The road up to the common is frozen, rainwater from the flooded fields tipped out across the tarmac, now deep in churned ice. My car loses grip on the corners, slides, corrects and lurches forward. This was a journey I used to make daily, sometimes twice a day, but I haven’t been here for months. Weeks of rain, fog, half light in the day. Now a high pressure system has pushed in from the north bringing clear, windless skies. Conditions like this are so rare here in the winter. I’ve put everything on hold. Time to walk.
It’s a year since we moved away from this area. I pass the house where our boys grew up. The big, chaotic garden once filled with wildflowers, ponds, treehouses, buried bones found on the hill alongside dead pets and the wild birds who didn’t make it. Now its tidied back to respectability, decked over, gated, suburban. But further up the lane the old farms and their occupants are the same as I’ve always known them, thank goodness. I pass Tom’s barn, rammed to the roof with caravans, old tractors, bits of machines, bales of hay. Further uphill Jack’s longhouse looks like a postcard from a century ago. He lives in two rooms across from the stable which used to house oxen and is now a tomb for old motorbikes. His fields are untidy, fallen trees left to rot, rusted wire, stone piles, little streams flowing into grassy pools, now frozen hard.
I get out of the car and slide sideways on black ice, then slither up the last of the lane like a drunk in the rain. I follow a gravel track between knocked back bracken and battered gorse. Last week a set of storms burned through the hills bringing more rain than I’ve seen in years. Down in the valley the river spread across the flood plain and rose, filling vulnerable houses with water the colour of slip. On the common the springs boiled up and little streams ran down the face of the hill. Today the slopes are streaked white like salt glaze.
Lately I’ve begun to use clay words. I’m starting to think about pottery, something I’ve resisted for decades. I come from Stoke-on-Trent, a place where almost everyone’s family was once connected to clay. My dad worked in a pot bank (Stoke terminology for factory), as did my cousins. Our house was filled with pottery. My parents were hoarders, just like the old farmers on the hill, but instead of machines they collected ware. Multiple dinner sets were piled in boxes in cupboards and wardrobes – plates, platters, serving dishes, cups and saucers, gravy boats, cream jugs. They were never used and rarely looked at, too special to even touch. We ate off cheap plates, scratched and rubbed faint, drank tea from black mugs with Microsoft logos, probably a giveaway or a knock down deal. In the living room every shelf, table and cabinet had a crammed display of pottery figurines. On the pelmet was a row of horses; on the mantelpiece a green jug in the shape of a pirate with a peg-leg and parrot, a clown sitting laughing on splayed legs holding little pots that my mum put her hair clips in. The dining table hosted a community of literary characters by Beswick or Doulton, also never to be touched. At least they were visible, my aunt had hers walled in, never to be seen again.
The house was weighed down with clay, a kind of cultural ballast to keep us moored in place. It was a culture I resisted. I disliked the polished perfection of the figures, the machined symmetry of the tableware, the snow whiteness of the immaculately glazed china. I had no real explanation for my dislike, but it’s stayed with me. Over time I’ve realised that its the juxtaposition of the products with their back story that I find so distasteful.
I had a friend at school who always seemed more talented and beautiful than the rest of us. He had Mediterranean skin, pale eyes, no spots, and was muscled like a decathlete. He told hilarious stories. He could put a basketball into the basket from the halfway line and bend a football into the top corner like a Brazilian. I always thought he’d go on to do great things, play professional football, be a film actor, probably both. He was in the year above me and I lost touch with him after he left school, until one evening we were in the minibus going to a basketball match and we were told by the coach that we were picking up a couple of former pupils on the way. We pulled up in a car park outside a factory and found him sitting on a wall, smoking a cigarette, in overalls, coated head to toe in white clay dust. At 17 he looked middle-aged. It still seems like one of the biggest wastes of talent I’ve ever witnessed. The factories stole real beauty to manufacture fake things in cheap clay. I’ve heard many people defend the existence of the industry, claiming that we natives should be proud of our industrial heritage. I know what my dad thought about it. He made hundreds of dishes a day, spending 8 to 10 hours piling load after load of heavy clay into a machine press. He hated the work intensely and I always resented him having to do it.
I’m not sure how the YouTube algorithm knows about our resentments, but a few months back I started getting videos of potters appearing in my feed. The first I watched was of a Japanese ceramicist making a beautifully-formed teapot on a small turntable he rotated by hand, shaping it with a few simple wooden tools. The craftsmanship and the aesthetics of the work amazed me and I watched the video from beginning to end several times. After that other potters showed up and I started to learn about turning and throwing, glazing, hand modelling, wood firing.
Recently I discovered the work of Anne Mette Hjortshøj, a Danish ceramic artist who lives on the island of Bornholm, in the Baltic Sea. She belongs to a long tradition of potters who have, for centuries, lived on the island, which, like Stoke, has a rich seam of clay running through it. Anne Mette digs clay for her glazes from the low cliffs which look out to sea, the colour of the earth, a graduation from blue-grey to red ochre.
Her work is stunning, forms beautifully simple and balanced, the kind only the best artists create. The colours, textures and finishes she finds with her glazes are extraordinary: ochre and ice, verdigris and lichen, russet and rust. The pots seem alive, poems conjured in earth. I’ve woken up to the incredible potential of clay, and the ancient practice of forming it, which has nothing at all to do with the industrial processes that I grew up witnessing. It’s a practice that seems to encourage a slow and circular way of life, with landscape as source, dug and shaped by hand.
Over Christmas I signed up for a 3 month pottery course and a few days ago I threw my first piece, a little cup (or maybe it was a bowl). I loved the experience, the feel of the clay, its demands for calm, for an almost stillness as it is centred on the wheel and then formed with the slowest movement of the hands. At this point I have almost no skill, but maybe, eventually, I’ll start making something of worth. If I do I’ll fill the house with pots. It will feel like a reparation for my dad.
The infinite potential of the glazing process is the aspect of the ceramic craft that most fascinates me. I’m starting to obsess about surfaces. I find myself picking up stones from stream edges and staring at their almost deliberate imperfections, as if there’s something written there. Standing stones demand more time, erratic boulders, slabs of rock, mudstone cliffs. In the woods I get up close to trees, touch bark, absorb the colours and textures. Ice is best. It’s why I’m here today, because every surface on the hill is glazed. Each blade of grass is frosted with a different texture. The stones on the track are pale as goose eggs. Bracken fronds hold pools of ground glass in their curls and creases. Crystal stacks are piled fingertip high on star moss. Some of the streams are frozen completely, the ice fogged and fractured, opaque. Others are still moving beneath the surface, a battle going on between freeze and thaw, creating shapes from that tension: ovals and waves, painted behind glass. Ice on the mawn pools has sucked in the colour of the sky and inked it darker. Some are bright white, gritty, blue stained. The springs have blown out and seized, their surfaces stippled, mottled, spiked. One has become invisible, I step onto it accidentally and slide rapidly backwards.
At the pool nothing moves, reeds in still frame. The surface is thinly iced, patterned with a faint craze of intersecting lines. Above it the sun is low, its light bleeding across the ice, a shriek of light. Tonight the glaze will thicken and transform on every surface. Tomorrow the pool will be as translucent as China clay. I’ll be back.