Thursday, 3 September 2009

Charcoal burning escapades

As a parting shot in a comment I made on Tim Stretton’s blog last week, I asked – slightly breathlessly – ‘Don’t you just love research?!’

Because I do. Love research. But that was taken to a whole new level this past weekend when the Other Half and I headed down to the Dean Heritage Centre in the Forest of Dean so that I could watch a charcoal burn in the traditional, thousands-of-years-old manner.

I had thought I’d just watch. I’d spoken to the guy running the burn – Pete Ralph – on the phone and he had very kindly said ‘come and join in as much as you want’ but I didn’t think I would. I’m not a gregarious person and the thought of gate-crashing an event already supplied with sufficient volunteers who knew what they were doing and having to talk to loads of new people for hours on end didn’t appeal.

But I hadn’t anticipated the warm welcome of the volunteers – most of whom were our age or older and the easy way they just included us in the whole process. There wasn’t a whiff of ‘who the hell do you think you are?’ they just naturally included us and assumed that we knew as much as they did and were as fascinated as they were. Which turned out to be true – certainly the fascinated part, anyway.

The process of burning charcoal is actually quite simple. (And, like lots of things that are simple in principle, it takes years to learn to do well.)

Here’s a recipe for one smallish charcoal-burning clamp:


2 cords of wood (a cord is a stack of wood eight feet long, four feet high and two feet wide, each ‘log’ being 2 feet long and approximately 3-4 inches in diameter. Interestingly the stack is called a cord because an eight-foot cord was used to measure the stack – the cord was doubled over to measure the 4 foot height and then doubled again to measure the 2 foot width. I always knew a piece of string would come in handy…)

Enough turf (approx half an inch to an inch thick) to cover the whole stack (a dome approximately 8 feet in diameter)

A mix of soil and charcoal dust/debris lifted from the hearth (ie the area of forest floor where the burn is going to take place) prior to building the clamp.

A nice flat area away from too much wind (which causes the stack to burn unevenly).

Method (in pictures...)

First build a central chimney...



then you put the turf on...

then you start covering it with earth...

and when it's nicely covered in earth, you (ie Pete) go up a ladder on the outside of the stack and , with a shovel, put loads of burning embers and half-charcoaled logs from the outside of the last burn (the brunts) in to the central chimney to start the fire.

We spent 5 hours building the clamp and watching the firing process on Saturday and then, on Sunday, we went back as proper volunteers on a shift which combined watching the clamp for signs of collapse or turf-shrinkage and putting patches on with chatting to members of the public who’d come to see what it was all about. We sounded like pros in no time.

One of the things I’d really been hoping I could do was to see the stack at night to find out what it looked like in the dark and how the woodland felt once the dominant sound wasn’t human but animal. (The owls were particularly vocal). Thanks to the generosity of volunteers James and Tina who were on the Sunday night shift we stayed until about ten o’clock and I was able to get a wonderfully atmospheric picture of what it might have been like to do the same thing in the mid-fourteenth century. I won’t wax lyrical here because, no doubt, a certain amount of that will find its way into the book. Many thanks to James, too, for sending me an article he had written on the evidence for medieval charcoal burning.

Sadly we weren’t able to see the clamp quenched (ie have lots of water poured over it) on Monday night or opened on Tuesday as we had to drive home on Monday. I’ll have to find another burn to discover the feel of those parts of the process. And I will. Because however many books you read, actually seeing, smelling, hearing and feeling the thing gives you the kind of first hand knowledge you can’t get any other way, no matter how erudite and specific your reading matter.

We’re so hooked we’re going back to the Dean Heritage Centre in May, as volunteers this time.

Who’d have thought there’d be so much entertainment value in watching a turfed-over pile of logs smouldering gently…?

PS Many, many thanks are due to the Dean Heritage Centre for putting me in touch with Pete Ralph and to Pete and his team of volunteers who made us so welcome. Thanks guys!


Frances Garrood said...

Goodness, Alis - a second career obviously beckons, in case you fancy a change! It all sounds fascinating. I love the idea of having to do lots of research, as (apart from anything else) it puts off the daunting moment when you have to start the actual writing (more about that on my own blog). I've much enjoyed such research as I've had to do - not a great deal - particularly a trip to the local funeral directors to have a proper look at human ashes. On this occasion, I accidentally encountered a recently-deceased woman, sitting up in her coffin, hair and make-up done to perfection, apparently waiting to receive her visitors. Luckily, I'm used to dead bodies. Others might not have been. Someone had forgotten to draw the curtains...

Alis said...

Yikes! Not sure I would have coped with a close and unanticipated encounter with the recently deceased! Glad you had more sang froid than me, Frances!