The Joy of Clay

Sitting in Vinegar Hill Pottery, a hundred miles away, are 12 pieces of traditional clay dinnerware ready to be fired, glazed, packed and posted to me, to add to the 6 Raku pots I already finished and brought home on Sunday. Each of these began as a lump of wet clay in my very own hands. If you had told me a week ago that this would be the case I would have thrown you my most deprecating look and thought you a fool at best.

Having never been given the opportunity at school to try pottery, I was a complete novice and had serious misgivings about my potential lack of ability. It’s the familiar fear, which most of us have felt at some point, that you will be unspeakably rubbish at your chosen subject, whilst everyone else seems to take to it so naturally that you look up to find them staring, with open-mouthed horror, at your grotesque pot/painting/nude figure before they retire to whisper in corners about your scandalous lack of talent. Thankfully my rather dramatic fears were unfounded.

Much of my success was a result of the literally hands-on teaching by David Rogers, the local Potter who owns the studio and the house attached. Part of the house has been converted into a separate B&B, with individually accessed rooms. We stayed in the Hayloft, a gorgeous room ascended to via an exterior wrought iron spiral staircase, in which we were presented with a fabulous cooked breakfast each morning. This was included in the price of the 3-day course, as was lunch, cooked fresh by a local caterer in the adjoining house and rapidly demolished by the five of us taking the course in the showroom above the studio.


The course began by teaching us the basic premise of how to work clay on the wheel. (Before a ‘Ghost’ joke even enters your mind, please take my word for it you are at least the 100th person to voice it, and it was crap the first time.) The closest we got to the erotic was whilst making the phallic shapes necessary to ‘centre’ the clay, during which my mature 30-something boyfriend peppered us with Beavis and Butthead sniggers as he watched me working the vertical cylinders. My subsequent disparaging stance was short-lived however, as he proceeded to then knock out creatively-shaped and carefully detailed bowls, cups, and plates at tremendous speeds, turning our romantic getaway into a brutal competition. I began to breathe smoke and got my head down.

We spent day one making cylinders, which are the base shape for all pieces except plates. This is most certainly harder than it looks, although easier to master than I expected after my first go; a fact which the deformity of my first pot is sure to demonstrate. The experience of having the wet clay in your hands and teasing it from a sticky, heavy, dollop into a smooth tall pot is inexplicably satisfying. It requires intense concentration and a certain amount of decent motor skills, but is undoubtedly achievable for almost any ability.

Once you have a basic cylinder, you can then lean on the clay to flare out the edges which creates a bowl, or manipulate the material to create other shapes for things such as vases or jugs. The main stumbling block is the co-ordination of spinning the wheel (with either a manual kick-wheel which you pump or an electric wheel which you gently accelerate), whilst focusing on lifting the clay. It’s a bit like learning to drive, albeit without the roads, or a car even. At points the clay becomes so thin it can easily collapse, which it did. Repeatedly. The boyfriend didn’t look quite so smug when his potential pieces ended up on ‘The Mountain’ of failed clay to be recycled. Ha.

Day two began with learning all about Raku; a traditional, rustic form of pottery from Japan. Raku clay is coarser, thicker and fired in an oil drum at 1200degrees. After firing the clay to harden it, the glaze is applied. The pots are then fired again, removed and covered in sawdust, which starves the glaze of oxygen and creates a cracking effect on the pot which many of you will recognise and is the trademark of the style. The process is manageable until the second firing, which took place on day 3. It then becomes random, as the finished effect depends entirely upon how the sawdust falls on the pot; which parts are hottest/coolest etc. When it emerges from the sawdust it is completely blackened and only a scouring process reveals exactly how it turned out.

So why should you go on this course? I can think of dozens of reasons why you most certainly should and not a single one as to why you shouldn’t. The accommodation is fantastic, the course is endlessly enjoyable (3 days wasn’t enough) and Milford-on-Sea is everything you would expect from a  seaside town on the edge of the New Forest; small, quiet, but full of quality restaurants and quaint charm – the fishmarket restaurant Verveine is an absolute must. David Rogers and his wife Lucy, who tirelessly keeps you stocked with tea and coffee, as well as looking after their 3 gorgeous children, literally cater for your every need. David even jump-started our car with a grin when the battery died on the last day. Think of it as going to holiday with your coolest hippy relatives in the countryside, add a bundle of clay and you’re almost there….

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