Meet Bob the blacksmith

The old forge and tunnel tug store on the towpath at Stoke Bruerne was derelict for many years. It’s now alive with the sound of metal and fire thanks to Bob Nightingale, aka Bob the blacksmith.

Interview: Mark Hooper

This building was built as a blacksmith’s shop in 1902
It’s a listed Grade II building; it can only be a blacksmith’s. I did my training when I was about 20 and I’ve been a blacksmith all my working life.

I feel an obligation to pass on my knowledge
I’ve had over fifty degree students through the doors and last year I had 1,500 school kids for talks and demonstrations. It’s not something you can learn quickly – it’s at least a year’s work to learn how to use a hammer.

Very few people have any concept of what a blacksmith is
The majority of people still work on the assumption that a blacksmith hooves horses. In this country, no blacksmith ever shod a horse. Unless you’re a licensed, registered farrier, it’s a criminal offence to do so, and you face a £1,000 fine. We make the tools for some of the farriers and we make legs for chairs, tables, railings, balconies, balustrades, everything that you can think of.

To be a blacksmith, you need engineering and maths
Physics, chemistry, history and archaeology make for a good start. My first job for the degree students, when they come in for a two-month module on a Monday morning is to cut ten lengths at ten inches. And they say, ‘But we don’t do inches.’ And some of these have a degree in maths already!

Blacksmiths tend to be a very strange bunch of creatures
As a group we’re pretty outspoken. Always a little bit unexpected.

The blacksmiths were put in the canal to maintain tugs and their towing gear
Of course the banks had to be maintained in the early days, so we made all the tools for that; from billing hooks to pickaxes; they would all have been made and finished and reworked here in this workshop. In those days, most of the boats were made of wood and were bolted together. Every bolt was totally unique. You couldn’t go and buy a handful of bolts. You had to have a blacksmith make your parts. You’d just pull out the broken one and get a copy made, or else weld it back together again.

This is a commercial workshop
I have to try and make my living from it. I keep an open workshop, so you always have people looking and peering and making very strange comments.

Up until relatively recently, your local blacksmith was also your dentist
So when you ask for a volunteer from these groups of kids, they’re very unsuspecting when you pull a pair of tongs out! And once you’ve got their attention, you can then show and teach a great deal.

I had my first holiday in 31 and a half years recently
You’d never believe the howls of protest ‘Oh, you’re never open!’ Because I had a week off! You can’t please everyone all the time, but we try.

We need to push these skills
There are still blacksmiths that work on the open fire in the aerospace industry. If you’ve got special, weight-sensitive components, they can be hand-forged by a blacksmith in titanium and be far stronger than from machining. So there’s still work and still demand.

People say, ‘Oh, it’s a dying trade isn’t it?’
Actually, no it isn’t. I am only one blacksmith, but I’ve trained countless others. Some of the people I’ve trained will train other people. It goes on and it grows.

Last date edited: 30 October 2014

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