2 NOVEMBER 1907, Page 27


THE pleasant bouquet of oak-smoke is on the still evening air. In the hillside hop-garden the bines are com- mencing their festoons after their three months' climb to the tops of the poles, and under the tall elm in. the corner of the meadow-land is a group of busied men and smoking piles. The sharp crack of an axe rings out with an insistent report echoed in the pine-woods around. The monotonous regularity of the axe-strokes where the men are splitting billet with which to build the charcoal-pile does not disturb the rabbits, who sit up to watch curiously the smoke-blackened men at their labour. There are four at work—professional burners all—for the vocation is a skilled pne, and they burn charcoal for half a county. One is cutting billet into suitable lengths, another is loading a wheelbarrow with the material, and the others are awaiting the load. When the hand-barrow is wheeled to the wood-pile the master-burner and his son place the curved oak-billets on the outside of the pile, which since the morning has grown to the appearance and dimen- sions of a Kaffir kraal. There is a deliberation and certainty about the work which are peculiar to the skilled burner ; the pieces are laid so that they fit without blocking the air- currents in the pile, and yet so as to allow no pronounced draughts ; and all this in such a way that the symmetry of the pile is preserved. To the right of the new heap are two smoking cones, each a pile of charring oak. There is a difference in the colour of the smoke which issues from the openings at their summits. The burner knows all the signs of the smoke-colours; they serve as an index to the condition of the material hidden underneath the covering of grass and sand. The pile nearer the one in course of erection is still "sweating,"—from the vent-hole issues whitish smoke show- ing that the residue of moisture in the wood-tissues has yet to be driven out. The smoke rising from the further pile is dense and blue, and smaller in volume. This pile is almost charred through, and will be "laid out" to-morrow.

But the ring of the axe-strokes has ceased; the rabbits have taken alarm at the abrupt cessation of noise and gone bobbing off with white danger-signals exposed. The last barrowload of billet has been deposited about the sides of the building pile, the "hearth" is entirely filled, and the work of covering-in begins. The master-burner with the good old Scriptural name of Esau drags a rough ladder of nailed boughs to the wood-pile, and when he has walked along it to the top, the other burners furnish him with armfuls of long green grass from the heap hard by. With this Esau carefully covers the billet in much the same manner that rough thatching is done; and before the party sit down for a rest and a nip from the gurgling bottle—for it is dry work in this atmo- sphere of smoke—the pile is dressed in dull green as though it had been a great heap of freshly mown grass. The sun has sunk below the pine-tops, but there is light enough yet to complete the building of the pyre, and the new pile must be fired in the early morning. So work is begun again, with the more energy that this is the last spell before the con- ventional visit to the Dappled Cow.' Quickly, but effectively, the charcoal-burners take up shovelfuls of fine sand and cast them upon the green swathed pile. The green, mound of seeming grass speedily undergoes a further transformation ; for when the sand has all been thrown upon the thatching of grass, and beaten and trampled down so as effectually to seal the interior, there stands in the corner of the meadow a giant anthill like to the other heaps, but smokeless and larger. It is larger because with the burning the piles of wood shrink inwards and their covering of sand falls closer down, still sealing them and still keeping the outside air from penetrating to the two hundred bushels of good oak charcoal beneath. The covering-in is concluded in "blind man's holiday," and then the younger burners slouch off through the long grass to their objective, the 'Dappled Cow,' a mile distant. Their heavy boots swish through the wet herbage, for

the dew is falling, and a silence comes upon the charcoal-burners' corner, where the old burner, seated upon a fallen barrel, calmly smokes his beloved pipe and ruminates. Along by the meadow- side in the river-valley the mist is swathing, the hopfields have become an indistinct blur on the hill-slope, and the dark semmit of the tall elm is creeping up to the stars. Old Esau is still chuckling over his parting with his assistants—it was a bit of real rustic humour, an expressed wish that the "cow would give good milk "—but he notes carefully the appearance of the charring cones. Each of those piles will contain from two to three hundred bushels of clean black charcoal, which the work of " breaking-out " and quenching—the last item in the burner's task—will expose. The heaps burn usually for three days and two nights. During this time the smouldering piles require careful watching, as at any moment they may spontaneously burst into flame through the air getting in at some unsuspected opening in the covering material ; the effect of this would be to render the product useless, and to waste entirely the labour of hours. Thus it is necessary for one or other of the charcoal-burners to keep unremitting watch upon the great heap. The men take this duty in tarns, almost in watches as on ship-board, but the bulk of the work seems to fall upon the master-burner. Still, if the toil is his, so is the pride of the work. He feels the natural elation of the skilled workman in every trade demanding patience and "know."

Even in charcoal-burning there is room for artistry. And old Esau Potter is an artist in being, if not in appearance. The water-supply in the corner of the meadow is small. It consists of a few barrels of water, which have to be care- fully husbanded that they may be at hand when needed : the little river runs dry in its sandy bed all the summer through, and fetching the water from a distance is toilsome and tedious. Hence Esau's face, hairy like his namesake's of old, if grizzled and wrinkled, is engrained and sooty where his smoke- dried skin shows through, and you might describe him as a dirty old man from his aspect and grimy clothing. But if patience and knowledge and skill in his vocation, and delight in carrying out a difficult process, count for anything, old Esau is an artist in spite of his soot and unkemptness. No burner knows so well the just allowance to make for the central draught in the piles of wood, and Esau has had few experiences of piles that refuse to fire. Then few burners can obtain the charcoal at the required condition as he can, so that it rings when struck, is hard without being unduly fragile, and will not soil the fingers when freshly fractured. Not that there are many burners to-day. The craft is a decaying one. But it is "in the family," so to speak, and Esau's brother Moses is almost the only other acknowledged master of the art in the district. In the course of their summer peregrinations the burners travel many weary miles. They burn at Selborne and at Ph bright, at Itchen Abbas, at Frensbam, and a dozen other places. The master-burner's sons are chiefly his assistants; in time they too will become master-burners, and in time, for steadiness and exactitude, they may equal, but not excel, the old man. The charcoal-burners' camp under the tall elm contains a rude tent for shelter. When burning for large hop-growers, such as Lord Selborne and the hop-garden proprietors of Itchen Abbas, the charcoal-burner can have—as he puts it—" a bed and a table like as though you were at home" ; he explains this with a wealth of gesticulation. But when engaged on smaller jobs like this one in the corner of the Surrey meadow, Esau and his mates sleep in a tent. It is a primitive arrangement, pitched out of the way in the angle of the hedges, just two pairs of end-poles crossed, and a horizontal ridge-pole between them over which a canvas cover is thrown. The affair does not suggest comfort, but it suffices. The charcoal-burners are not fastidious. On their return from the 'Dappled Cow' they will spread a shake-down of blankets within and sleep until the morning calls them to further toil. Close by the primitive tent is a tripod formed of hazel boughs; on this the kettle Bwings. The cooking is done gips), fashion, but the burners can appreciate a good bowl of tea,—the dry nature of the work demands it. Your charcoal-burner drinks tea like a Colonial farmer.

Usually the " breaking-out " of the piles is done at dawn. This prevents accidents, as otherwise there might be smoulder- ing fragments left, to menace the unfired riles and stacked billet at night. Opening the heaps and quenching the charcoal require skilful manipulation. The hop-grower who employs the charcoal in his drying kilns insists on the best- quality fuel being prepared, and it is the quenching which vastly affects the nature of the finished product. Thus morning generally sees the master-burner and his mates " breaking-out " the piles with great care. If they were left alone, the fires would in course of time become extinct, but this method does not furnish the most serviceable charcoal. . The best fuel is obtained when the charcoal is withdrawn hot and rapidly extinguished. So the burners open each pile on one side near the bottom, and the pieces found perfectly charred are drawn out and quenched immediately by means of water, or, when water is scarce, as in the present case, by covering them with dry sand. All the piles having been "broken-out," and the charcoal fuel stored in sacks against the autumn hopping, old Esau and his mates move on to the next place where their services have been retained.