Coals to Newcastle

Here we are building a kiln in Stoke on Trent! What could be more strange than for us to travel from Australia to Stoke-on-Trent to build a kiln?

The staff and students at the Clay College are all really great and we all get along really well. We are billeted with staff member Richard Healey and his wife Lucy – who is a chef. WOW! Great food all week. A really lovely couple. It must have been a bit stressful for them to have a couple of total strangers in their home for 2 weeks, but we got along very well. We had a great time. I hope that they have recovered.

They live in an amazing old house called the ‘Flax Mill’, that has its own little stream and pond, on a site that goes back well before the English civil war. A decisive battle was fought right here on these grounds. There is a monument in the adjoining paddock. This is some kilometres out of Stoke, and is the site of our kiln building experiment. Lucy is setting up a cooking school on site and Richard has his studio, where he makes blue on White contemporary hand painted and thrown porcelain. Beautiful work. If I lived locally, I’d be enrolling.

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We spend a week in the construction phase, mostly laying bricks, Then I give a master class on kiln building at the college on the Saturday. This is open to the public and is fully subscribed – which is pleasing.

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All the students flat-out, hard at work bricklaying!

Janine and I spend the Sunday at work on the kiln by ourselves, cleaning up, but most importantly doing a lot of the welding on the steel bracing that will be necessary to completely support the kiln structure while it expands during firing. It’s a lot easier to do this welding while there isn’t anyone else around.

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Janine and Grace volunteer to get into the firebox and throat area of the kiln to wash the floor of the kiln with alumina kiln wash. A shitty job. Thank you!

The packing and firing goes pretty much to my expectations, although Janine did overhear some chat about people expecting to have to fire for 40 hours. When I was asked what to expect in terms of firing time I said that I expected to fire for around 12 to 14 hours. If everything goes well. However I don’t know anything about this wood that we have to use for this firing. So it might take a little longer. As it turned out the firing lasted for 13.5 hours and the results were good for a first firing. I left them with the recommendation that they should plan to fire the kiln again a second time, as soon as possible, without me being there to advise, while it is all still fresh in their minds.

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The firing can be very clean when using a down-draught style firebox like the Bourry box that I have developed to a such a sophisticated standard. When it comes to side stoking the main chamber, there is inevitably going to be some smoke and this needs to be managed carefully. However, when the time comes to drop the last remaining butt ends of the sticks into the firebox. There is a brief moment of quite intense smoke as the amount of fuel outweighs the available oxygen for about 1 or 2 minutes.

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While we are in Stoke, we make time to go to the local Museums. First we take the tour of the Gladstone pottery Museum, which was good, an excellent experience. The working conditions of their employees must have been horrific back in it’s hey-

day. A time long before any thoughts of OH&S in the minds of the factory owners and government.

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For me, brought up in Australia, it’s really interesting to see actual bottle kilns. There weren’t that many of therm here in Australia. I am of an age where i was able to see the old ‘Fowlers’ Pottery in Marrickville in Sydney, before it was torn down. I ended up with a truck load of dense fire bricks from their old bottle kiln and they are now incorporated into my wood fired kilns here.

We also spent a long time in the city museum where we saw a really extensive ceramics collection. Amazingly, it is here that we finally find a collection of pots made in the Plymouth Pottery Works by William Cookworthy from the Tregonning Hill, Sericitic, weathered granite.

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This is the best collection of Cookworthy work that I have seen. The V&A has nothing and the British Museum, only has one piece.

After the unpacking of the kiln, I get a nice little wood fired cup out of the firebox area.

A sweet little thing to remind us of our working holiday trip.

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Moon jars and indigo in the UK

We fly into Heathrow. I can’t just get off the plane all jet-lagged and hire a car and drive off, so we stay in London for a couple of days to acclimatise a little. One of the first things we do is to go to the British Museum and the V&A.

There is such a lot to see a day isn’t enough, and although we have been here before there are still a few surprises. Like this lovely pot. We’ve only just left Korea and here we are back in it’s orbit.

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Out in the street we see that London is a decade ahead of Sydney in regard to electric vehicle acceptance and support facilities.

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The next day we head to the Portobello road markets and what do we come across, but more indigo.  What with Moon jars and indigo, we can’t seem to leave our Asian adventures behind. This time it’s Chinese silk, dyed using Indian indigo, by a Nepali minority hill tribe, in a remote area in the mountains of Nepal. The lady is quite sweet, she tells us that she is here working and studying and travels home each year to visit family and bring with her new stock that here family have been making and dying at home. I choose the shiburi knotted, indigo dyed silk scarf on the far right.

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We eventually leave London and drive our hire car, which by the way is a ‘Smart for 4’ car and turns out to be not so smart and quite inefficient on fuel. I’m not impressed with it. Our 13 year old Mitsubishi Colt at home is more fuel efficient while being a bit more powerful. The original Smart for 4 was a rebadged Colt. The new model Smart for 4 is now built in Eastern Europe somewhere. We chose to buy the Colt instead of the Smart car, as the Colt was half the price. No need to pay for an expensive badge.

We head for Stoke on Trent to build our kiln, but on the way we stop off at the ‘Earth and Fire’ potters market, as it is on our way. We get to catch up with so many of our English potter friends, as they are all there selling their work. The standard of work that we see there is really high. We spend  the best part of  2 days there, meeting, catching up, chatting. We even buy a few small things.

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This is the ‘Gin Fairy’, I’m guessing that she turns up at about 4 pm for this potter and rescues her? I really don’t know. I just made that up. It’s a lovely image, so we bought it. It now hangs in our kitchen, but the icon hasn’t managed to work its magic yet on this side of the other hemisphere.

We turn up for work on the Monday morning at the ‘Clay College’ in Stoke. We introduce ourselves, show a short video and a presentation of other kiln building jobs like this that we are about to build.

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The Clay College is a brand new start-up pottery training college located in the grounds of the Middleport pottery factory grounds. The building is a grade 2 listed nation trust building that the Prince of Wales Trust has refurbished. The school is funded entirely by charitable donations and closely associated with the ‘Adopt-a-potter’ charity founded by Lisa hammond, who was recently knighted, if that is the correct term, with an MBE? So maybe she is now possibly Dame Lisa? I’m not too sure. I’m sure that someone will correct me. She has worked very hard to raise funds for the practical training of potters.

England didn’t have any full time practical hands-on pottery courses left. All the ceramics courses had been closed or converted into ceramic design courses over the past decade or two, so Lisa decided to start the ‘adopt-a-potter’ charity to fund apprenticeships with professional potters. That appears to have been very successful. So this is the next step.  Start your own Art School! I’m really pleased and honoured to be associated with the school and charity. I really believe in what they are attempting to do there.

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Old Middleport Pottery bottle kiln in the grounds of the Clay College.

To Korea

We start to think about what else we want to do in our last day in Kyoto. We fly out to Korea tomorrow and then on to London. We have a job in Stoke on Trent to build one of our small-scale, fuel-efficient wood fired kilns for the new ‘Clay College’ that has started up there this year.

I decide that I will go back to the Aizenkobo indigo workshop and buy a jacket. I have been carrying the image with me of trying it on now for the whole time that we have been in Japan, as it was the first place that we visited when we arrived. I have chosen a hand dyed indigo, hand-woven, hand-made, tight, dense, cotton fabric, jacket. It’s more expensive than I have ever paid for any piece of clothing in my life at $300, but you only live once, so here goes. I really like it.

We arrive in Seoul and the first thing that I notice are the carpet tiles in the entrance area at the airport. I’ve been here a few times before, but I haven’t noticed them previously. Imitation indigo nylon carpet floor tiles. It’s the perfect segue from our indigo adventures in Japan to Korea.

 

Miss Kang has given us a present of some special fermented tea from Jeju. Korea has an island to its south called Jeju island. It is a volcanic island and therefore the weathered basalt soils are very rich and fertile. It has elevated slopes that are just right for the cultivation of tea. Being south of the peninsula, it is sub tropical and warmer than the mainland, but being quite elevated, the higher slopes are cooler at night. Apparently it makes for an ideal tea growing climate. There is one particularly large tea plantation that draws all the tourists that visit the island. They grow several cultivars, each one specially suited  to each specific soil type, aspect and micro climate.

Miss Kang has chosen for us a particular blend of fermented black tea, that is very mild and low in caffeine. It is processed, fermented, dried, but then re-moistened with steam and pressed into little bricks, then re-fermented and aged up to 100 days in what is described as a Post-fermentation process. Each finished little brick is individually  wrapped and the whole lot packaged in tray that is then packaged a very impressive presentation box.

 

 

It’s really beautifully done! The packaging is certainly very impressive and the flavour of the tea is very mild, low in acid with a distinctive aroma. I haven’t come across anything quite like it before.

The little individually paper wrapped tea leaf brick is impressive. I like it. It swells up into a pot full of fully formed tea leaves. I have read about ‘brick’ tea in the past, but never actually come across it. It’s a particularly asian thing. As I understand it, ‘Brick’ tea, or blocks of pressed, dried tea leaves were used as a form of currency in China and also throughout parts of Southeast Asia in time past. It was light to carry, easily stacked and packed and could even be crumbled apart and eaten to get a bit of a buzz to keep the labourers going on long treks. There is a rather long listing on wikipedia about brick tea, particularly in regard to the tea trade from China up into Tibet.

I thought that I had better enlighten myself, so I downloaded this quote from Wikipedia;

Ya’an is the main market for a special kind of tea which is grown in this part of the country and exported in very large quantities to Tibet via Kangding and over the caravan routes through Batang (Paan) and Teko. Although the Chinese regard it as an inferior product, it is greatly esteemed by the Tibetans for its powerful flavor, which harmonizes particularly well with that of the rancid yak’s butter which they mix with their tea. Brick tea comprises not only what we call tea leaves, but also the coarser leaves and some of the twigs of the shrub, as well as the leaves and fruit of other plants and trees (the alder, for instance). This amalgam is steamed, weighed, and compressed into hard bricks, which are packed up in coarse matting in subunits of four. These rectangular parcels weigh between twenty-two and twenty-six pounds—the quality of the tea makes a slight difference to the weight—and are carried to Kangting by coolies. A long string of them, moving slowly under their monstrous burdens of tea, was a familiar sight along the road I followed.[2]

The brick tea is packaged [in Kangting] either in the courtyard or in the street outside, and it is quite a complicated process. When the coolies bring it in from Ya’an, it has to be repacked before being consigned upcountry, for in a coolie’s load the standard subunit is four bricks lashed together, and these would be the wrong shape for animal transport. So they are first cut in two, then put together in lots of three, leaving what they call a gam, which is half a yak’s load. Tea which is going to be consumed reasonably soon is done up in a loose case of matting, but the gams, which are bound for remote destinations, perhaps even for Lhasa, are sewn up in yakhides. These hides are not tanned but are merely dried in the sun; when used for packing they are soaked in water to make them pliable and then sewn very tightly around the load, and when they dry out again the tea is enclosed in a container which is as hard as wood and is completely unaffected by rain, hard knocks, or immersion in streams. The Tibetan packers are a special guild of craftsmen, readily identifiable by the powerful aroma of untanned leather which they exude.

Another prominent guild in Kangting is that of the women tea coolies who shift the stuff from the warehouses to the inns where the caravans start. They have a monopoly on this work and the cheerful gangs of girls are a picturesque element in the city’s life. They need to be immensely strong to do a job which consists of carrying over a short distance anything up to an entire yak’s load several times a day. Many of them are quite pretty (and well aware of the fact); they look very gay and rather brazen as, giggling and chattering among themselves, they move along with their heavy burdens, which are held in place by a woolen girdle around the chest.[3]

So brick tea has a very long history in China. This doesn’t really enlighten me about tea in Korea very much, but it is interesting to me just the same. The Osullooc tea plantation has only been in business since 1979. So it doesn’t have a long history in itself, but uses the long historical aspects of tea in all it’s advertising. The tea plantations are all certified organic, so that is a very good place to start.

I can say that post fermented tea is an acquired taste. The Osulloc company make many claims for the tea. A particular selling point is the clean environment of the island, but they also make special mention of the long, post-fermentation aspect of the curing process. They claim that they use the long and ancient history of Koreas skills in fermentation. As ‘fermentation’ is the current buzz word in culinary circles, I’m just a little bit suspicious, But that’s me. They also claim to use traditional Korean fermented pastes. I don’t know what these are, and they are not saying, it’s certainly not Kim Che.

I can’t say either way, as to whether it is good for you or not, but it has a unique quality. I think that it would possibly be a good bed time tea, as it is low in stimulants and that could be good? I’m certainly impressed with the effort that has gone into the presentation, pity it will all be thrown away! Maybe if they could develop a special paper made out of tea leaves, then we could infuse the wrapping as well, still have a great ‘cuppa’ and reduce waste?

Looking at all the effort that has gone into the presentation and advertising, I think that it just might be a triumph of style over substance.

Maybe it will help me sleep better?

Unfortunately, that isn’t one of their claims!

We enjoy our tea from a Gwyn Hansen Piggott tea pot with matching cup and saucer.

 

 

 

  1. [2]  Migot, André (1955). Tibetan Marches. Translated by Peter Fleming. E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., U.S.A., pp. 59-60.
  2. [3]  Jump up ^ Migot, André (1955). Tibetan Marches. Translated by Peter Fleming. E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., U.S.A., pp. 83-84.

Heading for the Temple

The ladies of the Village are planting rice while we eat and drink.  I think about their back-breaking work, I appreciate what they are going through in this image. I have done the odd day of hard work in my life of attempted self-reliance, but not like this. I’m soft, lazy and indulged. I just play with the idea, my livelihood isn’t dependant on the seasons and the fickle vagaries of the weather. These people have worked hard everyday of their lives.

Later we head for the temple, but we take a long time to get there. There is always too much to see.

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It’s a hot day, so we have to stop for a green tea ice cream along the way.

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We can’t visit Japan without having at least one green tea ice cream in the this hot weather. There are pot shops and galleries all along the way, so we don’t quite make it to the temple on this occasion, but one is always there in the background. They are never very far away.

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We manage to fit in a couple of nice meals along the way. There is always a nice meal to be had in Japan. Sushi for lunch is always a favourite.

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and  glass of good cold sake.

 

While walking the back streets and laneways in Nara, we come across this little sign hung on a fence. It’s already 2.00pm and every little cafe that we have passed along the way in this back street area has been full with a waiting queue or closed for lunch by now. So this is worth a try

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We read the sign as saying ‘footpath cafe’, we follow the footpath and the tiny home-made signs. They are all different and a little bit amateur and somewhat rustic. We are directed down some very small walkways and alleys. We eventually come to a dead-end blocked off alley closed with rough wire and old sheeting. The rest of the little narrow walkway is full of rubbish and weeds as far as we can see. At first I’m a bit baffled. I’m glad that I’m not walking here very late at night

It’s just about at this point that we see the other sign. So small and easy to miss. The arrow points into the last doorway before the blockage. The hand written sign reads ‘Footbath Cafe’, not ‘footpath’. This is a little bit strange but intriguing, we decide too go in anyway.

It turns out be a very small cafe in a small house, each room fitted out with table and chairs to be a small dining room. All the furniture is miss-matched, old, sort of seventies retro, vinyl coated. The hosts appear to be mother and son. A woman of a certain age, she leads us through to our own room with a table and 2 chairs. and brings in a menu and a wood footbath tub. it is filled with very warm water spiced with green tea, fresh herbs and a layer of small pebbles on the bottom to massage your feet while they soak. There is only one item on the menu. A set menu of half a dozen small dishes, something I imagine to be like a tasting menu. There lady is generous and very friendly. She takes our order and brings cool water with a hint of lemon on this hot day. Janine relaxes with her feet luxuriating in the generous warmth of the foot bath.

 

The son is the cook and set about preparing our meal which arrives in no time al all. There a 2 others in another room and a third customer comes in while we are there. I’m the only male. Foot bathing appears to be a fully female pass-time. The food is delicious and the matron appears to top up the footbath with extra warm water.

It’s a very unique and enjoyable experience. I can’t help but think that this tiny cafe, is their home each night after they have moved all the tables out of the way. Whatever the circumstances, it’s a very nice meal in interesting and pleasant surroundings with a quirky couple with delicious food and all at a very affordable price. Unusual and unexpected experiences like this are what travel is all about for us.

Thoroughly recommended!

We walk a little bit further around in these little back lanes and come to a traditional merchants house that has been restored and is open today with historians, architects and restoration experts, all giving tours and slide lectures. We can’t understand most of it, but the house is very grand in that period Nara Matchiya merchant style. We have to file through with a lot of other visitors.

 

 

We do finally make it to one temple near Nara at Uji. The home of the golden Buddha. It’s called the BYOdoin temple. I can see why, because there isn’t a bottle shop in sight!

 

We’ve been here before, perhaps a decade ago, but it’s not the golden Buddha that we have come to see. I can do without the bling. We don’t even take the inside tour this time. It’s more the general ambiance of the place and the gardens, in particular the amazing pruned and trellised wisteria tree. it has to be the biggest wisteria That I have ever seen. It’s beautifully organised on its frame. The plant must be hundreds of years old to get to this size. all through its very long life, it has been pruned and trimmed and untangled from the frame that supports it. Carefully laying the new growth down so that it sits on top of the supports and doesn’t get a chance to twine around any part of the structure and then crush it.

 

After we have walked all around the beautiful and very peaceful gardens, we take the walk down to the river to see the cormorants fishing for their masters, but it’s the cormorants RDO today, so we have a snack in a cafe overlooking the river instead.

We stroll back to the station and catch the train home to Kyoto. We still have an appetite after all this walking, so call in for a beer and a plate of gyoza near our inn.

Cheap and cheerful, it’s a perfect way to end a great day of cultural experiences.