Living treasures of Dorset – Jim Bettle, Charcoal burner
Published in October ’15
You can’t hurry a charcoal burn; patience is required for perfection. As Jim Bettles puts it:‘try and rush any stage of it and it comes back to bite you!’
While waiting, you are in a beautiful wood, listening to birds, taking in your natural surroundings and getting on with a bit of clearing and chopping for the next batch, so it is not too difficult to wait for the kiln to work its magic.
The initial fire is started from the middle and spreads from the centre outwards below the wood, which is piled carefully. There are eight ports coming into the steel kiln. Sixteen sticks are laid on the bottom as runners, carrying a channel into the middle, and a little pile of charcoal from the previous burn is left. Then a raft of timbers is built over the top making a flat level, with some brash or light incendiary material, as a spreading layer, with the timber piled on top. The thinner, drier wood is put to the edge, the coldest part of the kiln. Thus everything has been built up round a chimney, leaving an access hole to a pile of charcoal where embers are introduced to start the fire. In time, 12-24 hours depending on the greenness of the wood, and with the correct restriction of the oxygen supply, charcoal will be produced. Charcoal is composed of 90% carbon, and 10% other chemicals, and is just the same shape as the wood from which it is formed.
Jim is passionate about his work and champions the cause of coppicing and maintaining woods in an environmentally sound way. He helped found the Dorset Coppice Group, which educates adults and children about coppicing, hurdle making, charcoal production and other aspects of forestry.
He started the Dorset Charcoal Company around seventeen years ago, after trying various other outdoor occupations. Looking back on it he noticed that even as a child he was photographing kilns at Glastonbury Festival, and feels that somehow the seeds of his choice of career must have been sown in his boyhood. His company now produce up to thirty tonnes of charcoal each year and he, with the help of two lads, has kilns going from late February to November producing hard wood, British charcoal at Pidney near Hazelbury Bryan.
He is keen to encourage those who buy charcoal to understand that it is worth paying a little extra for a product that is British, sustainable and more environmentally friendly than the inferior, mass-market, imported material that graces most barbecues.
As well as charcoal for cooking, he also produces soft wood, bark free charcoal, in 25-37 mm briquettes, for laboratories to test fire retardancy on furniture, train seats etc. Every size of charcoal has a use and none is wasted. Finer charcoal is graded, with the finest powder going for cosmetics, and larger grades for animal feed, garden additives, and so on. He has produced charcoal for the Prince of Wales at Highgrove and the Chelsea Flower Show and is so passionate about it that no doubt many more avenues will open up to him in the future. Jim feels education is key and for wildlife such as nightingales, butterflies and woodland flowers to thrive, woods require seasonal cutting and opening up of the forest floor. ‘The only way it is going to get done is if there’s a market for the products.’
With the exception of a couple years at a London college and birth, for which he berates his mother for letting him be born in Hampshire, Jim has lived in Dorset all his life. ◗
❱ Portrait by Millie Pilkington, pen-portrait by Liz Pope. Abridged from Great Faces of Dorset, published by Dovecote Press at £20, ISBN 978-0-9929151-0-0,