I’ve just returned from a three-week trip to Britain. I taught a class about carving Iron Age ornamentation in wood, helped with a sword course that my friend Owen Bush was teaching and presented at a swordsmithing conference. Owens workshop and home “Bushfire Forge” is an amazing place to do anything. It is a walled farmyard with a 16th century house, walls are muffled with Ivy, and foxes are the secret landlords of the property. Surrounded by east London row houses and tenement buildings on three sides but bordering on common land, it is like a wizard house in Harry Potter; many chimneyed, surrounded by a deep fringe of wild trees and shrubs, held together by magic and invisible to muggles.
Teaching was a new experience for me and I really enjoyed it. I spent a week with a wonderful group of people. We went to museums and shared our collective knowledge about the artifacts we examined and sketched, then set about carving projects brimming with inspiration. By the end of the five days we had created a tight group of compatriots. I came away from the experience with a new group of friends and new energy to put into my life at home.
The Victoria and Albert Museum
Underneath the city for lunch and sketching
The British Museum, room 42.
The fruits of a weeks carving..
The class finished on Friday afternoon and folded strait into the sword conference. As we were finishing up our carvings, swordsmiths and bladesmiths from all over the world were turning up at the gate. From California to Latvia, the Czec Republic, The Isle of Skye, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Canada, Holland and many other places near and far. There was a Viking Age iron smelt, lectures on sheath making, Germanic Seaxes, handle wrapping, antler carving, inlaying iron, and smelting copper alloys, and there was much talk. At one point me and swordsmith Peter Johnsson of Sweden and Petr Florianek from the Czec Republic spent a happy hour designing the material culture of an imaginary early Iron Age matriarchal warrior society in our sketchbooks. We shared ideas and showed each other the different imaginal jewels we have been constructing and coveting in our lonely corners of the planet, like stars held in work darkened hands, fingers glowing red as we opened them to each others imaginations.
Viking smelt. Photo care of Nathan Smith.
Photo care of Nathan Smith.
Watching with bated breath as Peter Johnsson wraps a sword grip. photo care of Jeroen Zuiderwijk
After the conference some of us went off to The Museum of London and poured over the displayed swords and artifacts of Iron Age and Bronze Age London. By the end of the day we had seen most of our friends off, and me and bladesmith and archeologist Alan Longmire of Tennessee wandered back to the farm, tired and happy.
Me and my good friend Peter Johnsson. photo care of Jeroen Zuiderwijk
The next day Alan and Owen Bush and I, took a train to the inimitable town of Oxford, home of Tolkien, and Philip Pullmans wonderful character Lyra. Oxford is a wonderful place; we spent a day wandering about alleyways and streets reveling in architecture and the particular energy of a fine spring day in a student town. We went to the Pitt Rivers Museum, which is an incredible and frightening Victorian collection of pilfered artifacts, shrunken heads, feather cloaks, silver talismans, all arranged by function not by culture, provenance or time period. It is a great dark place full of dim glass cases, with dark brooding things in them. I had the impression that you might find a hidden corridor or cabinet that no one had ever seen before, or become lost in a dusty dusky maze of pith helmets and pickled bats! We had supper in a pub down a narrow alleyway, and then made our way back to London. It was a grand day.
The weekend before I returned home, Owen did an Iron smelt with me and two other friends. I sculpted an earth goddess with ivy for hair on the smelt chimney, and they began to add iron ore and charcoal. After four and half hours of loading ore, charcoal and oyster shells into the smelter every ten minutes, we where ready to break it open and retrieve the iron bloom.
Sculpting the Goddess. Photo care of Mick Maxen.
Oyster shells for flux.
Owen loads the Smelter with Charcoal.
The smelt started in soft spring daylight. As dusk gradually descended, the fire became brighter, sparks of burning charcoal dust erupted into the verdant night, settling on arms and hair and biting like small fire gnats. By the time the bloom was ready to be retrieved, the world had disappeared into spring darkness and the fire was the center of everything, the blazing omphalos of the night. Then like the birth of a dragon the bloom emerged. The chimney fell over and lay in glimmering ruin, as we struggled with the white hot bloom. Owen grasped the refulgent bloom in his tongs and dragged it to an anvil that was set near the chimney; we took turns hammering it with a great striking mall. The bloom was unconcerned by our petty knocking and absorbed the hammer force with little notice, glowing and brooding, full of potential.
Breaking the smelter open.
Looking down the smelter chimney you can see the bloom.
Striking the Bloom.
Photo care of Mick Maxen.
The next day we cut the bloom into pieces and shared it out between us to take home and make beautiful things from. The crystalline structure of the bloom sparkles blue and yellow and white in the morning sun and when Owen grinds it, many armed firework sparks come shooting off into the air! This bloom is full of carbon, which means it is steely-iron, the magical stuff swords and knives were made of during the Iron Age.
The Bloom in daylight.
Owen coveting the bloom.
Finally Owen returns me to the airport, rushing past fields of flaming green, trailer bouncing and fluttering above the smoking road behind his old Jaguar. Then a quick goodbye and running off, suitcases flapping, crammed with wood and iron, late for my flight. Now my imagination, like the suitcases, crammed with treasures, begins to unpack.