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We Chat to David Gill, One of the Last Remaining Blacksmiths in Nottinghamshire

15 May 22 words: George White
photos: Curtis Powell

From forging the hammer of Thor, the Norse god of thunder himself, to creating the ploughs that drove the British Agricultural Revolution, blacksmiths have played a crucial role in human history for millenia. Yet now there are only around 600 left in the entirety of the UK. We chat to David Gill, one of the last remaining blacksmiths in Notts, about the importance of the practice, what drew him to his line of work, and why interest in the craft is on the rise…

Is there anything more impressive than blacksmithing? The old-school practice of forging metal has been instrumental in the evolution of humanity and the development of modern civilisation. For millennia, specialists have crafted everything from weapons and armour to railings and furniture, in what is one of the most intense and high-risk forms of labour around. 

‘Modern’ smithing stretches back to the Hittites in 1500 BC, who tempered iron into spearheads and arrows, providing them with the tools to build an empire that would last for centuries. Here in Europe, the very belief system of entire nations was influenced by the work of blacksmiths - most famously, of course, in Norse mythology. It was they, after all, who crafted the mighty Mjölnir, magical hammer of the Norse god of thunder himself, Thor. Believed to have been forged by the dwarves of Svartalfheim, the weapon was used to take down giants and summon lightning from the sky, protecting the Nordic people from threats both natural and supernatural. 

Even closer to home, the humble blacksmith was heralded by those on our own soil during the medieval period, becoming a focal point of communities as their craft helped knights to win duels and armies to win battles. So important were they, in fact, that many would serve in leadership roles within their villages, providing crucial counsel as well as manual expertise. This was as much the case here in Nottinghamshire as anywhere else in the country, with our own blacksmiths falling under the protection of a certain Robin Hood, such was their value to local society. 

The dexterity involved in wielding a hammer is not infallible and missed strikes do occur - but experience tends to quickly move you out of that habit!

With the Industrial Revolution and the rise of automated machinery, though, the art of smithing largely fell by the wayside. After an initial shift from making weaponry and armour during medieval times to mending wheelbarrows and shovels during the British Agricultural Revolution, the practice became far less common in the Victorian era, with this once-lauded process running the risk of being lost to time. 

Yet, even today, there are master craftspeople in our county who continue to adopt traditional techniques to create unique products and protect a vital element of history both in the UK and beyond. One of these is David Gill, who is a regular fixture at Papplewick Pumping Station and mans Aslockton Forge in east Notts, creating personalised, hand-crafted gifts for customers to share with loved ones

Like many of those still making a living from this line of work, David takes pride in continuing a culture that stretches back thousands of years. “Blacksmithing has its origins long before man extracted iron ore from this earth, as the first forged artefacts were created from meteorites - magical metals that fell from the sky,” he explains. “This rich history is definitely a fascinating lure towards the craft, and we all have a deep, inherent interest in the ancient art. Flames, heat and the melding of metals conjures captivating images - it’s no wonder blacksmithing has its devout followers!” 

As magical as the practice can be, however, it is still as dangerous as you’d expect any activity centred around scolding hot metal and heavy hammers to be. Burns, cuts and damaged fingers are “very common”, David admits, with even the most accomplished in the profession unable to avoid mistakes at all times. “Pain is almost an accepted part of the process,” he laughs. “Controlling and managing a coal or coke fire is a skill. The dexterity involved in wielding a hammer is not infallible and missed strikes do occur, sometimes breaking fingers - but experience tends to quickly move you out of that habit!” 

Despite the risks involved, though, there is an indisputable elegance to the process. With each of David’s items hand-crafted and custom-made, every task involves converting what is in his “mind’s eye” into a tangible, cherishable gift - much like an artist turning an abstract idea into an actual painting. Each product is “shaped by the individual process”, with every hammer blow and blazing hot ember helping to create a luxury, unique collectible for his customers. 

To stay in business, we need to reinvent ourselves, and that’s what I have done, taking my skills and forging them into memorable gifts. That way, I can keep doing what I enjoy

Leaning into the flair and finesse of what was once at risk of becoming a dying art is the primary way to keep the tradition going, David believes, with the two original sources of income for blacksmiths - “manufacturing and repairs” - largely closed off in the modern world. The farrier admits that “earning a living is my greatest skill”, with his company relying largely on private orders. But by offering a service that machines can’t, he is still going strong. “Today, if there is a need for something, the manufacturing industry can make it better and cheaper elsewhere - and that environment, in general, eliminates the need for the traditional ‘village blacksmith shop’. To stay in business, we need to reinvent ourselves, and that’s what I have done, taking my skills and forging them into memorable gifts. That way, I can keep doing what I enjoy.” 

By adapting in this way, the future of blacksmithing is beginning to look brighter. As more people look for personalised presents for loved ones - rather than mass-produced, generic products - interest in the craft is back on the rise. David himself is helping to train the next generation of talent, passing on skills and knowledge to his assistant to ensure the tradition will remain a fixture of our county for a long time to come. And the number of blacksmiths throughout the UK is on the rise, with the country’s first blacksmithing apprenticeship set to launch this year. Like Thor on the battlefields of Midgard, there is still a lot of fight in this remarkable practice yet.

You can find David’s store on Etsy

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