A Career in Clay: Meet Hamilton Wiltshire, master potter of Barbados

 “I thought clay must feel happy in the good potter’s hand.” – Janet Fitch, White Oleander

Hamilton Wiltshire demonstrating his unique pottery skills.

On our third trip to Barbados, my wife decided that to celebrate her birthday she would like to meet the man behind the popular Hamilton’s Pottery brand. The trouble was, no one, including our cab driver (and his dispatcher), had any idea where to find his shop.

The glossy tourist brochures make no mention. All we knew was that it was somewhere in the St. Thomas parish, far removed from the commercial districts in Bridgetown or Holetown. A Google search advised that we were to ‘turn at Little Jerusalem junction.’

So, we headed inland toward Welchman Hall Gully and Misery Hill until a blue roundabout sign confirmed we were on the right track. Up we climbed, past rickety farm houses, past a lone foraging goat, past a tall sugar cane crop until a bumpy Allan View Road – more a pathway than a road – took us to a non-descript grey building with a sign confirming that we’d arrived.

“You’re a hard man to find,” said Shelley as we entered the shaded workspace. “I’m the one who sent you the email from Canada.”

“Oh yes, I remember,” said Mr. Hamilton Wiltshire, greeting us with a wide smile as he placed a handle on another clay mug being readied for the kiln. “Hello Ms. Shelley. Pleased to meet you and welcome to Barbados!”

Hamilton Wiltshire at work turning another vase.

Shelley explained how we had received gifts of his pottery in recent years. She began her shopping while I chatted with this amiable Bajan craftsman. Turns out he has been turning Barbadian clay into pottery now for more than four decades.

“I began when I was a teenager out of high school and heard a radio spot promoting a government-run pottery training program,” he said. “From there I took further training, including studying in Faenza, Italy and started my business selling Indigenous pottery at the Pelican Craft Centre.”

In fact, Wiltshire used Indigenous Potteries as a business name, until he moved to the current location at Sturges, St. Thomas. A customer wandered into the shop one day and asked if this was ‘Hamilton’s Pottery’. When a second visitor asked the same question, he decided to personalize his brand. A wise decision.

Today, he runs the countryside business with the help of his wife, sister and cousin. Their son, also a potter, lives abroad in the UK.

“I hope that maybe someday Ronaldo will come home and work with us to build on this foundation,” he said. “In the meantime, I am hoping to find a younger person, someone with the right attitude, to be trained to work with me.”

Wiltshire produces a range of stunning ceramic products, many of which are sold through retail outlets such as the popular Cave Shepherd chain of eight stores and the Best of Barbados shops. He also sells from a tent during the popular Holetown Festival in mid- February.

“The festival keeps me up until 2 a.m., but I love it,” he adds, while setting the latest mug onto a shelf to dry before being baked in the kiln.

His pottery is made with red clay sourced in nearby St. Andrews. The end products include functional and traditional pots – monkey jars, tableware and vases – along with decorative candle shades, flying fish wall art, chimes and spoon rests.

During our brief visit, his cousin was inserting individual plugs of clay onto a mould press, which produced a ready-to-bake spoon rest. As each item was retrieved from the mould, he trimmed the excess clay by hand. All of the colourful glazes that are baked onto Wiltshire’s creations are environmentally safe.

“Pottery making must be the closest art form to imitate nature,” he adds. “From mining the clay to throwing a pot and seeing a beautiful object emerge from the kiln, it reminds me of a caterpillar metamorphosing into a beautiful butterfly.”

Earlier in his career Wiltshire underwent a metamorphosis of his own. He had been encouraged to expand and ship products to overseas markets, but the huge demand on his time took away from what he loved most – the craft itself.

“I had to ask myself the question: Am I a potter or a packer?” He eventually cut back from ten staff to three. He will, however, still produce some custom orders.

Hamilton rung up our purchases and helped wrap them, offering a generous discount on top of the already reasonable wholesale price. It was a huge saving over the retail markups found elsewhere.

One VERY happy customer from Canada.

On our return to Holetown, our cab driver Dwight tells us that his real passion is cooking. He has studied in the US and UK and is considering taking a course in fine cuisine in Montreal, Canada. So, it was no surprise to me that my kind wife added something special as we paid our fare – one of Wiltshire’s specialty kitchen items – a ceramic spoon rest glazed in beautiful Caribbean blues and greens.

“Something to remember our trip by,” she said. “And now you’ll always know where to bring your passengers if they’re looking for Hamilton’s shop.”

Weeks later back in Canada, it is a chilly winter’s morning, a far cry from the 28-degree Celsius climate in Barbados. We reach for our new coffee mugs. Smiling, we remember our search for the happy Bajan potter who has pleased thousands of customers throughout the Caribbean and overseas.

Turning the mug over, the inscription reads: Hamilton’s Pottery, Barbados. A pleasant reminder of the day we met this extraordinary craftsman and gentleman. Proof yet again that you’ll learn the true character of this island by leaving your hotel or villa and meeting the proud Bajans who call Barbados home.

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To find Hamilton’s Pottery of Barbados:

By car: From Holetown, drive 9.7 km east for 13-15 minutes via Highways 1A and 1. Turn at Little Jerusalem Junction, following blue arrow sign for Hamilton’s Pottery.

Address: Lot 4 (Allan View Road), Sturges, St. Thomas, Barbados.

Tel: +1 246-242-7176

Email: dale.wiltshire63@gmail.com

Hours: Mon to Fri – 9am to 5pm
              Saturday – 9am to 1pm
              Closed Sunday

On Adams Pond

An Island native and his family find solace in Seaview, PEI.

“Here about the beach I wander’d
Nourishing a youth sublime
With the fairy tales of science
And the long result of Time.”

–Alfred, Lord Tennyson

For seven glorious days, the chatter of nesting red-winged blackbirds and their marsh neighbours would be our natural alarm clocks. Our Island vacation was here at last.

We unloaded our duffle bags into the little cabin next to the beach in Seaview, on the Island’s serene north shore.

Each morning we woke up to an eclectic greeting: the sound of waves rolling onto the beach about a stone’s throw away; chirping swallows; and cranky, hungry gulls. Every now and then a hawk would swoop down searching for food in the marsh by Adams Pond.

There are three other similarly-sized ponds along this stretch that have fed the Gulf of St. Lawrence for centuries. Along this shore, European settlers made new homes after their weary passages across the Atlantic. Early maps showed the name Third Pond where Seaview is today. The little village is tucked conveniently between Malpeque and Cavendish on route 20 along the north shore.

The Adams ancestors on my mother’s side settled between here and the New London area in the late 1700s. Relatively unblemished by the tackier tourist gimmicks to the west, Seaview is pretty much the same as it was when we visited as kids, apart from newer siding on old homes and the brick mansion of an aquaculture millionaire.

We spent our childhood summers here. Dad took me fishing for trout, smelts and eels. He loved early morning starts. “Yessirree, that’s when the buggers bite…before sun-up,” he’d say. He taught me how to tie a bobber onto the line and how to set the bait with a fat, juicy dew worm.

To this day he laughs about the time I landed a two or three-pound trout in Brander’s Pond and got so excited that I forgot how to reel it in. In a panic, I grabbed the rod and ran up the hill into a potato field, pulling the rod, creel and fish behind me.

Seaview visits have become a family affair. This visit includes my wife, two teenaged sons and my mother, who grew up here in the 1940s. As I unwind from four hours of highway driving, the familiar sights and smells become a warm poultice for my soul. The flashbacks come easily. Trips down a red country road. Childhood clam digs. Memories of searching for witches in the deserted house beyond my grandparents’ rhubarb patch.

I miss my grandparents T.C. (Caseley) and Hannah Adams. My sister and I would stroll up the lane to check their mail. Then take a little wagon down to Murphy’s corner store for fizz sticks and lime pop. The feel of oats running through our fingers in the barn loft. The smell of salt cod in barrels. The sound of a grinding wheel in the shed as I threw sparks by ‘sharpening’ the old man’s tools. His booming voice as he chased me from the shed: “Come back here you scallywag…don’t you be ruining my tools!!”

My mother’s memory is even more precise. Point out an old farmhouse and she’ll know who used to live there and who lives there now. “There’s Darra’s house,” she’ll say. “He was my teacher and went on to be an officer in the military. Smart man.”

On our last night at the cottage, Shelley and I took two lawn chairs, some books and mugs of cocoa down to the water’s edge. The clouds broke, instantly warming us with the bronze glow of the setting sun. A light breeze passed over the marsh. It was Mother Nature’s tag team – the warm breeze flanking us from the left and the noisy surf to our right. Gulls cried farther up the shore. The blackbirds were noisily defending their turf in the bullrushes.

The north horizon, where the gulf meets the sky, is a perfect line, broken only by a lone navigation buoy. It’s a ‘red-right-returning’ buoy that guides fishermen back to the Darnley wharf. My eyes catch a triplet of low-flying blackbirds almost directly over the flashing red light. Two young gulls, grey and white with bobbing heads, poke for food in the shallows.

The sand is now a champagne colour, mottled by the late afternoon showers. The sun has dropped behind the ironstone bluff at the end of a neighbour’s property. Like other Islanders, he has also sold shore property to come-from-aways who can afford to summer here. Large chunks of cliff the size of pickup trucks lie at the base, helping us gauge the depth of the tide. Two plump gulls fly side-by-side into the wind, rising with each powerful stroke.

Shelley is a study in serenity. The declining sun brings out the beauty of her features even more. She stares at the ocean, turning her head only when the gulls cry for attention or with each subtle shift in breeze.

We can smell the freshly cut hay from the field up beyond the cottage. The hay was knocked down that afternoon by Leighton Coulson, now eighty-eight. He has farmed and fished here his entire life, along with wife Vivian and their family. Leighton loves the harmonica and seems to know but one tune – Once There Were Four Mary’s. Each summer, on departure day, he’d give us a solo concert in their living room. Despite Vivian’s protests (“Quit playin’ the fool Leighton…they’ve heard that before) he belts it out anyway. “After all,” he says, “they ask me to play it every year at Reuben’s Jamboree. Boy, they keep dancin’ and dancin’ ‘till I can play no more.”

Back on the beach, the breeze has cooled. The vibrant tapestry of sand, water and sky has given way to that duller, almost-nighttime feel. I breathe deeply and whisper a quiet reminder to never forget this place. And promise to come back every summer with our boys and – who knows – maybe even grandchildren someday.

They too will need to meet the gulls and red-winged blackbirds and walk the lane through the sharp beach grass, to smell the salt air and touch the sea – the long result of Time.

 

The old man and the tourists

The man was sitting alone at the end of a bench in the Speightstown, Barbados bus terminal. Behind him some teenagers were horsing around in a FLOW mobile hut. It was a relief to get out of the sun.

Needing directions at the bus terminal.

He appeared to be nodding off, so I hesitated before approaching him.

“Pardon me sir. Hello?”

He stirred.

“Can you tell me if the bus to Animal Flower Cave leaves from Gate 5?”

He lifted his head and looked at me with sleepy eyes. “You going to the Cave? Now?”

“Yes, my wife and I were told to look for the Connell Town bus. Is this the right gate?”

He stood up and pointed to the bench.

“You sit right here. Is that your wife? Go get her. You sit right here. I show you. I live where the bus stops.”

“You relax. You come with me.”

That’s how we met Mr. Keith Michael Vancooten.

“Vancooten” I say. “That sounds Dutch.”

“Yes, my father was a Dutchman.”

Like most Bajans we’ve met in our two trips to this former British colony, our new friend jumped at the chance to help us. He had a pleasant demeanor, but easily grew agitated whenever I asked about gate numbers and departure times.

“Don’t worry ’bout that,” he’d snap. “You sit here. Come with me.”

“But what time does…”

“Just sit by me. I take you to my house.”

“But how long until…”

“You relax. Don’t worry ’bout that.”

Clearly, my North American angst over knowing the exact travel details was starting to piss him off.

Shelley can talk with anyone. A true conversationalist.

“So have you lived in Barbados your whole life?” asked Shelley.

“Yes, my whole life. Except for working the boats after the war. And I turn 93 in September.”

Sensing our disbelief (we both had him pegged for maybe 75 or 80) he produced his government ID.

“That’s me, see? Born 1925-09-29. It says so right here.”

We needed proof that Keith was as old as he said he was.

I did the math. Sure enough, 93 in September.

“You must lead a clean life and eat really well,” I suggested. “You don’t look your age.”

“Yes, I eat good, but not the last few weeks,” he said, patting his belly. “Not feeling good in my stomach, but getting better, yes, much better.”

A middle-aged lady in a tight pink skirt walks by, glances at Keith and offers a wide smile. He nods back. “I know her from church.”

We asked him about his career and family. He was a bus mechanic for more than 40 years, but before then, at the end of the war, he sailed around the world as a ship’s engineer. “Freight and passengers. We carried both.”

He didn’t volunteer any information about his family so we left it at that.

Our ride north to the Animal Flower Cave.

Fifteen minutes later, a blue transit bus spewing diesel fumes lurched into Gate 5, and Keith jumped up. “Let’s go, you sit by me. Here we go, follow me.”

We’re back in the sun now. A woman in the queue scrambled in her purse for the bus fare as her ice cream cone dropped blobs of vanilla onto her arm and the concrete.

Half an hour later, after the noisy, bouncing trip to the northern tip of Barbados, our spry Bajan guide points the way.

“See what I mean? Look, there’s my house! You go walk to the Cave, down that road. When you come back, you come sit on my porch, right there, not in the sun. Bus get you then, okay?”

“But what time does the next bus…”

“Don’t you worry. Just come sit on my porch. I’ll be here.”

We spend the next two hours touring the Animal Flower Cave, buying gifts and enjoying the pounding surf where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean Sea.

Northern tip of Barbados where Atlantic meets Caribbean.

Now I’m starting to worry that we might miss the last public bus back to Speightstown, so we make our way under the hot sun up the dusty road to Keith’s house. Sure enough, he’s sitting on his porch, smiling and waving.

“You come sit. Here, look at all the pictures of everybody else.”

Keith has hundreds of friends around the world.

He opens a shopping bag full of letters sent to him from Cave visitors over the years. He likes to point to himself in each picture. “You see, that’s me, sitting right here, right in this same chair.”

Last selfie with Keith before our white van arrived.

I try again. “Keith, what time do you think the next bus…”

“Relax, sit there. Only problem is, the last bus at 3pm goes and gets the school students.”

“Did you say the LAST bus? Keith, it’s five past three.”

It might come here. Might not. No problem. A van will come (the infamous ‘ZR’ vans, that will gladly stuff 15 passengers into nine cramped seats.)

He’s right. A white van pulsing with reggae music suddenly screams by but in the wrong direction.

“No worries. He come back. He look at me, I wave and yell ‘stop’ and he stop and get you. Just relax.”

Keith decides he must have time to show us his house. It becomes clear that he must be living on a very small pension. He has a few pressed shirts hanging in a closet; a tiny kitchen features an old refrigerator, lined with a thin black film of what looks to be mould. His kitchen and bedroom open to the rear yard, where he also keeps a trap.

Shelley asks him about it. “The monkeys destroy everything,” he says. “Look at those trees. They eat all the plants. I catch them and sell to the wildlife reserve.”

“Keith,” I ask, “In this heat, you must like a cold Banks beer from time to time.”

“I used to, but then I joined the Seventh Day Adventists. No more Banks.”

On our way back to the porch, we cross under a string clothesline hanging across his living room. It holds faded cards celebrating Father’s Day and Christmas. Before we have time to ask him anything, he’s back on the porch, eyes peeled for the white van, which, as he predicted, pulls to a stop by the driveway.

“See? Go, run,” he yells. With no time for a proper goodbye, I clumsily press the last of our Bajan money into his hand.

“Thank you, Keith,” Shelley says as we sprint to our ride.

That evening, as we unwound from our long day in rural Barbados, we agreed that the real magic of this island won’t be found in a glossy tourist brochure.

It’s heading somewhere on a whim, and as serendipity would have it, finding a colourful old fellow who has figured out a way to make a few extra bucks.

Next year we’ll head north and look for the little house at the end of a dusty road. Its owner might be surprised that we made it there on our own.

Journalists in danger zones

The closest I came to trouble was in 1982. A few CBC colleagues were already assigned to Lebanon and other war zones and sure enough, my turn came. “Perry,” yelled our assignment editor. “You doing that hog story today?”

My camera operator Jimmy Jackman and I headed north from Calgary to a farm between Balzac and Airdrie. Alberta hog producers were upset about something and I needed B-roll video of pigs to round out the story. I planned to tape my closing ‘standup’ next to a pigpen.

Colleagues were in war zones. I was in a smelly, mucky pigpen in rural Alberta. It was dark in the barn so Jimmy turned on the portable light that we called a sun gun.

“Give me a two count and you’re on,” he said. I gently sat on top of a low railing, waited for a few seconds and addressed the camera. “A spokesman for the industry says. . . Ow! Jesus Christ!”

I grabbed my rear end, turned and looked down into the pen. A piglet was staring up at me after trying to rip a chunk out of my keester. Hard. Through his lens, Jimmy must have seen the little bugger coming at me but thought the potential for a good blooper reel outweighed any notion of a warning. After he had a good laugh, he asked if I wanted to do a second take. “Not with that little beggar around,” I said.

A huge sow sauntered over to see what the fuss was about. Her teeth looked a lot bigger than those that latched onto my hind quarter. “Let’s shoot outside, in front of the hay bale.”

At least, that was my recollection. But, memories fade. So thirty-six years later, I contacted my old friend Jimmy. He thinks we ended up shooting the standup at the pigpen.

My, wasn’t I brave?

Where have all the old cabins gone?

Twenty-seven years ago, Lancelot Press of Hantsport published a little book called Backwoods Cabins of Nova Scotia. It was written and illustrated by Bud Inglis, who was then writing nature columns for a Halifax newspaper.

Inglis traveled through all eighteen counties, taking notes and scribbling sketches along the way, talking to the locals for tips and advice. In all, he wrote detailed descriptions of fifty cabins of varying sizes, shapes and uses. And he clearly enjoyed giving each cabin a unique name, if it hadn’t already been given one by its owner.

Some cabin names were based simply on where they were located, as in Cabin off the Aylsford Road, the Reef Island Lodge or the Cabin on Ecum Secum Lake. Not much mystery there.
Others were seemingly named for their builder or a family member: Matthew’s Camp and McCarthy’s Retreat left little to the imagination.
Some names hinted at the cabin’s utility: A Trapper’s Cabin in Richmond County or the Horne Fishing Camp.

But what about Bear’s Tooth Cabin in Digby County or the Cabin Near Lake No-Good, or the Shanty at Snow’s Pool in Guysborough County? If anything, these quirky descriptions hint at some darned good stories.

 

Inglis himself said it took him fourteen months to travel the province and document what he found in the far reaches of our Nova Scotia wilderness. It was helpful that Stora Forest Industries advanced him five hundred dollars to help cover his expenses. He traveled by car, boat, canoe, snowshoes – even ice skates once – presumably to reach an isolated camp located at the far side of a lake or harbour.

 

His book got me to thinking – how many people today are building their own raw sanctuaries deep in the woods? Or has the ubiquity of factory-made cottages and the convenience of mobile homes relegated to history the days of soul-soothing cabin retreats. Or has wilderness land been priced so high that it is out of reach for most of us?

 

Inglis captured a way of life that has slipped away, for whatever reasons. He could sense back then that it was disappearing. And before it was lost, he sought to capture what he described as “…the experience of making one’s way in the wild, and to perpetuate the yellow glow of the kerosene lamp, silently casting flickering shadows throughout a cabin, while a deer mouse rummages along a wall beam.”

 

Most of us could likely do without the mouse. But that yellow glow of a kerosene lamp? Sure sounds appealing, doesn’t it?

The day I shot Pepper Meehan

I was thirteen or fourteen when Dad decided it was time that I learned how to trap a rabbit and shoot a partridge. So he bought an old .22 calibre rifle, oiled the barrel and off we went into the woods near the radar base at St. Margaret’s, New Brunswick. He set up a few empty Graves bean cans on tree stumps, taught me how to aim and squeeze the trigger – ‘gently’ but ‘with authority.’

Freshly trained, I thought it would a great idea to take my new weapon along when some buddies planned a spring trip to nearby Wine River. My parents must have been tipped off, because they put an end to that idea. Someone else, though – I can’t remember who – brought a pellet gun.

Anxious to show off my new rifling skills, I fired a BB at the steel guardrail on the bridge that led to our secluded hangout. No sooner had I twanged the guardrail when Pepper Meehan shouted out “I’m shot, you shot me you asshole!”

Pepper was wearing a white t-shirt. He pulled his hands up revealing a bloodstain on his stomach. “Oh, my God, shit, Jesus”, I cried out, before my brain seized in panic.

There we were, three or four miles from the nearest house and my friend Pepper was going to bleed to death from a gut shot. I started to cry. The dark stain on his shirt was spreading. He screamed louder. Then he stuck up his index finger and started to laugh.

“You hit my finger, you prick. Look, the pellet’s still in the tip.”

He tore off a strip of the t-shirt to wrap the finger as I downshifted from full heaving and sobbing to an embarrassed whimper. We turned around and headed for home, each of us doomed to a good bawling out and grounding. But at least Pepper wasn’t going to die and I wasn’t going to jail.