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Another iron in the fire for the master craftsman of Fransham

PUBLISHED: 09:20 22 February 2012 | UPDATED: 09:45 22 February 2012

Nigel Barnett with the traditional-style showman's hut he has crafted to offer weekend breaks for guests at his Fransham Forge in central Norfolk.

Nigel Barnett with the traditional-style showman's hut he has crafted to offer weekend breaks for guests at his Fransham Forge in central Norfolk.

Archant © 2012 01603 772434

They say that what goes around comes around.

But who’d have thought the cast-iron wheels of fortune would have turned again in favour of the old-fangled roadmen’s, shepherds’ and showmen’s vans of long ago?

Norfolk artist-blacksmith Nigel Barnett is making sure that happens, and that in the frenetic 21st century they can act as cosy “veg-out” zones for stressed city types. Or even as passion-waggons for newlyweds...

Parked in the woods close by his Fransham Forge, between Dereham and Swaffham, is a gleaming new, traditional showman’s cabin, painted in “invisible green” and crafted out of timber and ironwork bashed, wrought, cast and crafted deep in Norfolk.

Rather on the poky side, you might think, as you mount the rungs to step through the stable-type door. And you’d be wrong. Floorboards and bench seats lift up or fold down to reveal ample cubbyholes in which to store stuff. There are built-in whatnots in the corners, charming quatrefoil vents, and a dinky stove-cum-cooker to keep you snug.

With its stained-glass windows –made by Reepham-based Ian Pocklington – on the way, and a cosy interior decor, Nigel is fitting the waggon out with a washstand, carpet, double bed and home-forged ironwork features such as curtain poles, toasting forks and book rests... but probably not electrical mod-cons.

“The idea will be to step back in time, so I might not lay on the electricity,” he said. “Then people will really be able to experience what life was like 100 years ago – things like cooking raw bacon in the dark! We’ll see.”

Nigel’s forge complex already features a showroom of his wares, from Suffolk latches to a king-sized metal ornamental clothes peg, and a museum. For Fransham was the foundation of enterprising young Victorian William Crane’s farm implement, wheelwright and bellhanging business that grew later into mighty – and now lamented –trailer makers Crane Fruehauf at Dereham and North Walsham.

He has created a sculpture trail in four-and-a-half acres of woodland and for some while has supplied customers with kits of the iron components they need to build a shepherd’s hut.

Now, he is offering to build the vans, for between £8,000 and £15,000 depending on how chi-chi you want yours to be, to use as artist studios, offices, even spare rooms where a home extension is out of the question. He has worked closely on that project with other Norfolk businesses including George Tufts & Son, of Bradenham, and East Coast Casting Co, at Carbrooke.

Meanwhile, his showpiece showman’s hut on wheels will stay in situ, being hired out to guests. Nigel is already used to welcoming journeymen blacksmiths from around the world to his home to learn and share skills – “Some come for a month and some for two years,” he says – and this year he wants to add a new clientele.

He explained: “I’m aiming to attract people who want a gift experience – a husband and wife from the city, maybe, who just need to get away from it all. They’d have short breaks in which they stay in the cabin, come and work with us on the Friday and Saturday, learn basic ironwork and make something to take away, such as a poker; then on Sunday they can explore our local countryside.”

If all goes to plan, that “experience” will include spinning or basket-weaving classes taught by Norfolk craftspeople.

And the passion-waggon potential? One of Nigel’s former apprentices rather fancies spending his honeymoon in the showman’s cabin.

Ian, married with three children, has his own office in a restored 1910 contractor’s hut on wheels given to him by a farmer as a wreck.

Rather more functional than the one destined for his guests, it still contains quaint old antique furniture including a steamship company chamber pot – not now in use, he insists.

It’s his own little bolt hole. “I have to get away from the noise of the works sometimes, otherwise it drives me round the bend,” he said.

Essex-raised Nigel, 49, gave up on school aged 14. Seduced instead by the wondrous, fiery glow emitted by such places as the Lake & Elliot foundry in his home-town of Braintree, he embarked on a career path that started with welding and eventually led, in a roundabout way, to him putting down roots and rejuvenating the Fransham business.

The latest of his proud achievements is being made a freeman of the City of London through his involvement with the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths.

He has carried the torch of British craftsmanship across the nation and overseas and has a real axe to grind about the present-day malaise that has swept the country.

He explained: “I’m fed-up with people going on and on about ‘the recession’. When I was a kid, there was a big campaign called ‘I’m Backing Britain’, with people waving Union Flags and celebrating all the things we made, and I think it’s time we had another one.

“People don’t realise we have got some fantastic craftsmen and women doing things, making things. They’re probably the best in the EU. All I’m trying to do is give people a chance to come and have a go, appreciate how hard craftspeople work to get where they are, and then go home from here saying: ‘I have made something.’

“I am looking to the past to celebrate the future.”

Fransham Forge is at Cranes Corner, Great Fransham. To find out more about Nigel’s craft experience weekends call 01362 687116 or email enquiries@artist-blacksmith.co.uk

mark.tweedie@archant.co.uk

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