‘Can you handle the heat?’ I asked Mia of UKTravelRoom as we felt the searing blast of the furnace wash over us as it opened, offering us a bright glimpse of the fiery pools of molten lava within. With a grimace, she clenched her fist and stepped bravely forward. I was a little tempted to push her in to see if the story of Hansel and Gretel would be true, but I like her too much to do so.
Soon, it was my turn to step up. Spearing my rod into the furnace, I observed an orb glob slowly form at the end. Lifting it up and swirling the rod to keep the orb in a ball like shape, I was transfixed as I watched little drops of fire rain back into the molten pit.
Now, you’re probably wondering where I am. Could I be in hell? Could I be in the underbelly of a volcano? Or could I be in Pudding Lane, the site where the Great Fire of London started? Actually, surprisingly, none of them. I was in the dark bowels of the National Glass Centre in the Wear Valley in the North East of England ready to do glass blowing, a historic past time that has seen a major industry thrive in the Newcastle and Tyne and Wear Valley. I was given this opportunity thanks to NewcastleGateshead Tourism Office and Traverse 2014 as part of a Sunday experience of the conference.
I was truly excited to do glass blowing. Not only because it is a truly unique experience to do so, it also gave me a chance to re-connect with my heritage. My great-grandfather was a prominent glassblower in the city of York and ever since I had started tracing back my family tree, he had always interested me with his unique profession. This time, I would be doing him proud by doffing my hat in respect for him.
Soon, I brought out the glowing hot orb from the furnace, wiping the sweat off my brow, feeling the pinpricks of a heat rash scatter across my arms and my red face. Blowing my breath out profusely in relief that I had safely navigated the workshop floor without stumbling over my large feet or dropping my rod, I placed the rapidly hardening orb onto the table where I had already laid out glitter decorations. Rolling the orb thus and fro still keeping that ball shape, I silently cursed when I didn’t roll quick enough to see most of the glitter bunch mostly on one side. However, I soldiered on and as soon all the glitter was stuck on, the rod was taken off me and I was told to sit with the expert ready to do the main event….glassblowing.
There are no machines involved, there’s no modernity or anything that could help you with minimal effort. It was purely using all of your lung capacity to blow as much air as you could whether as hard or soft as you can to manipulate the shape of your project. As the expert laid the orb end rod across his lap with a chisel tool to finely craft the shape, we discussed the art of glass blowing as he told me to be ready to glass-blow. Feeling mightily like the wolf in the Three Little Pigs ready to huff and puff and blow this glasshouse down, he told me to go for it as hard as I could. Clenching my mouth over the rim of the end of the hollow rod, I gave it as good as I got emptying all my life and soul into this strangely connective experience. Sitting back, feeling pleased with myself, evidently showing with a big grin on my face, the expert simply looked at me and told me to blow harder. Crushed, I realised that this was a tall order. I had literally given the best of my ability and my lungs weren’t up for it. I could imagine my great-grandfather shaking his head down at me.
Pursing my lips again, I reached down and took the rod in my mouth again, feeling determined to prove to myself and everyone that I truly have glassblower’s air in me. I blew, blew and consistently blew until the expert yelped at me to stop. The orb grew, already majestic and glinting with the glitters in the warm orange light exuding from the furnace. This time, the expert told me to blow softly to keep the rounded shape in place. I decided earlier on that I wanted a glass Christmas tree bauble to give to my parents. After all, this was truly a family affair. (Not because I wouldn’t get the blame for it dropping off the flimsy xmas tree branch). Therefore, I wanted to keep the rounded shape as much as possible. Finally, it was time blow as hard as I could to expand the orb now that the ball shape was established. Using his hand to signal the ferocity of the expelled breath, it was almost like it was blowing a trumpet to weave a musical and arty magic caught frozen in wintery glass. As soon as I knew it, the glass blowing was over. I was spent, panting away gasping for breath. Seeing the borders of my vision darken intermingling with waving lights that weirdly looked the same as the glitter in my newly crafted Christmas bauble, I was told to follow the expert to finish off crafting my soon to be family heirloom. The expert immediately crafted the hook handle of the bauble on the workshop table with a blowtorch and a screwdriver. I looked at him, impressed. With his dry and hard skin on his face, wrinkled in concentration as he stared down to ensure the flexing glass is fixed in place, I wondered if my great-grandfather could have looked like this. It all looked so easy. Finally, the orb was left in the oven to harden and cool down slowly ready to be posted out to us in the next few days. I just couldn’t wait.
Stepping back into the viewing area, I laid an arm round Mia and asked her if it was good for her as it was for me. Cheekily pushing me away, she gave me a bemused glance and we observed with praise for our efforts as we flicked through our photos ready to reveal to the blogging world on what a quite unique experience we had gone through. They were going to be jealous. But me? I was just satisfied to have carried on the glass-blowing tradition in my family.
Now, it was time for lunch and sunglasses. Intrigued? Wait for that post…