Colours of Iron

COLOURS OF IRON - from left to Right, Hengistbury Red; Rotherhithe Orange, and Caput Mortuum

I am supposed to be telling you all about – Yarnadelic Remixes 0.1 – which started in 2020 and is due for release this spring/summer! I promise I will tell you all about it very soon but, before I start with that, I have a very random post I just have to get out of my system (ahem).

Buckle up: you are about to hear a lot of stuff about IRON and, specifically, about THE COLOURS OF IRON.

One of the places to which Mark and I are hoping to relocate is Boscombe near Bournemouth. It’s near one of our favourite coastal spots – Hengistbury Head. We started visiting this area when we realised it was the closest bit of coastline to Reading. Slowly we are getting to know it and a few weeks ago we went there to celebrate our sixth wedding anniversary.

Now, for context, I feel the need to explain that I am a total NERD about the MATERIALS associated with each anniversary. I really love the opportunity each one offers to investigate and explore the THINGS, OBJECTS and MATERIALS that play a part in a shared, domestic life. So far we’ve explored paper, cotton, leather, linen, wood and now – this year – IRON. I initially said to Mark “don’t worry, we already have the best cast iron thing in the world: the Dutch Oven that we use for making Sourdough: there are no other IRON things we need”. However, I then started thinking about IRON, and the NERD instinct kicked in.

Mark had read something about plans to reconstruct an Iron Age Roundhouse next to the Visitors Centre at Hengistbury Head; I remembered the beloved EMPORIUM in Christchurch – a maze of junk and antique stalls set within a wondrous warehouse – where I felt sure we might find some useful domestic IRON; and we agreed on an iron-rich evening meal containing spinach and fish and other appropriately ferrous ingredients. IRON NERD scheme instigated, off we went to Hengistbury Head.

A huge red iron-rich rock on the beachy edges of the saltmarsh around Christchurch Bay

We quickly realised our choice of place was even more appropriate than we’d initially guessed; the presence of iron is evident everywhere, in huge red rocks with an unmistakeable rust-like patina; and in little rivers of red that drain down through the layers of earth and leech out onto the pebbled edges of Stanpit saltmarsh.

Little red run off of iron stones, down towards the waters' edge on the salt-marsh side of the Headland

little red-stained rocks mixed in with the smooth round grey pebbles

We learnt that between 1848 to 1872, Hengistbury Head lost quite a lot of its strength and structural integrity to the Hegistbury Mining Company. Intensive quarrying began stripping the headland of some of the huge Iron Doggers – massive iron-rich boulders – that provide its heavy base. With many Iron Doggers gone, the tall cliffs were weakened and eroded, which led to the loss of over a third of the head. Thankfully there is no more intensive mining! The whole environment is now carefully conserved and under careful protection. Part of what was once the quarry is now a beautiful lake in which you can see Iron Doggers, still.

Quarry lake with big Iron Doggers (red rocks) in the water

Closeup of big red Iron Doggers

The Iron Doggers contain up to 30% Iron Ore that can be smelted down to make iron, and the same mineral-rich qualities of the land that made this place so appealing to Victorian Industrialists also made it an important seaport during the Iron Age. An amazing volunteer group – Performing the Past – run an enthusiastic education and outreach programme, designed to engage the public in the exceptional Iron Age history of this area (of which more, momentarily).

Suffice to say, the IRON theme had got totally out of control to me, so exciting were all these interconnected ideas! When we returned from our outing I went on an IRON SPREE and found such things as a piece of meteorite made mostly of IRON or, as I like to think of it: SPACE IRON!!!

a piece of meteorite containing mostly iron

I also tracked down some certified pieces of haematite online, in order to try to compare them to the little handful of red stones collected while walking around Hengistbury Head (I am no Geologist and am only just beginning to try and understand how IRON can be in so many different kinds of rocks, stones and gemstones…).

Haemetite - it looks like a silvery red graphite kidney made of stone

My handful of red stones

I began reading more about the different kinds of reds, yellows and blacks that can be made from various iron-rich ores and ochres, and reaching back through my memories of art school and towards the earliest kinds of human art – the cave paintings – which I recall were created using iron-rich earth pigments and minerals.

I purchased a bag of a brown, magenta pigment called Caput Mortuum derived from Haemetite. I dug out a little bottle of precious pigment from the London Pigment Company, made from the iron-rich yellow earth of Rotherhithe. I bought that particular pigment over a year ago because I was completely blown away by the idea of pigments with real material ties to places – a natural outcome, I suppose, of my years-long obsession with Reading bricks and the relationships between local geography and the overall colours of a place. When I get like this about something there’s no stopping it and even if I don’t know where I’m going with it (and I don’t…) the excitement train MUST BE BOARDED when it arrives.

a little alchemist-style bottle of powdered orange/yellow pigment with a hand-written label saying London Pigments: Rotherhithe Orange

It had not escaped my notice back in January that a large poster advertised an IRON AGE BLACKSMITHING DEMONSTRATION at the Visitors Centre, on 25th February. I, a normally reticent riser, was up at the crack of dawn packing coffee and snacks into the car and away we went, back to Hengistbury Head.

People standing around a deep sandpit in which an Iron-age Blacksmithing area has been set up, and tools are being forged

Next to the highly-recommended Visitors Centre, we found volunteers of the Performing the Past group demonstrating how Iron-Age tools were forged, in a very hot fire. We saw beautiful pots fired in a hand-built kiln – all of which were made from local clay (including the kiln) – and in colours once again speaking to the great presence of IRON in this place.

Pinch pots made of iron-rich clay that fires to shades of red and grey and silver

One volunteer told me all about smelting IRON in a home-made bloomery, and showed me a hunk of Hengistbury Head IRON that he had smelted in this way.

Bloom Iron - a big hunk of dirty IRON with bits of charcoal and carbon encrusted on the outside

The volunteer group are going to have a smelting demonstration later in the month, using a Bloomery made – again – of local clay.

Small handbuilt Bloomery for smelting iron: basically a wide clay chimney that tapers at the top, with holes in the sides into which pumps will be placed, to keep air flowing into the furnace when it's lit

From what I can gather, the Bloomery will be filled with crushed IRON ORE and charcoal; as the charcoal burns, the air inside the furnace will become quite starved of oxygen – a condition required to remove the oxides from the IRON. These will pour out of the Bloomery in a river of what’s known as “slag” and after many hours of burning, the chunks of IRON left within the Bloomery will come together in a big lump known as BLOOM IRON. There are still impurities in the BLOOM IRON, and it will need to be hit and heated many times to knock those out and to leave a pure chunk of IRON but the idea of this immediate and accessible form of making metal from ore really inspired me.

We went around the Visitors Centre and learnt much about the mineral history of the area…

IRON STONE displays in the Visitors' Centre

…and saw the ways in which the Performing the Past volunteer group had put the red ochre to use as a pigment:

Red ochre in bowls where it has been curshed as a basis for making paint

Cave art painted onto hide using earth-based pigments and copying the designs and shapes and themes of examples found at Lascaux

I learnt from the volunteers that it would be much easier to crush my red stones if I roasted them first, to drive out unwanted moisture, and to soften them. I learnt that this particular iron-rich formation is called Siderite.

My red stones resting on a slate

There’s something profoundly amazing about holding stones in my hands, perceiving their colours – in this case a rich spectrum of earthy, nuanced reds – and then linking those shades to the whole palette and feeling of one particular place. There’s something profoundly amazing about recognising the creative potentials of a natural mineral pigment – about perceiving and appreciating its colours – and knowing that this was one of the earliest art materials human beings ever used.

I roasted my rocks, as instructed…

rocks in the fire

…took them from the ash, once they were cooled…

my rocks in the ashes

the red rock, on being taken from the ashes

…and used a sturdy hammer to break them into smaller pieces…

heavy metal hammer and little red rock pieces

…then I transferred the pieces into a granite pestle and mortar and ground them to as finer powder as I could…

red dust in a granite pestle and mortar

…I then mixed my fine powder with a combination of honey, glycerin, ox gall and gum arabic, and transferred the resultant sludge onto my mixing slab, and worked it together with my muller. The muller has a frosted glass bottom and the mixing slab also has a frosted glass texture; working together like two sheets of ultrafine sandpaper, they grind mineral dust to an even finer granularity while the other ingredients form a kind of suspension into which the coloured dust is conveyed. When this dries, it will be a watercolour paint that I can use.

Muller and mixing slab in action

Hengistbury Red - the red paint made from the iron rich rocks of Hengistbury Head

I think this is truly an amazing shade of red. It’s the red of rocks; of earthy rivulets running down into the saltmarsh. It has the dark of haematite; the glow of rust. It’s made of fire and ancient plates of the earth moving. It’s a red that the oldest peoples to ever walk on the earth might recognise. It’s earthy, it’s heavy, it’s made of place. It’s made of IRON. It’s completely mind-blowing to me that it’s possible to make something like this from a handful of rocks found on the beach and I love how it echoes all the colours I have seen walking in this wonderful place – what a truly special colour. You can see it here in my KNITSONIK Bullet Journal – it’s on the left; in the middle is the Rotherhithe Orange and on the right, the alluring dinge of Caput Mortuum.

COLOURS OF IRON - from left to Right, Hengistbury Red; Rotherhithe Orange, and Caput Mortuum

The first thing I did was use my Hengistbury Red watercolour paint to decorate a card for the Visitors Centre – we learnt so much on that chilly morning in February.

Is there anything more inspiring than people keen on growing and sharing knowledge and ideas?
I’m really not sure that there is. Biggest thanks to the Hengistbury Head Visitors Centre and to the Performing the Past volunteer group for creating so many ways for us to engage with this special place. See you for the smelting?


8 thoughts on “Colours of Iron

    1. I missed this entry completely while traveling – what an EXTREMELY COOL surprise to come home to! What a gorgeous red! What a trio of hues together! And they are FROM PLACES! My excitement train is clearly not stopping in at Eloquence today, but wow!!

      1. Libby this excitement is exactly how I feel about the home made paints!!! FROM PLACES!!! So happy you feel it too :)

  1. We once urgently needed a new toilet on our anniversary. After buying and installing it that day, I looked up what anniversary it was for us. Porcelain!!! We still laugh about the incredible coincidence.
    (Happy anniversary to you two, by the way!)

  2. Oh wow Felix, this is so interesting and good to read! Thanks! Making paint is such fun and all the other things are so interesting. Have fun with your iron year xxx

  3. Thank you!!
    Learning things by reading your posts makes my happy.
    Armchairtraveling we call it.
    Please go on with it!
    Warm greetings from a knitteraddict from Holland!! ⚘

  4. Wow. I love your excitement and learning things you learned. I may never get to where you live so I love your posts.

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