Discussions on the Urban Fringe

Finding an interesting hashtag on Twitter is usually a short term piece of fun (e.g #MedwayFilms: Naked Gun Wharf;  Nightmare on Elm Court etc). However, the #urbanfringe hashtag not only introduced me to artists Jo Roberts and Stephen Turner (interviewed here) but offered the opportunity to attend the Urban Fringe seminar and find out more about the project overall.

Urban Fringe Seminar Nov 2012

Since I’ve covered Jo and Stephen’s personal journeys already, my focus during the event, held at UCA Rochester, was on the film Recorded Delivery, and the thoughts behind it of makers Simon Barker and Nayan Kulkarni, the other artists commissioned by the Kent Architecture Centre for the project.

The split screen narrative drew together two very different communities within a short distance of one another: Medway Gate, a fairly new housing development which ‘ticked all the boxes’ for new developments, and the Medway Bridge Marina – which, incidentally, I also recently visited – an established boat yard, in which local business owner, John Reynolds, opened up a cafe and social space.

Simon with a rabbit's head

Exploring the area, Simon and Nayan encountered the urban mythologies of the space: rabbit heads adorn gateways at the entrance to Medway Bridge, underpinned by stories of white witches and lost children. The film followed the journey of a trolley, laden with a guitar, from Medway Gate to the marina, where the music loving community used it to share their songs. Simon and Nayan ingratiated themselves sufficiently to be invited to film the community at play (their Halloween party) with the film makers largely ignored but sometimes posed for.


Sadly, the Medway Gate community was harder to crack, since the artists were unable to meet many of them – short of knocking on doors (not desirable) very few hung around the streets. Simon advised: “Residents complained because the developers never built the social spaces that they promised.” He and Nayan would love to replace the trolley with a boat they build in the marina – relational architecture – which they can drag to Medway Gate instead and use it to create the missing social space. Simon lamented that the inhabitants have to drive out of the area just to buy paracetamol, or a Sunday paper – a boat in situ could provide that. The first connection between the marina and Medway Gate would be firmly established, and a re-shoot of Recorded Delivery undertaken.

Stephen Turner's Environmental Solutions gift box

Stephen’s ‘Environmental Solutions’ – the fragrant waters and essential oils of Eau de Bordure (Eau de Fringe) – have their own brand: Janus, the god who faces two ways, showing the interaction between human kind and nature, which took on a pertinent edge when he quoted housing minister, Nick Boles: “We’re going to protect the greenbelt but … sometimes buildings are better”. This Jo reinforced with a discussion about whether the urban fringes and greenbelt have to be pretty to be valuable. Ominously, on that evening’s Newsnight, Boles said there’s a “huge amount of room to build houses over England.” Does he mean brownfield sites, or is he suggesting concreting England’s green and pleasant land?

Introduced by KAC’s Chris Lamb, the seminar provided a discussion board for on how to develop living space. He quoted renowned architect, Sir Terry Farrell, who said “the place is the client” in development and planning. “It’s drawing out the DNA of a place” continued Chris. “If people understand what’s unique about places where they live then they may engage more with the planning process.”

The Urban Fringes

Ultimately, a space depends on its people belonging to the community. In the case of Medway Bridge Marina, the community was already there; the social space developed because of them. Just building a social space in a new housing development is unlikely to work. You need a catalyst, a resident ‘doer’ who’ll organise and cajole their neighbours to do stuff. (Think of those neighbours without whom no street parties would’ve taken place this year.) And that takes time the planners and developers seem unable to allow for – unless, do that many new developments need building? Aren’t there enough boarded up streets in England, just waiting to be reclaimed? Shouldn’t those existing spaces with established communities be renovated and restored first?

Vandalism and anti-social behaviour in those places can be tackled – we’ve community doers in Medway actioning change right now, with the help of schemes like Big Local. If new developments are to take place, we can only hope the planners do as the Urban Fringe project suggests: See the area, feel the area, engage the existing communities within its borders and shape it to fit.

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To read the best of what’s happening in arts, culture, architecture and more nationally, the BBC’s The Culture Show link is here.

Cross the tracks: Full steam ahead for the Sittingbourne and Kemsley Light Railway

The Sittingbourne and Kemsley Light Railway came to the end of its first season back on the full track this weekend, after being closed for four years. Volunteer press officer, Paul Best, invited me along to tell me more about it.

Sittingbourne and Kemsley Light Railway: Triumph

I arrived early and already a large queue was patiently waiting: families and couples, old and young individuals – everyone clearly excited to see the steam locos back where they should be, on track.

As each train departed, so another queue formed – Paul and I only just squeezed into the third one for our journey to Kemsley. An enthusiast for 25 years and in his second stint as press officer, Paul told me: “We always plan a busy timetable, but we can be flexible and run more passenger trains and less freight if need be.” He then went on to give an impromptu commentary for those lucky enough to be in our compartment; this man knows his stuff!

Press Officer, Paul Best, Sittingbourne and Kemsley Light Railway

Alighting at Kemsley you can take a break in very reasonably priced and friendly Footplates Cafe, enjoy a stroll around the Wildlife area, let the children play in the garden or find out more about these iconic locos and their working home in the museum. The Saxon Shore Footpath runs right alongside, offering gorgeous views across Milton Creek – it’s no wonder there were many cameras to hand, especially on such a beautiful day.

While closed, the line had been subject to vandalism and theft. Consequently nothing is left on site; even the ticket office is a temporary structure, set up each morning. They opened fully again at the end of May this year, after running a limited service from Milton last year.

Paul said: “We’re preserving the history of paper making in Sittingbourne through the operation of the original locos on the original track – probably put in by Bowaters Paper Mills.” (A detailed history can be found here).

“It’s one of only three 2ft 6 gauge railways in the country (the others are in Whipsnade Safari Park and Welshpools, Llanfair.) Swale council donated some money to buy the saddle tanks needed for the Leader and Premier locos, but apart from that, it’s self funded by paying customers and run completely by volunteers. Just maintaining the viaduct has cost £100,000 in the last ten years. Unfortunately, we don’t actually own the land so we don’t qualify for Heritage Lottery Funding.

“We’ve a separate 100 year lease with Kemsley Mill on one mile of track but new developers Central Land own the line. While the legal wrangling over the land being sold was ongoing we weren’t able to run but they’ve been brilliant; they said “why would we want to do away with a tourist attraction in the middle of our development?” They’re going to pay for new steps and a ticket office as part of the ongoing development of the old paper mill land. There’ll be a supermarket, car park, housing, park, shops and restaurants – effectively another town centre and we’ll be right in the middle of it.”

Sittingbourne and Kemsley Light Railway: Superb

There are twelve locos now owned by the railway. Among them, Superb, a Bagnall 0-6-2T steam locomotive, made her debut again this weekend, the first time she’s run this decade. Alpha, another of the same, will be the project for young volunteers to practice on and restore fully to operations. Currently interchangeable with Superb, only one of them runs at a time. Paul also mentions a link with Medway. “The four passenger coaches came from Chattenden and Upnor Admiralties Railway, with location names still relevant today: Upnor; Chattenden; Lodge Hill and Four Elms. They didn’t have doors originally but we lent them to another railway for a while and they put them on for us.”

The summer season now over, the hard work of restoring and rebuilding begins, stopping only to open up again in December for the Santa Specials. Next season should see them operating from Easter through to the end of September (watch out for special events involving Jack Station Cat and Ivor the Engine).

The enthusiasm of the volunteers adds to the whole experience, they clearly love being involved and sharing their passion and knowledge with a receptive audience fascinated by these venerable locomotives.

Paul had one last piece of news to share: “Milton Regis viaduct was built in 1915 so we’re soon to be celebrating its centenary: I’m planning on lighting it up!”

Now wouldn’t that be a sight to see?

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Exploring the culture and heritage of Sheppey

The Isle of Sheppey has been wronged. Outsiders believe this corner of Kent to be both a cultural and physical waste ground, with maritime industries long since left and people fending for themselves with regard to their heritage and culture.

This perception is unjust. On spending just a few hours over the bridge, I found four real gems for both the resident community and visitors alike to take pride in and become involved with, to learn and evolve from.

Originally an old school building on the site of Queenborough Castle, the Castle Connections Community Centre was home last weekend to the 365 Exhibition, the photographic record taken by the community of one year in the life of Sheppey. Due to its popularity this has now been extended for a further month.

Castle Connections, Queenborough

Chrissie Williams is the manager and she took me on a tour of the building.

“Local people formed a company, the Queenborough Town Community Centre Ltd, and set about making this building what it is. It took time and money but we’re almost self-sufficient now – we’ve a dance school based here, leisure and hobby classes, a cafe and more. And we’ve 28 volunteers, all trained in either food hygiene or first aid.”

There are two beautifully restored rooms for hire with a sympathetically restored stairwell leading to them. It’s decorated with original school photos lending it an authentic air – it actually reminded me of my old primary school, which was probably from the same era; it even smelt the same (in a good way!)

Bringing Queenborough Back to Life was a recent project and this includes getting local artists involved as well as the community at large. Chrissie continued: “We have wall space for artists in the cafe at no charge, as we want to help local artists be seen; it’s really nice for local people to have art at their fingertips.”

Castle Connections believe that encouraging art, culture and history, local people will develop an appreciation of their heritage for generations to come.

Much more than a heritage centre: Blue Town’s Jewel

The only cinema on Sheppey; tourist information; history tours; music hall; museum; cafe and, coming soon-ish, a replica deck of the HMS Victory, complete with cannon!

Blue Town Heritage Centre

The Blue Town Heritage Centre, although now a registered charity, is owned and run by Ian and Jenny Hurkett, on their pensions and the kindness of volunteers and regular visitors.

It’s an awesome place, like an historic T.A.R.D.I.S – from the outside you can’t believe how huge it is on the inside. Begun with just a couple of old cameras on a shelf, it’s now a tangible, physical history lesson.

Jenny says: “We just want people to view Sheppey for our heritage and culture; our unique selling point, there’s so much of it. The community has got behind what we’re trying to do here and it’s evolved because of them. The key is to get our young people to take a pride of place and interest in the heritage – not just ours but others off the island, so we can dispel the negative connotations.”

The heritage centre houses the only cinema on Sheppey, in the Criterion Music Hall, which was reopened specially for a one off film about Blue Town – but when a hundred people turned up, Jenny and Ian realised there was a desire that needed to be sated. Says Jenny: “We bought the place originally as a bathroom showroom business but ill health put paid to that. But the turnout for the film was so amazing it gave us a whole new direction. Word is getting around now, so if anyone is having a clear out, we’re their port of call with anything we might be able to use.”

The heritage centre buzzes with individuals and groups: a job seeker seminar in the music hall, a business meeting in the Aviation Room, a workshop in the Dockyard room and mid morning coffee breakers in the cafe. Wednesday is Tea and Flicks, where the audience watch a film of their own choosing. Next year, a six week season begins in earnest.

Barton’s Point Coastal Park is a gorgeous 40 acres of adventure space, just waiting to be invaded.

Barton’s Point Water Sports

Mandy Shade has been there for just 18 months and it’s so much more than just a business. She told me: “We’ve a beautiful lake, a cafe which I’m hoping to turn into a proper bistro, camping, events, venue hire, water sports, murder mystery evenings and at Halloween, we’ll be working with the miniature steam railway to bring a Ghost Train to life!”

Another local catalyst, Mandy is determined that future generations of islanders learn to appreciate everything they have. She’s keen to expand her work with schools, a key area in which to invest a sense of place in the local population. Making the facilities affordable and plentiful at Barton’s Point is just the start.

Fishing for people

Collaborating with all three venues for the Sheppey Promenade, Chris Reed of Big Fish Arts said: “It has been really amazing. I’ve been involved in three big festivals before but this one was a bunch of really busy people who managed to have short, concise meetings that got jobs done – it was the best collaborative festival I’ve been involved with.”

Chris Reed of Big Fish Arts

Normally a “people thing” rather than a “place thing”, Big Fish Arts have actually taken up residence in Sheerness High Street now and are looking forward to running more workshops. Chris continued: “We take the history of the island and turn it into drama, plays, stories, ghost walks and tours. We’ve recently been commissioned to produce the Milton Creek Memories project and our popular Lantern Parade will be taking place again, probably in early December. Now we’ve got this space the lantern making can really get underway and we’ll hope to involve as many in the local community as possible.”

It’s clear from speaking with these community doers that they share the same passion and aims for their island. With the focus on education, participation, engagement and community involvement, they seek to ensure that residents and outsiders alike understand and appreciate the culture and heritage of Sheppey.

Due to the nature of each of these projects, they aren’t open all day, every day – please check their individual websites for opening hours and take time to visit them, you won’t be disappointed. Other community and heritage centres are dotted around, see them in the photo gallery below:

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Double success for Doddington in South and South East In Bloom Awards

Faversham, Sittingbourne and Doddington are all celebrating following the South and South East in Bloom Awards.

The Doddington churchyard volunteers, winners of the Chairman’s Award at South and South East in Bloom. (Photo courtesy of David Shaw)

David Shaw, from Doddington’s In Bloom group, was thrilled with the results overall but particularly with the Chairman’s recognition for the Churchyard Management Group of St. John the Baptist village church, who maintain the churchyard for the benefit of the wildlife. He told me: “We were gobsmacked, we weren’t expecting it at all – these awards are the Oscars of the gardening world and the Chairman’s Award is the most prestigious of the lot.”

David, who attended the ceremony in Hampshire with his wife, Sallie, continued: “It isn’t just gardening enthusiasts who benefit and take joy from the gardens, there’s a lot of community input to improve the local area, working with housing tenants and others.”

The Chairman, Peter Holman, described the churchyard as “an absolutely outstanding example of wildlife management for the benefit of wildlife and the community.”  Entries from across the South and South East in Bloom area from Dorset to Kent are eligible for this award so it’s a wonderful achievement for all concerned. The ‘stunned’ volunteers were presented with award whilst carrying out their autumn tidy and this is now on display in the church.

Doddington also won a Silver Award and was named Best Village, with the judges saying: “The sense of community is very strong here with an evident pride in the village.  The activities to date have made a major contribution to the appearance of the village and the various activities and events all make for a high level of social cohesion. It’s good to see how district and parish work together for the benefit of the community. Clean, well-managed and maintained by the community, this village and its residents are proud of their place. There is virtually no evidence of litter, graffiti or dog fouling and the style of the traffic calming measures is testimony to the Traffic Calming Group who has masterminded these will planted schemes.”

Faversham retained its Silver Gilt while Sittingbourne was awarded a Silver.

There will be more cause for celebration in Faversham on October 10th, when the Abbey Physic Community Garden will be proclaimed Community Garden of the Year in the Wildlife Garden Awards. The ceremony will take place in the garden itself, at 11am.

English: The Abbey Physic Community Garden, Fa...

The Abbey Physic Community Garden, Faversham Off a footpath that runs past the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, the garden is viewed here from its entrance gate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A charity which aims to develop a community based, working environment for the people of Kent to enjoy, the garden is set in the heart of Faversham, offering a unique opportunity to establish a tranquil, health-giving, environment enabling people from all areas of society to come together. It’s situated in a beautiful, walled, wild-life friendly and organically managed space, with the emphasis on the therapeutic benefits of horticultural activities. A wide range of spray-free vegetables, fruit, plants and flowers are for sale to visitors in return for donations. Initially funded, this wonderful garden is now self sufficient.

Hidden Gems – Pulse Cafe and the Eco Shed, Sittingbourne

Nestling amongst the terraced houses in Park Road, off Sittingbourne’s main thoroughfare, The Pulse Cafe is a thriving and welcoming space in which to relax, enjoy a coffee and browse.

It’s a beautifully green cafe – and I don’t mean in the colour-on-the-walls sense. Pulse operates a zero waste policy and aims to be a model of eco-friendliness. Already with photo-voltaic cells on the roof to generate green electricity, they’ll soon be adding rain-water harvesting tanks to flush the toilets.

Raising awareness and promoting excellent environmental practices by engaging and interacting with a wide variety of individuals and groups, the cafe is managed by the Skillnet Community Interest Company. It also houses an emerging social firm, the Eco –Shed, within its walls.

I spoke with Project Leader for the Eco-Shed, Richard Carrier, who’s been involved for five years. He says: “We support disadvantaged people to create stuff and currently employ four people with disabilities, working at their own pace and making the most of their strengths so that the Eco-Shed evolves. The products made are sold at craft fairs, local country parks and other centres as well as here. Both the cafe and the Eco-Shed give people the chance to practise the skills they’re developing, in real life settings.”

Richard Carrier and Sioux Peto

Jamie Flaherty works for Skillnet and he showed me some of the instruments and jewellery made from forest found and recycled pieces, telling me: “We go on wood walkabouts to find things; turning wooden crates into bird boxes, fallen elder wood into whistles and using shoelaces for instrument strings. And we’re making Olympic Torches out of found wood too!”

Jamie Flaherty

Pulse also welcomes the Ethical Artisans Market every month, featuring local artists and makers showcasing and selling their wares.

Sioux Peto, a member of the Swale Arts Forum, brings along her Polka Dot stall, full of nik-naks made from recycled items. Clearly passionate about her community she says: “Swale is full of hidden treasures; it’s special but not many people know about it. We need to get all the groups here working together, Skillnet and the Swale Arts Forum are doing it but there are more out there.

People in the community know about everything from arts to film, conservation etc but to be involved in them they need to be engaged in a language they understand and Pulse is making every effort to do that.”

Sioux Peto on the Polka Dot stall, with volunteer, Shazida Hussain

Louise Allen, Project Leader for Training and Sustainability at Skillnet and a manager at Pulse, said: “There are a lot of pubs and cafes in Sittingbourne but nowhere for parents with young children or people needing extra access to go for good quality drinks and healthy snacks at an affordable price.” Louise would love to hear from any local artists, craftspeople who’d like to be involved, either showcasing their work in the cafe, running workshops during the day, or volunteering to serve in the cafe.

Pulse managers Louise Allen (left), Michelle Huggins and volunteer Shazida.

They’re also looking for volunteers to get involved with their allotments in Milton. If you are interested in knowing more, please contact Louise on 01795 599899 or 07780 985245 or email pulse@skillnetgroup.co.uk Their website can be found here.

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Hey, Mr DJ! In conversation with Daniel Nash of BRFM

The freelance world is a lovely place to be on a bright and warm early Autumn day. I took a drive out East to Sheppey – the highest point in Sheppey actually – where the studio of BRFM sits atop the Windy Ridge overlooking the Thames Estuary, within sight of the wind turbines to the right and the old forts dead ahead.

My quarry was Daniel Nash, who brings a slice of culture to Sheppey’s Monday nights with his community show on BRFM, Sheppey’s local radio station on 95.6fm. Interviewing interesting people doing interesting things in the local community, Daniel, an artist himself, is keen to make art accessible to as many folk as possible.

Daniel Nash at the BRFM studio, Sheppey

“There’s a big arts community here – Big Fish Arts Trust, The Swale Arts Forum – the Sheppey Little Theatre is always involved, particularly with Promenade this weekend – but many local people get involved with organising things, like in the Art, History and Tourism Celebration in 2009, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight by in Britain, by a Briton (JTC Moore Brabazon), which took place in Leysdown in 1909.”

The station is manned by volunteers: there are no brand new branded motor cars here, just a couple of trailers, an aerial – and a distinct lack of being governed by commercial interests, although the station is supported by local businesses and other partners.

The BRFM Roadshow trailer

“BRFM support whatever area you’re in – I’m arts so they help with that. The island boundary makes it a very close knit community and the DJs bring their expertise to the radio station. It’s a nurturing network, whether it’s football, art or tourism, as long as it benefits the local community, making the most of the volunteer’s expertise.”

For aspiring DJs, Daniel recommends beginning with hospital or internet radio or a media course to gain some insight and experience.

“It’s increasingly harder to find a way in, as many bigger stations are now networks. The BBC is a good place to try, as they employ a lot of volunteers behind the scenes. I started out at the local community hospital here – just two wards, a waiting room and reception. I was interested in the technology side of things and I volunteered about nine years ago. I got the freedom to practice and make mistakes; it was a really good training ground. Then BRFM did a series of trials and from being involved in some shape or form for a few years, I progressed to the community show six years ago, interviewing someone every Monday.”

Having studied at the University of Creative Arts in Rochester, Daniel has a degree and MA in 3Dimensional Design, specialising in concrete sculptures. With a keen interest in photography, which plays its part in recording his work, art is his ‘day job’ but there’s always been a fascination with radio.

“I was involved with art long before radio, although when I was younger I used to make my own tapes and record my own shows. I grew away from it at Uni until I came across hospital radio and decided to get involved. But yes, my day job is as an artist. I’ve had a couple of exhibitions but I’m just starting out and getting known.”

The view across the estuary from BRFM’s vantage point on Windy Ridge

It isn’t just the arts community that Daniel promotes on BRFM. He works with many other individuals and organisations on the Island to ensure the community are fully informed of what’s happening in the area.

“The coast guard is a regular visitor, along with the Sheppey Horticultural Society – there’s a regular slot for them to give gardening advice throughout the seasons. Depending on what’s happening, the neighbourhood PC pops in, as does the Fire Brigade with safety reminders – they’re due again soon, with Bonfire Night nearly upon us. Another regular is James Crane, our Community Warden. I’ve known him since the early days and it’s he who organises things like the Emergency Services Day, bringing all of them together in a fun day out for the family.”

Mid morning DJ, Mark Rogers (left) with Daniel. He was doing ‘Guess the Year’ which I did – 1978 – with the playing of Sylvester’s ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)!

It’s easy to understand why the community have embraced their local radio station: camaraderie between the presenters is obvious, as is a love of what they’re doing. Providing an effective portal with which to engage and share, BRFM operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with live presenters between 7am and 10pm each day. Daniel’s Monday night show is on between 7pm and 10pm and he also does the weekend breakfast shows, from 7am – 10am.

Sheppey Promenade 2012: What the Dickens!

The Isle of Sheppey steps back in time this weekend, with their Dickens themed Promenade.

365 A Year in the Life of Sheppey, the photographic exhibition made up of photos taken by the local community, will be showing at Castle Connections in Queenborough daily from 10am to 5pm. The project was designed to bring the residents together and encourage participation in civic life, as well as help them take pride in where they live.

People from all sections of the community have been submitting their photos taken across the region and one from every day of the year (2011) was selected for inclusion. The photos create a diary for today and a record for the future; capturing hidden scenes and everyday life.

Other workshops and exhibitions are installed, including readings and talks, plays and film. The Minster Gatehouse, Bluetown Heritage Centre and Sheppey Little Theatre are all major locations, as is Bartons Point, the venue for a Victorian Family Fun Day on Sunday between 10am and 4pm. The lovely Litter Angels will also be weaving their recycled magic with various workshops.

For a full schedule, please see the Promenade website here.