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INSPIRED Blog Series: The Valley Project with Grizedale Arts

Posted on 27 April 2021

Written by:

Elly Mead

Within our latest blog series we are making space to celebrate community leadership and cross-sector collaboration within design and placemaking. Through our open call for stories, ideas and anecdotes about inspired approaches to shaping buildings, open spaces, homes or neighbourhoods, we are taking the time to celebrate the connections that continue to make our places special.

I first came across Grizedale Arts, an arts organisation in the Coniston Valley of the Lake District, when I applied to be part of their ‘Building a New Rural: Architecture, Making and Design School’ in July of 2020. Finishing off the final slog of my masters, I was desperate for an architectural experience that wasn’t tied to a laptop or desk, and that threaded together my passions of building, place-making and the great outdoors. Through attending this workshop, I opened the door into the amazing range of work that Grizedale Arts takes part in, from community Christmas feasts and building workshops, to virtual volunteer days and residencies. However, the focus of this blog is their Valley Project, an amazing international network of initiatives which spans from hyper-local events through to global arms of work. 

Grizedale Arts sits in the shadow of the Old Man of Coniston, a fell in Cumbria. Operating out of the historic hill farm, Lawson Park, Grizedale Arts is an experimental arts organisation which generates cultural activity through local, national and international interventions and conversations. They are made up of a network of passionate artists, activists and researchers collaborating with local people and volunteers from across the globe.   

A view of Lawson Park from their impressive gardens. Image Courtesy of Grizedale Arts, Photo: Rachel Hayton

The Valley project, which began in 2016, seeks to empower people to value what is already there within their local areas and communities through initiating a variety of events across a motley of contexts. Aiming to forge connections between the often siloed aspects of rural communities, the project spans across a wealth of genres; from farming through to architecture, outdoor education and the arts. From working on international building projects to examining and emulating existing ways-of-doing, the Valley Project fully inhabits and explores interventions at all scales, guided by this core principle of making the best of what is there. 

The Valley Project seeks out people in places which share Grizedale Art’s passion to find innovative ways to flourish in rural contexts which value and retain some of our disappearing ways of life. The project is continually forming small partnerships, incubating ideas through outward facing events that invite people into the community to see historic, and new problems with fresh eyes. 

One of these small partnerships took place in autumn of last year. Many people often struggle to manage the volume of apples produced by their trees or small orchards, and much fruit is often wasted. Simultaneously reducing food waste and bringing local people together to celebrate homegrown food, The Valley Project held an Apple Day event inspired by the 1990 Common Ground festival of the same name. Local residents brought their harvests to the village of Water Yeat to press them into juice, which they could then take home in any bottles they had brought. This intensely community-focused approach to place-making and culture is a poignant reminder that it is not only the bricks, timber and stones we use to build that shape our communities and our homes, it is how these spaces and territories are activated through cultural events and activities.

Local residents work together to press their apples into fresh juice! Image Credit: Grizedale Arts

The building workshop I attended back in September of last year was also part of The Valley Project’s new residential school series, the latest iteration of which is a monthly gardening school, The Farmer’s Arms Garden School, held in the outdoor classroom that was built during the building workshop. 

The design and building team for the Outdoor Classroom project, designed by Takashi Hayastu of Hayatsu Architects and Material Cultures and built as part of the Valley Project’s building school in September 2020. Image Courtesy of Grizedale Arts, Photo: Rachel Hayton

The current main focus of The Valley Project is The Farmer’s Arms, a historical establishment which has sat empty at the mouth of the Crake Valley for the last few years. Grizedale Arts has worked with the local community to secure the purchase of the property in order to reimagine the building as a cultural hub which encompasses all the traditional values of a pub; good food and drink, affordable accommodation and a hearty atmosphere, but that also provides a space for local education, hands-on workshops, events, a shop and exhibitions. Follow Grizedale Arts on social media or sign up to their newsletter to keep up to date with the latest updates on the project.

Emma Sumner, Valley Project Manager at Grizedale Arts, speaks of the amazing opportunities and long-term benefits that The Farmer’s Arms could bring to the valley;

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to save an historic building and retain it as a community hub. The Coniston Valley has many innovative rural businesses, alongside celebrated visitor attractions such as Brantwood and the Ruskin Museum, and The Farmer’s Arms could help in the area’s recovery period. Employment will be a key issue and we believe The Farmer’s Arms will act as a gateway to not only the wonders of the valley, but also the world of work and enterprise, innovation and diversification.”

The Outdoor Classroom project, which now hosts The Farmer’s Arms Garden School. Image Courtesy of Grizedale Arts, Photo: Rachel Hayton

When these partnerships of various scales connect and link communities from across the globe, space is made to exchange ideas, understand common problems and collaborate. Grizedale Arts takes a unique and marvelous approach to shaping place, and making those places special, by simultaneously paying homage to the past and innovating for the future, working hyper-locally and at huge, international scales.