Shed and the art of knitting by Nick Morrison
In just ten years, it has gone from an
obscure village hall to one of the country's most renowned arts
venues. Nick Morrison meets a man who has made his reputation
through music, poetry - and knitting.
AFTER leaving the beaten track,
you head down the twist-y turn-y lanes towards the back of beyond.
Then, when the roads look too narrow for your car and you can
go no further, you carry on until you reach the middle of nowhere,
and you can't miss it.
The Shed's Sprung and Simmer
2010 Tickets on sale
At least, that's what Simon Thackray
might as well have said when I rang to ask for directions. It
wasn't on my map, and you'd never pass through it. Even if you
were lost you'd be hard pushed to find it.
But here, in the tiny settlement
of Brawby in North Yorkshire, is The Shed, probably the most
famous village hall in Britain. It might seem a fairly ordinary
Victorian brick building, but look a little harder and you can
just make out that it is, in fact, a cultural phenomenon.
According to The Independent,
it is "The UK's most offbeat arts centre". Radio Four
calls it "Britain's liveliest venue". Musician David
Thomas says it is "The best venue in England". Its
reputation is such that it earned Simon an invitation to the
showbiz party of the year.
With more knights than a Rolling
Stones tour, more dames than Christopher Biggins' back catalogue,
the party in the Royal Academy saw the Queen mingling with the
cream of Britain's glitterati, in the cultural highlight of the
Golden Jubilee year.
"I had never been to anything
like that in my life, and I didn't realise what it was until
I got there and saw all these barriers and policemen," he
says. "When I finally got inside I thought 'I recognise
that bloke' as Simon Rattle walked past. I looked to my right
and there was Penelope Keith, and to my left was Brian May."
Making polite conversation with
one guest, complimenting him on his purple suit, Simon discovered
he was talking to the head of Arts and Business, which aims to
encourage sponsorship of the arts.
"He asked what I did and
I said he would never have heard of The Shed. He said: 'Actually,
I'm the reason you are here.' It was the knitting project, apparently,"
The knitting project is just
the latest in a long line of offbeat, alternative and downright
strange performances staged by The Shed in the ten years since
it first burst into life. It began with two charity concerts
in nearby Kirby Misperton church, but Simon, who worked in the
family business making agricultural sheds before concentrating
on his passions of painting and sculpture, never had any intention
of taking it further.
"I knew almost nothing about
music when I started - and I don't claim to have a great deal
of knowledge now. I'm interested in things that are alternative,
veering towards the improvised, things that surprise," he
says. "The experience of doing those two concerts inspired
this feeling that this was wonderful, I should carry on and do
Simon's next step was persuading
Labi Siffre to come to North Yorkshire. The resulting concert
was the first Shed event at Brawby village hall, and also saw
the debut of the door of his garden shed, which has become the
"I wanted something that
was interesting and a bit different so I photographed the door
and used it as the image for the publicity for the first ever
gig. In my mind I called it The Shed in that moment, and it has
remained that ever since," he says.
The wooden door, since replaced
on his shed, now makes an honorary appearance at every Shed event,
often hanging from the ceiling as a backdrop.
About 50 people packed into the
hall - which could only take a maximum of 70 - for that first
gig, convincing Simon that this was no passing interest. "It
was the excitement, the sense of wonder - it was just such a
magical experience," he says. "A guy with such a massive
talent, in such a tiny room. Above all, it was the intimacy and
the closeness, and, if you want to use the expression, it was
the atmosphere. If you could bottle it, it would be worth a fortune."
The gigs and poetry readings
have built up a loyal following for The Shed, with more than
1,000 people on the mailing list from all over the country. But
it has been two of the more offbeat events which brought it to
It may seem like an obvious thing
to do now, but at the time it was seen as inspirational to make
giant Yorkshire puddings, coat them in polyurethane so they float,
and then race them down the river. The idea came to Simon in
"I was looking out of the
window and thought 'wouldn't it be just wonderful to sail down
the river in a Yorkshire pudding?'," he says. He still remembers
the buzz at seeing the inaugural race covered live by Sky, following
items about Bill Clinton in Bosnia and John Major's son's wedding.
His latest high-profile venture
was inspired by a Mrs Swift, who ran a fishing tackle shop in
Malton. Simon was a regular visitor as a child, buying maggots,
and when he started The Shed he returned to put his posters up
in her window.
'Often she would be sitting in
the window of her shop, knitting. One day, I said to her 'Would
you come to a recording studio with me so I can record you knitting?'
She looked at me and said 'Yes, I would'.
"I said 'What can you make
in an hour? Can you make a cardigan?' She said 'Don't be daft'.
So I picked up a baby's hat and said 'Can you make this in an
hour?' She said 'Yes, with the right needles'."
From these beginnings grew Hat, aiming to capture the rhythmical click
of the needles and billed as a performance of words, music and
knitting. Working with composer Billy Jenkins and writer Ian
McMillan, Simon staged the world premiere in Halifax last November,
before taking Hat to Newcastle, York and, earlier this month,
London. Each performance is preceded by a knitting class.
"We didn't know whether
anybody would turn up to knit, but at Halifax there must have
been 100 people with needles, and they carried on knitting throughout
the performance. We had people saying 'I only turned up to knit
- what is this performance about?'"
After the Newcastle show, part
of the audience marched out, needles in hand, and became the
first people to knit on the Millennium Bridge. He may not have
realised it when he first had the idea, but it soon became clear
that Simon was tapping into some long-lost tradition.
"In the Dales villages people
would go from house to house and knit. Some people said to me
that it was just wonderful to have the opportunity to knit in
public, to feel that they can. It is a little bit like breast-feeding
in public - everybody should do it," he says.
Hat is now sponsored by wool-spinners Sirdar,
and has been nominated for this year's Arts and Business Awards.
Simon did get to record Mrs Swift knitting, but sadly she died
before Hat got its premiere.
Although he says the intimacy
of The Shed is one of its main attractions, he is looking at
ways of getting more space, perhaps even a changing room for
the artists. As The Shed's creator, he is confident that this
will not dissipate what makes it special.
"Somebody stopped me in
the summer and said 'Are you still running The Shed?' I said
'Yes', and he said 'Did you expect it to get as big as it has?'
I said 'It is exactly the same as it ever was - it is just more
people know about it'," he says.
Simon is still bursting with
ideas, although he won't give any clues. "I have got quite
a lot in my head. I'm just desperate to do the next thing. My
new passion is the next one, and I can't talk about it because
we haven't done it yet." Yorkshire pudding, knitting - surely
it's easy to see where he'll go next?
© Nick Morrison Northern