30 August 2002

There be Dragons

Want to ward off evil spirits? You could always try dragon ridge tiles

A FOREST of Dean pottery is finding fresh demand for roof decorations which were popular on 18th century coaching inns as a means of warding off evil spirits.

"Dragon ridge tiles were considered a sign of protection to travellers," says John Huggins, who runs Ruardean Garden Pottery. "If you saw two coaching inns and one had dragons on its roof, thats where you would probably prefer to stay." Of course, you would also know that the ridge tiles were doing their job helping to keep the roof in weathertight order.

The press-moulded terracotta beasts, which come on 12-inch or 18-inch tiles and as crouching and sitting guardian dragons for gateposts, have already winged their way around the world as far as Japan.

John, who has been a potter for more than 20 years, is already well-known for his garden pots and ornaments. He began making dragons about 12 years ago following a wave of enquiries.

"I dont know why people suddenly started asking for dragons but I enjoyed researching designs for them," he says.

The history of the beasts in British heraldry derives from the standard of Roman cohorts, although the significance of dragons as either fearsome or protective is found in many ancient cultures.

"I looked at pictures in childrens books but I most liked the dragons that are the guardians of the City of London and the heraldic dragons outside the law courts. They have such dramatic power," John recalls. "I distilled bits of what I saw to make my own designs."

The creatures are made from a special mix of Bristol and Lydney clay, using more sand and grog than for throwing clay. This produces a softer blend that is better for wiping into the plaster-of-Paris moulds. "Sand and grog help to open the body of the clay and make it more tolerant of shrinkage in the kiln," adds Nick James, who does the hand-pressing of the mix into the moulds.

"There are 17 pieces inside a dragon mould and it takes experience to press the clay in to the right, consistent depth," Nick continues. "Afterwards, I strap the two halves of the mould together and leave it for a couple of days. When they come off, the dragon is placed on a wooden former and things like scales can be added."

Its a far cry from his early job in audio-visual aids with the Ministry of Agriculture: "I didnt like being stuck in an office, so I left," he laughs.

A dragon takes 6-8 weeks to dry before firing for up to 50 hours, depending on size, in an electric kiln.

"Our ridge tiles will last for generations," John says. "Terracotta comes to life when the sun shines on it, particularly high quality like ours."

Never mind Beware the Dog signs, look up to the roof when next you visit friends.

&#8226 Inquiries: Ruardean Garden Pottery, West End, Ruardean, Forest of Dean GL17 9TP. Tel: 01594-543577, or see the web-site at www.ruardeanpottery.com

Sián Ellis