Hammering out an art together

Tony Kelly on a unique father and daughter team
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The Independent Online
When Hector Cole travelled to London to receive his silver medal from the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths (motto: "By hammer and hand, all arts do stand'), he had double reason to feel proud. On the same day that he was admitted to the ranks of Eminent Master Blacksmiths, his daughter Melissa was receiving the Company's Certificate of Merit. As far as they know they are the first father and daughter to be jointly honoured in this way.

"I've got iron in my blood," says Melissa. And Hector said: "I spent all my time in the blacksmith's shop from the age of four. I used to go across during school playtime and stand on a box pumping the bellows handle. They always had to drag me out. The first thing I ever made was a pig- ring, and I made my first horseshoe when I vas nine."

For a while he taught metalwork, smithing on the side, but since 1992 he has been operating full-time from a workshop in the Wiltshire village of Little Somerford. Bearded, bespectacled, his hands covered in soot, he takes every opportunity to practise with a bow and arrow.

The archery is a professional as well as a personal interest. "I'd always shot the longbow as a hobby," he says. "Then, one day, someone came into the workshop, saw my arrowheads, and asked me to make some more." He is now the world's leading medieval-style arrowsmith, delving into military history to re-create authentic designs. His clients are museums, castles, re-enactment societies and individual collectors, but he will not sell to anyone who is not a member of a club. Arrowheads start at pounds 4 and can cost pounds 25 or more; the real living history enthusiasts want them made out of true period iron, anything from early Iron Age to late medieval, when arrows went out of fashion.

Hector's collection of iron goes back to 1250, salvaged from house demolitions and ripped-out church windows. Nowadays it is harder to come by, as people become aware of the value of old "junk", but clients still demand it. A current project is a re-creation of a 14th-century dagger, using 14th- century wrought iron.

He works only to commission - anything from a pounds 10 poker to a pair of gates at pounds 10,000 plus. He will use steel if he has to, but his real passion is for iron, melted in the forge at a temperature of 1,300C and hammered into shape. The emphasis on medieval ironwork involves historical and archaeological research, which he loves. "My aim is to follow a traditional craft, using modern technology only where appropriate."

Orders come from museums, who want copies to use as "hands-on" exhibits, or tourist bodies looking for "heritage"- such as a medieval axe for the National Museum of Denmark, or a hammer and pliers for a shoemaker in the Pilgrim Fathers "village" near Boston.

When I was there he was repairing a fox-shaped weather vane from the nearby manor-house. Melissa, meanwhile, who shares Hector's workshop but runs her own business, had just completed an ornate fire-basket covered in repousse leaf-work, with 140 separate leaf designs and a dozen types of flower.

Melissa spends much of her time in schools, giving demonstrations and working on community art projects. She showed me a colourful wrought-iron mobile, created with disabled children: a 3-D version of their school's logo with its sun, birds and fields.

"I ask the children what's unusual about me being a blacksmith," she says. "One boy answered that it was because I wasn't black." Being a woman in a male-dominated profession isn't easy: the tools, the clothes, even the gloves, are designed for men.

Melissa is also working on a major piece of sculpture for Chippenham town hall.

Will she take over from Hector one day? "My father has taught me everything I know," she says, "but I want to apply that knowledge to a different area of blacksmithing". Her boyfriend, by the way, is a village blacksmith.

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