The Axe Valley 'Walking Stones'

A school based ceramics project

This project aimed to develop an appreciation of the geology and landscape of Dartmoor through ceramics.


Axe Valley Communty College is partner in The Woodroffe School's Arts College status.

Read more about the Axe Valley/Woodroffe partnership here.



Background Information

We teamed up with the potter Nic Collins who draws inspiration from the rugged qualities of the environment on Dartmoor. Involved from the school were 16 students in Year 8 who saw the project through from beginning to end; I acted as project coordinator and Nick Mussell was our technician. John Mythen, geographer and Deputy Head at Axe Valley, supplied much of the geological input for the project.   Financial assistance was received from the Devon Guild of Craftsmen's Big Hand Little Hand scheme and The Woodroffe School in Lyme Regis as part of their specialist art status community funding. Support was received from many other individuals and where possible I have credited them within the text.

Charles Sinclair

Head of Art at The Axe Valley Community College, Axminster in Devon.



On the 3rd of February 2005 we headed out to visit Nic Collins at his pottery in Moretonhampstead. On this first visit we saw two stones each a meter high standing in the grass. The surfaces were richly encrusted; the deep cracks spoke of erosion; shells and stones embedded in the surfaces were reminiscent of fossils; the colours were subtle and sympathetic. This recent experimental work by Nic resonates with echoes of prehistory.

These forms became central to the development of the project. Through them we could explore the ancient history of the moor and awaken the imaginations of the students, interpreting the megaliths and stone rows dotting the bleak moorland regions. We could also use the firing experience to give the students a sense of the transformation that occurs within the geological processes when extreme heat is applied to sedimentary deposits.

Nic explained to us how he manages to break conventions in his work yet come up with such an impressive result. "There is a Japanese custom of throwing the last vessel to go into the kiln immediately before the firing begins, so it goes in wet. Because this has no time to dry on the outside forming a skin, it does not explode when heated as might be expected.

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Fig 2   Nic Collins (left), with students admiring one of his stones

"I experimented with this phenomenon and fired large slabs of slip mixed with hay and sand, then heated them fast to 1300º centigrade. Treated like this the normal restrictions on thickness and size are no longer a constraint. As the piece is made in the kiln, the size of the kiln determines its maximum size. I bed the slip onto a mix of sand and sawdust and this sits on the kiln shelf above the firebox."                   

" The under surface is decorated with materials that fire out to leave an impression or withstand the temperature and get embedded into the mass. The top surface gets a similar treatment, but takes on a different character as it is in contact with flame not sand."

"One of the interesting effects is caused by shrinking; this creates fissures running deep into the heart of the new stone, adding much to the character of these forms. These often need to be strengthened later". The students were impressed with the ageless quality in the stones and one asked innocently, "Where did you find these?"

We moved on next to Kestor where Willem Montagne, the National Parks Education Officer, was our guide. We walked to some of the numerous Bronze Age stones on Dartmoor and imagined how their creators might have used them. Some were imposing, some barely noticeable. Human interference had been light. It is influence of external processes such as weather and lichen growth that give these forms much of their interest.

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Fig 3 A Dartmoor Standing stone

Fig 4 Part of a stone row near Kestor Rocks

We wished to make similar monolithic or multiple stone structures putting a modern slant on them, instead of standing stones ours were to be 'walking stones'; a sculpture of multiple stones, like the stone rows, that were to be moved by the viewers. People would be asked to participate in the piece by lifting the stone at the back of the line and placing it at the front. In this way our stone row would walk across the moor, moving in the direction determined by a random group of people, each individual having a small part to play in its movement. We liked the idea that we might have to go out and search in unexpected areas for it next time we visited.

Kestor is a typical Dartmoor tor, a hard granite outcrop protruding above the undulating moorland. Willem explained the erosion of the granite's crystalline formation that led to the sculpted forms we see today. "It is the erosion of the feldspars in the granite that led to kaolin being deposited as clay in the Bovey basin just south of here". Having seen the tor, we were to go to the clay beds and make a clear link between the two.

After a lunch 'on the hoof', we got to Preston Manor Quarry belonging to WBB Minerals in Newton Abbott. Here Martin Milne gave us a tour of their ball clay works, relating the clay beds to the geology of the area and the sequence of erosion and forestation on Dartmoor. However bleak the moor, it did not match the desolation in the vastness of the quarry. Martin kept the students enthralled and when they were invited to sample some kaolin by putting into their mouths. Seen as a giant sweetshop, the quarry did hold appeal. The mined clay was drier than I expected, a consistent damp solid rather than plastic despite variations in rainfall, the colours were light grey through to deep charcoal. Martin gave us a bag of china clay, one of ball clay and another of very plastic ball clay from North Devon with a recipe to blend them. Mixing this in a dough maker back at school we were soon experimenting with our own clay.

Fig 5   One of the students sampling clay in the quarry



The heart of the project was a week of kiln building and firing run by Nic Collins. Due to Nic's busy schedule he did stipulate that it would have to take place in February and as you can imagine the weather took full advantage of this timing. Deep frosts, heavy snow showers and freezing temperatures tested everyone's resolve.

We created two kilns, one a roman updraft kiln, the other a temporary cross draft kiln. The designs of both were extremely efficient, Nic's thoughtful construction proving very important.

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Fig 6 Nic with students planning updraft kiln

Fig 7 Inspecting the contents of the updraft kiln with the careful use of a mirror

Applying the insulation material to the outside of the bricks of the roman updraft kiln proved very enjoyable. A thick sloppy mix of clay, vermiculite and sand were trowelled onto the outer surface and smoothed by hand. The students loved this bit and decorated the outside with slip resist designs of their hands. We filled this kiln with some of the students work made after the Dartmoor day. Nick Mussell had successfully sourced some unusual wood for the firing and we were all eager to try out curtain pole off cuts as a fuel source! Begun at 9 am, by 3 pm we had comfortably reached the required 1100? centigrade. The kiln looked and fired beautifully. With this kiln staying as a permanent addition to our art room garden and knowing that we can fire it within a school day means it is going to be convenient for us to use for other students. We will be trying it out again very shortly. The unglazed pots came out a sumptuous chocolate brown with swirling flame marks over their surface.

Fig 8   Firing the updraft kiln.

The cross draft kiln was to fire up the stones. The basic design of this was very simple but watching Nic ponder different elements in its construction made us appreciate the wealth of experience he was bringing to the project. With the students laying the bricks the main form was soon constructed. Sand moulds were designed and materials placed into the rough bed to enliven the surface. The size and eventual handling properties of

the stones were taken into account. Another messy job excited the students as they ladled in heaped handfuls of slip mixture and shaped it into the moulds. The top surfaces were designed with similar materials to the under surface. Our two large stones were in this first firing.

Fig 9 Using the slip mixture to build up the stones in the kiln

It was the third day when we fired both kilns for the first time. The Roman kiln gave more opportunity for the students to be involved, stoking the fire in each of the three ports. The cross fired kiln was mainly fuelled by gas bottle and a little wood at the end, but having to take this to 1300º meant considerable patience and skill. Nic's commitment to this project was clearly illustrated in his determination to get this kiln to temperature, happy to stay late into the night if necessary. Watching the pyrometer rise and fall through the twelve hundred mark time and time again, we began to appreciate something of the art of kiln firing. Darkness fell, it was bitterly cold and a beautiful moment was experienced as large flakes of snow glided down around us. As it was we celebrated a successful climb to full temperature at about 5.30pm. This day had provided us with some outstanding experiences.

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Fig 10 Firing in the snow

Thursday saw the fascinating process of unpacking the stones from the kiln. To my surprise the cross draft kiln was quite cool, (the freezing night air having had something to do with it). The bricks were stripped off, revealing the top surfaces of the stones. Pale yellow-grey, pulled and fused by the heat, dripped with glaze and peppered with stone, they confronted and confused us. Gently we nursed one stone out of its bed, lifting it up for the first time to view the underside. This was stronger in colour, earthier, and surprisingly different in character from the front. The second stone had to wait for its release; so fragile was it at this point it had to be injected with quick drying cement into some of the cracks. Its lifting was no disappointment as a dynamic, richly textured and colourful surface presented itself.

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Fig 11 Nic Explaining the use of cones

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                                Fig 12   A proud achievement, 1378º centigrade

That same morning we prepared the kiln for its second firing. New beds for three smaller stones were created, and we were able to experiment further with the range of materials we used. Bones, granite, leaves, glazes, wood ash, shells and kaolin pellets all made their contribution to the surfaces.


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Fig 13 Slip form prior to firing

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Fig 14 After firing


The firing the next day would start at 7am. This third and last firing was a fitting climax to the week.The day passed with everyone involved in a variety of tasks; a group of students had taken responsibility for hot drinks at regular intervals to help keep the cold out; Nic delegated the controls for an hour to give a slide show of his work and others busied themselves clearing up the space. That left the last part of the afternoon for the final push up to temperature. Nic had made some subtle alterations to the kiln design and he wanted to hold the 1300º for longer to allow the clay further maturation. We repeated a steady rise to 1100º with the gas bottle, then combing gas and wood we planned to see it all the way up. The initial effect of the wood was a drop on the pyrometer, it then rose steadily hopefully pushing through its previous high. The pace of this could not be hurried. So we stoked, we waited, we watched. And patience was eventually rewarded and the 1300º soaked for half an hour. But Nic had one more trick up his sleeve and taking the gas poker to the rear of the kiln and opening up a port, we watched in amazement as the temperature climbed to the highest he had ever fired to, 1378º centigrade. This success made a fitting end to the week.

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Fig 15   The back (under surface) of one of the three Walking Stones

We unpacked he stones the following week. The higher temperature had further vitrified the clay making them more robust. Even so quick drying cement was carefully inserted into the cracks on each one so that they could withstand regular handling. Each had an individuality determined by the student's construction and the place in the kiln; lumps of granite became embedded within the larger forms, feldspar crystals melting out to flow over the surface and in other places the delicate tracery of leaves were evident between smooth sections of clay. I was conscious that we were complete novices in this technique but that made the results more exciting to contemplate. Each one was mounted onto charred wooden blocks.



The Devon Guild of Craftsmen had sponsored the week's workshop through their education program and the stones were exhibited there next to three of Nic's pots. We took the students to see this exhibition and share in the celebration of the project.

Fig 16   Exhibition in The Devon Guild of Craftsmen

Returning equipment to Nic at his pottery a few Saturdays later, we found him firing up his own kiln for a forthcoming exhibition in London. The students particularly enjoyed these visits, witnessing quite a different lifestyle to their own, and being able to rummage through Nic's spoil heap for fragments or discarded pots. Nic saw the three smaller stones together for the first time and we practiced walking the stones before taking them up to Hay Tor that afternoon.

Blessed with fantastic weather this day, we picnicked near the van, and set the stones onto some well grazed grass. The students were loosely organised into teams and the line of stones started their first walk. Handling the stones could be rough work, gloves were useful, but up they went. The sculpture climbed to the ridge of Hay Tor. As photos were taken, a fox hunt went by, generating heated discussion. Although this walk was predetermined, it gave us a clear idea of how to things could work.   To realise its full potential, we need to get permission from the Park Authorities for the long term sighting of a mobile sculpture. There are many issues to work through first, and therein lays another project.

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Fig 17   The three Walking Stones near Hay Tor

Fig 18 Walking the stones

I would like to thank Nic Collins for the enormous part he played in this project, for his willingness to be involved, for his steadfastness, his expertise, his enthusing of the students and in his ability to share in the vision. We have been very fortunate and are indebted to you. The wealth of knowledge that has been freely shared has been   stimulating.

I will end with a quote from Nic: "It was a great pleasure and experience for me to work with the children who had no preconceptions about how the clay should be worked. With great enthusiasm we got stuck in and made the stones.....It was an inspiring week for me and has rekindled my passion for further experimentation in this area of ceramics."

Charles Sinclair, Head of Art at The Axe Valley Community College, Axminster in Devon.

Fig 19   The stones on the moor

Read more about the Axe Valley/Woodroffe partnership here.