Photos: Mark Lord
In this age of lightweight laptops and mobile phones as powerful as computers, most of us are used to working on the go, taking email and internet from home to café and back again. But surely that wouldn’t work for a blacksmith?
Brian Greaves begs to differ. “I used to have a blacksmith shop on land in Skipton, Yorkshire,” he explains. “We then bought a narrowboat to live on and travelled the network. After a few years I decided I’d like to take the business with me so I could travel and work at the same time. So I came up with the idea of building a forge on a tug.”
His first job was to build the tug, which was completed in 1992. Although he was confident with steel and welding, Brian spent a few months in a boatyard learning boat-building techniques before constructing Bronte, the 20-foot floating forge that accompanies his narrowboat Emily. “Our narrowboat was 50ft and I wanted both tug and narrowboat to fit in a lock together, so I built the tug just the right size – 20ft 6in,” he explains. “It’s a small workshop but I designed the forge so it fits into the curve of the bow. It’s a bit like a kitchen where you can get to everything just by turning round. I’m restricted in the size of the objects I can make but I’m quite happy with that.”
Everything is based around the anvil, which sits in the centre of the tug so Brian can set to work as soon as the copper or steel leaves the forge. His creations are a combination of the artistic and the functional, including fire tools, hooks, handles, candlesticks and garden furniture, as well as boat-specific equipment such as windlasses, weedhatch knives, flue scrapers and mooring pins. But he also makes sculptures, abstract curves and whirls or curvaceous birds and animals.
He’s inspired by the canal – both by the nature he sees while cruising the network and the graceful shape of the canal itself as waterways glide round hills and other obstructions. “If you are working in a nice place with a lovely view, trees and nature around you, it puts you in the right frame of mind to create something beautiful,” says Brian, who shares Emily with his wife, Jane, and their dog. “I’m not sure I’d get the same artistic inspiration from a warehouse or a factory. I like a design that isn’t fussy, clean lines, pleasing to eye but with contours – it’s a very similar pattern to the canal itself.”
Another influence is the unrestricted lifestyle of the constant cruiser. “I always felt like I was an artist at heart,” says Brian. “I wanted to be an artist at school but I was talked into doing more practical things. Even when building something like a tug you have to make artistic decisions. Hot metal forging lends itself to artistic attitudes, it’s a hands-on affair of hot metal and anvil and you can then do whatever you want – there’s nothing to restrict you or point you in a direction you don’t want to go in.”
Brian grew up in Yorkshire in a house that backed on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal; canals have always been part of his life and helped forge a lifetime attraction. He and Jane have lived on a boat for 28 years, raising two children aboard Emily on the Kennet & Avon Canal. Even then, they were constant cruisers, moving the 20 miles between Bristol and Devizes but always staying within range of schools. Now, with the children grown up and no longer living at home, the couple are free to travel wherever they choose. The only restrictions are the occasional gallery exhibition or boat festivals, and also the need to stay in one place over weekends, which is the best time for sales. “That doesn’t necessarily mean being in towns, as it’s not about footfall as much as being in a place where people respect arts and crafts,” explains Brian, who notes that after decades of trial and error they have found several spots that seem to attract the right sort of passer-by. A Facebook page keeps people informed of their current location.
Like many long-time boaters, Brian is pleased to see waterways becoming an increasingly popular part of the British landscape. “It’s definitely getting busier and it’s nice to see so many people using the canal,” he says. “It’s great to see people walking and cycling along the towpath.” Can he imagine a time when he’d give up the boating life? “It’s impossible,” he laughs. “We love being next to water, going somewhere different all the time, surrounded by beauty. I can’t think of a house that would ever fit the bill. People always ask for my favourite bit but they are all different depending on the mood. It’s the variation. It’s like my work. If I made the same thing every time, I’d get very bored.”