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Walford Mill Crafts

What started out as a space for artists has evolved into something much more, as Joël Lacey reports

 

The various changes made to the mill over the years are clearly visible in this image

It’s not every workplace which consists of a silk-weaving loom that is open to public view, but then again, there are very few places like Wimborne’s Walford Mill Crafts – an organisation and educational trust which brings arts and crafts to people young and old around the Wimborne area.
Debby Kirby, one of the artists in residence at Walford Mill Crafts, and the operator of the mesmeric mechanism, has been associated with the organisation and its predecessor since 1987. That predecessor, the Dorset Craft Guild, was formed in 1978 as a group of artists. Later, their work would be created and exhibited in the mill, for which the Guild was invited to take on the lease at a peppercorn rent in 1986.
Before this, the mill complex had had a chequered history, particularly after it ceased operation as a working mill twenty years previously. It had been used as a coal yard, a builders’ yard and then a furniture showroom. It was owned by Mr Bankes of Kingston Lacy and, on his death in 1982, the mill, along with Kingston Lacy House, Badbury Rings and Corfe Castle, was bequeathed to the National Trust. The District Council approached the National Trust with a view to acquiring 13 acres of the estate that had been designated for development within the local plan for the area. This land, together with the mill buildings and ‘island’ which comprise the Walford Mill complex, were bought by the Council in March 1983, the mill was sympathetically renovated and the grounds landscaped to provide an attractive visitor amenity.
The transition from Craft Guild to art and craft centre of excellence came when, in the words of Debby Kirby: ‘It became clear that the mill was much bigger than the Guild members could fill. It also became clear that when the mill was up and running it could be a good place to bring education in arts and crafts to the community.’
So a change of direction occurred and, in September 1995, the mill came under the management of the Walford Mill Education Trust. That trust now has three working artists on site: Debby herself, Kate Arbon (a jeweller who is based in a small building just outside the main mill) and hand embroiderer Jen Goodwin. It also has two full-time employees – chief executive (until the end of this month) Christine Fletcher-Jones and marketing manager Nicole Habgood, and a number of part-time employees including gallery shop manager Alison Board, education manager Caroline Parrott and another education officer.
The emphasis on education is perhaps best illustrated by the sheer level of educational activity now going on. As we visited the mill, there was a workshop where half a dozen local adults were creating wire sculptures, while they were overlooked by the sightless gaze of a dozen papier-maché heads produced by local school children. As Caroline explains, ‘We used to have one workshop each month, now we have multiple workshops each week, our contribution to Summer Blast’ – which featured forty events over a month at the mill – ‘the weekend craft club for local children and, on Wednesdays and Thursdays, the Creative Academy after-school workshops.’
As well as events at the mill, Walford Mill Crafts does special projects with local first schools, middle schools and QE School in Wimborne. This is more than just a job for those working at the mill, as Caroline explains: ‘We’re all “makers” as well, so when you get a workshop run, you know it is by a specialist who works in that field.’
As well as specialisation, there is also the sheer breadth of knowledge possessed by the staff and artists in residence at the mill. Prior to joining Walford Mill, Caroline, for example, undertook to go on 45 separate courses to bring herself up to speed on a whole panoply of different art and craft skills. The chances are, if someone wants to try something, she has done it.
There is also collaboration between artists. Caroline, who herself produces works in coloured anodised aluminium, has had her work incorporated within specially dyed and woven silk designs by Debby Kirby.

Debby Kirby at her loom on which she works in full view of the public

Much of the output of the artists and craftspeople at Walford Mill Crafts is sold through the impressive and sprawling gallery shop. Since a sympathetic interior restoration about eight years ago, the shop and Debby’s upstairs workshop are linked by a lift to allow those with restricted mobility access. The connecting walkways, which pass over the mill race, incorporate thick (and reassuringly strong) glass floor panels, through which the running water beneath can be seen. There is also a TV display showing recorded footage of local otters underneath the mill.
The first thing with which one is greeted on entering Walford Mill is the gallery space itself. This is another way in which the shift from craft guild to educational trust has shown itself. Rather than restricting itself to showing the work of its own artists, Walford Mill also plays hosts to travelling themed exhibitions and solo exhibitions. As well as bringing the work of artists of international renown to the people of East Dorset, this policy allows the trust access to grants from artistic organisations – funding, for very obvious reasons in the current economic climate, always being the number one priority for any organisation to do with the arts in this country.
The gallery is also where the most popular exhibition of the year, Inspire, is held. This is an exhibition by local and national artists, where the items on display are also for sale, and it has become a key stop on the Christmas-shopping itinerary for many in East Dorset who are looking for a one-off gift, something unique to give to a loved one.

Left: Part of the Walford Mill shop Right: A small section of the gallery space at Walford Mill

At the end of the mill nearest to the car park is a staircase which gives access to the upper floors; the top (third) floor is where the workshops are run and is also home to a small kitchen with two microwaves, not for cooking food but for dyeing silk. The second floor is where the staff offices are to be found, while in the staircase is a model which seeks to remedy one of two perceived problems with the current layout of Walford Mill: one of which is aesthetic, the other much more practical.

An artist's impression of what the three million pound extension might ultimately look like

The practical problem, somewhat ironically given the location of the model showing the solution to it, is the lack of access to the upper floors, other than via the stairs, for those with mobility issues. The embryonic £3 million solution would be the erection of a new building, which would incorporate the spaces occupied currently by the gallery and by the Mill Stream Café. By providing access to lifts in the new building, this would give access to the upper storeys of the original mill building via new entrances cut into the walls where the old and new would meet. Although the model is built, it is not clear that anyone thinks that the required monies can be raised to carry out the project any time soon.
The second element of the mill that is perceived to be currently less than ideal is the way in. There is a proposal for a £250,000 bridge and improved access scheme with a bridge and boardwalk to bring visitors from the car park into the mill over the stream and along the bank, rather than on a residential road.

Debby Kirby using the silk measuring contraption on the top floor of the mill

As well as, once again, improving disabled access to the building, this would allow more art to be displayed outdoors and would also provide a viewing platform to allow visitors to view the millpond and other wildlife-rich areas.
Both these ideas are creative solutions to real-life problems with an artistic and educational element; they demonstrate the way that the ideas of universal access, learning, creativity and craft permeate every element of Walford Mill’s operation.
For those who haven’t taken the seven-minute stroll from the town centre of Wimborne – where the town’s other three treasures (the Minster, the Model Town and the Priest’s House Museum) are based, perhaps it is time to do so. One never knows what one might learn, see or do.

  • For more information about Walford Mill, pop down (via the riverside walk, or to the car park at Stone Lane, Wimborne, BH21 1NL) between 10.00 and 5.00 Monday to Saturday (11.00-4.00 on Sunday), or visit them online at www.walfordmillcrafts.co.uk

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