kiln really reached temperature at all....
All Change - 16th October 2016
The quiet click of the door as it closed behind me at 5.30pm today heralded the end of the Summer Season at the pottery. As ever, there will be a two week pause before the pottery opens again on Saturday 5th November, marking the beginning of the Winter Season with the changes to the Teas menu that it brings.
The next fortnight will be taken up with tidying up loose ends of things that have not been completed, returning messages that are long overdue, planning the Winter season and setting some personal aims. Much of my Winter will be centred on my involvement with the Kigbeare Kiln Project and I am really looking forward to it.
I'm looking forward to snuggling up in the workshop, turning on the low bumble of Radio Four and getting on with some steady pot-making. I am already considering what I would like to make and I will be taking the words of Overheard Wisdom into the workshop with me: I like the recognition it gives that struggle never stops if you want to progress.
See you on the other side....
International Welcome - 22nd September 2016
Some years ago, when renewing signage, I thought it would be friendly to greet visitors as they arrive down the long drive from the road into the pottery yard with a Welcome sign. As so many visitors to Dartmoor travel a fair distance from other lands, I thought it would be welcoming to greet everyone in their own language. so I chose German, Dutch, French, Spanish and Italian.
This year, international politics has reversed the trend to keep the pound 'strong' and it is now 'weak'. All of these high-falooting financial shenanigans are completely out of my control, but I have noticed that this change has brought me visitors from the widest array of countries I have experienced in all the time I have been here. Suddenly, instead of looking welcoming, my sign of many languages looks the opposite: this summer, as people have arrived, they have noted that their language is not included!
So, as a bit of fun, I have added a blackboard next to the sign and asked visitors to help me add 'Welcome' their language! It may not look as smart as the professionally printed sign alongside it, but we have had great fun between us writing up Arabic, Urdu, Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, Greek, Danish, Luxemburgish, Swedish, Hebrew, Russian, Polish, Czech, Chinese and Japanese.
And there's still space! So, if you visit us at Powdermills and spot that your language is missing, please help us add it. Because all our welcome here!
...and a partridge in-a-pot-ter-y
In many ways, days at the pottery are a repeat of the year before: things happen according to the seasons, routine happens according to the day's opening hours and yet, each day, I know I will be surprised by something. Most of the time they're pleasant surprises.
One of my favourite moments in the past week was when I stepped out of the kitchen into the pottery yard to find a small boy, holding his mother's phone. 'How can I help you?' asked I. 'Have you got wifi?' came the modern day reply. 'Well, yes. But it is very slow'. He and I wrestled with the phone for a short while, trying to work out how to connect it. As we poked and prodded the screen, I asked what he was going to do on the phone once we'd succeeded. He was on the hunt for Pokemon. We looked at each other and grinned. 'Well, I'll be amazed if you find one in the middle of Dartmoor' I said, trying to set some low expectations. How wrong was I - it took less than ten minutes for him to come flying at me to show me that he had caught a Weedle. Fabulous, thought I, someone has updated Letter-boxing and Pixies to appeal to kids. It's a shame signal doesn't stretch as far as Wistman's Wood, I bet there's some Pokemon hiding in there, undisturbed.
The following day, a customer stood in the doorway of the shop and asked 'Do you mind if I bring in my bird while we have tea?' Well, that's a first, thought I: I have biscuits for dogs, but nothing to offer birds. The couple sat down, put a little cage on the bench next to them, in which was a brown bird, a young partridge. Having taken their order and clattered around the kitchen to prepare it, I returned to their table to find that Bertie (for that was his name) was now accompanied in his cage by an iPhone. Little blue diamonds were moving on the screen, for him to peck at and keep himself amused. Amazed, I got into further conversation, to be told that really it's an iPhone game for cats.
I've concluded that time passes but really, nothing changes: it's all about keeping the kids amused, it's just how we do it that changes with the decade. Once it was kites, Pooh sticks and pond dipping; now, it's Pokemon that gets them outside to play and even the pets play on iPhones! Whichever method you prefer, do pop in for a tea sometime and keep me appraised. And here's to tomorrow next surprise...
Kigbeare Kiln Project - 30th July 2016
Last night I had the privilege of being part of the last firing of Svend Bayer's kiln at Duckpool Pottery, north of Okehampton. I was introduced to Svend by Nic Collins (who was the resident potter at Powdermills before me) in 1997 and have enjoyed joining the stoking team for his firings, on and off, ever since. Both Nic and Svend have been big influences on my pottery life and this trend looks set to continue.
This particular firing of Svend's is a milestone firing because, afterwards, his kiln is being dismantled. A new era is about to begin - for both of us ... and for others.
Later this summer, Svend is generously gathering three potters who have been part of his crewing team over the years, to build a kiln together, fill it with pots and share the labour of long wood-firings. A natural conseequence of this will be that he passes on experience accrued over decades of working with anagama-type kilns. And I am one of those lucky potters, along with Deborah Mitchell and Brigitte Colleaux. I can not tell you how excited I am about such a fabulous opportunity to work so closely with one of the nation's best!
Regular readers of this blog will know that days-long wood-firings have been at the centre of what I came to Dartmoor to do. Such a labour-intensive way of working has been a challenge whilst growing Powdermills Pottery and a family, prompting me recently to investigate firing with gas and salt. Gas firings, however, are a symptom of working with my Head, rather than my Heart.
Being part of Svend's share-kiln project allows me to continue to follow my Heart, whilst removing all of the stress of working alone (replacing it with the stress of working in a team!) and the 'event management' of finding crew willing to work with you for days and nights, seeking accommodation and food in return for their generosity of time and effort.
The kiln is to be built at Kigbeare Studios, with the support of the Arts Council. The project has its own Facebook page - Kigbeare Kiln Project. If you would like to follow progress of the kiln-build, please do Like the project's Fb Page, or keep an eye on the Powdermills Pottery website and Blog. It's going to be an exciting project and I hope you will come along with me for the ride!
Bundles of Numbers - 16th june 2016
Everyone I talk to, or at least those of us who are self-employed, all seem to be plodding our way through the same drudgery at the moment: it's time to complete the book-keeping for tax year 15-16, send files and spreadsheets off to our accountants and await instruction on how much HMRC wishes to frisk from our pockets.
My accountant was a one-man band who lived locally and, as such, we worked through the system with a feeling of solidarity, for he had to go through it himself. A few years ago he moved Up Country. But, in fact, it made little difference to the accounting process as he still arrives around this time of year to collect the files of number-covered paper, receives the spreadheets and correspondence by e-mail, then pops back for me to sign my financial life over to the tax office. But then he joined a posh firm. No longer a one man band. Now, the letters arrive on heavy-weight paper which says 'I'm so expensive you must bend me into an envelope, for I do not fold'; it says 'now add VAT to your bill', and 'I am part of a team of solicitors and grown-up accountants'. However, he is still the same very likeable, cheerful chap and I am happy to stick with him.
I smiled this evening as I prepared the tomes of paper for him to collect tomorrow. Filling a box file that needed a bit of holding together with big postman's rubber bands as the contents threaten to burst from under the lid; deciding that it would be a good idea to bundle the two files together so that they remain a unit in the boot of his car, which will be brim-full of files from numerous other local businesses journeying beyond the 'Welcome to Devon' sign on the M5. Ah, thought I, he's part of a law firm now; he'll be used to people swishing about the office with bundles of papers tied together with pink ribbons tucked under their arms. I'll tie them together using my best parcel-wrapping skills, learned when I was a Brownie.
So, I chose the best bit of baler twine I could find around the yard and tied the neatest bundle I could muster. A bit o' baler twine will identify that within lies the financial spewings of a Dartmoor business... if the moor had a regional flag it should be macramed out of baler twine and somehow incorporate a liberal squirting of WD40. Here's hoping it'll remind him of home when untying it on his polished mahogany desk and brings a smile to his face! And lets hope all this jollity continues when he comes back to talk tax demands....
Learning from Failure - 6th June
I've been sorting through the results of last week's kiln firing and re-firing. As expected, in parts it was truly disastrous, but parts gave a little glimpse of the road ahead. Just enough to make you want to get back in the workshop and try again. It's a bit like playing golf this experimental pottery lark - most of the time you play mediocre at best, but a possilbe hole-in-one every five years or so keeps you trudging back to the tee.
A handful of pots will go into service in the Powdermills tearoom, a handful of pots will be sold as seconds..... and thirds; most will knocked on the head with a hammer and join the growing pile of sherds in the back yard!
However, lessons have been learned, the firing cycle adjusted accordingly, and on we go!
Good Intentions - 28th May 2016
This charming, irresistable chap is possibly a victim of the very best of intentions. Yesterday, some walkers came across a newly-born foal, sleeping. Unable to see his mum they decided to carry him off the moor, tired after a mile and had to leave him to go further to the road. Now, its possible that something had indeed happened to the mare, or she may have taken the opportunity while her baby slept to find some good grazing and return to her baby a little later: we may never know.
With darkness falling, a conversation in the pub when they left the moor, led to the suggestion that they should contact Charlotte at Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony. On her way to try to reunite the foal and mare today she stopped at Powdermills to warm a bottle of milk, which is when I met him. However, even if mum is found, it is questionable whether she will accept him after a period of separation.
Having heard the story of this foal, I asked Charlotte what I should do if happen-chancing across an abandoned foal whilst walking on the moor: after all, I do not pretend to understand animal behaviour and may possibly make a situation worse whilst trying to make things better. Plus, these ponies belong to someone: to take one would be stealing. So, I thought I would share with you what I learned: make a careful note of where the foal is and contact the Dartmoor Livestock Protection Officer (07873 587561). She will know what to do, how to identify the owner and you can rest assured that you are leaving the foal in the best of hands.
And isn't he gorgeous?! If I'm very honest, there's a teeny-weeny bit of me that would like Powdermills Pottery to adopt him, whilst all the while knowing that Mum is Best.
Firing Failure - 26th May 2016
Well, I think it's fair to say that yesterday's first gas-firing of the kiln did not go well. Having started at 6am, at 11.30pm the target temperature was a long way off and I had no tools left in the wisdom box to know how to reach it. Gas is a mystery to me. Now, as a wood-firer and being used to sitting with the kiln overnight, I would have happily carried on into the small hours, if I had had a plan. But I had no plan. Feeling crushed, I simply wanted to crawl under a stone and lick my wounds... so, I closed the kiln down and crawled under the quilt for an overnight sulk feeling very sorry for myself.
Failure. I've had a lot of that recently with firings. the last thing I felt like doing this morning was getting on the keyboard and telling the world about it.
We all cope with failure in different ways: I went for a walk on the moor and let my mind wander. I once worked with an IT programmer, Simon: he used to say that it was when thinking about some irrelevant, mundane matter (such as lying in the bath and pondering where he'd put the soap) that the solution to a puzzling programming problem would flash into his brain. For me this morning, it was while watching my son's dog trotting across the newtake and pondering why people think a walking dog does more damage to Dartmoor's wildlife than a walking lamb, that I had a flash of inspiration for the kiln.
Having had the inspiration, I shall apply a bit of logical thought while the kiln cools to a safe temperature. then, I shall be re-packing it and re-firing it. Suddenly, the desire to throw the towel in and walk away turned into the possibility that I may have learned something new and important.
Or, maybe I am a deluded optimist and I should turn to drink instead.... Cheers!
Suddenly Green - 15th May 2016
Shhhhhhh........ If you stand still somewhere on the moor by Powdermills at a quiet time of the day, I think you must be able to hear a quiet s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g sound. It's the sound of plants growing.
Up here on the moor we are used to being about a month behind the lowlands with the beginning of seasons but, this year, we are very late with the beginning of Spring. It has been cold, even though it has sometimes been bright, until a handful of days ago when the temperature began to rise a little.
Plants must know that they have until June 20th, summer solstice, to get their structural growing done and to do that they need increasing hours of sunlight and warmth. If those days are late coming, they simply have to do more growing in each day available. Up here the rate of growth in the last days has been impressive - almost overnight the moor has gone green. Every plant tip is increasing its height away from the ground at an astonishing rate. We have been opening curtains in the mornings to find that, not only have bluebell stalks grown overnight, they are nearly in full flower. The beech trees around Powdermills are particularly verdant - their new leaves are zingingly bright in colour. In the same way that you can tell the month of year by where the moon rises on the horizon you can tell how far you are through summer by the darkening of beech tree leaves.
As for the human life on the moor, there's a feeling of energy buzzing about, too: preparations are underway for next week's Devon County Show, where Dartmoor will be well represented. It's almost as though the plant-life has spun its magic of capturing the sun-rays, turning them into energy and passed it on.... let's hope those rays are still in the sky when the Show is on (Thurs-Sat next week).
Hot Air - 4th May 2016
A couple of weeks ago, having spent a long time hesitating and being sensible, the long-awaited moment of rashness finally arrived (I knew it would): I scraped together pennies, bashed plastic and laid out an eye-watering amount of money for gas burners and a train of pipe work for my kiln. I then retired to lay down with a cool flannel over my brow and waited for the box to arrive. And today, it did.
Two years ago, whilst sitting on top of a Lakeland fell, I decided that I should take my kiln down and build a smaller one (tick), decrease the length of my firings (tick), use salt to compensate for the lack of wood-ash build-up that a shorter firing would bring (tick) and use gas burners. I had real trouble with the last one. Wood-firing is a state of being and you cant just give it up, whatever logic says.
But then I had an amazing offer: would I like to join a team of four of wood-firers, building a new kiln, filling and firing it together? Brilliant! So now I can have my cake and eat it: gas kiln at Powdermills for quicker production to keep the shelves better stocked with pots; still wood-firing with the team (more about that later).
And here is a significant part of the kit to complete the conversion of my little kiln. The first firing date is set for a couple of weeks time, so if you see a mist forming around Powdermills mid-May, it may not be related to the weather....
Hill Pony Experience - 23rd March 2016
The summer season starts at the pottery on Friday and the final panic of preparations are well under way. It's particularly exciting, because there is a fabulous new addition at Powdermills this year. The pottery has teamed up with the charity Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony to create the Dartmoor Hill Pony Experience.
As well as ensuring that the scones will be back on the menu and craft-a-plenty in the shop, I've been helping erect a display about the iconic ponies of Dartmoor. I've learnt so much: discovering their history; how they have been shaped by Dartmoor; how they help the moor's wildlife flourish; so many little-known secrets.
So, if you would like to taste our award-winning cream tea, wander around the hill pony display, then drive a route to see everything you have learned about ponies 'in the flesh' (maybe even some ponies if you are lucky), come in and see us at Powdermills this summer!
6th February 2016 - Always and Up Side
When strong gales and stair-rod rain is thrown at us, with just a little seasoning of mist, it's oh-so easy to feel a bit defeated; especially when, as now, this moorland monsoon has been going on for more than a month and is forecast for the next week. Farmers on the moor are having a particularly hard time as taking a bale out to a herd reduces a saturated field to a thigh-deep quagmire.
But there's always an up-side. Because this kind of weather brings up a gleeful, cheerful crew of people on to Dartmoor, excitedly seeking out swollen rivers (especially the lower end of the Dart which is classed as 'white water' when in spate), filling up our bunk-houses, gathering in pubs for evening meals, making our car parks busy - Kayakers. As I battled out this morning to feed animals, nearly every car I passed had a rack of plastic boats lashed on top: now is the Paddlers time to enjoy Dartmoor. And what a happy bunch they are, driving to their watery destination in convoy - even their boats are cheerfully-coloured.
Every fourth car that I passed was a Land Rover, with the drivers grinning knowingly to each other as they passed. There's deep water in some of the dips in the little lanes and we were secretly enjoying ourselves, pushing our way through, kidding ourselves that this weather justified our choice of vehicle with its height off the ground and air-intake snorkel.
Maybe that's what our farmers need. A bit of fun: perhaps persuade them to park up there boringly reliable Toyota pick-ups, take a Land Rover with a neon-coloured plastic boat strapped on its roof to the river, enjoy the challenge of shooting the rapids (preferably not sideways) with a gang of mates and round the day off with a pie and a pint at a local hostelry.
Be careful out there my lovelies - and seek out the fun!
4th January 2016 - A Lot of Rain
We've had a lot of rain - nothing like as much as our National Park cousins in the North West or the North East, or indeed in parts of Scotland - but still, a lot of rain. The little brook that trickles through the gunpowder factory ruins on its way to the West Dart river has been in spate for weeks, varying only in degrees depending on the length of the last rainfall.
At the weekend, when tripping through the yard from the house to the shop to stoke the wood-burner, or ply customers with tea and cake, I could hear the sound of rushing water from the kiln shed. I didn't need to look, but I did anyway: there is the usual, seasonal moat around the kiln. Not much I can do about that (except move to Portugal).
It was therefore with a little bit of trepidation that I headed to the workshop this morning. I had not been in there over the festive period and I feared how many puddles I would find. As you know, my workshop is now ensconced in an adapted caravan. When I was looking for a caravan to become my new work space, my only criterion was that it should not leak. After all, much of the inside furnishings were to be removed to get equipment in and it wasn't essential for water or gas systems to work as I could do without. I knew little about caravans, learnt quite a lot quite quickly by making mistakes, and was amazed at how generally leaky they are - even the new, far beyond my budget, ones. The caravan I settled on was remakably dry for its age and I had applied gaffer tape liberally to keep it that way, but recent rainfall levels have been quite a test.
Oh, the delight when I realised that my lovely, cosy workshop was dry .... and very soon warm, and so, so cheerful. So, it's onward into 2016, happily spinning mud into pots! I won't be firing them for quite some time, though: I have to wait for the kiln moat to dry out before I can contemplate lighting a match. No point in battling against Mother Nature up here on the moor, you learn the patience to wait until you can work with her.
Happy New Year, everyone! Looking forward to seeing you again in the coming months when, hopefully, some pots will be hitting the shelves.
18th November 2015 - Birthday Party and Wasps
Dartmoor Magazine is 30 this year and the editorial team invited lots of us for tea this week to celebrate. If you have not yet read a copy of the Dartmoor Magazine I recommend you get a copy of the new Winter edition as it hits the shelves next week: it is a seasonal gem - full of interesting moor-related facts, stories, questions and images carefully selected by the editor, Sue, resulting in a fascinating balance of reading material four times a year: there couldn't be more than four, it takes three months to read it all.
The articles in the magazine are written by local people, each with their own specialist area of interest, and they were all there, sipping tea and nibbling politely on the celebratory fruit cake. Someone pointed out that any passing person would think we were at a wedding.... but there weren't enough arguments for that.
Dartmoor is a small place, so many of the gathered crowd I already knew, but I made a concerted effort to seek out those I had not met before and what a fascinating bunch they were. People who had spent their spare time delving deep into the moor's geology, entymology, farming, archaeology and more. It was great fun asking each person about their Dartmoor Thing. I learned so much. And I would like to share just one piece of new information I gathered.
Having exchanged names and interest with a chap (John, wildlife artist: Joss, potter) we found common ground - the Potter Wasp. Yes, a wasp that makes pots. They can be found on the edge of Dartmoor and he told me all about how they build a round clay pot with a narrow, lipped neck, place an egg in it and provide the larvae-to-be with a packed lunch of caterpillar for when it hatches, before sealing the pot. And they must do something chemically magical to the clay when they chew it up, because, without firing, those pots survive wet weather. If you would like to know more, take a look at John's website (and make sure you look at both YouTube clips) by clicking HERE.
So congratulations Sue and Dartmoor Magazine and thank you for a very lovely tea party x
(The drawing is one of John Walter's, so copyright is his)
21st October 2015 - Full Thermometer
Those of you who have visited us since early August will know that the image of a thermometer is blue-tacked to the wall of the shop: y'know the sort of thing, a visual aid often used for church steeple repair funds to indicate how much money has been raised and how much more is needed to complete the work. The funds we were raising at Powdermills were not connected to the local church's steeple (it doesn't have one) but to fund a piece of research needed to get Dartmoor's hill ponies better accommodated by the bureaucracies of the modern age.
We started asking you to drop any spare change into a collection bucket when visiting the pottery in the first week in August. And, my lovely, generous, moor-loving customers, you did. During the last week of the pottery's summer season, the target amount was reached - and the blue marker I was using to colour-in the thermometer as funds were raised, ran out! The final, target-reaching donation was given by the Roberts family, pictured here: these guys visit often and always left some change for the ponies, so it's lovely to give them the credit. That said, so many of you donated, some of you were extremely generous, and a heart-felt thank you goes out to you all.
This fund-raising exercise prompted me to think how the hill ponies have the dubious honour of bringing together two groups of people who love Dartmoor: the hill-farmers who own the ponies and keep them in spite of all financial obstacles, out of love for their traditions; the visitors to the moor, who enjoy those same traditions and the landscape created by the animals that graze here. And then I remember the grumpy farmer who shouts at lost walkers in his field and the warm glow disappears. However, it remains true that an essential piece of research can now get underway, one that would have fallen at the first funding hurdle if it had not been for visitors to Powdermills Pottery - thank you so very much, my lovely customers. Next time you are on the moor and you get the impression that a hill pony is smiling at you, it probably is.
14th October 2015 - the Wheel is In!
Those of you who follow the pottery on Facebook will know, the momentum wheel is in! It was dismantled into three pieces, squeezed, twisted and shimmied through the 18" wide caravan door - something I could not have managed without my hubbies extra muscle - then tilted, turned, slid and re-bolted into position. I can't quite believe it's in. I've sat on the bench and tested the head-room; I've given it a spin with my feet; but the real test will be when I throw the first pot, something that end-of-season activites have not yet allowed me to do.
The end of the summer season arrived in a rush last week - Harriet, who has been a tremendous help looking after cutomers this year, finished her season at Powdermills and has gone on to new employment pastures; the last throwing course of the year took place at the weekend; the shop/tea room began to operate Winter Opening Hours.
After a brief couple of weeks concentrating on spending time with my family (an activity that seems to get rarer and rarer as the summer season goes on) I shall be beginning work in my new workshop space, spinning pots out of clay for the shop's shelves. I'm so looking forward to it I could burst, and no doubt I will report progress in these pages.
24th September 2015 - On The Move
I have been dreaming for some time of a workshop that is warm, full of natural light, comfortable and cheerful. The garage I have used for years as the pottery workshop is cold and grumpy, so I have been searching for an alternative which fits the budget and allows me to stay at Powdermills. And, at last, I have a plan. With the help of local caravan dealer, Outdoor Experience, I am now the proud owner of a new workshop-on-wheels. Naturally, in order to make a caravan into a pottery studio, there is a need to change the interior furnishing: in recent days I have been merrily unsrewing caravanners' accoutrements to make space for pug-mill, jar-mill, clay store, etc. It's brought back all the childhood joy of making home in a Wendy House - I'm everso entertained that it still has a working shower and, of course, the ability to boil a kettle.
The biggest challenge will be setting up the momentum wheel. It's a substantial piece of furniture that was put together about 25 years ago and it certainly won't go through a caravan door. So, I am faced with dismantling it. That bit's easy, of course.... putting it back together again, however, is quite another matter. I thought I would amuse you by keeping a photo-diary of The Moving of The Wheel - and keep in mind that I may have to fall back on to using an electric wheel if I fail.
So, here's the first image: the space where once a sofa-come-bed once stood. Look at all of those windows allowing light to pour in.... do you think I should keep the curtains?
And what of the garage? Well, watch this space, for I have plans for that as well....
23rd May 2015 - Dartmoor Warriors
Summer is coming and that very British event, the country show, will now be found somewhere in the UK each weekend until the end of September. Having a Dartmoor address, summer starts with the Devon County Show and reaches a finale with Widecombe Fair. Yesterday, I found myself pleasantly wandering in an aimless way around the County Show. Such a fabulous place for ticking off entries in my I-Spy People book. Small child on fat pony in a ring with loud, horsey mother (tick); man in oily boiler suit hunched over a gleaming steam engine (tick); ruddy-cheeked farmer with side-burns and white coat leading prize ram (tick). Marvellous.
Whilst sucking on my ice cream, sauntering along a lane of stands, I was accosted by an enthusiastic twenty-something wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words 'Dartmoor Warrior' and a logo that looked like a horses head with a mohican. "Excuse Me!". I mentally flicked through my I-Spy book, wondering whether this person would be found under 'Sales Rep' or 'Fluffy Animal Charity'. "Could I ask if you would consider signing our petition'. Well, that's not very county show - does it involve tea and scones... or tweed?
The enthusiastic Warrior talked to me about the Bad Thing being done in the name of Ecology and with Taxpayer's Money. At first, I half-listened patiently in that English kind of way whilst looking for an opportunity to move on. But, by the third sentence, I was hooked, amazed, indignant, joining the Facebook Group and reaching for a pen.
It was explained to me how a Government Agency, which sets the number of cows, sheep and ponies allowed to graze on Dartmoor, has been decreasing the number for the past twenty years to allow a more diverse range of plants and animals to thrive on the moor. 'That's all right, I'm all for a bit of Ecology', thought I.
Then it was explained that the totals allowed have become so low that it is difficult to squeeze cows and ponies into such a small number and they have to compete with each other for a place. Now, all these animals are owned by farmers. So, Mr Farmer is going to give precedence to the ones that make money. The same Government Agency gives extra money to Mr Farmer for keeping cows. It suddenly sunk in where this was going, and it wasn't good.
The T-shirted twenty-something explained this all in the calm, detailed way that the English do when calamity is imminent. I've enjoyed ponies on Dartmoor since childhood, and now my kids do. I fully intend to bring my grandchildren to see them, and no graduate of Ecology in York is going to deprive me of that by creating this impossible position for the pony on Dartmoor. All this is funded by Taxpayers' Money and this Taxpayer will not let this be done in her name.
I willingly wrote my name and address onto a pre-printed postcard with the words 'It has been stated by our local Natural England representatives that there is no evidence that ponies are needed on the commons of Dartmoor. How dare your organisation threaten our culture and heritage! Can you personally intervene?' printed on one side. It was address to Mr James Cross, Chief Executive, Natural England, 4th Floor, Kings Pool, 1-2 Peaseholme Green, York, YO1 7PX.
Y'see what I did there? You were meandering through a Blog entry, then I leapt out at you wearing a Dartmoor Warrior T-shirt and asked 'Excuse me, could I ask if you could consider signing our petition?'. Shame I'm not twenty-something!
Please, please, please be bothered. Copy the words onto a piece of paper with your name and address at the top. Fold it into an envelope addressed to Mr Cross (remove mental image of a red Mr Man from your mind), put a stamp on it and drop it into post box. Pre-printed postcards available at the pottery. And T-shirts.
For more information: Dartmoor Warriors Facebook page.
20th May 2015 - Things That Go Bump in The Night
Driving home across the moor the other night, the dark skies of the north moor were lit with flares. The army was on night maneovres. As you can see, I attempted a photograph! The blob on the left is the radio mast at Princetown; the blob on the right is a flare, which. by the time I'd found my phone, selected Camera and worked out how to get to Night Mode, was nearly behind the hills. Impressive, isn't it?
It got me thinking how much goes on on the moor at night. Last year, when my lovely old dog was struggling towards the end, I often found myself driving across the moor in the small hours towards the vet in Tavistock. On one occasion, and I looked at the clock so I know if was 3.45am. I could see little white lights coming towards me on the road. Puzzled, I had to balance wanting to get to Tavy as fast as I could with slowing to avoid strange lit-up beings on the road. It was a bike race. At night. They were as surprised to see me as I them.
Last week, I crossed the moor in the wee hours, turned down the drive at Powdermills and caught reflectors of a vehicle pulled up on the verge. Who on earth was that at this time of night? As I got closer, the shape of a Land Rover emerged out of the blackness with an outsize aerial on top. The army. More night exercises. I did check they hadn't broken down before sailing past and heading inside to put the kettle on and sink into the sofa.
It makes me smile. Whilst tucked up under the duvet, inky blackness outside unless the moon is up and the sky clear, thinking that the moor sleeps, it's all going on out there. Not only the activities of badgers, rabbits, foxes et al, but all sorts of human activity afoot. Some of it, I am sure, I don't want to know about.
9th May 2015 - Ten Tors
I stumbled rather bleary eyed from the house to open the pottery this morning, to find three fatigue-clad soldiers waiting patiently outside the door. It was just the prompt I needed to remember that this was Ten Tors weekend, when thousands of teenagers are released in packs of six onto the wild and open moor to navigate their way around the moor for two days and one night. It's all organised by the Army, and it's an impressive example of how big events should be managed. These three were clearly hoping for a mid-morning re-fuel of scones, clotted cream, jam and tea. Happy to oblige.
Thankfully, for all those teenagers yomping miles between tors, the close mist of last night and the rain of this morning have cleared out as the day has gone on, so hopefully they may even be able to enjoy the experience!
Swallows Return - 26th April 2015
A little while ago in this Blog I listed some of the Indicators of Spring that had yet to happen at Powdermills. Well. in the past week I have been ticking my I-Spy Spring book furiously: the swallows have flown back and are busy setting up home for their new family in our wood-shed, we've had warm sunshine and April showers; but my very personal favourite is the return of our visitors from the Netherlands.
What made my first conversation with the occupants of a car sporting that noteable bright yellow Dutch numberplate extra lovely, is that they were the pottery's good friends, Inge and Peter. Inge and Peter usually visit Powdermills during Spring and Autumn - they mark the beginning and end of the busiest part of our year. It was lovely to chat and catch up on news.
I think I can officially say that Spring has sprung.
Harriet - 15th April 2015
Let me introduce you to a new member of the Powdermills team. This is Harriet, who joined the Pottery team at Easter. She will be here to greet you most mornings through to the end of September. As well as serving our customers in the pottery shop, or with a cream tea, Harriet is playing another very important role - she is providing me with the cover I need to disappear into my workshop and continue making pots during the summer season.
She has certainly brought some sunshine with her, let's hope it continues to shine on Powdermills this summer!
Contrasting Neighbours - 8th April 2015
This morning, I set off from the pottery with my bucket for the short walk down to the little stream that runs through the ruins of the Gunpowder Mills: we've had a run of dry days, which means the stream is running low, making it ideal for collecting river gravel, or growen as it's known hereabouts, from the river banks. Life feels good when I'm collecting materials from the moor: it's a moment of quiet solitude in a wonderful landscape, enjoying collecting things from the moor's earth and considering how to use them in my pot-making.
I was walking past the line of buildings, swinging my bucket, when I was tickled to see this at the opposite end to the pottery. What a contrast - low tech mud-pie making at one end using clay, water and fire; high tech satellite systems being created at the other. I'm here for the potter's store-cupboard that granite and nature provides, and Dartcom is here for the big skies allowing them to communicate with satellites orbiting around the planet.
I'm lucky with my neighbours - Spirit of Adventure and Dartcom - all living and working on site. We're all busy doing our own thing, safe in the knowledge that there is a spirit of co-operation and camaraderie at Powdermills. Won't be long and we'll be seeing more of our farming neighbours too, once the cows come up for summer grazing from the lowland farms.
I'm sitting at the laptop typing this as the evening begins and I've just remembered that, before I climb into my pyjamas for a bit of sofa-surfing, I must go and turn off the ball-mill in my workshop. It's been spinning for just about long enough for the growen I collected to be ground down and, tomorrow, I will prepare it as a glaze ingredient. An excuse to cross the yard and look for the moon. I love Dartmoor. Life is good.
Lesser-spotted Builders - 7th April 2015
This was the view through the pottery's shop door, across the yard to the workshop on this lovely, sunny Dartmoor day. This morning saw the long-awaited arrival of the lesser-spotted builder: six of them immediately roosted on the newly-erected scaffold around the workshop roof, began to whistle and set to work gathering materials and crafting them into a new structure - a bit like nesting birds!.
All Spring metaphors aside, it was good to see RM Builders start work making the workshop roof water-proof again. There are new plans afoot for this building once this work is complete, but more of that later.
I thought having the builders in may put my customers off, but I discovered today that there is nothing my visitors like more that to drink tea whilst watching others work and smile at the friendly banter drifting down from the roof. Certainly, everybody, whether replacing tin rooves, walking bridlepaths on the moor or taking tea is enjoying the weather. Long may it continue!
Teapots and Bird-houses - 6th April 2015
Well, Easter has arrived and certainly today, Bank Holiday Monday, was a sunny, clear, beautiful Spring-like day. But we haven't yet seen all of Spring's arrivals - Powdermills has not yet seen the return of swallows, or house martins; I haven't yet heard the cuckoo; the cows have not yet been brought up from the lowland farms into the newtakes alongside; nor have we yet had a car with a Netherlands number plate down the drive. My I-Spy Spring book is still missing a few ticks.
The pots from the kiln-firing are leaving the shop's shelves at quite a speedy rate. Not all, however, came out of the kiln in quite the wonderful state I would've liked and my customers have been enjoying rummaging through the seconds. However, I decided to keep a couple of the less-than-perfect teapots and hang them up under the pottery eaves today. It is often said that teapots hung this way make ideal nesting boxes - a hidey hole for nesting in with a spout perfect for draining out any rain that may blow in. I'll be interested to see if we get any takers: unfortunately, the wall that provides the most shelter from the prevailing wind and rain is also the one close to the shop and kitchen doors. Even such a potentially cosy home may not be attractive enough with quite so much human-activity going on nearby. Time will tell.
While we wait for more of the signs of Spring to be seen at Powdermills, plans are afoot to start making the next batch of pots with which to fill the kiln - more on that later. In the meantime, new work from all of the Makers who sell their work at Powdermills is arriving thick and fast and is adorning the shelves. I hope you can take the time to come up, see all these beautiful things, and enjoy a nice cup of tea.
22nd March 2015 - Finishing Touches
This week is all about getting all things in place, ready for the start of Summer hours, for from Saturday 28th the pottery will be open daily. Orders have been placed for freshly baked scones from Mr Ellis, clotted cream from Scorriton Farm, new work from all of the craft-makers who sell their work here, (including some newcomers to the Powdermills gang - photographer Richard Fox, artist Peter Allen, Dartmoor Soap Company) and books are arriving from a selection of Dartmoor authors: I've even bought a new broom for more efficient exterior sweeping.
For me, it means packing the kiln with the pots I've spun over the winter months and lighting the match. It's the time of year which ignites the pyromaniac in me and I love it! So, for the next week, if you see patches of the moor on fire, fret not: it's the annual swale by hill-farmers to create new grass growth; and, if you see a plume of smoke rising from Powdermills, it's only me stoking the pots up to temperature! The next Throwing Course takes place on April 25th: by then, the swallows and skylarks have usually returned to Powdermills: the next month is all about emerging from winter.
One last piece of news - I've been invited to talk about how I make pots this week in Totnes. If you would like to come, pop to The Seven Stars Ballroom at 7pm. All profits on ticket sales go to subsidise the contraception project for Dartmoor's ponies, so do come along if you can.
2nd February 2015 - Winter on the Wheel
When training in potting skills, at college and when working alongside other Master potters, I had a dream that, one day, I too would have a pottery studio. In my mind's eye it had vast windows which allowed the room to be bathed in natural light, was warmed by a team of radiators, providing the comfort for great, inspiring thoughts leading to great, inspired pot-design.
I caught a glimpse of myself today, as others would see me if popping into my working space at Powdermills. I decided to fetch the selfie-stick and share my winter world with you (my feet needed twenty minutes inside by the rayburn, anyhow). As you can see, it's not quite what I had in mind!
Outside, Dartmoor is looking fabulous: a frozen, thin blanket of snow and a blurry sun glowing softly through a milky sky. If I had that pottery studio with the big windows and radiators, what a fabulous, inspiring view I would have to suck in through my eyes and let flow through my (warm) fingers into pots. Something has to change!
Meanwhile, I must give my very grateful thanks to my friend, Charlotte, who generously gave me these fantastic padded, waterproof overalls, and to my son who has donated his no-longer-cool-enough-to-wear hat. Just need to source better socks.....
27th November 2014 - Think Stuart
When I first moved onto Dartmoor, an acquaintance asked if I could ride. Innocently replying, 'well, yes, but not since I was seventeen', I was quickly introduced to the eccentric owner of a crumbling Devon longhouse and small-holding which included, among its array of animals, a pony that needed exercising. And so began a routine of three of us riding horses across the moor together three or four times a week.
In return for the opportunity to ride, plus the tea and cereal provided when we returned, jobs were undertaken on the small-holding. Mostly pony-related tasks about which I had some clue, such as feeding the horses or mucking out stables. But every now and then I would be thrown at something that was a complete mystery to me.
Tonight, I have been reminded of gathering sheep in from the fields, up to the yard where shearing was to take place. A small army of amateurish helpers was gathered (usually including one or two bemused and be-goretexed walkers who had had the audacity to walk through the yard at just the wrong moment) to surround the spaced out sheep and herd them up to the yard. It never went well. The sheep would group together and begin travelling towards the gate but, just before passing through, would turn tail, find the weak point in the human net and run triumphantly to the furthest end of the field. There would be fraying tempers, shouting and swearing as gathering attempts were made countless times before success was achieved.
On one occasion a real farmer took pity on us and came along to help. His name is Stuart. Stuart has endless patience. The sheep behaved just as badly as usual: but this time, each time the human line was broken Stuart would quietly turn back, get back behind those sheep and start pushing them again without fuss, cuss or bother.
Stuart's stoic temperment begat a catch phrase among the horse-riding three. None of us were blessed with a naturally patient temperment. Tempers would fray when jobs did not go well and frustration would mount. Then one would say, 'Think Stuart'. All three would stand back, take a deep breath, count to ten then re-start the job attempting not to fuss, cuss or bother. We tried hard to learn patience.
So, why am I telling you this tale? This evening I have been weaving cow hair, trying to mimic the delicate, detailed craftsmanship of the person who made the White Horse Hill bracelet (see last entry). It has not gone well, frustration has mounted and the air has turned blue. It is ridiculously difficult and my craftsmanship is sadly and obviously lacking. Stuart has been constantly in my thoughts.
I have unpicked and re-woven the first section of the bracelet three times so far. I have had to move away and do something different - such as write a blog entry. I will soldier on tomorrow.... with Stuart's help ... Time will tell if daylight brings more success.
Photo - the only one I have of Diana Wynne, once of Headland Warren Farm
24th November 2014 - Inspired Making
I've found it difficult to write the Blog over the summer months, but now the pottery opening hours are reduced to weekends only and I am back amongst the clay bins and glaze buckets, I am finding I have so many things to share I must space out the entries, or the Blog will become a trilogy!
In the last couple of weeks, I have been to see the Bronze Age grave goods excavated recently from a burial cist at White Horse Hill, northern Dartmoor, more than once. They are currently on display at Plymouth Museum: if you have a chance to go before the exhibition closes mid-December, then I urge you to make the effort and get along there. It's difficult to describe how it feels to look at the personal possessions of a young woman who died on Dartmoor one late Summer 4,000 years ago: a bracelet, necklace and belt all delicately crafted from organic materials such as hair and leather, placed alongside her cremated remains in a skillfully-made basket made from rolled and sewn lime tree bark, wrapped in the pelt of a brown bear. Like many before them, no doubt, these beautiful things should have rotted away and be lost to us. It's a most miraculous archaeological find.
The thing I keep going back to gaze at, even though it has no clay in it at all, is the bracelet. So fine and delicate it belies the fact that it is made from a material so 'everyday' as cow hair. Woven within it are beads made from tin which make you say, as a six year old would, 'Oooo, shiny!'.
In recent days, I thought I would try to make a bracelet inspired by (that's craftsmen-speak for 'idea nicked from') the one found at White Horse Hill. Except I hope to make the studs from clay rather than tin, and I thought it would be fun to use hair not just from any old cow, but from the splendid hairy Highlands you may seen if you've driven up to the Warren House Inn from Moretonhampstead.
I'm very aware that the skill of the craftsperson 4,000 years ago surpasses mine by about a hundred fold, but I've already spent a couple of days working out the cow-hair weave, and this afternoon I've decided the best way to make the clay studs. So here goes, wish me luck!
Photo ©James Emmerson