Homage to Isaac….

During the same trip to the North East – clay hunting (see below), I stopped just north of Halifax at Soil Hill. I parked on the eastern slopes and walked over the hill, following tracks and bridleways until I came across Isaac Button’s old pottery. It was instantly recognisable from the film clips and blog posts I have seen on other sites. The first evidence I saw was the curving leat, carrying water from the south, carefully terraced into the hillside to the pottery. The chimney at the eastern end of the brick structures is still standing (rebuilt in fact!), but the kiln is in a very precarious condition and I was informed will be taken down to 1m in height as part of the building works now transforming the old brick workshops into apartments. This will be sacrilege to many – and yet the young lads I met who showed me around (on a brief break from their construction work), were incredibly helpful and fascinated by the history of the place themselves. I suppose if money had been raised to secure the site and make a museum of this iconic location – perhaps there could be a different story. But as it is – the place is changing it’s function and character – as is typical of so many old / vernacular buildings in our landscape. The site is littered with shards of broken pots – pancheon rims, lead glazed pieces…..  The visit really made me stop and think – this wild, windswept spot was where Isaac Button dug and processed, by hand, his own clay, throwing up to a thousand pots a day, mostly for sale on a local market (for pennies – the stuff had to be affordable).

Between Halifax and Newcastle I stopped briefly at Littlethorpe – and peered into the Littlethorpe pottery buildings. It was late and the place was closed. I’ll have to return some day soon – famed as it is for it’s production of planters and garden pots produced from a local seem of clay.

View south from Soil Hill
The leat….
Snatched shot of the kiln interior, from camera held over my head
The workshops and chimney of Soil Hill Pottery

Northumberland clay hunting….

A few weeks ago I returned, with an old friend (Stefan Sobell who makes exquisite and incomparable guitars, citterns and mandolins…), to a stream that cuts down from the Hexhamshire moors where we dug clay 25 years ago. The moors here are characterised by beautiful wide expanses, near-horizontal bands of heather, field and woodland, stepping up to the high ground, with stone farmhouses / outbuildings and scattered evidence of bronze age settlement and 17th and 18th century lead workings.The clay that we dug then was lugged back to Newcastle and made into thumb pots, burnished and dustbin fired in sawdust, creating lovely black, shiny pots. This time I wanted to collect some of the clay to see if it would throw, and to collect some soil and wood ash samples to use in glaze experiments.

The soil horizon has a fairly classic profile for an upland valley; alluvium with a layer of iron pan beneath, under which lies the rich dark grey seam of clay of incredible purity – there are hardly any inclusions of grit or organic material.

The clay we dug this time was brought home and kneaded before it could dry out. It threw perfectly into the forms below. I have fired these at 1000 degrees C – the results are shown too. I have dried, pounded, slaked and sieved some of the soil samples and I am waiting for these samples to dry before starting a simple triaxial blend experiment to see what results I get at 1250 degrees C (to start with). I’m guessing that with the rich iron oxide content in one sample – a tenmoku effect may be achieved? I have also included a sample from a local sandstone quarry (huge thanks to Lara at Ladycross Quarries) – taken from the sump where the washed out waste from sawing the stone collects.

For stoneware firing results – we’ll have to wait a week or two until I fire up the kiln.