In recent years smoking has become anti-social and if you indulge then you may well become something of a pariah in this age of political correctness.
I do not dispute the fact that smoking is injurious to health but I, and many others, believe that pipe smoking is less harmful than cigarettes. Anti-smoking propaganda virtually always focuses on cigarettes with no mention of pipes. I would like to regard this as a compliment but the truth is that pipes are forgotten simply because this type of smoking is no longer fashionable. Indeed, it has not been for some years. Pipe smokers are declining in numbers, I believe the reason is basically laziness.
‘Cigarette smoking is a habit, pipe smoking is a hobby.’ I quoted this saying of mine to my doctor but he appeared not to understand.
A pipe is a very personal possession. We all have a preference for a particular shape, large, medium or small. It has to suit you both in comfort and style. It is a companion which will accompany you wherever you go. A promotional leaflet from the 1950’s asked “why is it that happy philosophers, handy explorers and clever writers all plump for a cherished old briar as their favourite smoke?”
Answer: ‘Because, of course, there’s nothing so satisfying as a pipe carefully filled with discriminatingly chosen tobacco, then as carefully lit, and slowly smoked to savour the full tang of it.”
Equally as important as the choice of pipe is that of the tobacco to be smoked in it. It is advisable to start with one that is not so mild that it burns the tongue or too strong so that you find it nauseous. In other words, one of medium strength. Flavours are many, personally I prefer a ‘straight’ Virginia blend.
I have smoked a pipe since I was 14, back in my Wrekin College days when a gang of us used to congregate in the wood alongside the canal at Eyton-on-the-Weald-Moors. We had a communal pipe! It was of foreign manufacture and, unlike a good quality London briar, did not smoke cool. The whole affair was more of a lark than anything else but soon afterwards I purchased a decent briar and kept it hidden in my tuck box.
In those days there were hundreds of different tobacco brands on the market, some which had stood the test of time for half a century or more. Sadly, today the majority of those are manufactured under license in the EU! I purchase my requirements from two of the few remaining tobacco manufacturers in Britain, Samuel Gawith and Gawith Hogarth, both located in Kendal and hand blended to perfection.
I smoked cigarettes up until I was 23 and then concentrated on my pipe. A pipe is relaxing, soothing and I can honestly say that it aids my concentration.
The British Pipe Smoking Championship
There have been pipe smoking clubs around the UK for many years and competitions were nothing new. Then in 1996 it was decided to hold a British Championship. At the outset this was organised by Martin McGahey, a tobacconist from Devon.
The venue was the Old Silhillians Club in Knowle, Warwickshire, certainly a fitting establishment for the occasion. It was open to anybody, the entry fee in the early days just £10. The tobacco trade sponsored and supported the event, one room of stalls, the other lined with long tables where the competitors sat and smoked.
The rules were simple but strict, and there was an umpire at the head of each table. Pipes were donated, often of an exclusive make and each member was provided with 3 grams of tobacco, three matches and a tamper.
You were given five minutes to fill your pipe before the starting bell. Then you lit it, but were not allowed to re-light it if it went out. You could tamp (tap down) the burning tobacco so long as you did not remove your pipe from your mouth whilst doing so. I have seen more than one competitor break this rule and be disqualified immediately.
The first one to go out was awarded the ‘booby prize,’ a large box of Swan matches. The room was thick with smoke. No windows were opened as a draught can cause tobacco to burn faster.
Entries ranged from 28 in the beginning to 48 as the years rolled by. There was always a crowd of spectators seated at the other end of the room. Rarely did I hear anybody coughing, another bonus in the ‘pipes versus cigarettes argument.’ NHS please note!
Everybody smoked in silence. A glass of water was provided in case one needed to moisten one’s mouth. On the half hour competitors began to ‘go out.’ They left the table, reported to the invigilator’s desk where their time was recorded.
In the first of these competitions I finished 13th, not bad for a first try. The second year I made it to 5th. By then I had developed my own technique. The more one drew on the pipe, the quicker the tobacco burned. The secret, I discovered, was to breathe gently down the mouthpiece. This kept the pipe alight without speeding up the burning process.
There were some experienced smokers amongst us every year, notably Andrew Briggs and Len Ellis, both of whom held an enviable records at both club and national level.
My personal triumph came in 2003. The pipes were of cheap foreign manufacture but the tobacco was Dunhill’s ‘My mixture 965.’
All was going well. As usual there was a glut of competitors going out after half-an-hour. Len Ellis was one of them, it wasn’t his day. After the hour we were down to four, then three and eventually Andrew Briggs and myself remaining. I was delighted, at least I would get to second place!
Then, on 1 hour and 30 minutes, Andrew stood up, knocked out his pipe and announced “I’m out.” It was incredible. I lasted another 31 seconds and then became British Champion with a time of 1 hour 30 minutes and 31 seconds!
So, I had the coveted cup with my name engraved on it and several prizes, amongst which was a pipe worth in the region of £250. I was interviewed by both Sky and ATV television, who had been present with their cameras throughout, and featured in a couple of clips on local TV news.
Pipe smoking Champion of Great Britain 2003
The following morning I thought that the telephone would never stop ringing. I did more phone interviews with newspapers than I had ever done in one day about my books.
Sadly, the British Pipe Smoking Championship terminated in 2007 due to the ban on smoking in public places. The Old Silhillians Club was apparently classed as such although it had always been used for pipe smoking on that one day in the year previously. I fail to understand why it could not have continued with those not connected with the event being refused admittance.
Then, in 2012, the event was resurrected, held at Newark Showground in Nottinghamshire. I did not attend but, if it continues, I may well do so in the future.
I have my memories of 12 convivial championships, not to mention my moment of glory!
Prior to these Championships I had taken up growing tobacco as an extension of my other gardening interests. Whilst there is a potential for growing tobacco in the UK in no way can the quality of the leaf compare with that of Virginia, USA, the South American countries, Zimbabwe and South Africa due to climatic conditions.
In 1948 tobacco growing for personal consumption was sanctioned by Parliament. You cannot sell it or even give it away without falling foul of Customs and Excise. The only proviso is a limit of 25 lbs per grower which is ample.
My first attempts were rather discouraging. I smoked my finished product out of sheer obstinacy!
Then I became friendly with Hubert Appleyard, librarian to the City of Lichfield. Hubert’s methods were somewhat unorthodox and bore little resemblance to those instructions supplied by the Tilty Tobacco Centre, the UK society for the hobby.
I learned much from Hubert and spent many hours with him in his garden. After his death in the 1980’s I inherited his processing equipment, presses, shredders etc., as well as many jars of tobacco ready for smoking.
UK grown tobacco needs to be mixed with a commercial variety in order to render it truly smokeable. Of the several varieties of leaf which I have grown I consider Brazilian to be the best.
I then began growing tobacco seriously in conjunction with Fred Ellett, husband of Pat who had typed most of my early books for me. A farmer, Fred decided that we would grow a row of Brazilian plants in one of his fields.
Crop of Brazilian Tobacco
The project was highly successful. Next, came Fred’s engineering talents, a press which compressed the leaf into blocks which fitted the shredder. The blade used for the latter determined the ‘cut’ of the leaf, broad for pipe or fine for cigarettes (roll-ups). You can of course, roll leaves to make cigars, using a clear gum to ensure that they do not unfurl. Or grind it into a fine powder to make snuff.
Having achieved what I then considered to be the ultimate in perfection of growing, curing and processing home-grown tobacco, I then decided to write a book describing my methods and in 1977 ‘Tobacco Culture, a DIY Guide’ was published.
I would not attempt to take the credit for all the information therein. Much of my knowledge came from Hubert Appleyard in those formative years, the rest a process of trial and error.
Fred Ellett made a valuable contribution to this book, providing detailed diagrams of the equipment which he had designed and made.
I have not grown tobacco since our move to Black Hill in 1977 simply because it is difficult to grow at heights of 1,000 feet above sea level in the UK. I don’t need to, I still have a couple of tea chest in the attic containing dried leaf which keeps indefinitely.
Processing home-grown tobacco
There we have it, then, tobacco for that pipe which has played a role in the writing of all of my books.