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About A Week: A Village Blacksmith

Peter Hinchliffe remembers the life and times of a village blacksmith.

For half my life, I lived next door to a village smithy.

The clatter of hammer on anvil, the whinnying and stamping of horses, the whoo-whoo of hand-worked bellows, the pungent smell of burning hooves formed a background to my days.

The Whitley smithy was hardly a suitable subject for artists. There was no overhanging chestnut tree. No village green. The setting was strictly workaday. A two-storey building of soot-stained brick, at the side of the main road through a village where there were many more coal miners than farm workers.

But the blacksmith, Harry Asquith, was a very special man. A champion at his trade, famed throughout the land.

He had an astonishing pedigree in blacksmithing. The Asquiths were farriers in Whitley for almost 400 years.

Harry won more cups and medals than he could count. He never claimed to be the best smith in Britain, but he probably was.

He entered his first competition at Otley Show in 1910. "I remember the date well," he once told a reporter, "because of the death or King Edward."

He won a gold medal for the best hind shoe.

The other farriers were amazed that a young man should win at his first go. "I'd been holding back," said Harry. "I didn't enter competitions until I was really satisfied with my work."

The old men of the village used to "cal" in Harry's shop in cold midwinter, glad of the free heat from the furnace which burned day-long.

We youngsters were only rarely allowed inside the shop. Occasionally, I got to work the bellows, and felt very grown up while doing so.

Come to think of it, Harry kept us out of the shop for our own good. Young hands and hot iron should be kept well apart. And the huge carthorses which came in for shoeing, though eminently good-tempered, could easily trample a set of small toes.

We were welcomed to pause at the shop door though, and look in.

Going to school, coming home from school, I saw sparks flying white-hot from the cunningly hammered shoes.

I smelled the acrid burning smell, saw the brief billow of smoke, as the still-hot metal was fitted to a carefully-pared hoof.
Harry had a way with horses. Many a horse with a reputation for being difficult was taken to him. Not once was he kicked.

"Perhaps I was lucky," he once said. "Perhaps it was just knowing how to tackle the job properly."

Besides shoeing horses, Harry made and repaired farm implements. He also produced beautiful wrought-iron gates worthy of being shown in art galleries.

He also made bullies and bully-hooks for us lads. A bully was a metal hoop. The hook was what you drove it along with.

We had hours of pleasure with bullies, racing them around the traffic-free lanes of our village. Youngsters nowadays would demand a s BMX or a mountain bike. We had just I as much fun with bullies which cost pennies.

As a side-line, he fashioned miniature silver horse-shoes. Most brides in the area went to the altar carrying one for good luck.

During the last world war, he made silver shoes for servicemen to carry as lucky mascots.

An RAF bomber pilot with one of these shoes in his pocket was shot down over Germany.

Somehow, the shoe came into the possession of a German bomber pilot. It was found when he was shot down over Southern England.

Neither side blamed Harry's workmanship.

When I was a boy in Whitley, the parish church of St Michael and All Angels played a central part in all our lives.

I was christened there. I went there with the school during the week. I attended Sunday services. In my teens, I was a server at Holy Communion.

The Asquiths were pillars of the church. Harry's great uncle, Samuel, was church warden for 32 years. Harry's father, George, held office for 12 years. Harry was a sidesman. Harry's son, Reggie, was church organist.

Now I recognise that the Asquiths formed a continuous chain which bound us directly to distant times.

They were contented craftsmen, working with horses, their lives securely founded on a belief in God.

The Asquiths I knew as a boy were the last representatives of the age of simplicity and contentment.

Reggie eventually succeeded Harry in the centuries-old business. But the times were changing fast. In the Fifties, we all became more prosperous, and started buying cars and motorbikes.

Tractors now ploughed the fields and hauled the loads.
Milk once delivered by horse-and-trap came in a van.

There was not enough business to keep a blacksmith going. Reggie was eventually forced to shut up shop.

A year or two after that, I rented part of the blacksmith's shop as a garage, first for a Lambretta scooter, then a Ford Popular.

Every time I opened and closed the big sliding doors, I remembered showering sparks, the smell of burning hooves.

And I felt sad.

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