Settled amongst the rolling hills of Whichford, an oasis of traditional craftsmanship exists within Whichford Pottery, which transcends being a family-owned pottery shop with its passion for the age-old skill producing cherished crafts and memorable experiences.
It all began in 1976, when business owner and father, Jim Keeling, turned his childhood pastime into a now 43-year-old thriving workshop where he and his eldest son and daughter pride themselves on creating award-winning, singular handmade pots that delivers to all around the globe.
The Keelings’ aim to create an atmosphere that encourages teamwork and unique experiences for anyone who passes through.
We caught up with Jim to fill us in on the history of his beloved family business.
How did you get into pottery in the 1970’s?
I always remember playing with clay as a child and from the age of six I had a clay pit in the side of an old ditch in our back garden. All through my schooling I spent a lot of time in the art rooms with some pottery lessons in my teens. I even had clay in my rooms at Cambridge whilst studying archeology and history. I then went on to be apprenticed at Wrecclesham Pottery, Farnham, where the principle production was flowerpots.
Can you tell us about the pot crafting process and perhaps the satisfaction you get behind the wheel?
Being a craftsman is hard work and involves a great amount of discipline, the reward is the satisfaction of progress. Repetitive throwing is a skill in itself and the more you do it the better you get! Our master throwers have been throwing for over 15 years and are still learning. We throw as a job, which means that the relationship to the wheel is not always the romanticised stereotype.
What is a visitor’s experience at Whichford Pottery like?
We are often told that a visit to Whichford is like going back in time and that our site has a sense of the magical. Although our workshop is a very large building, it is set within the rolling Feldon hills and landscaped gardens, well away from any roads. The magic that people feel comes mainly from the team atmosphere in our working pottery where visitors are welcome to walk around and chat to the potters and admire the many skills on display. Our cafe, The Straw Kitchen, which is an outstanding addition, complements the experience with their generous atmosphere and delicious treats.
What makes your pots unique?
Our pots are made out of a blend of three local clays – we do this on site so we have complete control over the process and can ensure the correct elasticity for our throwers, the best porosity for plants and, of course, our 10-year frost-proof guarantee. Our pots are also unique because of the team behind them, each one will be slightly different and has its own story, shown by the maker’s marks, which feature on each pot. We also design everything in house and use ancient techniques and inspiration to add detail that a machine could never achieve. Above all our pots are a genuine reflection of centuries of craft and skill inherited from the old English Potters.
Your work is popular amongst Japanese Gardeners. How did they hear about your business? What is it like creating for them and some of your other global customers?
The Japanese heard about us through the Chelsea flower show in the 1990’s and have been good customers ever since. They have a natural affinity to complicated multi-species planting and a respect for craft so they’re great customers for us. We enjoy making for their taste as they appreciate decorative detail and we enjoy the design challenges.
We export roughly 25% of our production all over the world from Norway to Connecticut and think how wonderful it is that Whichford pots can be found in so many different places!
What are some of the greatest challenges you face running your business?
One of our main challenges has always been persuading customers that it is worth spending the extra money on sustainable, handmade, quality. We feel strongly about the need to keep craft manufacturing alive and the benefits that businesses such as ours bring to the community surrounding it and the many other positive social consequences. In terms of overcoming, well we are still here after 43 years in a turbulent capitalist boom and bust society so we must be doing something right!