not just for barbecues
In my second DI Sonny Russell mystery, BLOOD ON THE SHRINE, I describe how a detective constable discovers a charcoal burner's hut in the woods near Uckfield, where two men on the run have been hiding:
"The newly emerging leaf canopy gave little shelter and Barrow was glad to get into the charcoal burner’s hut, out of the rain. The interior was gloomy and it took a few moments for his eyes to adjust. The hut was a crude affair. It was roughly circular, shaped like a bell tent, with chestnut poles leaning in to meet at the apex, but instead of canvas, the outside was cloaked in sacking and grassy turfs. The hut, though dark, was surprisingly weatherproof. He looked around. There was nothing of note, just a few pieces of whittled wood, a small bench and some old sacks. He poked at the pile with his shoe and kicked something hard. Reaching down he uncovered a smooth length of wood. He almost dismissed it, thinking at first that it was of no consequence, but when he examined it more closely, he realised it was a walking stick, with a distinctive V at the top. He ran back to the car and tapped on the passenger window.
The window opened a crack. ‘Found anything?’ Parker asked, boredom in his voice. Barrow triumphantly held up the stick. ‘Is that all?’
‘But Sir. It’s a thumb stick! That’s what Wolfgang had, according to one of the local coppers who talked to him.’
‘I see.’ Parker huffed. ‘I suppose you want me to help you look for any more clues.’"
Apparently they are known from the stone age in south-west Germany and Finland. It's agreed that the huts of forest charcoal-burners provide a direct link to those made in prehistoric times.
Since the iron age charcoal has been used for glass-making, smelting of iron, working precious metals and in the manufacture of gunpowder. However increased use of coal from 18th century started the decline in the need for charcoal although it is still used in the manufacture of incense and, of course for supplying the means for men to cremate meat on warm sunny weekends.
Traditionally it takes six to eight days to turn wood into charcoal so it was quite a solitary life for the mend who tended the kilns where the process took place.
A reconstructed charcoal burner's hut at the Weald and Downland museum