Forging links to virtual reality
Exciting innovations linking past and present are making Chain Bridge Forge a must-see visitor experience. Kate Chapman discovers how it is helping youngsters understand South Holland’s rich industrial heritage.
The old blacksmith’s forge and workshop tucked away in High Street, Spalding, offers people the chance to try blacksmithing themselves, while award-winning new technology in its innovation suite enables them to use the same skills – and more – in a virtual reality world.
The site, led by volunteers who receive no public funding for running costs, has also teamed up with other industrial attractions across the area to help tell the story of their combined pasts and is forging links with more businesses, community groups and individuals to keep the story of its craft alive.
“There are lots of projects which are ongoing. We’ve created an online database about our local history and there’s about 9,000 pieces of information in there,” explained Geoff Taylor, a director of the Friends of Chain Bridge Forge.
“We’re just trying to look at things differently for South Holland and its heritage – we want to bring people into the forge, give them information and let them have a go for themselves, so they can understand what it was like.
“We’re also trying to engage with young people too and see how we can go about getting into more schools to work with pupils on various projects.”
Chain Bridge Forge was once one of thirteen blacksmiths in the town and dates back to around 1800. Today it is the only remaining forge – its walls still lined with the numerous tools of the trade, many of which were probably used by its first workers.
Following his retirement, the final blacksmith to work the High Street forge, Geoff Dodd, acted as custodian/caretaker for the site and was always keen for it to be preserved so future generations could learn about the trade and heritage of the area.
Much to his delight a community group came forward to do just that and since 2012 Chain Bridge Forge has been a thriving living museum. Sadly, Mr Dodd has since passed away but his legacy lives on thanks to the dedication of the volunteers working on a variety of inspiring projects.
These include offering visitors the chance to take part in experience days where they can use the forge and its tools to craft an item themselves, or they can commission the current blacksmith Ryan Atkin to make a bespoke piece.
Another scheme has involved collaboration with Professor John Murray, to create a virtual reality simulator that allows people to emulate the work of the blacksmith.
“We started thinking about how we could get the blacksmithing craft back into schools, and that started the thought process about how we could do it in a modern way, so that young people might understand it,” explained Geoff.
“We’ve worked with Lincoln and now Hull university to develop the virtual blacksmith. The visitor puts the headset on and finds themselves transported to a virtual blacksmith’s workshop.
“They have to put the coals on the fire to make it hot and then put the metal on the hearth and watch it heat up, then they will be able to move it to the anvil and shape, cut and bend it as if they were a blacksmith.
“Once they’re done the resulting item can be sent through to the 3D printer – we have taken it out to schools and young farmers and other events and it’s proving really popular.
“It also won us the East Midlands Innovation Award for 2017, which gained us more recognition as an innovator, which is fantastic.”
More recently, the forge has teamed up with Moulton Mill and Pinchbeck Engine Museum on a joint project, aimed at drawing more visitors to the sites. The three locations have launched a combined marketing campaign and are hosting events together in order to promote themselves and encourage people to explore South Holland’s industrial heritage.
“Obviously there are some common aspects to the sites and also some differences, so it’s going to take some time, but the first project is an Arts Council one,” explains Geoff.
“It’s called Pump, Grind and Smith and artist Jenny Cairns has been commissioned to make a piece of artwork for each site. The mill’s will be a corn hopper featuring a cutout design and mosaic; the engine’s will tell the life-cycle of water, taking it from land and pumping it to the sea; and the forge’s will be a barrier with two panels commemorating life at the forge, the tools in there and celebrating the life of Geoff Dodd.”
Running alongside this, the forge team is also working to create a larger innovation studio, so more people can use and benefit from the exciting technology it has helped to develop.
As well as the virtual reality equipment it also has 3D printers and pens, which Geoff would like to be accessible to more people.
“Our current innovation area is very small, which limits us bringing in visitors to use it, we don’t have the space to set everything up permanently,” he added.
“In the summer we worked with Boston College, which let us use part of the building in the Red Lion Quarter, so we had a series of events and invited people to come in and experience the virtual reality. It was so successful, that we’re now taking up residence there later this year to deliver it in that environment, which is very exciting.
“We give youngsters smartphones but they get no training in how to use them, either for good or for bad, we never try to educate them; what I would like to see is our innovation area become a digital studio so they can come in and experience innovation in all its forms, as I think there’s a real, huge skills gap for young people in this area. It’s really exciting and the capabilities of what we can do are endless.”
Other projects include plans to collect people’s memories of the Spalding Flower Parade and then a collaboration with the horticultural industry to create a modern art trail paying homage to the event.
Geoff added that the forge is also keen for more volunteers to join its ranks as there are plenty of opportunities to help out, meet new people and gain new skills.
To find out more about Chain Bridge Forge visit www.heritagesouthholland.co.uk