Category Archives: Experience Days

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A History of Garston Forge at Chiltern Open Air Museum

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Chiltern Open Air Museum is what is known as a ‘living’ history museum, where traditional working methods are used in our centuries-old buildings. Nowhere is this vitality clearer than in its Victorian-era blacksmith’s forge, once located in Garston, Hertfordshire, and now found at the heart of the museum: the village green. It sits at the centre of our footpath network, and when the hearth is lit and the doors are open, passers-by will hear the slow pumping of the bellows and the rhythmic beating of metal.

It is a working building in the truest sense of the word, used by local blacksmiths to make both decorative and practical pieces, such as the tree guards in our apple and cherry orchards, pictured below. The museum has always had a focus on conservation and sustainability, and having the facilities to provide authentic constructions and repairs on-site is a major boon. There are several smiths and volunteers who are trained to use it, and visitors can book experience days on which they learn how to make a few items of their own.

These tree guards were made in the forge.

The forge was built around 1860 and run by the Martin family, who were blacksmiths at Park Street and Leavesden, until 1926. It subsequently fell into disuse and was due to be demolished to make way for housing developments. Thankfully, the building was donated to the museum and dismantled by volunteers, led by Phil Buller and assisted by North Watford Venture Scouts, in 1982. It was kept in storage until resources were available and re-erected at the museum in 1984.

The forge is not alone in being a well-timed rescue. Many of the buildings that are now here at COAM were set to be altered, scrapped or destroyed because of changing regulations and demands on the land. The Chiltern Hills have a long and rich history, but like many places across the country, the demand for more housing and new facilities is high. This demand is neither unprecedented nor unreasonable, but it is the duty of museums like COAM to preserve that which it can, not just in its buildings, but also in its landscape and culture.

The balance between preservation and functionality can be a difficult one to maintain. Physical artefacts such as buildings inevitably decay over time and repairs and replacements must be made for their continued use. After all, the museum would not be very ‘living’ if its buildings, though unaltered, were unusable. For this reason, authentic changes are made, such as sourcing the forge’s hearth from a similar Victorian forge in Naphill, and the bellows from Leavesden Hospital. These replacements allow COAM to provide visitors with a view of history that is tangible and to which they are connected, something to be experienced rather than observed from a distance. They highlight the importance of preserving cultural history as well as physical history, so that good judgment may be used when telling the stories of our past. With its collection of ordinary people’s homes and workplaces, COAM’s aim has always been to invite visitors to take part in a history that is not simply preserved but sustained, in which their role is not just to remember the past, but to revive it too.

An interview with Mark Harding, one of the forge’s blacksmiths, can be seen below.

Written by Joe Wilcock, Digital Assistant


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Endangered Crafts

Endangered crafts COAM

We’ve all heard of endangered animals but have you heard of endangered crafts?

The UK has an amazing range of heritage skills and crafts some of which the Chilterns are known for, such as chair making, but sadly the knowledge of how to do some of these skills are becoming endangered.

The Heritage Crafts Association received a grant in 2015, to enable them to assess the viability of traditional heritage crafts in the UK. Their research has led to them publishing a red list of endangered crafts. They hope their research will help to shine a light on these dying skills and act as a call to action to those who have it within their power to resolve or alleviate these issues. The hope is that their project will mark the start of long-term monitoring of heritage craft viability and a shared will to avoid the cultural loss that is borne each time a craft dies.
See what crafts are on the red list

Endangered crafts straw hats

Chiltern Open Air Museum doesn’t only rescue and protect physical buildings, but the stories and traditions connected to the people who inhabited them. Onsite we try to carry out as many traditional practices and skills as possible, some, such as hurdle making, are used as par by the team who maintain the site, others, such as rag rug making, are taught and demonstrated in school workshops and events, and some skills are shared in the form of workshops and experience days. We are proud that we now offer ten different experience days or workshops that encompass traditional skills and techniques. Our aim is to be able to offer more opportunities for people to learn traditional skills in the future.

Endangered crafts working with straw

Working with straw and corn dolly making are one of the traditional skills listed on the Heritage Crafts Associations list of endangered crafts. The Museum is very fortunate that skilled straw practitioner, Heather Beeson has agreed to run Working with Straw experience days at the Museum to teach and pass on this beautiful skill to new people. We offer a variety of straw workshops for varying skill sets from complete beginners to those with a little more experience as well as courses suitable for children. Heather also runs mixed skills sessions for those who might be working on their own straw projects but would like a little guidance or support.

Other experience days and workshops that we offer are still viable crafts. Those on the viable list are deemed to have sufficient numbers of knowledgeable craftspeople who are able to pass it on to the next generation. However, these will only remain viable if there are opportunities and exposure to inspire and encourage people to learn them.

We currently run the following experience days and skills:

Working with Straw
Blacksmithing
Historic Baking
Historic Cooking
Willow Weaving and Sculpture
English Folk Singing
Family Prehistory
Watercolour and Sketching
Mindfulness

Experience days can be purchased via our website shop or via our ticket office.

Endangered Crafts Blacksmithing at COAM

In the future, using our traditional bodgers area, we hope to be able to have demonstrations and workshops on the endangered crafts of broom making, hurdle making, pole lathe bowl turning and rake making.

HCA Chair Patricia Lovett MBE said: “Traditional crafts are a vital part of the UK’s intangible cultural heritage (ICH)… not our monuments and historical artefacts, which are already well-protected by heritage professionals, but the living knowledge, skills and practices used to create them… along with many of the other things we treasure in this country. While we campaign for the UK to ratify the UNESCO Convention on ICH safeguarding (we are one of only 18 countries in the world that hasn’t), we will continue to catalogue our endangered craft heritage and focus attention on that which we are in danger of losing, so paving the way for the UK to join the rest of the world in protecting this important element of our shared culture.”

About the Heritage Crafts Association

Founded in 2009 by a small group of makers and those interested in craft, the Heritage Crafts Association (HCA) is the advocacy body for traditional heritage crafts. Working in partnership with Government and key agencies, it provides a focus for craftspeople, groups, societies and guilds, as well as individuals who care about the loss of traditional crafts skills, and works towards a healthy and sustainable framework for the future. Our aims it to support and promote heritage crafts as a fundamental part of our living heritage. In the UK traditional crafts are not recognised as either arts or heritage so fall outside the remit of all current support and promotion bodies. At the HCA we are doing what we can to address that situation and safeguard craft skills and knowledge for the future.

www.heritagecrafts.org.uk


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