Staying the distance

Roz Whistance meets a blacksmithing family which goes back 10 generations, and hears how they have made their mark on the Island.

“You won’t find anyone else like a blacksmith!” Now you might expect these to be the words of Mr Stay Senior, now semi-retired after a lifetime in this ancient trade. In fact this is his son speaking, Will Stay – funny, bright and blokeish, but only 27. Will’s passion for the work he has been born into is charismatic. Blacksmithing seems as relevant an industry today as it was for his forebears.

Will is not the original ‘and son’ in the firm’s title. He is the 10th generation of the firm, which was founded in the 1790s. “I’m lucky, very lucky. I’ve got the tools, all this was here when I was a kid. I used to come to the workshop when it was in Sandown,” he says, explaining it moved from Brading to Sandown, then moved back. “We used to have a hardware store in Brading, too, that my Great Aunt used to run.”

W Stay & Son has a continuity of which few firms, anywhere, can boast. Their work is everywhere on the Island: the iron surround of the sign for the Holliers Hotel in Shanklin: a three-dimensional ‘welcome to Brading’ sign; and the distinctive door knocker made by Will’s grandfather for Yaverland Manor, in the shape of a horned cow. “That was the breed of cattle they had at Yaverland at the time,” explains Will. “The laws about milking cows with horns changed – Health and Safety I’d imagine – so they had to get rid of them.”

History frequently runs full circle. “A customer came to me with a photo of some railings in Ryde she’d like copied,” Will goes on. “I nipped up home and came back with photos of the day those railings were fitted! I said ‘My grandfather would have made those’!” His father, Tim Stay, comes in now, and you are struck by the fact he is just as fresh faced and unlined as his son. You can’t help thinking that this blacksmithing lark might be good for a person.

Tim joined the business with his father, George Stay, at the age of 15. George, in his day, had originally done a lot of horse shoeing, but moved to working in wrought iron, and Tim in his time took it in a different direction again. “We did a lot of agricultural work. Farming and blacksmithing was pretty much hand in glove, because any tool they used had to be serviced.” Photos show Tim working with his dad, equally slight, and bespectacled. But disaster struck when George died when Tim was just 19 years old.

“I was thrown in at the deep end,” he says. “Fortunately I had an uncle who was part of the business, who would work out the time for the jobs and price the hours out for me.” His mother, Joan, worked in the office. George’s death wasn’t just a loss to the family, he had made his mark on the community. Will finds some pictures of his grandfather where he’s looking, let’s say, quite merry. Liz, Tim’s sister, who is sitting doing the accounts amongst the riot of books, plans and notes, describes her father and his friends as “a bit like Frank Sinatra and his rat pack.” His sense of fun is shown on a 1940s price list, which ends with the words: “All prices listed are exorbitant. Other swindles on application. Customers executed by design. Fakers of pseudo-antique monstrosities.”

This is surely a dig here at mass produced rubbish, and Will shares the sentiment. “I hate bog standard,” he says. He, in his time, learnt all his traditional skills from his father, but added a contemporary twist from another smith. “He opened my eyes up to different types of work,” says Will, showing pictures of a fire set he made for Yaverland manor. The design somehow manages to be stunningly contemporary while blending with the surroundings by which Will was inspired.

So Will, the 10th generation of Stays, has a particular penchant for the creative side of things. He pulls out a work in progress, the sinuous and delicate legs of a spider-to-be. Then he shows us the model, a rather scrunched up and very dead spider. “He died in the cause of art,” says Will, almost managing to look solemn. It seems the Stay sense of humour runs through the generations. “There’s nobody quite like a blacksmith. We have regular New Year get-togethers where we do a bit of forging and have a real laugh. You don’t see a load of civil engineers spending their day off digging the perfect hole and filling it with concrete, do you?!”

While Will keeps the traditional skills alive and branches into modern works of art, the firm’s portfolio of work grows, and is remarkably diverse. W Stay & Son was responsible for the structure of the new Wightlink terminal on Ryde Pier: it created the sparsely understated staircases inside the Lakeside Hotel in Wootton; and fire escapes for the huge Tesco in Ryde. The work is countrywide: a church in Cornwall now has 200m of Stay wrought iron fencing.

Just a generation back, when Tim was celebrating his firm’s 200th birthday, the principle bread-and-butter work was agricultural contracting: – in 1989 the County Press reported that he and two staff harvested more than 1,000 acres of silage for farmers. But an invoice dated 1912, in Tim’s great grandfather’s time, describes the business as a “Shoeing and General Smith, Cycle Agent and Repairer.”

It is is a testament to their skills that they can embrace such change. Work they do in sheet metal is a completely different discipline again.“We’ve always done a certain amount in sheet metal,” recalls Tim. “When I was 15 or 16 we made bushels for the dustbin men.”

Few businesses can match this diversity. Indeed the claims of other firms do rather rile Will. “You go to most fabricators’ yards and they say they’re blacksmiths – but if they don’t have a forge they’re not a blacksmith. They buy stuff in and weld it together.” His contempt for ersatz craftwork is explosive, as he digs around in a few boxes and produces some factory-made scrolls to be welded to iron gates. “We’ve got them because if somebody’s quoting the price a gate can be made for in China, I couldn’t compete. But I would love to be able to say ‘I don’t do that type of work’.”

He shows a scroll that has been worked by hand – thrust into the furnace, beaten and honed – and the mass produced equivalent: the difference is like night and day. Will’s rather clever compromise is to offer factory-made gates with hand-wrought details.

But he’d prefer it if everyone could afford the real thing. He is currently restoring a gate, and the clients want three more to match. “The difference between a ready made gate and hand-made was £4,000 but he said he’d have it hand-made!”

Thank goodness for clients like those. For you feel that if he were just a ‘fabricator’, Will would take the artisan route, taking off with his Devonian girlfriend to set up a little craft shop somewhere to sell his sinuous spiders and delicate horses. Fortunately, W Stay and Son can be all things to all people – so  Will’s lovely contemporary creations have a place alongside the structural work and the still-strong demands for traditional gates and furniture.

Here’s to another 220 years.

W Stay & Son, Quay Lane Farm, Quay Lane, Brading, PO36 0AT. Tel 01983 407077. www.wstayandson.com