Charcoal Kilns from Grafham and Holme Fen.

Charcoal, made at Grafham Water, from the reservoir willows

This rather special charcoal was made for me by Grafham Wildlife Trust wardens Aidan and Greg and their charcoal burning gang and it is, of course, made from the local willows.

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It’s the first time they have tried making charcoal for drawing. Normally it’s chunkier pieces for BBQ charcoal as you can see by the bag. The secret is to have a very slow burn, steady heat and flat straight twigs.The twigs are normally laid in sand in tins.

This looked good. Aidan told me the biscuit tin they used was destroyed but this is definitely usable charcoal. To work with it is unpredictable. Some parts are too hard and then you will find a very soft section which gives a sudden rich dark line. It was, without doubt, very pleasing to draw the Grafham Water willows with willow charcoal made up in Grafham Water woods. The charcoal kilns are in Littless Wood.  I made some sketches a couple of years go. Their simple solid geometric shapes are very pleasing, against the more organic lines of trees and foliage. There are two kilns there… or certainly were last year, I have not been back yet this year, but I must get back, now the track is drying up.


The kilns are not so large.. the tall trees give some idea of them in the landscape.

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A wheel barrow with sacks and some logs ready to burn.

You can join a charcoal burning party along Aidan and Greg with the Wildlife Trust.
The next course is on the 11th May. I would love to go but we will be away…in Amsterdam…so can’t really complain.

Holme Fen Charcoal Kiln: a remnant from the Second World War.

But I did go back to Holme Fen with Sue on Friday, for a couple of hours sketching and to find the charcoal kiln that I had read about in the guide.
A small sunken kiln base, without its conical top, is all that remains of the extensive tree felling and charcoal burning operation which took place during the Second World War to provide charcoal, possibly for wood gas to power vehicles or for gunpowder. The ring of iron is sinking into the peat. It is being overtaken by rhododendron seedlings and brambles. In the still chilly morning with very little but birdsong to keep us company it was a beautiful place to sketch.

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Two line sketches done on site. I often add tone but we only had half an hour so no time for much more than notes. I did not have a camera with me, or rather I did not have the SD card, but I jotted down enough info to make a slightly more atmospheric drawing when I came home. It’s a simple enough shape and the foliage was mainly ferns, rhododendrons and brambles. I had made a note of the sun direction and cast shadows and a small detail of the rim.


Holme Fen Charcoal Kiln. pen and ink. A4

I had also taken my chunky Grafham charcoal with me and made a couple of sketches of the beautiful silver birches.



For me, used to dark woods of oak and ash, these tall pale ghostly trees with the light shimmering from their silvery trunks make for a strange treescape. Lovely, ethereal and slightly unsettling.

I am looking forward to returning soon.

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  1. Silver birches! I love silver birches whether they be 'utilis' or one of the ghostly varieties. And they seem the perfect subjects for charcoal – but that's me as a tree person commenting as opposed to any sort of artist! Lovely post, Val – I enjoyed reading it and particularly am enjoying, via your posts, reading about a part of England which is unknown to me.
    Best wishes, Carole

  2. good to see the drawing hand. But perhaps you are right-handed?

  3. Hi Carole and Diana
    The silver birches at Holme fen are really odd because it is such a surprise to see them in the flat heavily cultivated landscape. It is a real glimpse into a past habitat.

    You are right Carole, they really are a good subject for charcoal and I really want to get back to them soon. There were some lovely cormorants nesting on one of the meres there too. I am very fond of cormorants and they are a subject to come!
    I am really right handed Diane :)but I do draw with both if I am drawing freely. It takes the carefulness out of the drawing which is sometimes a huge advantage!

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