I’ve written about it, before. The Saltpetre is a gunpowder store that was used to house the produce of the local gunpowder factory by the river Kent. The ‘black powder’ as it used to be called, was brought up through the village, slowly, by horse and cart – the cart having dressed wheels to help prevent sparks. There were many deaths in the village from explosions, so everyone was deeply conscious of the danger.
Old (black) gunpowder was mixed in the following proportions (by weight): 75% potassium nitrate (saltpetre), 15% softwood charcoal, and 10% sulphur. Our quirky outbuilding was named after the component with the greater part by volume – 75%. We suspect that gunpowder was also generally known as ‘saltpeter’ in those days when the bargemen would collect it from the canal wharf that is now our garden and take it south.
The photo was taken from the lower part of the garden. It’s lower because it was the canal bed. The Saltpetre was constructed in about 1820, the year the local Quaker banker and gunpowder entrepreneur, the first John Wakefield, persuaded the canal trust to change their route and run as close to his works as possible.
The simple stone structure has been there ever since, enjoying many incarnations, but none as exciting as its original use. For the past decade, we have been filling it up with our ‘stuff’. It’s bigger than it looks and has taken a lot of filling! But, with the Covid-19 lockdown in place, it made sense to spend some of the time doing the long-promised clean out.
Right at the back were three shoe boxes, each one carefully taped closed so that not even dust could get in. I had packed them – several house-moves ago, but any knowledge of their contents had long vaporised.
Grubby from the day’s dusty excavations and disposal into a mountain of ‘black bags’, I reached for a my knife and sliced open the tape, feeling intrigued as to what was in there.
Much of it was instantly binable. But an inner ‘jiffy pack’ contained two items: a vintage pocket watch, bought on a business trip to The Hague, and a passport sized photo of me taken approximately 25 years ago. I had thought the watch was long lost, and was delighted to be reunited with an object I loved. It cost me the equivalent of £150 back then. Not a huge investment, but I found its slim and elegant lines very pleasing, and simply wanted to keep it.
The second item was more shocking. There’s nothing quite so sobering as seeing yourself as you were a quarter of a century ago… Ageing is inevitable, but such a brutal confrontation across the years requires a deep breath.
The day was ending in a lovely and still-warm sunset when, freshly showered, I brought the two objects to our patio table, where Bernie had made us each a long gin and tonic.
We sat in silence, gazing at the evening gold reflected in drink and watch, and laughing at the young man. Talk about a time capsule!
©Copyright Stephen Tanham
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.