Gestingthorpe: Medieval kiln project ignites community’s passion for pottery

The medieval kiln built by the Gestingthorpe History Group is fired up. L-R: Peter Hogan, Andy Craig, Michael Hogan and Chris Moulton. The medieval kiln built by the Gestingthorpe History Group is fired up. L-R: Peter Hogan, Andy Craig, Michael Hogan and Chris Moulton.

Saturday, December 28, 2013
4:00 PM

A project to build a medieval kiln has ignited a community’s passion for pottery.

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Chris Moulton stokes the fire.Chris Moulton stokes the fire.

In the village of Gestingthorpe, on the Essex-Suffolk borders near Sudbury, the local history group has overseen the construction of a brick kiln based on designs dating back 1,000 years.

The curved structure was completed by brick-laying brothers, Peter and Michael Hogan, in the summer - fulfilling a long-standing dream for farmer Ashley Cooper, and expert Chris Moulton, who until recently was in charge of firing the traditional kilns at the nearby Bulmer Bricks and Tile Works company.

On Saturday, December 21, the kiln was fired up for a fourth time - a day and evening-long affair that involves constantly feeding wood into the fire until temperatures reach the required 1100C mark. Inside were over 200 pots, bowls and clay models made by local schoolchildren, enthusiasts and members of Braintree MENCAP’s pottery class, who have got involved in the project.

According to history group member, Andy Craig, the clay has been taken from a selection of a dozen pits that have been dug in the area. A variety of different coloured clays have been found from cream and terracotta to orange and brown.

“With a modern electric or gas-powered kiln, everything can be controlled but with a wood-fired kiln there are so many variables,” he said.

“Different types of wood give off different amounts of heat and smoke - even the direction of the wind can be a factor in terms of driving the fire. This means every item that is fired is unique, so it is really exciting when we come to open the kiln.”

The group have been experimenting with different glazes in an attempt to replicate a brown finish know as “Gestingthorpe Glaze”, which was popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and a green glaze which has been found on Roman pottery excavated in the village.

Each firing is also a social occasion, and throughout the day people drop by Mr Cooper’s wood yard, where the kiln is located, to warm themselves and have a chat. Saturday’s firing took place on winter solstice while fires have also been lit on summer solstice and Halloween. On these evenings people typically call by with food and drink - transforming the minding of the kiln into a community gathering.

A well-regarded local historian, Mr Cooper added: “ I’m in awe of the craftsmanship that has produced this kiln. It has brought people from the community together and enabled us to pursue experimental archeology to try and reproduce pottery from the past. It’s all a big adventure.”