Herefordshire People: Aaron Heath of Oldfield Forge
PUBLISHED: 16:15 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:09 20 February 2013
The role of a traditional blacksmith is a fast dwindling trade but there are still members of the younger generation keeping this ancient craft alive in Herefordshire. Rachel Crow spoke to Aaron Heath of Oldfield Forge who is successfully combinin...
The role of a traditional blacksmith is a fast dwindling trade but there are still members of the younger generation keeping this ancient craft alive in Herefordshire. Rachel Crow spoke to Aaron Heath of Oldfield Forge who is successfully combining tradition with modern.
Firing up his traditional coke forge at 5.45am every morning, 26-year-old Aaron Heath can regularly spend up to 16 hours a day heating, hammering and bending iron into a plethora of shapes, sizes and uses. Using a mixture of traditional and modern techniques, he'll manipulate and mould individual tailor made ironwork, creating items from the purely functional to the aesthetic and artistic; an intricate and delicately carved sculpture to a solid and sturdy iron gate.
With the only college in the country now teaching this craft in Herefordshire - the Centre for Rural Crafts at Herefordshire Technical College - the county is helping to preserve this important rural craft.
Coming from a background of farming stock, Aaron was accustomed to the craft of blacksmithing forming part of practical life on the family farm at Garway Hill, where his grandfather would fashion sturdy railings for their mixture of arable and pastoral land. "So I suppose I am carrying on that tradition a bit," he says, while taking a brief rest from his hot and labour-intensive work at Oldfield Forge in St Weonard's at the heart of Herefordshire.
Aaron's original intention when enrolling on the course at Holme Lacey four years ago was for blacksmithing to serve as a useful skill alongside farming. "But once I started college I fell in love with it and wanted to do it full-time and have never looked back."
With a natural artistic bent inherited from his mother, combined with his practical farmer's eye, in a few short years Aaron has developed a steadily growing business, providing to private homes and retail, and more recently National Trust properties and cathedrals and castles in the county via historic building conservation contractors, Capps and Capps.
"It's the traditional work that I enjoy doing the most and it's special to use these traditional skills for work on ancient properties," says Aaron. "I've made brackets for Hereford Cathedral and at the moment I'm doing a lot for Chepstow Castle, including an elaborate door hinge for the oldest door in Europe which weighs over a tonne."
It's testament to the quality of his work and fine skill that after only a few years in the trade, Aaron is already completing such specialised work for prestigious and historically significant properties.
"It developed gradually at first and the business has grown as I've grown with my skills and I'm constantly learning new techniques. If I lived till 90 I wouldn't know it all. You probably learn something new every day. It's lovely to heat up this hard material and see how malleable it becomes," explains Aaron.
With many of his products forged by hand using a traditional coke forge, and then hammered into shape on the anvil using handmade tools, Aaron can turn his skill to many things and is as comfortable with the traditional as modern. Pieces range from bespoke railings, to elaborate curtain poles, ornamental furniture, bird tables, sculptures, garden obelisks and arches, to functional door furniture and tools. With much of the ironwork we are accustomed to these days produced for the mass market and of poor quality, Aaron's work is of a different standard; beautiful and durable yet still very affordable.
"I'd always rather use the traditional way of doing things. I love the fact it is different. There are plenty of people around who can do a bit of welding, but not many who can use a traditional technique to join metal. There's a totally different quality to welding," Aaron points out. "I think the reason people are returning to traditional techniques is because there is so much rubbish produced today because it has to be done to a certain price. If these ancient techniques weren't used they would be lost forever, so I'm trying to keep the tradition going.
"I get inspiration from just walking down the street and will see an old piece of ironwork. I pick ideas out of anything I see; whether it's a flower in the garden or something carved out of wood, ideas just come to mind from all sorts of places.
"It's different all of the time, I love that fact. Most days you are doing a different job. It's such a wide range - from small and intricate to the large scale."
Already having taken a couple of young apprentices under his wing, Aaron is keen to pass on his skills and notes how all ages are attracted to the craft. "People will stop and watch for half an hour or more and it seems to be one of those things they are drawn to. People are interested in these traditional techniques and hopefully they are coming back.
"There's a big demand for the work and not enough hours in the day at the moment," he admits. "It is all-consuming and becomes a way of life, but it doesn't bother me working late or starting early because I love the job and would do it 24 hours a day. I'm quite happy."
Aaron will be holding an open day at Oldfield Forge on Saturday September 5 from 10am to 5pm and will be demonstrating at Chepstow Show on August 8, Monmouth Show, August 27 and Usk Show, September 12.
Oldfield Forge, Turpins, St Weonard's, Herefordshire, HR2 82G. www.oldfieldforge.com