A rural melting pot

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The Independent Online
Only a couple of spectators were privileged to witness the latest performance of Andy Ball's fiery furnace - but a great show it was. Snow lay all around, the flue began to hoot and boom like the QE2 trapped in fog, and the roof caught fire in the middle of the action, so that everyone went away well satisfied.

A word or two of explanation. Andy is a quietly spoken, genial Bristolian, burly and bearded, and a man of many skills, not the least of which is playing the banjo. He is well known in west Gloucestershire as a musician, performing in bluegrass mountain bands and acting as an impresario for country music in general.

By training and trade he is a carpenter: he did a stint working for a packaging firm, then taught woodwork for five years in the Forest of Dean. When his marriage broke up in the Eighties, leaving him with no mortgage to service and no real need to work, he acquired an old gypsy caravan and went on the road in Dorset and Somerset - an experience that left him fascinated by horse-drawn carriages and caravans in general.

In search of work as a carpenter, he rented workshops on the back of the old brewery in the village of Uley, near Stroud, and settled down there to build horse-drawn caravans on traditional lines. His creations are works of art, no less, intricately painted on the outside, and models of comfort within.

The wheels consist of elm hubs, oak spokes and ash felloes (pronounced "fellies"), or rims. The upper works are of soft wood, the bowed roofs beautifully lined with pine. Inside there are bunk beds, a table, a chest of drawers and a miniature, cast-iron stove.

His practice is generally to build a wagon to his own liking, and to live in it until a buyer comes along. The last one went for pounds 7,000, and if you place an order now, he will deliver a model to your specification in about six months.

When the recession bit, in the early 1990s, Andy moved on to making old- fashioned hand-carts - and it was these that led, indirectly, to his present venture. Needing cast-iron wheel-hubs, and finding that no major foundry would make any for him, he heard that an old foundry-man in the nearby village of Cam, recently retired, had equipment for sale.

Hence the splendidly Heath Robinsonian apparatus now installed behind the Uley brewery in an open-fronted shed of corrugated-iron bolted to a four-by-two framework. The furnace is basically a vertical cylinder, double skinned and thickly insulated, about 18 inches in diameter and seven feet high, open at the top.

The method of operation is hardly hi-tech. Wood is used to ignite a fire of coke in the bottom, and an electrically driven blower is switched on to fan the blaze. The raw material - literally any old iron, but smashed- up lorry brake-drums for preference - is tipped in from the top along with the combustibles.

"We get it going like stink," explained Andy, when I arrived to find the furnace roaring. "Then we chuck a charge of iron in, and when it starts running out molten from the bottom, we know it's up to temperature."

His commission, that day, was to cast three-pound iron pigs for Chas Wright, the brewer whose Old Spot ale circulates freely throughout the area. The moulds - wooden boxes packed with a mixture of sand and coal- dust - sat on the ground before the bellowing monster. Beyond them, a separate gas burner was heating up the huge, two-handled ladle which would pour the liquid metal - because unless that was at much the same temperature, the molten iron would explode on contact.

Suddenly a cherry-red trickle started to leak from the hole at the base of the furnace. "There goes the first charge," cried Andy. "Beginning to melt now." He leapt forward with a ball of clay on the end of a stick and rammed a bung into place, stopping the flow. Then he opened a flap high up on the side of the furnace and tipped in a second charge - a plastic sack containing 3lb of coke, 28lb of iron and 11/2lb of limestone, which acts as a flux.

"Six minutes to go," announced his assistant, Grant. He and another colleague, John, were wearing goggles, gloves, long aprons of chrome leather, and spats made of the same material, which made them look like Napoleonic soldiers. These, Andy explained, were to protect them from flying gobs of molten iron. "Sometimes it starts running all over the place: splashes can drop through the lace-holes of your shoes and burn your feet away."

One minute to melt-down. John and Grant grabbed the long handles of the ladle, which itself was glowing red-hot on the inside. With 30 seconds to go, the roof of the shed went on fire. Its timbers began to crackle merrily - but the pace was too hot for anyone to bother with that peripheral conflagration.

As his helpers held the ladle in position beneath the exit hole, Andy poked away the clay bung. Out gushed a stream of molten iron, incandescent red, beautiful, terrifying. In seconds the ladle was half full of liquid seething at 1,400 degrees centigrade. Lovely patterns writhed on its surface - "like elvers in the river", Andy said.

The doughty assistants poured steadily into one mould after another, and down in the black depths five little pigs instantly solidified. These early models will go out to the brewery's favoured customers as bar ornaments, but later specimens will probably be sold in limited editions.

If the foundry were geared up for full production, the meltdown process could be repeated all day, with charge after charge of iron dumped down the furnace. Andy may start casting wheel-hubs for his own use, or engineering parts for paying customers; his intention, certainly, is to develop the venture into a money-making concern.

Uley still, thank goodness, has a thriving village shop and post office. It also has a primary school, an arts centre, a small restaurant and a brewery. But now, also, it has a fiery furnace - and that, surely, is a sign of vitality that any village would welcome.