The draw of sword making in Somerset
PUBLISHED: 13:15 20 January 2015 | UPDATED: 13:15 20 January 2015
It’s a perfect day for an al fresco lunch in the garden. Taking in the clear, sunny view of Glastonbury Tor, the group take a pew on the picnic bench and enjoy another special perk of their swordsmithing course – burgers barbecued in minutes on the heat of a forge.
The five participants, including a pair who have travelled from the other side of the world for the experience, are nearing the end of their four-day Forge Your Own Sword workshop with master swordsmith Richard Hoecker.
Set on a farm just outside Glastonbury town, the Forge of Avalon was founded by Richard and his partner Kate in 2009. He is one of very few blacksmiths in the country continuing to use time-honoured methods to make swords by hand.
Although born in the UK, Richard learnt his trade growing up in the mountains of northern Austria, becoming an apprentice blacksmith in a traditional village forge and then student of renowned master swordsmith Eilenberger.
After honing his trade for some years, working on various restoration projects including at the Royal Armouries in Vienna, he was understandably drawn to set up shop on the Isle of Avalon - the land where legend has it King Arthur’s Excalibur was forged.
The myth and magic surrounding the legend may be partly what attracts people from around the globe to this peaceful part of Somerset for Richard’s workshops, but there are other reasons too. Some appreciate the history of the weapon that has roots in our Celtic past, the students explain, whilst others are more interested in the specialist practical skills of their teacher. Greg Graham, who travelled almost 28 hours from Australia to be here, was gripped by the possibility when his friend Rebecca Nelson discovered it online. They both knew immediately they had to make the trip.
Alexander Mathieson meanwhile, a mechanic from Norway, says he’s always wanted to have a go at making his own sword – he just had no idea where to start. “Finally, I had some time available so I thought – why not now?”
Respectful of the ways of our ancestors, and keen to keep their practices alive, Richard ensures his students are all well versed in the use of centuries-old swordsmithing tools and techniques from point to pommel.
When he’s making his own swords, despite having been working in this way for several decades, he is always inspired: “For me it’s about the creative process, achieving a masterpiece, it can be truly frustrating but ultimately truly rewarding.”
For prospective students looking to excel, he adds, it helps for them to embrace sword making as a craft and ideally possess the same sort of skills as a great craftsman, namely patience and fortitude.
When he’s not running workshops, which run year-round, Richard also continues to do historical restoration projects, which he finds both fascinating and a great challenge. One of his most memorable projects was a much-treasured family heirloom for a local client.
“It [the sword] had belonged to his grandfather, who had been a high ranking government official whose roles included Governor General of Tasmania.”
Like any accomplished craftsman, Richard makes swordsmithing look easy. For newcomers producing their first sword, he explains there are four basic steps. First, forging the basic blade shape by repeated heating in the forge and hammering on the anvil. Second, the heat treatment – ensuring the blade is heated at a constant temperature for maximum strength. Then forging the cross guard and pommel, before finally assembling the separate parts and crafting the sword handle. “Job done!”
However, cabinet maker Marcus Sly, the only Brit on the workshop who has come all the way from Sussex, says the reality has been harder than he anticipated: “There’s so much to think about and you’re working under pressure, the blade is only hot for so long. You have to act fast, but safely.”
Nearly all students have the same difficulty, explains Richard; judging the correct working heat of the metal.
“Too cold and there’s a problem, too hot and there’s a problem. That, and hand eye co-ordination.”
Rebecca, however, has discovered achieving such heightened concentration has unexpected benefits: “It makes all your troubles go away, because you cannot focus on anything else when you’re handling red hot metals. The rest of the world just fades into the background.”
With the workshop nearly over and some students having flights to catch everyone gets back to work putting the finishing touches to their very own swords.
Once the hilt has been bound tightly with leather, their only concern will be how to get the weapons safely through customs.
“We offer a unique learning experience in a unique location,” says Richard, reflecting on why many have made the long-haul trip for this.
“There are few places more atmospheric in which to learn to forge a sword than the beautiful West Country landscape.” n