After a childhood of endless drawing, playing with plasticine and cluttering the surface of every table with wood scraps, glue, paper and fabric, it was a natural choice to set my heart on a lifestyle where the scribbling and making would never stop.
The 3D design department workshop at Ravensbourne was generously equipped (using Margaret Thatcher’s funding) with tantalising industrial scale machines that sawed, formed, moulded, cast and helped to produce whatever an imagination could muster. I learned how to think with my hands and the years there trained me for a long career as a designer maker.
Years later, a friend called round one day after I had spent a morning building a bespoke unit to contain sheet music. She asked how I found the the time. I remarked that she has spent the same amount of time shopping. So I began to teach my friends basic skills from my cosy basement workshop.
When the nearby City of London Adult Education Centre opened, I offered to teach a similar course called ‘Tools for the Terrified’. I was turned down as I do not have a teaching qualification and so I turned to teaching in rented community halls on rickety tables where I hauled heavy crates of tools stored in my shed. I was constantly looking for a space where I could build proper benches and stop driving the tools around.
In the post crash gloom of 2009, I found a modest empty ground floor unit in Webber Street in Waterloo, where its central location encouraged weary and wary office workers to come and learn the pleasure of solving practical problems while working with their hands. A mindset that I referred to as ‘The Goodlife’. I registered our name, we built a website and started promoting our ‘course’- which quickly split into more courses as requests and suggestions flowed in.
Adult Education centres have continued to be starved of funding, while my experience was showing that people want those skills – not just to save money but to reconnect with the deep ancient need to make. I dug deep into savings and rallied all the talented fellow crafts people I knew who were gracious in agreeing to pass on their skill and passion.
Although the beloved City and Guild ‘soft’ courses had largely closed down, local authorities do continue to back accredited training in woodwork and trades. As I had taught time poor Londoners, I resolved to deliver content rich courses where neither the tutor or learner would have to plough through paperwork. We prefer wading through wood shavings. A well made wood joint or a finely upholstered chair stand on their own merit.
When a jaw dropping rent hike meant I would lose the small unit we had lovingly fitted out, I dug my heels in and determined to stay in a central location so people could muster the energy after a day at a computer to come and be revived and refreshed.
By then Scuzzy Southwalk was becoming Beautiful Bankside so I was thrilled to find an owner of a 1950s cardboard box making factory who ‘got’ what we were doing and wasn’t lured by the chance to knock down and develop the building her dad had built and where she had earned pocket money as a child. She had hoped to find new custodians that might respect and build on its history rather than tear it down. It was a meeting of minds.
So we began to renovate the factory, using the labour of our tutors, who are multi skilled craftspeople, as well as some of our willing learners. We created five individually equipped studios, a machines room, a cosy kitchen/reception and we use the original glassed in office – where the owner’s mum worked – as….an office. We kept as many original features and repurposed as much as we could. People who have carried on attending courses here since we began often recognise the quirky features we have transplanted.
We started our first courses here in 2016 and this is where we will stay.
We’ve settled in here and the paint is dry. So now the job is to continuously develop new workshops, refine existing courses and find interesting new collaborations. I’m especially interested in reaching out to schools and teaching children. How else will the next generation of plasticine modelers learn to become skilled craftspeople if they are denied the chance? If local authorities won’t prioritise practical education, hopefully liveried companies can offer bursaries to schools and aid development of the next generation.
I believe that we offer a collaborative creative space because of the variety of disciplines and skills that are taught here. The interaction between tutors, helpers, and learners is a very special. Good coffee and an endless plate of biscuits helps too.