Explore contemporary craft in a historic setting

Sheila McCann-Downes creates traditional signag. Photo Ewen MacDonald

Sheila McCann-Downes creates traditional signag. Photo Ewen MacDonald - Credit: Archant

Head to The Old Smithy at Mawnan Smith and discover a corner of contemporary craft makers keeping old traditions alive

Much of the equipment that was used in the old forge is now on display

Much of the equipment that was used in the old forge is now on display - Credit: Archant

Blink on your way to the National Trust’s famous gardens of Trebah and Glendurgan near Falmouth and you could miss Mawnan Smith. For centuries this village was renowned for its many smithies, which gave the village its name, which served the many stages that went through on their way across the Helford River to the Lizard Peninsula. Of the four working Smithies serving 19 farms in the parish in 1851 – only one remained in the 20th century. For more than 100 years it was the centre of the village – operated by blacksmith Billy James and his son Dryden until Dryden’s death in 1994 when the Smithy doors were closed and the building and its contents went into hibernation.

But the building’s decline was lamented by many locals who watched this important landmark slowly decay. And while demand for blacksmiths was low at the turn of the millennium, there was plenty of demand for artist’s studios. And so in 2002 a project was launched to restore the Grade 2-listed building to its former glory and make the anvil ring once more – in the service of fused metal sculptor Nigel Wells.

Wells specialises in hand forming sheet metal craft using traditional cold and hot forging techniques sculptures, which begin with a sketch by his artist wife and are then developed into cardboard patterns. In between sculpting fish (which he is best known for) and roses, he is always happy to make visitors a cup of tea, shake hands and chat about the history of the building.

An historic trail in the courtyard tells the story of the old building, its former residents and how it was saved from dereliction – its presence also saves Nigel from explaining it all to visitors who are fascinated by its history.

Fused metal sculptor Nigel Wells at work in the Old Forge

Fused metal sculptor Nigel Wells at work in the Old Forge - Credit: Archant

“I was born and bred in the village and when this came up, I was offered it I took it,” he says of his new home which replaced working from a small garage at his home. “It’s a museum as well so I get people coming in and talk a lot about the history of the Forge.”

The Mawnan Anvil Trust began its four-year project to raise £400,000 to buy and restore the property began. Money came from 14 different sources – from the European Union and Heritage Lottery Fund as well as local government and private charities.

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Before restoration could begin the team sorting the valuable historical smithy tools and equipment from the pure junk, it was a formidable task. All useable and reclaimable tools had their positions logged and restored and stored in ammunition boxes. Usable equipment and fixtures were removed for storage and the trustees and willing helpers battled through decades of accumulated dirt and grime to expose the barebones of the building for restoration. The Smithy opened in November 2017 as a fully working forge equipped with a fully restored Blatter power hammer and anvil pedestal drill and renovated cold earth floor and all the basics mini tools. During the restoration, three additional work units were also created to form the Old Smithy Workshops which are home to a silversmith, sign writer and a furniture maker – all using traditional skills.

The modern workshops are home to graphic illustrator Sheila McCann-Downes who produces hand painted traditional signage for shops, boats, public houses and homes. “People are looking for something more individual then a vinyl sign. Some will know what they want, some have no idea and some in between – but the most important bit is can you read it and does it look good.” As well as creating signs on wood she paints directly onto surfaces.

Silversmith Abigail Brown specialises in traditional silversmithing techniques to create distinctive vessels, bowls and jewellery. Her award-winning work is featured in exhibitions in the UK including at the Victoria and Albert Museum. She was given the freedom of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in 2015 – a rare achievement for a woman under 40. She finds inspiration in the local area and landscape where there is a sense of place. “It’s important that the viewer understands the piece. The inspiration of using silver is the way it moves and the way it behaves; I find it quite meditative.”

She also teaches the art of silversmith and jewellery and metalwork techniques.

Bespoke joinery and furniture makers Peter Steele and Ruth Wynn established One of a Kind in 2015 specialise in all aspects of bespoke joinery and furniture. Their most unusual commission was building a Greenland Christmas boat - something Peter admits he has always wanted to do.

The Old Smithy now returns to its rightful place as the centre of village life. And if you have any doubts head along at Christmas when you can find the forge lit and roasting chestnuts, while mulled wine simmers on the fire. mawnansmith.org

This article first appeared in the May 2020 issue of Cornwall Life.