Saturday, November 19, 2022

Metal heads

In my twenties, I suffered a great deal from anxiety, caused I now realise by a sense of dislocation, a too-rapid and ill-grounded coming to terms with adulthood. That's long in the past now, but I remember my doctor back then saying, you know Mark if ever you get stressed, just go and polish your bikes.

At the time I lived in a small Northumberland village and everyone knew I cycled. His point was not that they needed cleaning - but rather, that when you're deeply upset, a physical and absorbing distraction is often the best and simplest medicine.  It's why I rock climbed so much, and why my bikes were always immaculate.

I was reminded of his advice this week when I travelled north, leaving my poor sick dog (whose accident had left me so distraught) to spend a day with Spike the Blacksmith. I've long loved the touch and form of metal objects; my house has Suffolk latches, handmade hooks for our coats, hearth irons on the fireplace...  There's a tangibility to them, and a mystery too, for I've often wondered how the curls and folds are beaten from the bars of iron.

Let's get you bashing, said Spike, twenty minutes after I arrived.

Her forge-cum-studio is in mid-wales, and I guess I expected more of a farrier feel than the gothic workshop that she'd shown me around.  I was treated first to her house of horrors Halloween room, complete with crawl through door, mock electric chair and a doll guillotine.  There was also a gallery, displaying metal and ceramic sculptures - a sort of mash-up of Damien Hurst, Francis Bacon and Louise Bourgeois.  They're a response to love, she said.  Not everyone would get it.

But I did and we talked throughout the day about the edge between cliche and crap, about gothic horror (her thing) and artistic Romanticism (mine), about learning and making and forging — indeed, lots on forging and the process of trial and error, call and response, theme and variation; just like painting or writing.  It's a matter of feel as much as formula.

And of hammering too.  

No smwddio! Spike would demand as I tried to shape my glowing bar with more of a nudge than a straight bash. It's the colloquial Welsh word for ironing, pronounced 'smooth-e-o'. It made me laugh and kept me on point to hit the bar straight and true over the anvil that rung out - yes, it really did - as if it enjoyed its fifty thousandth strike as much as all the ones before.

Which reminded me of Oscar, and the way that every ball I throw is just as exciting as the last...  I showed Spike a photo of his head staples; they could be gothic piercings we laughed, and got quickly back to bashing... and bending our way through the morning's session.

By midday, I'd made two coat hooks and some S-shaped hangers in anticipation of the main project that afternoon. I wanted to make a fire pit tripod, I said, suspecting it might be a bit ambitious on day one, but buoyed by Spike's confidence and 'have a go' attitude.  I'd made good progress, she said, as we worked out the design using chalk and string and few 'yep, that'll dos'.

One of the attractions of blacksmithing, Spike said, is that it works on the basis of 'about right' rather than 'perfectly precise'. She's bang on (no smwdddio) the money; there's an iterative, work-it-out-as-you-go feel to the process: cutting, sanding, heating bashing, heating, bashing, heating... repeat as necessary...  

Then once you've got your points in order, bending and twisting in the jigs. It's all very manual, down to earth and matter of fact — and yet it's guided by a knowledge that's forged from the thousands of repetitive hours that make up any mastery.

No smwddio, she berates me again.

I was pleased with the tripod I made. In six hours, I'd gone from complete newbie to, might we say, novitiate? Can that word apply to a horror goth's pupil?  It could to Spike I reckon. 'I'd like to live for six hundred years,' she said, 'to acquire all the skills I need.' Learning is an all-consuming passion she claimed. 'When I'm working on my sculptures, I forget about everything else —I've been here twenty years but it's nowhere near enough.'

We finished my lessons with a polish of the pieces; a process that's rather like framing a picture — the painter's prize, they used to say.  It brings everything into sharp relief, reminds you of the intricacy and yet simplicity of it all; of the effort you'd made, and the room to improve... next time...

Talking of which, it was getting dark outside; the day had passed so swiftly that I'd barely noticed. Putting my tripod in the car I could have sworn there were bats in the courtyard, but maybe that's my imagination —or Spike's. As I drove home, I thought of poor Oscar and the metal in his head, of the metaphorical equivalent in mine - and of the two bikes in my shed, that could do with a clean sometime soon.


Spike Blackhurst is an artist-teacher and blacksmith, based at Llanbrynmair in Mid Wales. I attended a one-to-one blacksmithing course which I paid for myself and frankly, it was fab - bonkers too, but definitely fab!

And he's getting better...


  1. How glad I am to see this post.

  2. Your work with Spike produced some lovely pieces. Oscar looks alert and well on the road to full recovery. Thank goodness!

  3. You might like to see Stutz on Netflix if you haven't already. I think you would like it.

  4. I had to scroll to the end of your blog to find out about Oscar before going back to read it properly! So pleased he is getting better. That tripod looks absolutely fabulous, you should be well chuffed.

  5. Glad Oscar is on the way to recovery, they worry us silly. It reminds me of Moss my collie, who jumped into a glass frame and cut a tendon in his leg. Luckily he kept the leg, but for 6 months a teenage collie had to be kept on a lead.

  6. Hari OM
    There is something about connecting the hands with purpose that brings balance to life and its storms. Blacksmithing is surely one of the best activities for that - allowing for release of frustrations apart from anything else. Then you have something practical and beautiful to show for the effort. For me it's crochet. Same but different 🙃. So glad to see Oscar looking alert - albeit wearing the dreaded cone! YAM xx

  7. Now you can cook a big cauldron of stew in the woods.

  8. What an absolutely fascinating post. A day learning blacksmithing with Spike sounds like the perfect break from all the worrying about dear Oscar. I too am hoping he doesn't change, but know that you will accept and love him, whatever the after effects of his injuries.
    All the best,
    Gail (desperate to get out on her bike after 4 days of near continuous rain and gale force winds here in Aberdeen).

  9. I wish I knew Spike. I believe I'd just like to watch her work.
    So glad that Oscar is coming along.

  10. Good to know Oscar is mending, and we hope he recovers fully. Blacksmithing is great even just to watch. My fathers paternal family were blacksmiths but the skills weren't passed about 3 generations ago. They went from being blacksmiths to agricultural engineers/mechanics. The 'purpose' was updated with the march of change but the art was lost. We had a forge and all the tools and swage blocks at home on the farm but it was seldom used.

  11. This is a fascinating post about the value of physical exertion and work that aids in emotional and mental healing. Blacksmithing is a fascinating skill. I hope your dear Oscar heals fully.

  12. It sounds like the day you needed to rid yourself of all those pent up feelings
    I was hoping you weren’t building up to a dramatic tearful ending - just a big sigh of relief.

  13. Walking does that for me, gets me out of my head and gets rid of the pent up energy. That and hitting things so I'm guessing smithing might be a good thing for me:)

    I'm so glad that Oscar is ok and on the mend. And the blacksmithing course sounds amazing.

  14. I just went to Spike's website, wow! Some amazing artwork. I loved her heart the best I think.

  15. Loved the post. Can't talk much, blogger keeps blowing me out of comments. All the best to the doggo.