The clay pipe

An article by Gloucestershire home educator Mary Rose, illustrating how one family brings learning to life with the discovery of an old clay pipe in the back garden.

“I expect you’d find an outside tap useful, love, wouldn’t you?

With my thumb over the end of the hosepipe in an attempt to maximise the frankly, pathetic squirt sending a thin jet of water to the rockery, I had to agree.

“And we could get water put on to the cottage at the same time”, said Rog, brightly.

The cottage – a fond term for the two-storey stone workshop at the end of the garden is past its due date for serious renovation.  It could be a Granny annex (if we had a Granny, which we don’t) or a holiday let (planning allowing) or maybe a studio, if we had anything to study.  Connecting water to the place would be a step in the direction of renovation, and it shouldn’t be too difficult.

“All we need to do is dig a trench and lay a pipe”, said Rog.  “I’ll make a start.”

Our back garden is a long thin affair.  When we bought the house, the garden was mostly lawn with a shrub border on the wall topping a five foot drop to next.  On the other side, up the hill, clematis, old roses and a magnificent cultivated bramble cascaded over the heavily-shrubbed wall of the rented property above.  Sweet blackberries the size of walnuts drip onto the path from June to September, and the bikes shelter under a perfumed bower of honeysuckle, rose and various vines.

Mercifully, we are blessed with the best loam soil I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, and it is deep; excavations to a depth of some four foot failed to reveal any kind of bed rock.  A vegetable patch had been our very first project, and we had cleared half of the lawn to make space to grow our own.   As Rog spoke and I watered, the peas were already poking through, beans in full bloom and the spinach, beetroot and carrots were looking promising.

“It doesn’t need to be wide – just deep”, puffed Rog, wiping his brow on his sleeve as another spade-full of soil whooshed into the barrow.  It was a hot day, and to be fair, my husband is not accustomed to manual labour.  At 59, he’d had a desk job for many years, rather too many office “jollies” and “working lunches”, and was reaping the benefit in daily doses of Atenanol, which had resulted in some degree of, er, horizontal challenge. Although the spirit was willing, it was not long before the flesh felt the need for a quiet sit down in the cool, and maybe a wee bottle of that weak French beer, and a snooze

I continued the task alone, the rhythmic snoring from Rog in the recliner beneath the lilac accompanying the dig-heave-swoosh-clunk of my efforts in the trench.  Songs of navvies on the line, chain-gangs and ancient slave ships drifted into my fuddled, by now slightly sun-stoked brain, when I spotted something which brought my Yo-heave-hoing to an abrupt halt.  Something small, round and white was peeping out of the soil.

I was Indiana Jones (minus the whip)!  Discarding the spade, and without my trusty spectacles to hand, I stooped to examine my find.  As I rubbed the soil from the object the realisation that I had found something really quite interesting dawned.  I hurried inside to wash it, hoping more might be revealed.

“What is it?” asked Kes.

“It’s an old clay pipe!  It’s the bowl of an old clay pipe, and it’s complete.”

“Can I see?”  Kes examined it curiously and pronounced, “Hmm” as he handed it back.  More information was expected; why was this so exciting?

“See, in the old days, when this house was built, people didn’t smoke cigarettes – they smoked tobacco in these clay pipes, and then they just, well, threw them away on the ground.”

My young son’s wide eyes urged, “Go on!” – so I did.

“In fact, way back in the 1700s, pubs would give away clay pipes to their customers with their first pint of beer.  And we know that the house next door used to be a pub,  the ‘Bird in Hand’.  In fact, there were lots of pubs in the village at that time.  It was a working, industrial place, with a market, shops, shoemakers, all sorts. I’ve often found the broken stems of clay pipes in the garden, but I’ve never found a bowl before.  Some of them were beautiful, with faces and pictures. I wonder if we’ll find any more?”

Enough said, five minutes later, all five kids were peering into the hole in the lawn, eagerly watching the sibling on digging duty and squabbling about who was to take the next turn.  Sure enough, more clay bowls were discovered, prized from their resting places of two hundred years, borne indoors with care, cleaned and examined.

“What’s going on?” enquired a bemused Rog, when the commotion of the family dig pervaded the peace of his “forty winks”.  Blinking and bleary, he was introduced to the growing collection of clay bowls, and their significance explained by the five experts.
Marriage endows one with the ability to read minds.  “Yes, interesting, but  what are they going to do with this lot?” asked my long-suffering husband as the children continued to enthuse.

“I’ve found quite a lot about clay pipes on the Internet”, announced Joe.  On his day off from agricultural college, he was not so keen as his younger siblings to pick up a spade on a hot day. “There’s quite a lot about Blakeney, too.  The big house across the road was a pub as well, and round the corner, that row of cottages was once a foundry of some kind.  There were two mills, three shoe-makers, two butchers and a nursery garden, and the house across the square was the Police Station and jail.  There’s been a settlement here since Roman times, when there was a quay – boats came up the brook from the Severn and actually docked here!”

When it comes to education, our family are unashamed opportunists.  “You teach them yourself”, is a phrase frequently used when people I meet try to clarify the concept of home-based education.   “No!” I reply, “They teach me!”

Personally, I can think of nothing less effective and more boring than to “teach” at my own children.  Visits from curious journalists, usually in that slow-news season in early September, invariably demand accompanying photos of the family round a book-covered kitchen table, Mother pointing to a page and five fascinated faces.

That perception could not be further from the truth. Something inspires, enthusiasm is infectious, and a magical stardust is cast which brings everyone to learning, individually, collectively, socially.

It was a few days later that we stumbled on a promotion stall for the Monmouth Archaeological Society at a street fair.  Amongst the table-top display of artefacts – bent and battered bits of bronze labelled “jewellery”, cracked crazed crockery, arrow heads and pins – a measly collection of just two or three clay pipe bowls, all the products of local excavations.  It was Ben, always interest in the ancient, who spotted the stall and summoned the dispersed family members via his mobile phone.  As each received the “clay-pipes at two o’clock” alert they hurried to meet their brother.

The stall-holder, a meek-mannered man with the aurora of someone expecting to be ignored, could hardly conceal his puzzlement, delight and moderate alarm as seven tall, swarthy, big-haired people swamped the display frontage enquiring earnestly about his clay pipes.

“Well, you see, all the men smoked these until, ooh, about a hundred and fifty years ago.  Tiny bowls like this are oldest; tobacco was expensive and a luxury in the Eighteenth century.  As it became cheaper, they produced bigger pipes, like this…”  He handed Ben a clay bowl decorated with the jolly face of a bearded man. “If you want to know more, do join the Society”, he called, waving a leaflet after the departing horde.

Back home, the dig resumed with new vigour as the search was on for a truly treasuresome find.  The pile of clay pipes grew daily, along with the length and depth of the trench.  The purpose of the dig, however, was I felt, in danger of being lost to the quest for buried booty.  What I had missed, and they had spotted, was a price tag on the clay bowl at the fair to the tune of £5.

Now, without any formal mathematical education, my brood are more than capable of calculating the average frequency of clay-pipe occurrence, times the size of our garden, times £5.  There was no stopping them now.


Mary Rose is a home educator and mother of five, three still at home. She teaches part-time in a local special school, and is a freelance writer, author of several books on home-based education and has participated in broadcasts on radio and TV covering elective home education. Mary lives with her husband in the Forest of Dean, where they are keen gardeners and keep backyard poultry, as well as several pets. When she isn’t writing, playing with her children or saving the planet, Mary and her family play music together in an English ceilidh band, travelling the country in their elderly bus to provide live music for dances at events, weddings and festivals.


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