Northern Echo Monday 28th October 2002

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.

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,” Simon says.

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 another.”

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 venue’s trademark.

“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 national prominence.

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 the pub.

“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 Echo