Living National Treasure
In the return of our classic series, Paula Lester talks to Shropshire-based Rex Key, one of the three remaining claypipe makers in Britain
Idon’t smoke. I did puff on a pipe once for a promotional leaflet, but I didn’t inhale,’ admits Rex Key, one of Britain’s three remaining clay-pipe makers, who’s been crafting tobacco pipes for more than 20 years.
A former chief sub-editor on the Birmingham Mail, Mr Key’s pipedream began after moving to the Shropshire village of Broseley, where elegant, long-handled clay pipes were first produced some 400 years ago, peaking in the 17th century, when the quality of British-made pipes was acknowledged worldwide.
‘I kept digging up clay pipes from my garden and ended up with a wheel-barrowful, then, through research, discovered pipe-making was one of the area’s first cottage industries,’ he explains. ‘Back then, pipes were a working man’s luxury.’
now in his seventies, Mr Keys continues to fashion pipes in the traditional manner, by pressing white clay into a Victorian castiron mould, finishing each one by hand and firing them at more than 1,000˚C in an electric kiln.
Indeed, demand for his wares from film and tv productions—such as the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ films and the BBC’S Lark
Rise to Candleford—civil War reenactment societies and Masonic lodges is so high that Mr Keys recently had to turn down an order for 1,500 pipes from the Pickwick Bicycle Club.
‘I do enjoy making them,’ he enthuses. ‘I find it relaxing and therapeutic and I love the fact I’m carrying on an old heritage craft and a local industry that supported our little village for centuries.’ PL www.broseleypipes.co.uk