Crafting and caring

An inspirational centre near Bridgnorth is empowering people to get more out of life. Neil Thomas reports. 

Sanna Garbett is busy with a power chisel, meticulously shaping an 18ins square by 6ins deep block of wood into a fruit bowl. She is deep in concentration, but happy to break off briefly to chat about her craft. 

Staff member Duncan Wilson watches Sanna Garbett at work

 This is a relatively small piece for Sanna. She points across the workshop at an expansive wooden TV table, easily large and solid enough to support a 60ins wide screen, adding, “I made that too.” 

If she exhibits a justifiable pride in her achievement, then that is welcome indeed. For it has not always been so. In the past the 43-year-old from Bridgnorth has struggled for self-esteem and has had counselling for personal issues. 

Today, though, she is in a happier place for she is at Crowsmill Craft Centre CIC (Community Interest Company). Here, she has found a sense of purpose and achievement. 

“It’s given me confidence,” she says with a beaming smile. In fact, Sanna smiles a lot as we chat. 

As does 24-year-old Josh Palmer, who is happy to talk about his latest project. Josh is using his newly-discovered woodworking skills to fashion a second bird box, to go with one he made at an earlier visit to Crowsmill. The first is a perfectly symmetrical, standard-shaped box, the new one a little less conventional with irregular angles – the bird-box equivalent of the ‘wonky’ fruit and veg sold in supermarkets: it does the same job, it’s just different, that’s all. 

“It’s quirky,” says Crowsmill director Mark Chiswell, with a warm smile. “We like quirky here.” 

Mark’s nickname for Josh is Clint Eastwood, feeling that he bears a vague resemblance to Hollywood star in his youth. 

“He certainly gets the cultural reference. I say ‘morning Clint’ and he comes back with ‘Go ahead, make my day’,” Mark explains with a chuckle. 

Josh loves to chat. Personable and interested, he tells me he is from Bridgnorth but now lives in Albrighton. He was a pupil at Severndale School in Shrewsbury and student at Derwen College, at Gobowen, near Oswestry. 

He has been coming to Crowsmill for five years. 

“It’s given me a lot of confidence in myself. We learn skills here, how to make and fix things, how to use tools.” 

More than anything, Josh would love a job, for an employer to take a chance on him. 

Sanna and Josh are among eight people busy in the workshop, which is a hive of activity today, buzzing with a ‘can do’ positivity. They are among many whose lives are taking a turn for the better thanks to Crowsmill. The not-for-profit company celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, having been started in 2012 by Mark and fellow director Dickon Pitt. It is a remarkable statistic given, as Dickon and Mark readily acknowledge, that relatively few people seem to know of its existence. 

Josh Palmer with his bird boxes

Located on a hillside at Alveley, four miles out of Bridgnorth, Crowsmill commands stunning views across the Severn Valley. 

Dickon and Mark rescued two disused agricultural buildings from demolition and have transformed them into an assortment of indoor workshops and outdoor craft areas, plus a flourishing vegetable garden and chicken run. 

In this tranquil, rustic environment – which seems far removed from the pressures of everyday life – the Crowsmill team supports people to learn new skills and build confidence through a range of crafts. 

Crowsmill works with people who are at the margins of society, including adults with mental health issues or physical and learning difficulties, as well as dissaffected young people with challenging behaviours, who have often disengaged from school or college. 

The Crowsmill workshop

“Here they can gain valuable and positive experiences which help them to rebuild trust in themselves and gain confidence in their ability to complete a task and engage with others,” Dickon explains. 

“It’s given me a lot of confidence in myself. We learn skills here, how to make and fix things, how to use tools.”

All who attend have the chance to try their hand at practical skills, such as plastering, woodwork, iron forge work, animal welfare, gardening and horticulture whilst also, crucially, developing social skills.  

There is also the opportunity to try the sport of archery at a newly developed range, set in a peaceful woodland clearing around half a mile from the main site. There’s even the chance to make a long bow in woodwork lessons. 

Acrylic and copper jewellery by Amy Masters

“Adults and young people are encouraged and supported by trained staff who have an understanding of their specific needs,” Dickon says. 

Mark adds, “Each of those using our service is very much an individual. Everyone has different needs and is helped as such, to ensure they can make educational, social and personal progress. Within a safe and secure environment, they are all able to work to reach their full potential and enjoy their experience at Crowsmill.” 

Dickon continues, “The aim of our work is to support and empower all who attend to overcome any negative feelings and emotions. The intention is to build confidence and self-esteem, develop practical skills, enhance social interactions and tolerance of others. It is also important that individuals enjoy the process and the experience is beneficial for them in their everyday lives.” 

Those who attend Crowsmill are referred to as service users rather than students, not least because their age range is very wide – currently the youngest on the books is 11 and the eldest 73. The motto is, essentially, that you are never too old to learn. 

Dave Caine takes a well-earned break from a stint of gardening

At 57, Dave Caine is a case in point, though in truth he’s only in late middle age and certainly doesn’t lack energy, undertaking much of the gardening work at Crowsmill. He also has a mischievous sense of humour. 

“My younger brother is called Michael so I can tell people that Michael Caine is my brother,” he says with a chuckle.  

Dave has planted a range of vegetables which will supply the centre’s kitchen. 

“Everyone has different needs and is helped as such, to ensure they can make educational, social and personal progress.”

“We’ve got cabbages, carrots, kale and broad beans and runner beans,” he  explains. “Gardening is in my blood. My Grandad was a head gardener.” 

Dave worked for 36 years at Bridgnorth Garage, mainly valeting vehicles, before redundancy in 2016. 

“I saw the courses here advertised in the Job Centre, came along and I’ve been here since.” 

It has become a tradition that Mark and Arts and Crafts Co-ordinator Rachel Bray cook a Christmas meal for staff, volunteers and service users. That’s nearly 50 mouths to feed, though the pair do have catering qualifications to fall back on. 

“Much of the veg from the garden goes in that,” Mark explains. 

While Dave arrived via the Job Centre, Crowsmill is also on the radar of educational establishments, particularly those serving pupils with specialist needs. 

Another way of entry is via the Landau/Building Better Opportunities (BBO) project, which consists of a series of free 12-week courses (three days a week) for those who are 19 and over and not in work. Numbers are limited to six people per course, the small number aimed at ensuring that each individual reaches his or her full potential across the different areas of learning. 

The project is ideally suited to a multitude of needs, helping people with anxiety, depression, social isolation, work and social skills whilst learning vocational skills. 

The Shropshire-wide £7.8 million project has supported scores of vulnerable and isolated people back into employment and training and helped hundreds more build confidence and skills ready for the world of work. 

The BBO initiative has been led across the county by Wellington-based supported employment and training charity, Landau, in partnership with 18 different organisations, of which Crowsmill is one. 

Co-funded by the National Lottery Community Fund and the European Social Fund, the project has so far provided support to nearly 2,500 individuals. Running since 2017, BBO has helped 549 people into employment, supported 1,155 people to gain skills for the world of work, reduced isolation for a further 545 people and created 137 jobs locally. 

Dickon adds, “We’ve been delighted to be involved with the BBO programme. Through the BBO journey, participants have demonstrated increased self-esteem alongside new skills acquisition. This belief in themselves has enabled them to take up a range of volunteering opportunities and as a result they have been able to move forward with their lives.” 

Director Mark Chiswell helps youngster Cody Foreman

Crowsmill has a wide catchment area, with service users not only from Bridgnorth, but Shrewsbury, Pontesbury, Craven Arms, Kidderminster, Bewdley, Stourport and even from as far as Wolverhampton and Birmingham. 

Tutors are from a teaching background with experience not only of mainstream education, but of working with disaffected young people. 

Dickon and Mark both have years of experience of working with those with various disabilities and mental health issues as well as recovering addicts and those not in work or training. 

James Richards makes bunting alongside
staff member Rachel Bray

The pair met when Dickon joined a charity for people with disabilities, where Mark was already working. 

“We hit it off, because we both wanted the same thing – to help people,” Mark recalls. 

After agricultural college at Harper Adams, near Newport, Dickon took on a string of different jobs including delivery driver. 

“It was frustrating because I didn’t think I was doing anything to make a difference,” he reflects. “It was after my son Henry was born that I decided to join the charity where I met Mark. After a while, both of us became slightly frustrated, thinking we could achieve more by ourselves and that’s how Crowsmill came about.” 

Mark, who worked for 18 years in the carpet manufacturing industry, has an engineering background, enabling him to bring practical expertise to tuition at Crowsmill. 

“Wooden gates, dog kennels, dovecotes, doors, bookshelves, cabinets, jewellery boxes, you name it, we’ve made it,” he says. “Whatever the service user wishes to make, then we help them, showing them the correct way to make their craft item and teaching them how to use modern methods and up-to-date tools. 

Christopher Nicholas working in the light assembly department

“Welding is a much-sought-after skill here by people of all ages. Whether people want to learn to weld for Art, to repair bodywork on a vehicle to save money or to gain skills for employment, we can help them develop this very useful skill. 

“The blacksmith’s forge here is a good place to learn old-fashioned and, in some cases, forgotten skills. Here we make a range of items from simple coat hooks to fancy fire rakes, pokers and bird feeding stations. 

“We recycle where we can. Lots of metals are good for recycling and for making items like wind chimes, chimeneas, log burners and fire pits as well as many different types of art and sculpture. In fact, arts and crafts are very important to what we do here. It is therapeutic, encourages involvement either individually or as part of a team, and helps people to discover and express their talents.” 

The development of personal wellbeing is a major part of the work at Crowsmill, particularly given the challenging background of many of the service users, some of whom struggle with anxiety. 

There is a quiet room where people can seek tranquillity. The archery days are not only fun but therapeutic. 

“It is good to be in the open air in a fantastic natural setting which does wonders for your peace of mind,” Mark says. “It is also excellent for team-building, developing social skills and helping hand-to-eye co-ordination. 

“In fact, woodland activities are a big part of what we do here. Safety is paramount, as is a respect for the woodlands and countryside that we operate in. We carry out regeneration work, coppicing and essential clearing to allow our woods to thrive and flourish with natural growth, encouraging our native wildlife to prosper in a safe environment. 

“It is a peaceful place, enabling us to get away from it all.”  

Peter McDonald engaged in an artistic project

Funding remains an ever-present challenge for Crowsmill, made significantly more difficult by enforced temporary closure during the lockdowns of the pandemic. 

“We hit it off, because we both wanted the same thing – to help people.”

“We are forever looking for, fighting for and begging for funding to help with the upkeep of our centre,” Dickon says. “Because we are a community interest company and not-for-profit, all funding and donations go towards improvements for the centre and to provide an excellent quality of service for those who come here. We are constantly striving to improve both our landscape and facilities. 

Peter Gray with a bird box he has made

“We are here to help people have a better life and we have many success stories where progression through our hard work and experience has helped to turn lives around and give people a better chance in the real world.” 

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