23 July 2012

English Birds

 I've always loved an English bird...(nudge, nudge...wink, wink)!

21 July 2012

Old Friends

 Out of Doug's somewhat chaotic studio come exquisite pots!
 After a breakfast of tea, scones and clotted cream I stopped at Barrington Court, where Paul Jessop and Marion work. If you read their blog and think to yourself 'they must be lovely folks' I can assure you that this is more than true. They have a lovely spot and Barrington is stunning. Paul took me through some back doors to visit the amazing installation of clay figures put together by the artist Antony Gormley called "Field for the British Isles"Look it up! Photos were forbidden.
Last, but certainly not least, was a fine afternoon spent with Johnny and Lizzie Leach at their pottery in Muchelney. They have always been wonderfully welcoming to me and I have been visiting for many years. We swapped stories about our days with Ray Finch and told tales about all the potters who we know in common. I also crawled around the kiln their with Nick and Paul, the other members of the team there. My kiln owes a lot to the design of this mighty 3 chamber kiln and I think that I have a few new ideas to improve my own. "Potters of the world-ignite!" is Johnny's famous saying and he shouted it out to me as I drove off.
As Is obvious from my entire visit here, I am blessed to know so many good people here, and I still haven't seen them all yet. Just a week or so to go before I return to tropical Virginia, just as the sun is making an appearance here.Just in time for the Olympics.

13 July 2012

Two Sides of the Same Coin

    If you've read my last post about my 'Night in the Abbey' (and why wouldn't you?!) you will perhaps be able to make sense of today's title when I tell you that last night I was just as privileged to spend the evening in a shed drinking  cider with my old friend Ken and his cousin Vernon. Vernon is probably one of the last of the 'market gardeners' here in the Vale of Evesham. This fertile valley was home to country folk, usually entire families, who intensively gardened their smallholdings, growing produce that went to market and usually ended up in London or other big cities. Ken tells of driving a horse and dray to Pershore several times a week with fresh runner beans, potatoes, peas...truthfully, any good veg or fruit that would thrive here. Plums and apples, pears and soft fruits also prospered. Nowadays most of the produce is imported from as far away as South America(!) and, while the flavors have been bred out, locals can't compete with the price. It's the age old story that I know too well in America...beautiful to look at, but little taste when eaten.
    Anyway, back to our boys' night out. Vernon has a funky old hut out back of his place, dark and dirty, low ceilinged and wonderful. All around are ancient whiskey and rum barrels that are mostly filled with very alcoholic cider made from apples and sometimes pears. Then there are the racing pigeons, the dogs, and vegetables everywhere.    
    These two men lived a life that I find hard to fathom, sometimes seeming feudal or medieval, but it is another of the great privileges of my life to know and be accepted by these hard working country men. Vernon has always made huge quantities of cider to supplement his income...it used to be that by law he could 'only' make 3,000 gallons...now it is a mere 1,500 gallons. That doesn't mean that there aren't other barrels hidden in nooks and crannies about the property that the taxman doesn't know about! The cider is lethal and they take great joy in getting me completely 'gutted' as they say over here! I think that I must be quite an exotic visitor to this place where people seldom leave the county in their lifetimes, and then it is somewhat reluctantly.
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    I always ask them about the early days of farming, of life during the war when bombs fell nearby and food was scarce. It is pure pleasure to listen to the music in their voices as they name off the old varieties of plants that they know so well. Sadly, this computer won't let me upload the short films that took...I will revisit this when I get home. The music of the Gloucestershire folks language is fantastic!
    Oh, my aching head...

11 July 2012

Before and After

All play and no work makes this potter mighty restless, so yesterday Toff and I rebuilt one of the bag walls in his salt kiln...do you think we should have waited?!

09 July 2012

Our Humble Abode!

I don't have much time for writing today, but I had to give you a few photos of the place that Hannah, Doug and I stayed Saturday night After the show ended at Hatfield House we boarded the train for London, where we stayed with the Canon and his wife at WESTMINSTER ABBEY!!! Big Ben tolling on the quarter hour, Houses of Parliament out the bedroom window a great meal and conversation AND a private tour of this outrageous architectural wonder in the evening with someone putting the pipe organ through its paces! it was hard to believe that it wasn't a dream. Thanks, Hannah for getting me the invite and special thanks to Bob and Dixie for the opportunity of a lifetime!

07 July 2012

That's All For Now, Folks...

#6...the last for now...

The early history of the pottery at Winchcombe is a bit murky, but it is generally accepted that there had been a pottery on the site for 100 years or so before Michael Cardew came along. Like most potteries of it's time it was located on a good seam of clay and had the added bonus of the River Isbourne running along the back of the property which made washing the impurities out of the clay much easier. The production at what was known then as the Greet Pottery were simple earthenware pots made for the local farms and dairies and at one time employed up to 10 men, who also produced brick and chimney pots.
    The pottery had closed in 1914 and when Cardew left the pottery at St. Ives in 1926 he leased the old place for 50 pence a week and began to produce 'domestic ware', that is, pots for the kitchen and the table. Ray came along a few years later and joined the team that included Sidney Tustin and Elijah Comfort. Elijah was the one true link back to the the Greet Pottery (often called Beckett's)  as he had worked there for years until it closed. When it closed he went to 'work on the land' and when Michael arrived he hired him back as his principal thrower. Sidney was a young local lad who spent the next 51 years making a good deal of the smaller pieces while Elijah the bigger ones and Cardew anything that struck his fancy. Cardew was a restless soul and he eventually left for Cornwall and then Africa. Ray first managed the pottery for him and later he and his wife Muriel purchased the business and the pottery. Ray's constant presence and steady vision guided the pottery for more than 70 years and it was only this winter that he passed away.
    When I arrived at Winchcombe in 1978 you could purchase over 70 different items from the production line (referred to as standard ware) as well as many of the 'one -offs' that were mostly made by Ray. Cider jars and huge chargers, HWBs (hot water bottles with a threaded stopper) large, garden party sized teapots and lots of commissioned work as well. Many a new born child or newly wedded couple would have received a pot inscribed with names and dates written in his beautiful calligraphy. While I sit at the computer writing this the platter he gave to Toff and Georgie when they were married is on the wall above me.
    Each member of the team had their own areas of specialization and the work was designed to fit together and represent the pottery as a whole rather than as the work of individuals. With a few exceptions, everyone stamped their wares with the WP stamp... the English version of the unknown craftsman?! The most prolific potter at that time was Eddie Hopkins...I have a series of slides that I took as, over the course of a week he made, trimmed and handled 500 small mugs! They were beautifully thrown and when loading them in the biscuit kiln I would stack them 7 high. You can't imagine how uniform in height each of those stacks would be. I was forever in awe of this kind of skill and although I think I make a pretty good pot myself  I never could imagine attaining that level of ability.
   On the lower rungs of the team ladder, Nori would make thousands of mini bowls and dishes which ended up at Crank's in London, a vegetarian restaurant that served everything in Winchcombe pots. Many of the pots intended for them were made to specific sizes to control the portions. At the height of a lunch-time rush there was always a staff member or two whose job it was to look out for people slipping a little pot or two into their pocket or handbag!
    Cranks was conveniently located next to the Craft Potters shop on Marshall Street in London and it was there that Ray had a solo exhibition just as I was preparing to return to the US. He had the very first exhibition there when they first opened the doors in 1960 and this was to be a celebration of the shop's first 20 years. He had been putting aside the best pots from a couple of years worth of firings and when we arrived outside the gallery we discovered a queue of people stretching across the front window and around the corner! I've never seen anything like it. It really was a great time to be making pots and there was perhaps a greater appreciation then than now for handmade work. As the doors opened people rushed inside and in a short while every pot in the show had been red dotted. We were so pleased for Ray, because we had urged him to add a bit more to his prices (not an easy thing to do) and he was sure that they were too costly for anyone to buy. 
    I left England shortly after that and within a years' time I had made my way to Fredericksburg Virginia, where I have worked ever since. Maybe I'll find the time to write about those days, but I don't believe that I ever lived such a magical existence as I did in those two years, surrounded by the pastoral beauty of the Cotswold's, immersed in a great tradition of handcraft and befriended by some of the most interesting and welcoming people I've ever known. This my 30th visit to this island nation, and as long as they allow me, I will return again and again.

 Thanks again for reading. We now return you to our regularly scheduled program...

06 July 2012


#5 is a series

Still figuring out life 40 years on...
Ray picked me up from the coach station when I returned to England a few months later and drove me to the pottery. He told me that a few things had changed in the interval...some bloke by the name of Toff Milway had been given a job...and the caravan I was to stay in...and he'd finished off the salt kiln that I thought that I would be working on. This did not endear the man to me, and when we arrived, although it was late on a dark Saturday evening, Mr. Milway was at work in the workshop and Ray took me in to introduce us. My memory was that he barely grunted a greeting and kept on working. I was quite put off the man..little did I know that I was being put to a test that I think it's safe to say I eventually passed and I never would have guessed that this man would become my best friend. My next memory is of Toff presenting me with Stephen Potter's book 'One-Upmanship'. This is a  tongue-in-cheek novel about the rules of engagement for an English gentleman in the game of life. The book set the tone for my entire stay at the Pottery...it was not a place for the faint of heart! You never knew when the next prank was to be pulled or when someone was laying some sort of verbal trap. I don't think that the British really believe that we Americans have much of a sense of humor about ourselves (I'm inclined to agree in general), but I've never been able to take myself too seriously and this served me well. One of the earliest excitements occurred in the wee hours of the morning of my 24th birthday. 6AM found me awoken from my deep sleep to the sound of gunshots...once I'd gotten off of the floor, sans glasses and clothes, I peeked out the window to see my mates standing just a few feet from me firing a 24 gun salute over the top of my caravan. Between volleys they were laughing like madmen! This led to many other birthday pranks that are well worth the telling, but must be saved for another time. Here's a teaser...chickens and fireworks, exploding cigars and electrical shocks all played a part!
    My job was a simple one really; I was to do whatever needed doing to support the team of throwers. In addition to making tea, which I wrote about earlier, I stacked the wood for the kiln, waxed and glazed pots, loaded and unloaded kilns, washed kiln shelves (140 for each firing which we did every 2-3 weeks) and sold pots from the showroom. One of my favorite times was firing...the workday ended at 4:30pm and everyone went home including Ray, who would nip across to the house to have his evening tea (which, of course means a light meal when it's mentioned at this time...they say these things just to confuse us!) and leave me in charge. This was the beginning of my love of wood firing and as you know it remains a passion of mine.
    When Ray returned he often brought with him a couple of Newcastle Brown Ales and would then direct me as I alternately stoked each firebox through to the end of the firing. There was plenty of time to talk about anything under the sun, and it was in these very quiet and precious hours that I grew to know him. Ray had a strong personal ethos and faith and this informed his ideas about the world. I once asked him what the biggest change he had seen during his years there. I suppose in my over earnest way I was expecting some deep philosophical response. Instead, he commented on the difference in the view of the hills that rise above Winchcombe. When he first arrived there all the roads were paved with crushed Cotswold stone, beautiful yellow lines crisscrossing the escarpment, but eventually they were paved with tarmac and to his eye, the black lines they made just didn't please. He was a true countryman, an avid gardener and ever the artist. a word I am sure he would reject as being too pretentious. He preferred the word useful to describe his work rather than functional for much the same reason.
    He once said that he saw his life's work as refining the ideas that he had absorbed from his mentor, Michael Cardew, but I reject this as an oversimplification. He was an innovator, a compulsive tester and thinker and he contributed mightily to  the encyclopedia of 20th century pottery knowledge.
    It was exciting to work alongside he and Toff as they began  figuring out salt glazing. I learned so much listening to the conversation as we examined the results of those early firings, both the failures and successes. He and Toff had a special bond and it was my great privilege to be included. Ray's son Mike had just begun to manage the business as Ray was reaching his 'official' retirement age ( he made pots for 30 more years!) and he wouldn't let us spend time on the salt kiln during business hours, so we 3 were often together in the evenings and week-ends, a total immersion for me that hasn't really lessened all these years later.
    This was the last great heyday of the pottery...there was a huge demand for the work and we were often packing pots for London or Macy's in New York City or to be sent to the continent and there was a steady stream of visitor's to buy pots directly. Ray believed that pots should be affordable to most anyone and as a result the pots remain accessible in a way that contemporary potters, usually working alone, can't do. He held that idea as sancrosanct and even as the world around him changed drastically, he never wavered. 


Georgie's garden
Rogue sheep in the orchard

Ancient thatch
I'll do my best to wind up this trip down memory lane tomorrow. If you're still hanging in there, thanks.I don't usually read overlong blogs myself, but this has been nothing but pleasure for me. I've meant to do this for a long time.

05 July 2012

Joining the Team

4th in a series...

I worked at the Guildhouse for about 6 months, but it was far from a taxing job, teaching a few classes a week and with few other responsiblities I had more idle time on my hands than I would have preferred. I went for long walks over the hills, scattering sheep before me where ever I rambled. I read a lot. And once a week I would hitchhike to Cheltenham to visit the library for more books. It was a happy coincidence that Winchcombe was on the way and I always stopped for a visit.
    At that time the team included Xavier Toubes and Nina Davis as well as Eddie, Nori, Mike and Ray. They were very welcoming and it wasn't long before I was joining Xavier on long walks and accompanying Eddie to the pubs. Eddie Hopkins was a local Gloucestershire man with an infectious staccato laugh and an enormous gift for making pottery. Beautifully thrown pots just poured from his hands, all the while talking a blue streak and listening to the cricket match on the wireless.On my first visit he invited me out to his favorite pub(s) and he agreed to come pick me up at the Guildhouse. When he arrived he was met at the door by Mary, who could be a most imposing woman and she had made it quite clear to me that she did not approve of alcohol and pubs. She must have given Ed the hairy eyeball and put the fear of God in him, because ever after that I had to meet him down in the village to get my ride! I will have to write more about him one day as he was an amazing character.
    I knew from my first visit that this was the place for me. Here was a small group of talented artisans making simple, straightforward useful pots covered in rich glazes or blushed with the warm tones of the wood firing. After spending time at 3 different universities in the U.S. I had no idea where my future lie, and this place made complete sense to me. These folks got up every day, went into the workshop and made beautiful things...by the thousands! Maybe it was my own working class background, but the idea of pottery as a job was unknown to me at the time and I was sure that this would be my own path forward. Call it an epiphany if you'd like, but I just KNEW that I had to work there...
    Of course, that didn't mean that Ray knew and, in fact, in those days I was aware that almost daily the pottery was getting requests from people all over the world for a job, and I found this rather discouraging. The last thing that I wanted to do was to bother the old boy with yet another earnest young man's request,and yet, how could I let the chance go by to at least let him know that I, too, had an interest?!
    So one day I resolved to visit and ask him. As it happens, Ray wasn't in the workshop where I expected, but instead he was out in the yard spraying glaze on some of his larger chargers (that's a platter for those who might not know). It's important to state that Ray was a man of few words and a slow, thoughtful talker. I am usually unnerved by people like that; I assume that they are thinking deep thoughts and that my endless chatter must be an annoyance. And small talk can be painful in that circumstance for me. It was an excruciating visit, trying to keep a conversation going all the while trying to get the words out of my mouth that I had rehearsed so many times...
    It went something like this..." Ray, I know that you are forever having to disappoint people who ask for a job and I don't want to put you in that same position, but I need to at least raise my hand up and make you aware that if ever there was position available and I could be of use, I would dearly love to join the team" Whew...finally I'd said it and I remember feeling a little weak from the effort.
    He then took just as long of a time to answer, talking around the question at first, telling me that his plan was actually to reduce the size of the team a bit as he thought that they might have grown too big and while he appreciated my interest, he didn't think that it would be possible. I was crushed, although I did my best not to show it and soon slunk away to lick my wounds. But, at least I had got the courage up to ask, and that felt alright.
   A few months later I was preparing to return to the States, having no idea what was coming next. Going back to school made no sense to me and while I now knew what a good pot looked like and the value that they can add to everyday living, I was a poor thrower at best, so, what to do? I returned to Winchcombe for what I thought would be the last time. I had arranged to visit with a group of handicapped students I was teaching and by that time I was permitted to lead them around the pottery myself. I remember this next bit as clearly as if it was yesterday...I was standing at the top of the precarious stairs that lead to the showroom and Ray appeared at the bottom. Would I come and see him before I left, he asked? How nice, I thought, he wants to say good-bye. When I found him later we went through the same awkward dance as the day I had asked him...he dithered away, saying, " well, you know that Nina has left and Xavier is about to leave and this would mean that Nori would have to take a step backwards on the team and that didn't seem fair so what did I think about returning in the fall to join them!!!!! I would stay in the caravan (trailer) that Xavier had lived in and would receive the princely sum of £15 a week (at that time it was about $30.00 American). Unbelievable! Oh joy! Oh rapture! Flippin' heck! Of course, I couldn't really let all this out and, of course I said yes and anyone reading this knows where it all has led. I did return to the States to make some extra money and came back to the pottery a few months later.
That's all for today, kiddies, I'll be back with another installment tomorrow...

04 July 2012

The Guildhouse

Part III in a Series.

    The Guildhouse was the brainchild of Mary Osborne and her story is well worth telling. Mary worked in the east end of London as a social worker before WW2...this was a very impoverished area and it was here that she encountered Mahatma Gandhi who became a friend and inspiration.
    When the Germans started bombing London during the war, a lot of people, particularly women and children, were moved out of the city to rural villages all over the west of England and this is how Mary ended up in the village of Laverton in the Cotswolds. Many of the children were separated from their families and they were soon visiting  her cottage, drawn by her kind and sparkly demeanor and, no doubt, some of her more 'eccentric' ways. Mary was a spinner and a weaver as was Gandhi, who quite famously was pictured spinning himself. It was fortuitous for her to come to this place, as the Cotswolds have long been known for the sheep that populate the landscape.
    During the war, it was difficult to get even the most ordinary goods, and eventually Mary began to take some of those children for walks through the hills, gathering the little bits and pieces of wool that stuck to the fences and trees as sheep would rub against them. They would then return to her little cottage to spin the wool and later knit hats, scarves and gloves, making something for almost nothing! She became aware of the comfort that this exercise gave the children, and as time went by she developed the idea of creating a place that employed craft instruction to help people, both young and old, to work with their hands and find some peace in their life. This idea was her interpretation of the ashrams in India that Gandhi had spoken of.
    It's too long of a story to tell here, but by sheer force of will and single minded determination, she was able to raise money, engage an international volunteer group as well as local people, and finally built the place that  eventually brought me to England. To raise funds she would take the train to London with her spinning wheel and set up outside the Houses of Parliament asking for donations. In fact, she prevailed on anyone she could for help, having that single minded belief that visionaries often share.
    The building itself is extraordinary, set high up the escarpment and looking out across the village of Stanton and the fertile valley that lies between it and the Malvern hills. It was built of the local Cotswold stone, with a 'great hall' that had huge gray paving stones recovered from the streets of London and a very large hearth that dominated the room. Mary often held spinning classes with a  group of ladies arranged in a semi-circle in front of a blazing fire. This is an indelible memory for me...the gentle clatter of the spinning wheels mixing with the lilt of English voices was a wondrous sight and sound. There were 100 spinning wheels throughout the place, one of which was a gift from Gandhi himself!
    The kitchen was my favorite spot (of course!) and it was there that Marta Frei presided. While I had a lot of admiration for Mary, it was Martha who I grew to adore. Martha fled Switzerland during the war and spent the rest of her days taking care of others, as a cook and housekeeper and caregiver. She was an exceedingly quirky woman, driven to extremes of frugality as a result of the hardships she had endured and she fell under the influence of a charismatic man who 'channeled' a spirit who supposedly came from the lost city of Atlantis! This fellow led a small group who believed that they were reincarnated from that Atlantis, and that all the former inhabitants were gathering in England to wait for it to rise again, which would be precipitated by cataclysms around the world but eventually they would lead the world forward to be a better, more peaceful place. We often sat in the kitchen late in the dim light of the evening by the Aga stove , drinking lime tea or black tea brewed from the teabags used during the day. I'm pretty certain that she thought that I was one also an Atlantean, which I took as a great compliment! As you can imagine, few people would listen to her rather unusual take on life, but this was a most sympathetic and kind woman and I was always happy to listen. I was greatly drawn to her kind and gentle nature and count myself fortunate to have known her.
    I'll relate one story more and then wrap up today's chapter...Milk was delivered at the bottom of the hill, and I'm happy to report that it still is in these parts. The solid glass bottles are sealed with a foil top, and the little robins here would peck through the top to drink the cream! To prevent this most folks put out empty yogurt containers for the milkman to cover, but Martha didn't. Instead she would scamper down the hill several times a day to check if the milk had arrived. I asked her once why she didn't do as everyone else did. She replied that she didn't think it was fair play...if the birds got there first than they should get their just reward. She was a very special and dear friend to me.
    As I mentioned in a previous post, the Guildhouse was full of Winchcombe pots and it is there that  first learned of the place. I'll tell that tale tomorrow. Thanks for reading.

03 July 2012

Well, How Did I Get Here...? *

I spent that autumn working for a rock n' roll producer friend of mine to earn some cash and the following January I bid a teary farewell to my friends and family and boarded Freddy Laker's cheap flight to Gatwick Airport.I don't remeber too much about the journey except that I shared an aisle and food with a couple of nuns and an American on the coach trip into London kept pronouncing the river Thames with a soft 'th' rather than 'Tems' as it should be. What I do remember is walking up the hill on a cold, dark and snowy evening to this incredible building where I was to live for the next 6 months, feeling rather like I was playing a part in a fairy tale!
The Guildhouse was a new building, but constructed from Cotswold stone that had been gathered from 7 ancient and decrepit buildings and built in the same architectural style as the rest of the area. Cotswold stone is a rich, warm yellow sandstone that, even during the gray winter weather seemed to glow from within. I was met by the two white-haired ladies of the house, Mary and Martha (how biblical!), and given dinner in front of the giant hearth situated in the great hall. It was an incredible introduction to a place that still seems to exist in an earlier time.
Stay tuned for tomorrow's next thrilling installment of 'As the Wheel Turns!'

Completely unrelated, here are a few photos of my visit to Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago.
Edinburgh Castle

View from the castle with the Firth of Forth in the distance (or is that Forth of Firth?!)

An imposing setting for a castle!
* thanks and a tip o' the hat to David Byrne and the Talking Heads for today's title...
P.S. don't be alarmed by yesterday's lily white tea set...I took a photo of every tea that I was served on my journey! And yes, Hollis, my arch enemy parry and I are doing pitched battle daily!

02 July 2012

Home Alone...

It's been just about three weeks now since I left for the U.K. I had two incredible weeks in Scotland including a visit with one of my oldest friends, Jan, and my newest, Hannah and Paul.
I can't  truely describe what it means to return to the Cotswolds, where I write today. In some ways, this is where my life began...I lived here in this picture postcard place in the years 1978 and 1979, working first at the Guildhouse where I taught pottery to senior citizens and handicapped children. Although I didn't know much, if anything, about the Winchcombe Pottery then, the Guildhouse was full of their glorious pots. Everything we ate from, cooked in, served in was made there and it wasn't long before I made my way there for the first of many visits until I wore Ray Finch down and was offered a job. The rest, as we say, is history, and 35 years later it is a place that I still hold very dear.
    The pottery was a vibrant place then...in addition to Ray and his son Mike, the team was full of brilliant makers and serious characters! Eddie Hopkins, Toff Milway and Nori DiMontigny all added hugely to my knowledge of pottery making and the world in general. There were other craftsmen working on the site who made life (especially tea time) even more quirky and exciting. Steve Marchant has been turning wood since I was born and watching Will Hall's exquisite furniture making skills was a real treat.
    If you were to ask any of these lads what my most important job was they would say that it was to make the tea. Every day at precisely 10AM and 3PM I was to provide tea for 9 or more hard working people and any visitors who happened by at that time. It was a ritual that caused me great stress at the start...imagine me, a very hairy young American making tea for an army of Brits! Everyone had their own special mug (of course) and each wanted their tea a particular way...the first cup poured or the last cup poured or diluted by half or one or two sugars...I needed a flow chart to keep it all straight and i could repeat the entire thing even today... that's how serious I had to take it. We had precisely 15 minutes before everyone jumped up and returned to their work, so it was a major crime if I ever I was late  ringing the bell to summon everyone to the tea room.

I will remain here at Toff and Georgie Milway's Conderton Pottery for the remainder of my stay and it seems a good time to record more of these reminiscences. I am in charge of the garden, the shop, the cats and the parrot this week while T and G are in holiday, so it seems like a perfect time. I will also give a little review of my travels since my arrival. It seems a great indulgence to have time to look back. I hope that you'll find it of interest...