Craftsmen of Steel – and iron, bronze, aluminium...
Most consumer durables we buy in this country have probably arrived in a shipping container and when something eventually goes wrong with our imported treasure we tend to chuck the object away.
That's the modern world – and a very recent system it is too. Just a couple of decades ago consumers would look for a stamp saying "Made in Britain" and if there was a problem with such goods we'd find someone to put it right.
Given that our massive new container ports are busier than ever, despite the fact we seem to be in a triple-dip recession, it is very heartening indeed to discover a young team of skilled craftsmen who are having a successful time when it comes to bucking the import-it-and-chuck-it trend.
Meet the Men of Steel, as their own in-house marketing-man likes to herald them…
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Kieren Roberts, who is one of two brothers who run things at Allerford Forge, seems to enjoy the idea of embracing the modern hi-tech world – hence the American-style branding – but what goes on in the business could have been occurring more than 100 years ago in the same purpose-built Exmoor building.
What this group of local blacksmiths does is make things out of metal – and to compliment that service they will mend just about anything regardless of what kind of metal it's made from. Aluminium, bronze, iron, stainless steel – they're all on the "can-do" list.
In other words, much of what is going on in the picture-postcard village of Allerford halfway between Minehead and Porlock – right next to the famous packhorse bridge which must be one of the most photographed structures in the Westcountry – is the kind of work you could have seen happening in just about any traditional blacksmith's forge going back hundreds of years.
As blacksmith and engineer Kyle Roberts says: "The diversity of what we do is amazing. We'll have a couple of tractors lined up waiting to be welded up, while inside we might be making the railings for Kensington Palace."
The railings for where?
"The Kensington Palace job came to us through the last bloke who leased this forge from the National Trust," shrugged Kyle who, to every last ounce of his sizeable frame, looks the complete picture of a traditional village blacksmith.
"I went up to London for a week's work and it turned into a seven-month contract – altogether we had 15 craftsmen from around here going up there," he explained.
"It was part of a £250,000 regeneration project and the railings we worked on went around the Palace gardens," Kyle went on. "They needed fixing and it was a huge job. The week before we were doing a small railing for a garden in Porlock – and the next we were doing the same work at Kensington Palace."
In some ways Kyle and Kieren have been lucky – there happens to be an astonishingly rich seam of highly skilled blacksmiths in the corner of Exmoor where they happen to operate, and many of these experienced craftsmen come in to the forge on a job-by-job or contract basis.
But that doesn't take away anything from the spirit and drive of the team – and what is refreshing to see in these times when struggle is the business norm is that the Allerford Forge operation seems to be flourishing. However, despite marketing their wares on eBay and a rapidly developing website, the brothers do not lose sight of the fact that they operate in what is a long-established if not ancient form of business.
"We are very keen on keeping it as a sort of traditional local forge which is a community-based thing where people can come and we will fix anything," says Kieren. "The other day someone arrived with a suitcase which we mended – another lady came in with a saucepan handle that had fallen off. We try to help with everything."
"This week we have had a big estate railing job, then there were some gates that needed fixing and a tractor that needed welding," added Kyle. "Yesterday I was doing stainless steel welding and a bit from a boat came in to be mended. There was also a bronze table that needed fixing.
"Now we have a big job coming up in London's Holland Park – the customer is willing to pay for three of us to go up just to have a look – so hopefully that will be the next large contract."
"But mostly it all comes from recommendations – word of mouth," says Kieren. "We have the website and we've tried to diversify – we've done eBay sales and have an online shop – but one thing that's made a big difference is we go out to demonstrate at events like Dunster Show and meet a lot of people. We also did an open day here in November – we thought maybe 50 people would turn up – in the end we had over 400. People are really interested in the metalwork and the forging. And it does all lead to work."
After we had been told about some of the high-profile celebrities which a couple of the contracting blacksmiths had worked for down the years, we began to wonder why the team needs to advertise at all. Past clients include Premiership football stars, TV cookery idols and a major job for one of the biggest public relations firms on the planet. The blacksmith concerned showed us the photographs, but asked us not to name names.
Added to this Allerford Forge hires in the services of a hi-tech three-dimensional design genius who works from a cottage a mile down the road
But what it all comes down to is the basic act of heating metal and bending, shaping and beating it into something useful or beautiful…
Men have been doing exactly the same thing in forges across this region for countless centuries – indeed Bronze Age remains up on Dunkery Beacon which the team can see from their soot-covered windows prove that mankind has been working with metal in these parts for the best part of 5,000 years…
But there's something about the upbeat enthusiasm shared by these modern blacksmiths that makes you suspect Allerford's Men of Steel are, perhaps, helping to kindle a new renaissance in local metalwork.
Allerford Forge sells original metalwork items for as little as £25 – or you could request some complex job that might cost thousands… The prices vary, but one thing is for certain, the objects will be around for a very, very, long time to come.
How many things brought to Britain in a shipping container could you say that about?
To find out more about the forge visit: http://www.allerfordforge.co.uk/default.html