The centuries-old craft of blacksmithing is making a comeback, reports Victoria Farncombe.
A lot has changed since Medieval times.
Knights no longer charge through the cobbled streets to defend their lady’s honour, leeching blood has been found to have dubious medical benefits and chucking the contents of the lavatory bowl out of your bedroom window may now be considered a little antisocial.
But step into a blacksmith’s forge and it’s like the past hundred years never took place.
Metal worker Tim Goddard works in a mid-19th century nailshop that was rescued from demolition in Sidemoor and is now used for demonstrations at Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings, in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire.
Some of his tools are older than the building itself and the 43-year-old craftsman has none of the trappings we associate with 21st century working life. No computer, no air-conditioning – not even a kettle. The only concession to the modern world is an electric fan which blows air below the hearth and keeps the fire stoked.
“I’m always cold when I first start work,” he says, spreading out a fresh batch of charcoal.
“I can never just come in and make a cup of tea. I’ve got to clean and light the hearth, boil the water. It’s a good hour before it’s warm and then it’s too hot. In summer it gets unbearable and I’m wringing wet with sweat.”
With forearms the size of Popeye’s, Tim reveals another drawback to his profession – never being able to find long sleeved shirts that fit.
But fashion dilemmas and chilblains aside, it’s that link to the past which is seeing more people turn to blacksmithing as a profession. When occasionally called on to restore arrowheads or plates of armour from the Middle Ages, Tim can feel the ghosts of his Medieval forefathers watching him as he whacks his hammer on the anvil.
“I can tell just by looking at something how the blacksmith made it,” said Tim, who retrained in 1999 after computers made his first profession of architectural illustration obsolete.
“You can almost read his mind. You can see exactly how he worked the metal. You can see where he’s started to go wrong and corrected himself. You can see what order he’s done things in. It’s like reading a book.
“It gives you that special sort of tingle. This is a unique chance, an insight into how people in the past lived and worked. It’s almost as if you are standing behind them watching them work. It’s like touching a fragment of history.”
But let’s not be too romantic. Blacksmithing is also fun because of the sheer joy of beating the living daylights out of a piece of metal and being given free reign to play with fire.
“I remember first trying it when I was 12 and I loved it,” said Tim. “The noise, the dirt, the heat, fire, just bashing things with a hammer. I think that’s what appeals to people.
“It’s their only opportunity to live a little.”
In our health-and-safety-obsessed times when playing conkers is banned from playgrounds, it’s no wonder that more young people are lured to the danger and excitement blacksmithing presents.
According to the British Artist Blacksmiths Association (BABA) which was formed in 1978 to ‘‘share the knowledge, experience and fellowship necessary to maintain and forward the craft’’, there are more blacksmiths working today than there were 30 years ago.
But while the ancient art of forging metal with fire, hammer and an anvil hasn’t changed all that much, the work produced by blacksmiths today is vastly different from the days when they were the linchpins of village life, responsible for making all the hunting gear, transport, machinery and weaponry.
Thanks in part to the popularity of programmes such as Restoration and Kirstie Allsopp’s Homemade Home, the demand for bespoke metal work is on the up – particularly in period properties. A blacksmith’s commissions can include anything from garden furniture to sculptures, light fittings and even jewellery.
Michelle Parker is one of the country’s first woman blacksmiths and a lecturer at Warwickshire College, where courses in blacksmithing and farriering have been oversubscribed for the past decade.
“There is a growing market for what we do. People these days have quite a lot of disposable income,” she explained. “Everybody can go to Ikea and fit out their house with furniture but then everyone ends up with the same stuff.
“There’s a section of society who don’t want the same, who want something that’s quality, that’s original and they can hand down through generations.
“You can buy a pair of gates from the garden centre that will last you a couple of years and then fall apart.
“Or you can spend a bit more and commission a pair of gates from a blacksmith. You’ll get something that your neighbour won’t have and something you can pass onto your family,” she added.
But while that explains the demand for blacksmiths, there is another reason the supply of metalworkers is growing. Women.
“When I trained 20 years ago there were no women in the trade,” said 47-year-old trailblazer Michelle, who also runs her own business in Droitwich Spa. “I remember one of the men on my course showing me his muscles and saying I’d never have the strength to be a blacksmith.
“But things have changed, society has changed. Young girls today know that even if something is considered a man’s trade, they’re still able to go for it.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of hard work. You do get strong with it. It’s very physical. But there’s no reason why women can’t do it. It’s not about your sex, it’s about how hard you’re willing to work.”
Unsurprisingly, given that the West Midlands was once the workshop of the world, the two main places to study professional qualifications in blacksmithing, Herefordshire College of Technology and Warwickshire College, are in the region.
John Challen, operations manager at Blists Hill Victorian Town, said the Midlands was a hotbed for metal forging.
“That’s what the Black Country was all about,” he says. “The Midlands was where everything was made. Even women would be making nails in sheds at the bottom of their gardens. Those skills haven’t been lost. They are still there today if you look close enough and blacksmithing is enjoying a resurgence, particularly in the art world. These days it’s not about making spearheads and horse tacks, it’s about furniture and decorative pieces.”
Avoncroft Museum is now offering one and two-day taster introductory courses for people who fancy trying their hand at the 5,000-year-old craft.
Under the patient tutelage of Tim, participants will be introduced to the tools and equipment in the forge and how to light the hearth. They will work the metal at different temperatures, learning how to judge the heat of a metal by its colour, before being let loose with the hammer and tongs.
Everyone who attends will create their own piece of work to take home.
* The one-day course costs £90 while the advanced course costs £170. For more details, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01527 831 363