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Finch Foundry (Devon)

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Address: Sticklepath / Okehampton / Devon EX20 2NW / Tel: 01837 840046

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      08.06.2011 11:35
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      A National Trust place that's not just a dusty old house

      No disrespect to the National Trust, in my opinion a fantastic organisation preserving the beauty of our heritage so future generations can keep that link to the past, but more often than not all you get are some pretty gardens and a big house full of paintings that all resemble either the same old tights clad nobleman or the stereotypical miserable looking noblewoman, some tatty carpets and tapestries, lots of non-descript pottery and some dusty old books chronicling the then exciting world of land reliefs and farming prospects of the local area. Finch Foundry is a lovely example of a property with something a little different.


      ==Address Information:==

      Sticklepath
      Okehampton
      Devon
      EX20 2NW
      Telephone: 01837 840046
      Fax: 01837 840046
      Email: finchfoundry@nationaltrust.org.uk


      ==Prices (2011):==

      Adult - £4.60
      Child - £2.30
      Free for National Trust members


      ==Opening Times:==

      12th March - 30th October

      Everyday apart from Tuesdays 11am-5pm with the last admission being 30 mins before closing.
      The foundry and shop are open as an exception in November on whatever day St Clement's (patron saint of blacksmiths) Day falls on.


      ==History==

      Located in the quaint village of Sticklepath (derived from the Anglo-Saxon word 'staecle' meaning steep) in Devon, the Finch Foundry marks the last surviving mill of the area. With the River Taw flowing rapidly down the Belstone Cleave valley into Sticklepath it became a focal point of industry by harnessing this water power through water-wheels to allow watermills to spring into life. The mill where the Finch Foundry stands has been around for 700 years starting out in mediaeval times as a grist mill to turn corn into flour alongside a fulling mill to make cloth usable and by the 18th century had become a woollen mill.

      It finally turned into the Finch Foundry in 1814 when the now closed woollen mill was purchased and rejuvenated by William Finch, an employee of a few foundries before that now wanted to start his own business. Technically it was a forge, not a foundry, since the metal was wrought here and not cast as takes place at a foundry but it was believed he took the name foundry with him from his previous work. Shrewd at business, the Finches began the life of the foundry by making edge-tools such as sickles and scythes but diversified to fill many other markets by also becoming wheelwrights (repairers of wheels) and carpenters allowing them to expand their stock to such things as carts, wagons, ship parts and even coffins.

      The family continued to run this business until in 1960 it was reputed that the family were in the local pub when the rear wall of the foundry collapsed due to poor maintenance and the vibrations from the trip hammer and upon seeing the damage they simply turned around again and went back into the pub and that was the end of that. A man named Richard Barron not wanting this historical machinery to disappear took over and with the help of volunteers turned the dilapidated mill into a museum, where it was handed over to the National Trust in 1994.


      ==The Foundry Today==

      Location
      ======

      Getting to the foundry is fairly easy. One delightful way to join it is to walk in if you are on the Tarka Trail in the vicinity (the Tarka trail is a circuit of 180 miles made up of footpaths and cyclepaths following the route Tarka the Otter took in the eponymous novel by Henry Williamson) you can cut in to the foundry from the Tarka Bridge which carries the trail over the River Taw. The nearest train station is Okehampton at 4½ miles away so you'd then have to make further arrangements. There are safe cycle routes to take which will lead you to the foundry and buses that will take you just outside at the Devonshire Inn but driving is definitely the easiest way with the Finch Foundry just 4 miles off the A30 with very negotiable roads and infallible brown signs to follow. Though if you arrive by car you do have to enter under a one-way, startling thin archway so if your car is sizeable and your spatial awareness is poor be very wary.

      Once you arrive you will probably notice some pleasant looking gardens and some operational waterwheels to whet your appetite. First you must enter the reception-cum-gift shop which you must attend to gain your entrance ticket/smugly flash you NT membership card before you can continue. The gift shop is quite tiny, but they have a few more interesting items than at normal National Trust shops with a lot geared towards metalwork. Then, depending on the time of your arrival, you can join the hourly demonstration or if you have some time to kill before that starts you can visit the museum.


      The Museum
      =========

      The museum is very tiny and will probably take you no more than 10 minutes, but as a result actually has only interesting things to look at rather than being padded with dull artefacts. Admittedly there is a collection of some edge-tools on display, but they are a groovy lot of deadly looking items that wouldn't look out of place in a Hillbilly horror B movie which do show off the high quality of the foundry's work. There is a picture of the workers circa 1900 which gives a good idea of what life was like back then and some interactive and fun displays for the kids including a list of old wages for the different scale of workers encouraging you to modernise the old currency and figure out a sensible budget. There are also two scientific models to experiment on to get an idea of how the machinery worked for certain procedures. Also look out for the song lyrics to "Widdicombe Fair" and the mention of a man named Tom Pearse...


      Outside
      =====

      The museum will lead you outside where you can see the water being channelled off to power the waterwheels and you will wonder how it gets as high as it does - all will be revealed in your demonstration talk. Continuing down you can then also get pretty close to a huge waterwheel which again will be explained in the demonstration, but here there is a fair old bit of dripping water upon entry to the walkway so some kind of anti-precipitation device over your head is advisable or just run really fast. You are then situated right by the tranquil gardens and tearoom which you can naturally make use of for a nice cup of tea and some light snacks...including ice-cream. Further on there are several summer houses to visit, one being built by none other than Tom Pearse, who turns out to be another mill owner in the 19th Century, and a Quakers' burial ground, bought by this recurring figure Tom Pearse for the village for just £14, which is nice to have a little stroll around if gravestones don't freak you out.

      If you fancy going further afield (probably after your visit to the foundry) you can walk a short way to get a closer look at the leat - a 12th Century manmade channel which diverts the water from the River Taw to the village thus allowing all this amazing waterwheel technology to work. Also you can visit the Tarka Bridge if you're not already specifically on the Tarka Trail to see the beautiful carved wooden bridge over the River Taw which could take 10 minutes to get to and finally, though I'm not really sure of the intellectual merit you could walk a good 20 minutes to see a white rock and flagpole pinpointing the spot where some old dude named John Wesley used to preach, he may have had something to with the founding of the Methodist Church...


      The Demonstration
      =============

      So now onto the star of the show, the demonstration of the only working water-powered forge left in England. This demonstration is great for kids and adults alike, but there are a few potentially dangerous moments with hot metal and sparks flying, not to mention all the sharp pointy things dotted about the forge, so kids and silly adults must be supervised at all times. First, there is a 25-30 min talk held in front of the machinery starting with the history of the forge, the family and a little of the village which is actually quite interesting, but may be a little dull for kids. But this swiftly turns to talk about the dynamics of the machinery and how the water powers the waterwheels that turn all the cogs using the belts which then drives all the various components which seemed to intrigue all the kids at my own talk. Unfortunately, my demonstrator was a little naive in his encouragement for kids to "always ask why" in order to learn which led to a rather overzealous child to constantly ask why after every sentence he uttered from that point onwards. I believe when nobody was looking he was pushed into the saw pit to be finished off with the bandsaw later. His parents didn't seem that fussed.

      So the demonstration consists of heating up some metal, switching on the machinery by opening a sluice that started the waterwheel and demonstrating how the machine could cut through metal and bend and shape it using some impressively large shears, a trip hammer and a drop hammer that produced some sparks and very loud noises that certainly thrilled the kids. Next we moved up into the above room, the Carpenter's shop, to finish off the demonstration by viewing the waterwheel that operates the machinery and how it starts from stationary and gives off a massive spray of water once it gets going which causes people to amusingly step back in an involuntary and startled way (from a closed window). Well amusing until they step on your foot. This is then followed by a final 10 minute talk about the different items stored in the Carpenter's shop, including another waterwheel that operates a grindstone and polisher in an adjoining room.


      ==Final Thoughts==

      The Finch Foundry is a small and out of the way National Trust property that needs all the support it can get to keep the last working water-powered forge operating as a lot of expert maintenance is required to keep the machinery functional. For the price of entry (even better if you're a member) this is an utterly superb place for both adults and kids, with a nice little garden and spooky graveyard to stroll around in, a lovely little tearoom to get refreshments and some fascinating insights into the ingenious engineering people were capable of in the past, not to mention the real treat of actually getting to see it demonstrated in front of your eyes. I took a lot more away from this tiny place than I normally do at other National Trust places, so I would recommend if you're ever near Devon you should definitely look out for it.

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