HOT WORK: Lyndsey Starborn at work in the outdoor pit
HOT WORK: Lyndsey Starborn at work in the outdoor pit

EARLIER this month, there was an open-air pit firing at The Hub.

Thanks to funding from Northern Heartlands, via Durham County Community Foundation, artist and potter Lindsey Starborn organised a series of free pottery classes earlier this year. The theme for these sessions was Teesdale in Clay.

The 45 participants included people new to working with clay, some with previous experience and the project supported people of all ages and abilities.

The sessions culminated with an open-air firing. This was a hands-on experience. Ms Starborn and some helpers dug a pit about 1.5 metres wide and three metres long, adding a turf wall to provide greater depth.

Pottery made in The Hub’s workshop was put in the pit, surrounded with sawdust and wood shavings and then the pit was piled high with wood.

Ms Starborn sprinkled special powder – metal oxides such as copper and cobalt oxides – in and among the pots and wood. This was set alight and was soon a bright flaming bonfire with the pots in the middle of it.

This was something of an elemental experience; the fire was burning as the light faded. The raging heat, flame and sparks transformed the pottery.

When the flames died down, oxygen was excluded by covering the embers with corrugated iron sheets.

“This is the crucial part of the firing,” said Patrick Langdon, an experienced potter.

“This is when the chemistry of the pottery is altered and the colours of the clay change.”

It was not until two days later when the pyre had cooled enough to be opened that Lindsey and her potters could see how the pots had been changed.

Ms Starborn said: “For a craft potter, decorating and firing ware is always something of controlled accident.

“You are never quite sure what the pots will be like when you open a kiln after a glaze firing.

“However, this pit firing was entering the unknown.”

In an open bonfire-type firing, it is not unusual to find that a lot of the pots get broken. It is wise to expect to lose about 50 per cent of the pots in a pit firing, but contrary expectations, there was very little work broken or damaged by the roaring bonfire.

The firing was wonderfully successful.

Pottery work that was produced on the Teesdale in Clay course, including pieces that went through the pit firing, will be displayed in an exhibition at The Hub, during December.

Ms Starborn said: “This was an amazing opportunity and a privilege to enable people from all over the dales and of all age groups to make their representation of what they love about Teesdale in Clay.

“Their work is stunning and so original, from flowers to football and many sheep in between.

“We can’t wait to show you it all and the preview will be December 13, at The Hub.”