Blacksmithing Day at Killhope Mining Museum

Earlier this year, my husband and I decided to go on a rather unusual 'date'. We don't really go on dates, we tend to just do stuff together. We like old-fogey stuff, like secondhand bookshops and cafes, and we also like stuff which involves getting dirty. We also enjoy a taste of the random.

So, we decided to go blacksmithing! On a freezing, sleety day not long after Valentines Day, we drove the 20 minutes or so up the dale to Killhope Mining Museum, an amazing place which explores and showcases the history of lead mining in Weardale. Happily for me, this also meant copious displays of wonderful local mineral specimens, such as fluorite and quartz, but that's a blog post for another day...

We spent the day in the Victorian Blacksmith's workshop. This is the original forge which was built to service the mine, to build and repair the machinery, tools, braces and even ladders, needed to keep the mine fully operational. It was built in around 1860, and many of the tools we used and learnt about are over 100 years old.

Note the missing glass panel at the top of the window. This is to let the swallows, who nest in the rafters every year, to fly in and out with ease.

I've always wanted to have a try at blacksmithing. So many of the tools and techniques are just like scaled-up versions my jewellery making. It couldn't be that hard, could it? Teamwork was essential...

In many ways, blacksmithing was just like scaled-up jewellery. But in other ways it was much more serene and meditative. To heat the metal, instead of gas powered blowtorches, we used a proper coal fire pit with a pair of giant 100 year old bellows...but like jewellery, the judging of correct working temperature, using only the colour of the hot metal as a guide, was done using eye and instinct.

The essentiality of timing and temperature was much more key. And when to stop hammering, and when to re-heat again. The whole process was so very satisfying and therapeutic.

I loved that when the steel was hammered, tiny sheets of carbon which had come to the surface during the heating process flaked off and rained down onto the anvil blocks and ended up covering the floor.

But what did we make? We each made a fire poker! Which is handy, because in our house we have a woodburner downstairs and a fireplace upstairs. They had curved leaf handles which we decorated with some veins, and (of course) a pointed poking end.

One of our finished pokers leaning up against some old mine machinery, very possibly made in the same forge. The same tools, techniques, and materials. Unchanged for centuries. So yes indeed, very much like jewellery!

There was so much more to see at Killhope Mining Museum. After the blacksmithing workshop we had a trip underground, walking up a tunnel into one of the lead ore (galena) levels. Did you know you can even stay in a yurt in the pine forest, and watch the red squirrels?! However tempting a prospect it was to stay over, that was when the snow came in and it was time to head home!

Map of the whole Killhope site shared here with the kind permission of Durham County Council.

Map of the whole Killhope site shared here with the kind permission of Durham County Council.