From dry stone walling to blacksmithing and wood whittling - This is how teenagers are connecting with Yorkshire's industrial past to learn skills for the future

In the garden of Toren Sedman’s family home is a blacksmith’s forge, a product of the 17-year-old’s own handiwork.

He began building it more than two years ago, shortly before joining a youth group who meet regularly in North Yorkshire to master heritage crafts, learn wilderness skills and take part in outdoor pursuits.

Toren has since honed his skills with the help of a blacksmithing expert who has been working with the youngsters.

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“Toren is a blacksmith and has built his own forge at home,” explains older sister Eden, 19, who also attends. “Through [the group], he gets to work with another blacksmith and to learn more skills on top from other professionals. For example, we have learnt how to do heritage joinery and that’s helped Toren to build his own shelter for his forge.”

The Bright Sparks group in North Yorkshire gives young people the opportunity to learn traditional skills. Photo: JMA Photography supplied by Ignite Yorkshire.

“Two and a half years ago I started building the forge and I got a little anvil,” adds Toren, who like his sister has had a mix of education at home and school. “I’ve worked up my set up since then. The blacksmith [who has been helping the group] has given me lots of tutoring. He taught me hammering techniques and how to make rivets and things.”

Toren and Eden, who live in Driffield, have both been attending the Bright Sparks group since it began in 2018.

Run from Carlton Lodge Activity Centre in Thirsk, it offers young people aged between 14 and 25 from across the region the opportunity to learn traditional trades and crafts such as dry stone walling, whittling and woodcraft, blacksmithing and joinery.

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Brother and sister follow family's dry stone walling tradition that goes back tw...
Thr group have been working on what they've called a bodger's lodge. Photo: JMA Photography supplied by Ignite Yorkshire.

The group is part of the Ignite Yorkshire scheme, a programme supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund that aims to encourage young people to take inspiration from and connect with the county’s industrial past all whilst developing skills for the future.

“One of our goals is to give young people the opportunity to see and participate in stuff that they wouldn’t normally,” says Sally Clifford, a youth worker and facilitator.

“Heritage isn’t just our past. It’s a build up to our future. Knowledge is power and if you find something that you want to do, that you enjoy doing, that’s amazing. To be able to have an understanding of how stuff works and how things used to be, so you can progress is also really beneficial.

“If you want to be a structural engineer, isn’t it amazing to know how you can make a wooden building stand up with your bare hands and a hammer you made out of a log?”

The group currently has around 20 members and, until the coronavirus pandemic struck, the teenagers would meet at the centre every ten weeks on a Saturday.

A typical session sees them working with experienced craftspeople to spend time learning and carrying out heritage trades. Some of the day is normally also spent partaking in outdoor activities offered by the centre, including axe-throwing, bushcraft and kayaking.

Their efforts when it comes to the former have been focused primarily on making and fitting out a wooden-framed building that they have called a ‘bodger’s lodge’ - a name drawn from the term ‘bodger’, given to a skilled craftsman who makes chair legs.

Already the Bright Sparks have teamed up with a blacksmith, cabinet maker and wood whittler to aid their work on the building, which they hope will be used as a heritage crafts learning centre.

Through the lockdown, several members have been meeting virtually each week, learning skills and knowledge from each other as well as inviting experts to run a series of discovery sessions.

A stained glass specialist gave the group a virtual tour of her studio and a wood craftsman demonstrated how to make a hand-carved canoe paddle. Toren showed his peers how to make a broach in his forge, whilst Eden gave a talk on runic alphabets and how writing has developed.

Her desire to join the group came from an interest in experimental archeology - learning about the past by reconstructing objects and re-enacting activities. She’s now studying archaeology and English literature at Cardiff University and believes her experience through Bright Sparks helped her to get there.

“Cardiff do a lot more experimental archaeology than at most places. I do think having this on my personal statement helped me get in there and do that.” She believes, too, that the group will prove valuable when it comes to her ambition to set up her own Iron Age smallholding - and it is vital, she says, in helping to preserve traditional skills for years to come. Her brother agrees.

“If these opportunities aren’t offered to young people, then the crafts and skills are just going to die out as the people who already know them won’t be passing the techniques on,” says Toren, who is currently studying at Hull College and hopes to launch his own blacksmith business. “It needs to carry on with younger generations.”

When sessions resume, the Bright Sparks plan to continue the development of the ‘bodger’s lodge’, working with a stained glass window specialist as well as bringing to life their vision for furniture, a clay oven and a log burner.

Shannagh Strudwick, 19, and her brother George, 17, are looking forward to returning. “Bright Sparks is an amazing opportunity to do things out of the ordinary that you wouldn’t normally get the chance to do and it’s really fun and enjoyable,” says Shannagh, who is currently undertaking an apprenticeship as a nursery practitioner and hopes to teach in a special educational needs school. “I feel I’ve built confidence through it, developed team building skills and I’ve made friends, which is really good.”

“It’s an amazing opportunity worth taking,” adds George. “You are learning things in a different way, and not only getting a demonstration but getting to do it hands on as well.”

Sally speaks of the group with pride, claiming the young people have taken the lead. “To hear them say ‘I’m really interested in this, can we have a look at this?’, means my role has been guided by their interests and their capacity to take on board new things,” she says. “That’s really empowering.”

Whilst the sessions are practical-focused, they often draw on academic skills such as maths and engineering. “But that’s not the reason we’re doing it,” Sally explains. “And that’s a nice thing especially for those who feel like school isn’t necessarily the best place for them. The flat cap doesn’t fit all and this is about transferable skills as well as traditional ones - it’s not just about building a dry stone wall, it’s about being able to talk to people...All these skills are transferable into the ‘real world’.”

It is free to become a member of the Bright Sparks group. Anyone interested in attending can email Sally on [email protected]

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