Annabelle Bradley was living in the Yorkshire Dales beauty spot of Malham and travelling to work as an accountant in Saltaire each day but, by the time her young daughters started primary school, she was beginning to find juggling her career, home life and commute a drag.
At around the same time, the traditional blacksmith shop in Malham came up for lease so the young mother-of-two took a drastic step; she traded her career in accountancy for one that offered a better work-life balance – by becoming a blacksmith.
Annabelle, who originates from Bradford but has lived in Malham for 20 years, recalls: “When the girls started at the local primary school, I knew I didn’t want them to have to go to breakfast club and after school club as it would be exhausting for them. I found I was having to leave work earlier and then do more work at home later to catch up. Something had to change. I either had to look for a job closer to home or change what I was doing completely.”
In the early 1980s, Malham Smithy, a characterful, 200-year old blacksmith’s workshop, had been bequeathed to St Michael’s, the parish church, by the artist blacksmith Bill Wild. The church wardens were committed to leasing it out as a working blacksmith shop, but by 2007 it had been empty for two years. When Annabelle spotted an article in the parish newsletter about the quest to find an interested party willing to bring the smithy back to life, she knew she had to act.
“I thought it would be a great spot to have a business and initially thought about doing silversmithing or something with jewellery, rather than blacksmithing. However, the church wardens wanted to ensure that Bill Wild’s gift to the village was preserved as a working blacksmith shop, so I had to become a blacksmith!”
As unlikely as it may sound, Annabelle took the plunge, initially leasing the smithy as a shared workspace alongside David Crane, a hobby blacksmith who had also expressed an interest in taking it on. Annabelle set about conducting as much research as she could by reading books and watching videos. Although she was given a six-month get-out clause in her lease agreement, she admits that she found her new line of work “quite addictive” and took to it straight away.
The pair shared the workspace for three years until David retired, at which point Annabelle took on the lease on her own. “David had done some hobby blacksmithing and had some equipment set up in his shed. We met up a few times before we agreed to take on the smithy and I think that, between us, we fulfilled the church’s requirements. I was a resident of the village and David was a blacksmith, so we ticked both boxes.”
Although she undoubtedly picked up some skills from her time working alongside David, Annabelle has had no formal training in almost 15 years of blacksmithing.
“I would look at examples of metalwork and figure out how to reverse the process in order to recreate something. It was a good learning curve and enabled me to develop my own skills and style,” she says.
“It’s about having the right equipment and, in my case, that’s a traditional forge, anvil and hammer. You don’t need a load of really expensive kit and can set up relatively cheaply. I do things by hand, the traditional way.”
The Yorkshire Dales National Park is a huge influence on Annabelle’s work and she also finds the natural world a source of great inspiration. The heads of rams and the Longhorn cattle that graze on Settle Moor feature in her work, as well as organic forms inspired by leaves, trees and water.
Describing her work as arts and craft-style blacksmithing, Annabelle adds: “I make smaller pieces by hand, rather than using machines. It would be hard to do larger pieces single-handedly anyway, but there’s not a great deal of space in the workshop; nothing much has changed in 100 years.”
Punctuated by curves and twists, her work has a deliberate tactile quality, as she explains: “I get as much pleasure from holding and feeling something as I do from seeing it. If something has a twist that you know couldn’t have been created by a machine, it makes your eyes look again and really think about how it has been made.”
When asked about working in a traditionally male-dominated field, Annabelle points out that there are quite a few female blacksmiths now and insists: “Women were always part of blacksmithing history. The man of the family may have been the blacksmith, but the wife and children would all have helped out, it was very much a family business.
“We get a lot of school visits in Malham because of its appeal to tourists but when they come into the smithy they have probably never seen a blacksmith before, so seeing a blacksmith is the shock, rather than the fact that I’m female.”
Annabelle’s own business could yet prove to become a family affair as her two daughters, now aged 17 and 18, are already capable blacksmiths in their own right.
“They already do quite a bit of forging and they’re really good. During the last couple of years they’ve developed their skills and started doing things for their GCSE and A Level art courses.
“It’s a fantastic skill to put in their portfolios. I’d like to think that they’ll get involved more, even if it’s later in life. It’s very therapeutic and a bit of escapism. I like to think that they have that to come back to if they choose.”
As restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of Covid-19 continue to ease, Annabelle is looking forward to opening Malham Smithy up to visitors again.
There’s a small gallery alongside the workshop, where visitors can buy fireside companion sets, bottle openers, letter openers and other small pieces, as well as watching her at work in the adjoining forge. Annabelle takes commissions for everything from fire pits to signs, and runs courses, both for beginners and those who want to develop their skills further.
Malham’s magnetic appeal to tourists, together with the rustic charm of the smithy, has led to numerous television appearances for Annabelle, on everything from Countryfile and The One Show to Escape to the Country.
“We get a lot of visitors to Malham anyway, but the setting I work in is very traditional. In fact, it’s exactly how people imagine a blacksmith shop to look, so it’s ideal for filming and has been quite popular among programme makers,” she says.
Each year, she hosts Year 10 and Year 12 students from local schools for work experience placements and has also offered young people embarking on further education courses in blacksmithing the chance to gain some practical experience. A number of those who have completed placements with her have gone on to enjoy full-time careers as blacksmiths.
A regular fixture at the many country shows that usually take place during the summer months, Annabelle is delighted that the Great Yorkshire Show, at which she now fulfils the role of chief steward, looks set to go ahead. She first became involved after being invited along by the late Hugh Adams, a past prime warden of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths.
“I was invited to compete and give live demonstrations, which was quite nerve-wracking at first because you have to be able to interact with the public and also work in front of other blacksmiths. Thankfully, the community is very open, sharing and encouraging, it’s a really positive environment.
“The following year they asked me to become a steward and then, a few years later, I became chief steward. It’s one of the highlights of my year; it’s great getting all the competitions going, seeing other blacksmiths and talking about our different projects.”
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