On wood smoke & ‘The Alchemist’- a poem

elwick-fires-2Some people hate the scent of wood smoke. They think it’s a ‘mucky’ smell but I (and I’m sure some of those who depend on coal fires and wood burning stoves for  every day heat will) love it. To me it’s a safe, rich homely smell that evokes the scent of childhood and all the fires (wood, gas and coal) that flickered and glowed throughout my early years. When we were kids and we lived in a large, drafty ramshackled chapel which was in the process of being renovated we lived in fear of the battered old Aga ‘going out’. It was our only source of heat. It took the edge off the chilly space we lived in and it heated the water. Usually there was a cat or four curled up asleep on the closed hob lid or at the back of it where milk in jars became yogurt or damp socks dried out. After baths, when I was a little girl still small enough to be bathed in the big Belfast sink, we’d open the oven door and I’d stand in front of it to get dry. When it went out my dad had to get the blow torch out to get it going again. This process involved much swearing.

Often my dad would take us with him when he went to dig clay out of the stream banks in the Warley woods and sometimes, after the day’s digging had been done we’d gather sticks and kindling and light a fire in a flat clearing beside the little waterfall.  I have vivid recollections of the taste of mushrooms threaded on wet sticks and cooked on the flames of a campfire and the blackened cindery skins of jacket potatoes whose flesh was so sweet.

Being a potter, fire was a big part of my dad’s life. He was always building new kilns so wood smoke seasoned our childhood. And, even if he wasn’t firing pots, there was always a wood fire on the go crackling away somewhere.

My dad moved up to Orkney in 2000. For the 1st four or five years he’d send me and my family Christmas gifts of turquoise Raku pots that exuded the gorgeous scent of wood smoke for months after their arrival.

The last time I went up to Shapinsay in April with my dad’s friend Gordon we both smelled the distinctive scent of wood smoke as we walked up the long gravel path to the mill where there were definitely no fires burning…

I wrote my poem ‘The Alchemist’ about 10 years ago. It’s a tribute to my dad. I’ve been meaning to make a short film to accompany the poem for ages and thought that now might be an appropriate time to do so. It’s a bit low-fi and grainy but it does what I want it to do.

We’re still running an Indiegogo crowd funding campaign to try and secure the mill and keep those magical fires burning.


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