(Above: High in the forest, a place of mysterious winter alchemy awaits…)

We have a favourite local walk that follows the elevated line of the old Preston-Kendal canal… It was closed as a waterway in the late 1940s and drained in the 1950s, but its structure is still visible along parts of the old route.

(Above: The walk begins along the line of the old canal, to Bridge 180, above, then turns left and across a farm footpath towards the River Kent)
(Above: down to the river…)

From the level of the canal, our path descends through a farmer’s land and emerges out on the wide plain by the River Kent; here in its final stages before flowing out into the north end of the vast Morecambe Bay.

(Above: the River Kent)

Our route crosses the Kent is via the old footbridge, built to take the workers from the nearby villages across the river to the site of the old gunpowder works. The location is now a popular caravan park. The gunpowder works had to be located away from the nearby village of Sedgwick because of the risk to life – there were many fatal explosions.

(Above: the old footbridge to the gunpowder works. Prior to this, the workers had to pick their way across the Kent using a set of stepping-stones!)

And here we begin the climb into the edge of Sizergh Forest – beautiful in any season but strangely sheltered and quiet in the winter. The ground is strewn with the crushed remains of last summer’s life… I remember clearly how beautiful it looked when the leaves were newly-fallen in the Autumn.

(Above: The remains of last summer’s life, finely crushed by passing boots and the storms of winter)

This natural recycling starts off a chain of thought about how things are used and re-used by nature, how ‘bodies’ that once were fit as vehicles for the mysterious presence that is ‘life’, come to the end of that process and are, themselves, recycled.

We could ask the question: how is the essence of life recycled?

I get the feeling that there is something new to discover, ahead in the forest, though the collie and I have walked this way many times. It’s dramatic how the changing seasons also change the entire feel of the landscape.

(Above; the river Kent now behind us, we climb through Sizergh forest)

We skirt the old gunpowder works and stay within the forest, all the while climbing, to emerge along a wide path that leads to a crossing of ways at which we are greeted by this strange sight:

(Above: the strange object has three chimneys, each one of them giving off smoke)

It’s a large unit for charcoal production. But the first I’ve seen in action. You could make your own charcoal in a large drum at home. The same process can be scaled up to the size of a kiln, as above. Given the reflective nature of the walk it seems no coincidence that we have come across the fascinating process of the multi-stage transformation of wood into a rather special fuel.

In earlier ages, charcoal must have been considered a ‘magical substance’. It burns hot, which is one of the reasons we use it for garden barbecues. It is practically smokeless, yet the process by which it is made involves burning… and smoke.

(Above: a close-up of the three chimneys of the kiln)

Charcoal is already ‘cooked’, and yet it gives beautiful heat and little pollution when it burns again.

A radial kiln is filled to slightly overflowing with suitable wood, such as oak. The excess wood is calculated carefully so that during the first stage of the charcoal process, the heavy iron lid takes the right time to lower itself, closing off the excess airflow initially necessary to get the kiln’s internal fire going.

When fully stocked with wood, the entire kiln is surrounded by a secondary stack of logs which form an initial bonfire to set off the primary process within the kiln.

Unlike the external ‘starter’ bonfire, the fire inside the kiln is ‘choked’ by having only a reduced airflow. This burns off the impurities in the wood while leaving the main mass of the wood unburnt. The result is a pure, hot fuel that has been sought after for hundreds if not thousands of years. the purity of the burning charcoal allows food to be cooked in close proximity without risk of poisoning by noxious chemicals.

We might say that the alchemical fire is still in the charcoal, awaiting its destiny of being a noble flame. Perhaps that’s analogous to human destiny, too…

(Ref: The kiln process as in the above photos, is detailed on an excellent website: here )

©Stephen Tanham 2023

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.

http://www.thesilenteye.co.uk and http://www.suningemini.blog

5 Comments on “The Unburnt…

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