A late summer Saturday with soft sunlight playing on the trees was possibly the perfect day to spend in the company of experienced charcoal burners and woodland managers Anna and Pete at their wonderful wooded homestead and workplace, Bulworthy Project, just north of Tiverton.
Charcoal making, we thought - why not have a go? It's as old as mankind (almost) and, if you'll pardon the expression, a bit of a dark art. We discovered that there are many variables to consider when doing a burn. First - your choice of timber. Bulworthy favourites are silver birch, beech and ash which all have the ideal density and burn qualities. Ones to avoid include coniferous softwoods - anything pine-ish is too resin-rich to be of much use to a banger on a barbeque, unless you are partial to a toilet-cleaner tang to your food. Fortunately, the woods at Bulworthy are birch-heavy and well managed, ensuring a plentiful and sustainable supply.
Once you have cut your wood it needs to be graded by size and the bigger pieces split. When you come to load a kiln you can then choose from woodpiles of each of the technical charcoal-makers' categories: that's small, smedium, nextsizeup and stuffforthemiddle.
Loading the kiln is a real art form, and getting it right is essential for a successful burn. At the very bottom you place chunks of wood (usually Willow) of a particular size either side of the chimney vents - the 'feet' as these are known keep the airways clear and form the support for 'bridges' of wood on top. In the very centre Pete piled some scrunched up brown paper with a little vegetable oil on to help get things going. On top you create what is known as a hovel, using 'brown ends' - the not-quite-charcoal pieces from previous burns - which burn well and will help to create the required heat efficiently.
Building carefully, with the smallest pieces around the cooler kiln edges (a mere 500 deg), you form a base which will allow air to fan the flames and circulate heat upwards. And then you stack, and keep stacking, gradually increasing the size of timber pieces as you move towards the centre where you can lob the big bits - chunks - happy in the knowledge that they will cook nicely at the hottest spot in the kiln, at around 1000 deg.
Once the kiln is full to the required point, it's lid on (with a gap left to help draw air) and lighting-up time. Just need to point out at this point that obviously the idea is not to 'burn' the wood in the traditional sense otherwise you'd end up with a pile of ash. The process is all about ridding the wood of water and other volatile compounds and leaving behind pretty much just the carbon.
The fire is started by poking a flame through one of the vents - it caught readily, but just to check Pete used a cunning device known as a small mirror to see in along the vents either side. It's important to check that the burn is even - and vents and chimneys are opened and blocked accordingly until it is going nicely. At this point, there are four vented chimneys pouring out thick white smoke that is, mostly, the water being forced out of the wood. That is then left for several hours until the smoke immediately above the chimney tops is coming out almost clear. At that point the timber has dried sufficiently and the kiln is ready to be damped down, sealed with sand and left for around 24 hours for the charcoal to slowly form.
The six other people on our course day were camping on-site - or staying in Bulworthy's hand-built off-grid cabin (pic below) - and so were able to see the results the following day when the kiln was opened and around 80 sacks of Devon charcoal bagged up.
Part of the day involved a guided walk around the woods, hearing about what has been achieved with the land and trees so far and likely next steps, picking blackberries as we went and meeting three handsome Oxford Sandy and Black pigs and a gaggle of semi-wild fowl. Every stage of development here has been designed for long-term sustainability and environmental gain and to be as low impact as possible - from replacing spruce tree stock with mixed woodland broadleaves, to clearing ponds and slowly restoring areas of rare culm grassland.
Having been doing this for 10 years at Bulworthy Knap, Pete and Anna are not surprisingly extremely knowledgeable about living off-grid in your own patch of woodland. As for their charcoal business, it's dirty, hard work, and it ain't always sunny when you're labouring outdoors with your face covered in smuts and smoke - but we loved it (OK, we were only doing it for a few hours, but hey).
Our day course was dotted with fresh coffees and teas, homemade cookies and flapjacks, and lunch was some pretty awesome slow-cooked pork burgers (from the nearby field, of course) served from an outdoor, bunting-clad kitchen and seating area. We all learnt new stuff, had a hands-on go, got covered in dust and loved every minute of it. Bow-making course next, I reckon.
Oh and the party bags weren't bad, either.
Thanks to Pete and Anna at Bulworthy for a really excellent course and fun day. Go to https://bulworthy.uk/ to find out more about their off-grid project, or to book a course or rent the cabin.