Who wakes up early on a Saturday morning filled with excitement to visit a porcelain factory??

Well, Jess does, anyway.

After a quick breakfast, we rode the tandem into town and, in lieu of any bike parking spaces, locked it up in front of what seemed to be the least likely place it would get stolen: the Enniskillen Royal British Legion Club. From there, it was a hop and skip onto the #30 bus to Donegal which stopped in Belleek, home of the famed and eponymously named pottery studio in County Fermanagh. It is situated right on the Irish border, which made for some fun zigzagging from one side to the other, watching the road signs change from miles to kilometres, English to Irish-and-English, and green to...slightly different green. It's about the only way you can tell there's a border here at all, as everything is otherwise completely integrated. 

 Stopped at a convenience store to pick up something to drink, and came across this monstrosity. Honestly, what is salad cream? (Neil says it's UKIP mayonnaise).

Stopped at a convenience store to pick up something to drink, and came across this monstrosity. Honestly, what is salad cream? (Neil says it's UKIP mayonnaise).

Before our tour started, we walked through the main hall where they had various engraved copper plates displayed, most likely used for newspapers and signs in the past. The intricate details continued in the "History of Belleek" exhibition which set out to explain how the style of their pottery evolved over time starting in 1857.

DSCF8697.jpg

It was a great introduction to the real treat - a 30-minute walking tour of the studio that covers all areas of production from start to finish. Part of the magic includes seeing the craftspeople build everything from scratch and being able to ask them questions as they work. It's a brilliant first-hand glimpse into a normally mysterious process, and Belleek has (rightfully) seen the benefits of inviting interested parties in to understand and appreciate their operation. It's what has allowed them to keep their doors open for the last 160 years.

 The first step in creating any Belleek product is Mould Making. This is a very slow and tedious process that can take anywhere a couple days for small ornaments and upwards of months for larger pieces. Once the master mould is finalised, it can be used to produce any number of working moulds (from where the final pieces will be manufactured) out of plaster of paris, which is very absorbent and casts well. 

The first step in creating any Belleek product is Mould Making. This is a very slow and tedious process that can take anywhere a couple days for small ornaments and upwards of months for larger pieces. Once the master mould is finalised, it can be used to produce any number of working moulds (from where the final pieces will be manufactured) out of plaster of paris, which is very absorbent and casts well. 

 Then, it's to the Casting Department, where the liquid casting slip is poured into the working moulds and left to cool for 2-3 minutes before being emptied out - what remains will be the Belleek product. The casting slip is comprised of China Clay from Cornwall, Feldspar from Norway, Potash (mined and manufactured salts that make up potassium), and water, and is piped directly to each worker's desk.

Then, it's to the Casting Department, where the liquid casting slip is poured into the working moulds and left to cool for 2-3 minutes before being emptied out - what remains will be the Belleek product. The casting slip is comprised of China Clay from Cornwall, Feldspar from Norway, Potash (mined and manufactured salts that make up potassium), and water, and is piped directly to each worker's desk.

 At this stage, the product is known as "Green Ware". This is also when assemblage such as adding a handle and spout for a teapot is done. After 24 hours of drying, you're left with a very chalky white delicate piece that's known as "White Ware", and this is also when fettling takes place - using sharp tools to remove any excess clay, raw edges, and other imperfections before the first firing.

At this stage, the product is known as "Green Ware". This is also when assemblage such as adding a handle and spout for a teapot is done. After 24 hours of drying, you're left with a very chalky white delicate piece that's known as "White Ware", and this is also when fettling takes place - using sharp tools to remove any excess clay, raw edges, and other imperfections before the first firing.

 Belleek is world-renowned for its Flowering and Basketweaving, so it wouldn't be a tour without a walk through that department. Each flower detail is made entirely by hand, from the petals to the leaves to the stem, which means that no two pieces are ever the same. The same goes for each basket - the "strands" are created separately. The clay used here is the same as in the Casting department with the addition of Gum Arabic to make it more pliable for the craftspeople to work with. It is truly astonishing to see how someone could make a beautiful rose or basket in just minutes - the result of years worth of apprenticeships.

Belleek is world-renowned for its Flowering and Basketweaving, so it wouldn't be a tour without a walk through that department. Each flower detail is made entirely by hand, from the petals to the leaves to the stem, which means that no two pieces are ever the same. The same goes for each basket - the "strands" are created separately. The clay used here is the same as in the Casting department with the addition of Gum Arabic to make it more pliable for the craftspeople to work with. It is truly astonishing to see how someone could make a beautiful rose or basket in just minutes - the result of years worth of apprenticeships.

DSCF8745.jpg
 Once the firing process is complete, the pieces travel to the Paint Shop, where each colour and adornment is once again painted by hand. After a final inspection, they are ready to be packed and shipped to a lucky recipient.

Once the firing process is complete, the pieces travel to the Paint Shop, where each colour and adornment is once again painted by hand. After a final inspection, they are ready to be packed and shipped to a lucky recipient.

After a very informative morning well spent, we realised we were famished. The town proper is only a few minutes' walk away, and we went along the tiny main street in search of a quick lunch option as the last bus back to Enniskillen was fast approaching. Belleek is rather out on a limb at the far end of Lough Erne, and small as it is, it's the only settlement of any size hereabouts. The night before, we had caught a story on the local TV news about the forthcoming closure of the town's only bank. Not exactly an unusual occurrence, but this was the only bank around for miles, with the next nearest located in Enniskillen, 40km away. This had the locals in an uproar, as they were facing two 45-minute bus journeys just to get hold of some cash. As we walked past the Bank of Ireland with its "CLOSING SOON" signs, a gentle protest was underway, with patrons handing out leaflets pleading that they not be forgotten.

Belleek isn't exactly overflowing with lunch options and having considered all three of them, we settled on The Lemon Tree for a round of toasties. It's a surprising find in a place like this – a quaint-but-trendy sandwich bar that looked like it belonged more in Brooklyn than Belleek. Their speciality was tapas, which Neil found most amusing for the sheer unlikeliness of it all. After a stop at the chemist to try and get something to fend off Neil's cold, we were back on the bus to Enniskillen.

Before heading out again for dinner, we took advantage of our downtime to get in a bit of Saturday afternoon shopping. First up was trying to find a bike shop, which as elsewhere in the country, was a complete and utter failure. With signs advertising the Kingfisher Cycling Trail, as the West Fermanagh Link originates from here, we were disappointed that the city centre wasn't better equipped. We drowned our sorrows into pints of Mauds Ice Cream - honeycomb flavour, natch. Nostalgic for Neil, where-has-this-been-all-my-life revelatory for Jess.

DSCF8756.jpg

The evening saw us doing something rather different: leaving dry land for the first time on the tour. The MV Kestrel offers an all-inclusive cruise that takes its passengers along Upper and Lower Lough Erne (passing by Devenish Island) before dropping them off at the Killyhevlin Hotel for dinner. For £25 per adult, it's a pleasant enough way to spend a Saturday evening seeing the sights and eating a 3-course meal without breaking the bank. And let's be honest, if you want to see the sunset over the lough, you might as well be in the lough, relaxed and with a beer in hand. Dinner afterwards was typical hotel fare, and as we ate, the inevitable wedding reception was in full swing around us.

 Devenish Island, home to a monastic settlement that was first erected in the sixth century. Now strewn with the ruins of those original buildings, it's a beautiful sight as the sun goes down. 

Devenish Island, home to a monastic settlement that was first erected in the sixth century. Now strewn with the ruins of those original buildings, it's a beautiful sight as the sun goes down. 

 Guess which one is sick and which one is in recovery?

Guess which one is sick and which one is in recovery?

On our ride home, we picked up beers and chips at the drive-through liquor store next door (and suddenly, we're back in America!) and watched Match of the Day in our underwear. 'Twas a wild Saturday night.

Comment