“I’m a blacksmith.” It’s still Mr Blue-Shirt’s answer to the ‘what do you do?” question he gets asked a lot. He spends his waking hours in steel toe-capped boots, a paint-daubed T-shirt and multi-pocketed canvas work trousers, hangs out at the trade counters of various building supplies shops and drives around in a large white van, so people tend to assume he is a jobbing tradesman of some kind. Which he is, in many respects, although we – the house and I – are his sole customers. And it is only a sabbatical; doing all the work to get the house exactly as we want has only ever been an interim phase. He remains at heart a blacksmith. Even though it is three years since he last struck hot metal over an anvil, setting up his own forge remains his ultimate objective. Admittedly, we have ended up needing to do and wanting to do far more work than we had originally envisaged, and lockdown naturally slowed progress further, but one day, other than routine maintenance, it will all be finished. And as Mr Blue-Shirt often points out, “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life chopping wood and cutting the grass.” No, making things in metal is a deep-seated, life-long passion that precedes even his passion for things mechanical, which was the fuel that fired his military career. In fact, not long after we got married, I remember asking him what he would have done had he not joined the army as an automotive engineer in the REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) and without a second’s hesitation he answered “I’d have been a blacksmith”. And more than thirty years later, he still needs to scratch that particular creative itch.
So for the time being he still has a forge in a box. Well, in a twenty-foot shipping container in a goods yard down at Porto Potenza Picena to be precise: twelve tonnes of tightly packed forging equipment patiently waiting for the right workshop to come along so it can be re-commissioned and teased back into service. And there’s the rub: finding a workshop. His search for a forge has been a variation on our early property searches here when holidays were spent bouncing down white gravel roads and clambering over ivy-choked ruins. On practically every trip to the builders’ merchants over in Villa Potenza, or to the quarry down in San Firmano, to the vet in Piediripa, or even to the supermarket in Trodica – and certainly while out on his Sunday cycles down to the coast – he will detour off along this, that or another track in search of a potential forge. Even I join in, keeping my eyes peeled for ‘Vendesi’ (for sale) signs on the way to or from teaching jobs in Recanati or Castelfidardo, in Filottrano or Appignano.
He’s not asking for much: sixty to eighty square metres of space, running water, mains power and a bit of outside space; a place where he can hang up his collection of blacksmith’s hand tools, set up his anvil, hearth and power hammer, and install a work bench, welder and spray bay. But just as with our initial property search, Mr Blue-Shirt’s hopes have been repeatedly raised and then swiftly dashed when a place that looks ideal from the outside or on paper turns out to be a non-starter as soon as he sets foot inside. Too big or too small; too far down a white road or too close to housing; too much land or no outside space at all; too much restoration work or too much conversion work.
He even considered a small plot of land on which he could erect a small pre-fabricated workshop and went to the local planning office to find out whether this might be a feasible option: it wasn’t. The piece of land Mr Blue-Shirt had earmarked as a potential location for a forge was designated as agricultural land and so could not be built on. But from the helpful and chatty planning officer, Mr Blue-Shirt learnt that until recently Montelupone had in fact had two working forges, and although their hearths had long since grown cold, their premises were still there. So clasping the map on which the planning officer had marked two red crosses Mr Blue-Shirt had set off to investigate.
The first was on the southern side of the village: an anonymous cube-shaped building with roll-down shutters and a shallow pitched roof. And decorated with a web of alarming cracks running up the buff-coloured walls, a victim of the earthquakes that shook the region in 2016. So he crossed that one off the list without even looking inside. The bureaucracy, time and money involved in repairing any earthquake-damaged property made it a complete non-starter.
The second forge was on the hill heading towards our place. We had both driven, walked, cycled and run past it on countless occasions but would never have imagined that behind the folding zinc doors there might be a forge. It looked very promising; it fulfilled all his criteria and even included the remains of a hearth. But it was simply way too big and consequently way too expensive. So that was that one reluctantly crossed off too.
Since then he’s ferreted out several other possibilities, and during lockdown a few more came up on the trading sites Mr Blue-Shirt subscribes to, but on closer inspection they have all turned out to be too…. something. He’s even enlisted the help of the people at the builders’ yard, the chap at the quarry, the owner of the agricultural supplies place, and the mechanic who services our car, asking them all to let him know if they hear of anyone wanting to sell a small workshop. He asked his chum Antonio too. Antonio runs the shipping company that transported Mr-Blue-Shirt’s container over from Lincolnshire and owns the good yard in which it has stood since its arrival in April last year. He’s an amiable and helpful fellow who loves to do deals – especially those that don’t involve the exchange of hard cash. So although he was originally going to charge a nominal rent for storing the container, as soon as he saw Mr Blue-Shirt’s sit-on mower, the rent was swiftly commuted to mowing the weed-strewn, two-football-pitch sized goods yard every few weeks.
These mowing sessions invariably include a coffee and a natter with Antonio, and during one such natter, it transpired that the lease on the goods yard was about to expire. Mr Blue-Shirt’s dismay soon turned to curiosity, however, as Antonio went on to explain that the new place he’d already got lined up, just a stone’s throw from his existing premises, included a warehouse with more than enough space for Mr Blue-Shirt to set up his workshop, and he was sure they could come to some arrangement…
A few weeks later, Antonio took possession of the site, a former furniture factory that had been empty for about three years, and immediately enlisted Blue-Shirt’s help in craning all the containers (including his own) from the old yard to the new one. Since then he and Mr Blue-Shirt have been like a pair of overgrown schoolboys planning their den, deciding what each bit of space could be used for, which pieces of abandoned equipment could be coaxed back into life, what repair work would be needed – and which would be the best area to set up a forge. This turns out to be a corner of a seven-hundred and fifty square metre warehouse which, in theory, would give him practically everything he needs and more: space, power, natural light, high ceilings, a concrete floor, and sliding double doors giving access to plenty of hard standing. But it’s not quite what Mr Blue-Shirt originally had in mind and is not without its drawbacks. And Antonio has yet to set out the precise nature of the ‘arrangement’ he has in mind. So in the meantime, Mr Blue-Shirt is doing his best not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good…