The two unusual round buildings that come into view as you drive through the centre of Anwick village, near Sleaford, look distinctly like hobbit houses straight from the set of Lord of the Rings.
They are in fact the village’s old forge, built around 1800, and remarkably still used for their original purpose. The current ‘blacksmith in residence’ is Tim Mackereth who, together with his wife Fran, runs a thriving business that has just had its tenth anniversary.
One of the first things you notice, sitting in the office, is that many of the furnishings, table legs, shelves, book ends and the like, are all beautifully shaped and unique pieces of metal work. That should perhaps not be surprising but it soon becomes apparent that it is this creativity that lies at the heart of the work undertaken by the team at Anwick Forge.
Things began in 2002 when Tim, having been released from the army, went on a weekend blacksmithing course. “You see that poker over there,” says Fran pointing across the room, “that was the first thing Tim ever made and it was on the basis of that that we bought the forge. It was quite an impulsive move for two relatively risk-averse people.”
The next year and a half was a busy period spent both renovating the forge and training; Tim travelling to Warwickshire to train as a blacksmith with Fran studying for a business and economics degree. “The old buildings had become somewhat dilapidated, so we had to reinstate not only the workshop but also our accommodation.” The forge was finally back in business in November 2003.
The original part of the forge consists of two, round, single-storey white painted buildings, with a linking structure facing the road that was once the shoeing shed. “Forges were not traditionally designed as round buildings,” explains Tim, “but this one has the distinction of being designed by the famous architect John Nash, who was a friend of the Earl of Bristol, the then landowner. Both men apparently had a fascination with round buildings.”
John Nash is just slightly better known as the architect of none other than Buckingham Palace, which is certainly a badge of honour for this humble yet charming structure.
Today the old forge is complemented by an additional modern workshop, across the yard at the back, but remains itself an integral part of the workspace and although it may be an unusual shape it seems to work perfectly with its central chimney surrounded by anvils, hammers, tongs and all the other tools of the trade. As Tim stokes the fire he explains, “It takes half an hour to get the temperature up to the 900 degrees Celsius required to work metal and requires a constant supply of oxygen as the coke itself does not actually burn.”
An almost comically large set of timber and leather bellows hangs on the wall, now in retirement, while its electrically powered successor whirrs away by the chimney.
With protective apron and safety glasses in place, Tim heats up the ends of two steel bars until they glow orange, then dusts off some millscale with a brush.
“The heat brings impurities to the surface of the metal which need to be removed so they don’t compromise the metal’s ability to fuse,” he explains. Placing the bars on an anvil, one resting on top of the other, he then gives them several almighty, but controlled, blows with a hammer and, as if by magic, the two pieces are one. “That is fire welding, or forging, in its most fundamental form,” says Tim, “and it is this elemental process, still at the heart of modern blacksmithing, which attracts many people to the craft.”
While that ancient process, first discovered over a 1,000 years ago, is still regularly used, it belies the array of modern techniques and processes that are also now used. “Electric welding is more commonly used to fuse metals these days,” says Tim, “and the work we do on site is complemented by a range of high tech processes that we outsource.”
Fran shows me a picture of a stainless steel sculpture of an eagle perched on top of a globe that they were commissioned to create for the RAF Associations garden at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire in 2009.
“This sculpture was a real challenge. The wings alone required 1,600 forged feathers to be individually laser cut and forged into shape, then the whole piece had to be electro-polished to get the perfect finish,” she says.
Standing at over three metres in height this was no mean feat and it is not surprising that, being eyeball to eyeball for many months, the team developed a personal attachment to ‘Winston’.
“I worked as a mechanical engineer in the army,” says Tim, “and this has given me an enormous advantage in coming to terms with the technical and project management side of blacksmithing, and enabled the forge to take on new challenges.”
The portfolio of projects that they have built up in just over ten years is impressive and speaks volumes for a desire to keep moving forward, continuing an ancient craft while developing a thriving modern enterprise, something which has in no small part been enabled by Fran’s business skills.
“Closer to home we have done some great projects in and around Lincolnshire that we are really proud of,” says Fran. “For instance, the ‘Lady of Shalott’ which comprises two giant sheaves of barley arching over a cycle track near Lincoln. It takes its name from a Tennyson poem and was undertaken to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth.”
On the Revesby Estate too you will find a series of sculptures celebrating the discoveries of Joseph Banks, another of the county’s most famous sons, one of which consists of giant thistles and parrots.
“The type of projects that we undertake in many ways does not bear much resemblance to the work traditionally associated with blacksmiths,” explains Tim. “Up to the 1970s fabrication and repair work of agricultural equipment and, of course, the shoeing of horses was the bedrock of a forge’s work. Today farmers rarely need the services of a local blacksmith and of course farriers have become a completely distinct, and mobile, professional of their own.” They were recently given a photograph taken in the 1930s of the shoeing shed in action. Today it is the office and filled with computers, printers and technical drawings.
“That decline,” continues Tim, “coincided with a growth in interest in artistic blacksmithing so that thirty-five years ago the British Artist Blacksmiths Association (BABA) was formed.” Tim is vice chairman of BABA and regularly attends ‘forge-ins’, or meetings, designed to share knowledge and promote their shared craft.
“Maintaining the heritage of blacksmithing is important and conservation work is also a significant part of what we do, such as reinstating features on listed buildings,” says Tim. “Probably the project I am most proud of is the reinstatement of the wrought and cast iron balcony at Bentley Priory in Middlesex, HQ of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. A design had to be prepared based on old photographs and the project involved months of working closely with architects, structural engineers and planners.”
“Of course it is not just grand projects and modern sculpture that we do.” says Fran. “Commissions such as gates, benches and small bespoke pieces are still the lifeblood of the forge, and in particular we work with a lot interior and garden designers whose clients want something unique.” This illustrates well the extraordinary, and slightly surprising, range of work undertaken by the modern blacksmith.
As for the future? “We are currently working on a project using bronze, which is a metal I have not used before so that will be an interesting challenge,” says Tim with a distinct sense of relish. As I leave, a power hammer sets to work and begins to beat out a clunking rhythm that local residents long gone would have recognised.
You can contact Anwick Forge at www.anwickforge.co.uk or on 01526 830303.
COPPER AND STEEL TURN TO GOLD AT 2014 CHELSEA FLOWER SHOW
At 8am on the morning of Tuesday 20th May the wait was finally over and the team at Anwick Forge, run by Tim and Fran Mackereth, finally found out that the Show Garden created by Stamford-based garden designer Adam Frost, for which their team of blacksmiths had produced a suite of structural and decorative items in copper, had been awarded a Gold Medal at this year’s world famous RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
This was the moment when the results of the judges’ deliberations were posted on the RHS Chelsea Flower Show website. “We are absolutely thrilled with the outcome,” said Fran. “Having worked with Adam on several of his gold medal-winning gardens at Chelsea, we were all too well aware that the judges look at so much more than simply the planting when assessing the gardens. The overall design, how well the garden fulfils its brief and how well the garden is constructed are also key judging criteria, so we knew that our contribution would be scrutinised just as closely as every other element of the garden.
“Just to add to the pressure, Adam himself highlights how the garden ‘showcases’ copper in his own official description of the garden, so we really had to be at the top of our game.”
The pieces Anwick Forge produced for ‘The Homebase Garden – Time to Reflect, in association with the Alzheimer’s Society’ include a series of interlinking rills at different levels that snake down through the garden and into which water gently spills from an enticing wildlife pool.
HM The Queen visited the garden and enjoyed a brief exchange with Adam who thought that Her Majesty felt the garden was ‘cool’. His words; not the Queen’s one suspects!
Tim and Fran also visited the show, which was a complete sell-out, and helped Adam and his team answer questions at the garden during the day.
“We were overwhelmed by the degree of interest in the garden: for most of the day the crowd in front of the garden was at least three people deep,” said Fran. “And just like the judges, they made their own assessment not only on the plants, but also of all the other constituent elements – including the copper work.”