Chastity belts, Chatsworth’s balconies and Kensington’s garden gateways - all made in an Eckington workshop. Star reporter Rachael Clegg met the team at Ridgeway Forge.
THE semi-rural feel of Ridgeway, near Eckington, gives no clue that this small village is host to hive of industrial activity.
Here, beyond its field-lined lanes and dry stone walls, lies a modest but busy enterprise - Ridgeway Forge.
It’s also one of the most reputable cast and wrought iron forges in the country, with a client list that name-checks some of the nation’s best-known stately homes.
And the brains - and hands - behind it all are sitting around a huge farmhouse table drinking copious amounts of tea.
It’s like a scene from the Archers or Emmerdale Farm.
But appearances can be deceptive. The cosy family atmosphere belies Ridgeway Forge’s dedication - and its hugely cerebral workforce.
The staff comprises a former postgraduate in bio-chemistry and plant science from The University of Sheffield, a former project manager from Davy Markham and a retired blacksmith of almost 60 years.
But they’ve all abandoned their former lives to pick up the power and hand hammer.
Post-graduate Joe Moore, 26, has put his academic career on hold, Andrew Renwick, 46, ditched the Davy briefcase, and Richard Lewis, 67, has retired from retirement to become a blacksmith. Again.
The hands that are now clutching cups of tea are responsible for the bronze chairs at the Laurent Perrier garden at Chelsea, the balconies at Chatsworth, the Cradle Walk at Kensington Palace, the sliding gates at Sheffield General Cemetery, the cast iron gates at Renishaw Hall, ‘The King’s Beasts’ at Hampton Court and the complete restoration of the main church at Fotheringhay, where Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded in 1587.
Ridgeway Forge was established in the 1960s by Andrew’s father, who did ornamental forging work such as garden furniture, weather vanes and even – as Andrew explains – ‘a prolonged run of chastity belts’.
His father died in 1994, whereupon Andrew left Davy, rolled up his sleeves and took over the firm.
That was 17 years ago. Ridgeway Forge is now one of about 20 firms in the country doing cast and iron and wrought iron work of this nature.
The majority of the firm’s work comes in through a handful of high-profile architects and garden consultants working across the UK and this specialism in items such as the balconies at Chatsworth has led to the firm being reasonably recession-proof.
Andrew – rather modestly – attributes much of Ridgeway’s success to one man, Richard Lewis, who has been working as a blacksmith for more than 50 years since he was 15 years old.
Richard, 67, from Wath upon Dearne, started working as a blacksmith at the age of 15, when he started a seven-year long apprenticeship at the colliery fixing pit tubs. “My dad used to work in the colliery as a blacksmith, and he even worked there during the war because it was a protected job.
“There were about 20 of them working as blacksmiths at the pit and it was a hell of a job to keep the colliery going,” says Richard. At the end of the war his father left the pit and set up his own business, which Richard would eventually join.
“My dad first worked at the back of a cottage to do his work but in 1973 he moved into a new forge at Wath upon Dearne. We’d make things like replica canons and parts for rolling mills.”
But it wasn’t easy.
“When my father first moved into the premises at Wath upon Dearne there was no electricity and the floor was covered in soil. He was always at work but he built up the business gradually.”
The business – known as G H Lewis and Sons - also had to weather changes in society, such as the increasing popularity of the motor car.
“We did a lot of farrier work but the automobile came and the horses went.”
But there were other jobs G H Lewis and Sons could concentrate on – like making the suspension gears for pit cages. “We worked through the strikes and I don’t think we would have been very popular at the time if people knew,” says Richard.
And years of adapting to work on new commissions has meant that Richard is something of a blacksmithing guru at Ridgeway Forge. “The trouble though is that schools are no longer teaching children about blacksmithing so few people have the skills to make these things,” he says.
At least though, at Ridgeway Forge, blacksmithing is still very much alive.
The firm’s workshop is a thriving haven of activity, with two fires blazing – ready to heat the objects that are about to be forged – and all manner of tools line the walls of this modest but intriguing space.
But that’s just the making.
And fitting items such as wrought iron gates or balcony fences gives the men at Ridgeway Forge a behind-the-scenes glimpse into life in Kensington, Chelsea and even Chatsworth.
“We do get to work at some very interesting places,” says Andrew. And it’s all done from here, just off the beaten track in a rather unassuming North Derbyshire village.
The Ridgeway Forge team will be at Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet this Saturday and Sunday.