All photos by Colin Tonks
In the railway arches under Peckham Rye station, there's another noise ringing out alongside the clanking and squealing of trains passing by. It's a sound you just don't expect to hear in London, and one you won't hear anywhere else in the capital — the clanging and hammering of blades being made in a forge.
Blenheim Forge is getting foodies rather excited with its high quality cooking knives, all of which are carefully hand-made in the arches on Blenheim Grove — with the wood in the handles often being foraged from nearby parks and a churchyard.
There's high demand for the implements, and a pretty long waiting list — thanks in part to news getting around by word-of-mouth, but also because everything is hand-made (the forge turns out just four or five blades a week).
The fledgling obsession-becomes-business started as a hobby of friends Jon Warshawsky and James Ross-Harris. James, an experienced furniture and metal-worker, tells Londonist their passion started when they made a blade as a bit of fun one weekend: "Damascus steel has a reputation as being one of the most difficult blacksmithing techniques there is, so we decided to give it a go."
To their surprise, their first attempt was a real success.
"We thought we were naturals at it, and decided to make another," says James. "It was a disaster."
Their initial fluke led to a year of spending weekends trying to make a high quality blade. A year of trial and error, tweaking the temperature and the atmosphere inside the forge. "It's vital to control these two factors," James explains, "a tiny variation in either can ruin the metal."
Finally perfecting the technique ignited a burst of inspiration sparks and — joined by new recruit Rich Warner — the group have been dedicating most of their weekends to research and development: using different types of metal and trying out alternate types of blade. Right now there are two types available: Laminated Blue Paper Steel and Pattern Welded, but they're planning to make a straight razor in the near future.
Taking between 20-30 hours to make, all the knives are differentially tempered to create an extremely hard edge and flexible spine, allowing for highly controlled, yet powerful cutting. They are finished by hand and sharpened on Japanese water stones.
But it's not just the quality that is driving up demand, the changing profile of Peckham residents is also benefitting the trio. As well as chefs — who are buying the knives for use in their own homes rather than taking them to work — there's a lot of interest from the type of people who care about where their food comes from, and want to prepare it with locally-sourced tools too. Plus, they have the money for them (the knives cost £80-£350).
Despite rapidly growing demand, the trio refuses to speed up production by automating any part of the process. It's part of the charm of Blenheim Forge, which, as word continues to spread, will only see its waiting list grow. The ancient sounds of the forge seem likely to complement the steel-on-steel of the railway for years to come.