I love the sound of breaking glass- and I’ve discovered that I also have a passion for blowing it. I know it sounds crazy but glass blowing is addictive, fun and deeply satisfying.
Perhaps it’s something to do with the elemental quality of fire?
Fiery furnaces, glowing flames and roaring ovens with heat hitting the 500 degrees mark – what’s not to like?
But don’t try this at home. You’ll need advice from an expert. Luckily we had a whole team of them on hand at Sunderland’s National Glass Centre.
What was supposed to be a quiet trip around the revamped National Glass Centre in Sunderland turned into a much more exciting experience than anticipated.
Me and my buddies were on a day trip to the Traverse travel conference where were surprised to find ourselves at the heart of the glass making action.
My vision of a leisurely stroll around the galleries followed by a giant Sunday lunch in the centre’s impressive cafe was abruptly blown apart by a trip to the glass making workshop.
Perhaps I should have read the blurb properly. I thought we were booked in to watch a bunch of experts demonstrating the fine art of crafting glass into charming vases and paper weights.
Gazing into the display cupboard of beautiful designer glassware, I was surprised to hear our group being called in to the studio for some ‘flame work’.
Once inside, I’d expected to watch from the sidelines but no, we were next in line for some heavy duty huffing and puffing at the glass face.
One brave soul volunteered to go first whilst I looked on in trepidation, remembering my last experience of employing my lung power. It had ended badly when I was told that my lung capacity was well below par. I had been shamed as a pathetic physical specimen.
Would today be any different? What if you had to puff really hard and nothing came out of my mouth?
Worse still, what would happen if you breathed in or choked accidentally? This could all go horribly wrong!
Fortunately our expert tutors were true pros and knew exactly how to coax a decent blow job out of even the most hopeless puffer!
Our mission was to create a decorative glass bauble which could be hung on a Christmas tree or in a window display. Would it be mission impossible or an artistic triumph?
On the second call for volunteers, I stepped into the breach with a swagger and confident air. Then it struck me. You just have to put your lips together and blow, a bit like Lauren Bacall’s description of kissing in the Hollywood movie, “To Have and To Have Not”.
As I was coached in the complexities of making the glass into coloured patterns and swirls, I felt an adrenaline surge. I was ready for oven duties…
After a few instructions, it was time to discover if I’d make a master glass blower. Or if I’d be out of puff.
First there was the plunging of the rod into a glowing furnace. This was followed by rolling the hot blob through brightly-coloured crystals to create the pigmentation.
The ‘blob’ of molten glass had just emerged from the 500 degree heat of the oven behind me so it was a scary, but exhilarating, challenge.
As I walked over to the bench wielding the hot rod, I wondered what would happen if I accidentally tripped up and poked someone in the eye.
But it’s safety first in Sunderland. There’s always somebody to stop you making a fool out of yourself or, worse still, blinding or branding a nearby colleague with the hot end of the blowing tool.
There’s also the giant goggles which you have to wear which make you look like an extra from a sci-fi movie. Strangely, they reminded me of U2 Bono’s giant, tinted shades.
Then there came the tricky bit – the crafting of the glass which is basically done by David, a former glass worker. He used to work at Cornings so he knows his stuff inside out. Let’s face it – he needs to with amateurs to teach.
Having donned the funny glasses, I picked my colours – red, blue, orange and white. The next step was to keep the glass ‘blob’ hot and rotate it in the oven. I loved dangling it in the flames and twirling it around.
“Don’t let the blobbing bits drop off,” said one of the staff as my bauble looked precariously close to disintegrating in the fiery furnace.
By now I getting a very red face with the intensity of standing next to the heat from the ovens. This isn’t for the faint-hearted.
Then it was back to David to twist and shape. He employed a giant pair of pliers that looked like an early dentist’s instrument for extracting teeth.
On the work bench, David was able to rectify whatever I’d done wrong and make my glass bauble into an object of beauty.
With my tiny blowing power, he shaped and worked it until it looked like it might turn into a piece of art. I had just enough lung power and puff to make it work. What a thrill.
Mind Blowing Experience
How these guys also work in this heat all day is amazing. They must be acclimatised. For me, it was a mind blowing adventure, but they’re doing this day in and day out.
Glass making is like playing with fire – literally. A bit like being the Greek god Vulcan. A must for pyrotechnic thrill seekers.
But the best bit of wizardry was still to come. We gathered around for the grand finale as David demonstrated his sand blasting skills with a blow torch.
His tool was a giant bunsen burner which he used to separate the bauble from the stick. Thank goodness, we weren’t allowed to try out this dangerous looking final stage.
Then David popped each of our baubles into a large oven ‘to bake’ or cool off with the promise that they’d be ready in three days time.
It was time to take our goggles off and explore the rest of the Sunderland Glass Centre. After all that hot work, our first port of call was the cafe for lunch… and a large, cold beer!
Inside the Glass Works
It’s been a while since I visited the centre and, since its refurbishment, the cafe is looking impressive with its riverfront views and spectacular glass interior.
There’s a great panoramic view down the River Wear, once home to shipbuilding, glass making and heavy industry. That of course is now history – a victim of the Thatcher years.
But today we can enjoy the heritage of glass making, an industry that started in Sunderland back in 700 AD and reached its zenith during the 17th and 18th centuries.
It’s time to tuck into a giant Sunday lunch complete with some of the largest Yorkshire puddings I’ve seen in some time. Pure bliss.
The Gallery Tour
Feeling stuffed with food, we agreed that a walk around the galleries would be a good idea so we took the obligatory tour of the collection.
The history galleries are enjoyable and well curated, even for visitors with limited attention spans. You can step back to the early days of glass with some intriguing displays and exhibits which bring Wearside’s heritage alive.
The early glass blowers looked like they needed a lot more blowing power than I’d shown in my bauble making session earlier in the day.
There’s stacks of information about glass techniques, all with evocative names like Graal, Latticino, Sandcasting and Slumping.
Look out for the modern exhibits from Sunderland’s old Pyrex factory, once one of the city’s biggest employers.
I recognised a few pieces from my granny’s old kitchen cupboards including these glass plates with giant rose decorations.
Don’t laugh. They were very trendy back in the day – and they remain design classics, if you like that sort of retro style.
And there’s plenty more historic glass to admire too, some with stunning colours like azure blues and amber hues.
The National Glass Centre really scores with its changing programme of contemporary art exhibitions. The latest – called Spectacles – is a real eye-opener.
It features eyewear from the famous Oliver Goldsmith Collection, a designer who invented the notion of modern ‘designer glasses’.
Think 20th Century icons. Grace Kelly, Colin Firth, and Michael Caine are all featured in the show together with iconic style makers like Givenchy, Dior and Vidal Sassoon.
From Audrey Hepburn’s huge fashion shades to Peter Sellers’ trademark spectacles and John Lennon’s iconic gold rimmed glasses, there’s a real feeling of fashion and fun in this exhibition.
We made a spectacle of ourselves, of course, picking out our favourites and posing for photos with the most outlandish designs.
There were some particularly mad specs with musical notes, birds, feathers and even butterflies. Not even Elton John would wear some of these, although there was a pair of his flamboyant shades too.
My favourite eccentric pair were these groovy butterfly glasses designed to make a big and beautiful fashion statement.
Oliver Goldsmith was synonymous with stars and style so this exhibition will appeal to anyone who’s into celebrity.
The Glass Centre also wants your spectacular selfies. Take part by uploading photos of yourself in your best specs to Twitter and Facebook using the hashtag ‘bespectacular’.
I’m not sure my plain black glasses are cool enough to trend on Twitter or Instagram.
The Glass Ceiling
Lunch was now really taking its toll so we ambled outside for a walk on the centre’s distinctive glass and concrete roof. Being a native of these parts, I remember the controversy about this roof when the centre opened for the first time in 1998.
There was all sorts of moaning about the cracks that appeared in some panels of the hardened glass – and fears that someone would fall through. In reality the glass tiles are a sturdy six centimetres thick and nobody is going to die horribly.
It was one of those early design glitches that was fixed quickly but I still recall the furore about the brutalist style of the centre’s exterior and the roof’s controversial look.
Today, we can appreciate it better although I still think the grey of the concrete looks oppressive and drab on the greyest of grey days – which it was when we visited. And it is still experiencing problems.
Apparently, you can get 460 people up on the roof at any one time. That would be quite some party.
As you stand on the roof, it can be very blowy on a windy day. It’s quite an experience and one to cool you down after the heat of the glass blowing adventure.
Look down the river and you’ll see a few remains of the industrial past that have lived on into the present. A little bit of ship repairing and the occasional crane poking its head into the clouds
But mostly it’s a landscape populated by sea gulls, dog walkers and gallery visitors. The place where ships were born has long gone.
Back inside, there’s a final chance to buy up the good value glass art, paperweights and marbles.
And time for a final peek inside the glass workshops where a row of impressive deer heads – minus their antlers – are being made for a Scottish whisky company for promo in the world’s airports.
Suddenly the fact that Sunderland once made things hits home. I remember that the slang phrase for Wearsiders is ‘Mackems’, meaning ‘makers of things’.
Today the Mackems still have those old skills to showcase, rekindled with a contemporary twist… and it’s great to watch those skills being employed once again.
It’s a fitting end to the trip. Sunderland as a glass making centre has come full circle – from old glass factories to modern day glass making and glass art.
In the gallery there are displays of contemporary artists and designers, many from Sunderland University’s glass degree graduates.
Today, Sunderland is turning out a new generation of designers and glass blowers… let’s hope they can blast away the cobwebs of the past and rekindle this great industry.
A few days later I had a nice surprise when a neatly-wrapped package arrived in the post at home.
As I unravelled the endless bubble wrap on the parcel, a flood of memories came rushing back. This was my bauble, now solid and perfectly formed. It was swirly, colourful and cool – and even looked quite professional.
This just goes to prove that even with my limited abilities, I can blow glass with the best of them!
Travel Tips – Sunderland’s National Glass Centre
The National Glass Centre in Sunderland is located on the River Wear in Monkwearmouth. It’s open daily from 10:00 – 17:00. Admission is free but there is a charge for the glass blowing workshops.
It’s an easy ride from Newcastle to St Peter’s Metro station, a stone’s throw from the National Glass Centre. It’s a short 5 minute walk.
Alternatively, take the train from Newcastle to Sunderland and walk back over the bridge along the waterfront for some scenic views. There’s ample car parking too, if you’re driving.
Nearby there’s also time to squeeze in the historic St Peter’s Church and the Monkwearmouth Station Rail Museum, if they light your fire.
Once inside the National Glass Centre, you can lose your marbles in the shop or get stuck into the regular glass blowing workshops.
Look out for taster sessions in glass blowing as well as longer courses and specialist classes.
If you don’t fancy rolling your sleeves up, you can watch the experts crafting stunning pieces and demonstrating their flame skills.
Here’s Ed Rex, my fellow blogger, proving he has what it takes to set the world alight with his glass making abilities.
As for me, I’m hooked. I’ll be back to make more paperweights for birthday presents very soon!