Briar wood grows and forms achingly slowly. It forms beneath the ground in bulbous swell, somewhere between tree trunk and roots. Only once heated, rested and then fire-hardened once again can it be turned cunningly into a pipe bowl. Ready to be smoked. I now know all of these things, and am fascinated by them. I know them because Kelvin Keller told me. Six-foot and then some, well-attired and immaculately barbered, he appeared from the spiral staircase of Havana House emporium in Bath. He emerged quietly but with a sudden intensity, like the shop owner in Mr Ben, and weighed me up with an alchemists eye. What followed was a heady, sensory overload, and though mere minutes, my time in that shop is still resonant three days later.
I stumbled across this hoard of hidden treasures yesterday. It is a fume-filled grotto nestled in to the labyrinthine streets that spread like ripples around Bath Abbey. A cave of wonders that drew me inside by three of my five senses, and soon enticed the remaining two. Eyes ears and nose were enveloped by a myseterious beckoning, that I was entirely powerless to ignore. Even though I am an intermittent smoker at my most smoggy of times, I felt almost chemically drawn to the place. All this, even before I ventured inside. Glancing up, the signage would have made Hemmingway himself proud: Cigar Merchants & Tabacco Blenders- Single Malt Whisky, Gentlemen’s Shaving accessories and Cuban Coffee. Magic.
Within were floor to ceiling glass cabinets. A plethora of light and dark engraved bowls. Gracefully curving, fluted pipestems arrayed proudly, like copperplate Primary School teacher’s ticks. Finely tooled wood of sinuous shaping that spoke to me of Viking prows and took me deeply, suddenly back to Gandalf and Bilbo packing pipes from leather pouches in tales of old. After several days of vapid and lacklustrethoughts, it felt like a surge of creative adrenaline . Even just from the smell of the place! Smell? Ambience would do it more justice. Deep rich earthy coffee, with wafts of split stone and Christmas nuts. Sweet cherry vapours with a dark chocolate bite to the throat. Gorgeous smells. I felt hooked.
Though it was what happened next that truly blew my mind, and fired my imagination. I was introduced to the science of smoking. Kelvin patently explained how a new pipe must build up a vital layer of carbon to enable a sweet, rounded smoke. The wood must be fired, like a kilned pot. Seven half-bowls must be imbibed before the pipe is truly ready. A pipe has to pass through its own crucible, if you will, and emerge singed and ready. I find the science and the symbolism of this utterly fascinating. I yearn for more.
Copyright Tom Tide 2017