Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Les­lie Ged­des-brown’s neck­lace has a supris­ing his­tory

THE neck­lace I’m wear­ing is rather strange in that it con­sists of five pieces of clay, each about 1½in long. They have a sil­ver wire thrust through their hol­low cen­tres, which means they can hang on a leather boot­lace. They vary in colour: at the cen­tre is a bluey mot­tled one rather like mar­bled pa­per, but the oth­ers are in shades of beige and tan.

My hus­band thought they were part of an ex­otic seashell. My ini­tial guess was an ar­cane arte­fact found in a pharaoh’s tomb. Per­haps the legs of a tiny model ta­ble for him to take into the af­ter­life? They cer­tainly have that look of age about them.

Well, here’s the se­cret. They are bits of clay pipe, dis­cov­ered by the jeweller Amelia Parker (www.amelia-parker.com) from her favourite search­ing grounds in the Thames, east of Tower Bridge in London. From her sca­v­anges (what could be more Green than this re­cy­cling?), she pro­duces a whole range of jew­ellery made of bits of old pipes. There are bracelets, key rings and neck­laces, all us­ing the frag­ments.

My neck­lace cost £25, which seems very fair for the work put in, from mud­lark­ing in the river to work­ing the sil­ver hang­ers and, never forget, the orig­i­nal idea for the jew­ellery in the first place.

Un­like di­a­monds and pearls, there seems no short­age at all of bits of clay pipe. What is ex­tra­or­di­nary is that there are so many pieces to be found. It seems that our smok­ing an­ces­tors were con­stantly smash­ing up their pipes —too many ve­he­ment ges­tures round the pub ta­ble over a pot of ale or care­lessly sit­ting on your pipe in your back pocket per­haps. Then, they just took the bro­ken bits and tossed them into the Thames.

To­bacco ar­rived here in 1586, thanks to Sir Wal­ter Raleigh. It was so sur­pris­ing that, re­put­edly, his ser­vant threw a pail of wa­ter over him, think­ing he was on fire. Since then, a whole ar­chae­o­log­i­cal in­dus­try has grown around the clay pipe. The ear­li­est were prob­a­bly made in about 1570 and, says Miss Parker, by 1619, there were more than 100 pipe-mak­ing fac­to­ries in Lon- don alone. An­other ma­jor cen­tre was Bris­tol and both of th­ese cities were known for their el­e­gant de­signs. One ar­chae­ol­o­gist adds that coun­try folk smoked thicker ver­sions, not car­ing about style.

The fac­to­ries must have thought they were onto a winner: a nico­tine-ad­dicted pub­lic puff­ing away on frag­ile clay and con­stantly break­ing it. What could pos­si­bly go wrong other than more and more com­pe­ti­tion?

Well, some cun­ning pipemaker re­alised that the pipe could be a val­ued item. Pipe smok­ers wanted some­thing a bit more classy, some­thing that showed they were mid­dle—even up­per —class. Thus, the briar pipe ap­peared and the hey­day of clay-pipe smok­ing (about 1650– 1750) was over. All that was left were the bro­ken shards in the Thames—and, I sup­pose other large rivers—and, ex­traor­di­nar­ily, a whole lot of clay-pipe buffs. There’s even a mu­seum ded­i­cated to pipes.

I don’t sup­pose any­one to­day can re­call see­ing a clay-pipe smoker, not even a straw-cov­ered yokel in some West Coun­try pub. His pipe, his smock and trousers se­cured with twine have all dis­ap­peared as surely as Raleigh’s cod­piece.

Now, the briar pipe has gone the same way. When did you last see a pipe smoker? I can re­mem­ber Harold Wil­son em­ploy­ing the in­evitable puff­ing and tamp­ing needed to keep the thing go­ing when asked a dif­fi­cult ques­tion on TV.

I can vi­su­alise ac­tors such as Ken­neth More champ­ing on the stems in mo­ments of stress at sea, but a real man ac­tu­ally puff­ing at a briar pipe?

The pipe’s days are gone as surely as the clay pipes’ days. Is an­other jeweller mak­ing neck­laces from old briar-pipe stems?

‘All that was left were the bro­ken shards in the Thames

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