31 Jul 2019
Yet more talent and inspiration that Somerset can boast about.
Yet more talent and inspiration that Somerset can boast about. Deborah Burke and Michael Parkes moved from Nottingham to Clayhill Farm, just to the west of Bridgwater in 2015. They brought with them a focussed and breath-taking vision – buying an assortment of redundant farm buildings and developing them into a centre for creatives. What they have achieved is stunning.
I know how daunting aged farm buildings can be. It takes both physical resolve and buckets of mental stamina to do something with them, yet the beauty of West Somerset’s sandstone speaks for itself. It’s worth protecting and nurturing but Deborah and Michael have firmly stamped a forward thinking 21st century creative template on to Clayhill. Former milking sheds and threshing barns now breathe creative endeavour along with the ethos of their owners.
“We wanted to provide a flexible space for creatives to utilise, that in some ways imitates working with the landscape,” Deborah explained as I gazed through the large glass doors at the open fields beyond. “Somewhere that people could come together and produce. For many artists, life is a lonesome and isolating existence when it comes to their work. We aim to facilitate collaboration and build a network of creative people who see Clayhill as a catalyst and a space to retreat.”
The former threshing barn in which we are standing is a superb space, ideal for blue sky thinking whilst the blue sky itself looks in. There is clean simplicity in the design, with the character of the former use still very much prominent. Hessian wheat sacks that were found in the building decorate the sides of a counter of an open kitchen area whilst remnants of the original machinery adorn the walls. A fresh ambience results, which has already got Somerset’s artistic community buzzing, most recently with the Watchet’s Contains Art team spending time here. Clayhill participated in Somerset Art Weeks last year which was when they opened to the public for the first time.
One particularly exciting part of this complex is that it is residential, with sleeping capacity for 16. As with the rest of the overhaul, the attention to detail and design is invigorating – a hotel in itself and ideal for bringing visitors to the county, mostly recently acknowledged with a finalist position at the Bristol, Bath and Somerset Tourism Awards. Deborah’s background is evident throughout, having run a restaurant for four years following her degree in Decorative Arts.
Michael’s joins the conversation carrying a drill and roll of cable. Through talking with him. I start to gain a fuller context of how their joint experience has fashioned their aims for Clayhill. “I come from an education background, particularly with experience in TV and film. There is ample opportunity to study media theory in film school but less for practical interpretation. Our whole complex is designed to work with people at the beginning of their career. Creatives can experiment and test projects, have an initial exhibition to see what works and what might need fine tuning. This is a springboard for progressing to larger exhibitions at other venues.”
I feel strongly that Michael has neatly summed up not only the Clayhill offer but also a huge opportunity here in Somerset. The county has a roll call of artists and writers that stretches back centuries, yet earning a related living often means answering to the call of major cities.
I could have stopped both of them working all day, chatting about materials as we step into a longer gallery. The cleanest corrugated metal sheets I have seen in my life butt up against sandstone walls on side and plasterboard on the other. As with such customer-led venues, new uses become apparent to me as the acoustics seem to lift our conversation. The Somerset folk singer Amanda Boyd has run a residential course here for musicians and I could easily imagine a baby grand piano at one end, with the plate glass and farmland as a backdrop.
Michael is already on to the next part of the project – converting one of the four Dutch barns into a cinema. Such is the attention to detail that although this will take eighteen months to complete, it will clearly be state-of-the-art. Another barn will be transformed into an open multi-activity studio where artists need not be afraid of making a mess……
Like the farm, this will only grow and grow.