The craft of moving forward

Heritage attractions and an enthusiastic community of craftspeople have helped to put Alford on the map – and they will be key to helping it overcome the effects of the recent pandemic.

2020 has been a strange year all round for communities nationwide but for small rural places like the historic market town of Alford on the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds it has proved a challenge.

Quiet and picturesque with good road links in all directions, Alford is a great base for exploring the county but also has lots of attractions of its own which under normal circumstances would regularly bring visitors in from far and wide.

Alford can boast a working five-sailed windmill, a 17th-century manor house and a 14th-century church and it is also renowned for its Craft Market, which was established in 1974 and helped put the town firmly on the destination map.

Alford Craft Market (ACM) is a not-for-profit organisation which is responsible for hosting regular Craft Markets, in particular the town’s Easter event, its Spring Bank Holiday markets and its large August Bank Holiday Craft Market. It is also behind the setting up of the well-used Craft Market Shop and also the Craft Centre, which usually has a busy programme of classes running throughout the year.

Things were going well until lockdown happened in March and everything got put on hold.

In late February and early March the Craft Market invited local people to collect a free piece of clay from them or from Alford Pottery to make into a clay bird for its Spring Bank Holiday Weekend event.

“This idea was so popular 1,060 birds were returned for drying and firing – all shapes and size,” said ACM secretary Lynne Le-Voir.

“It was quite a sight. Things started to change in mid-March and we had to close the shop and Craft Centre on 19th March, slightly ahead of the Government’s restrictions for Covid-19. 

“Our sellers removed much of their stock and the shop looked quite sad and desolate during closure.” 

Next came the cancellation of its Easter Weekend Craft Market, which should have been a full four-day event at Alford Corn Exchange, and then its Spring Bank Holiday weekend market also fell victim to the situation.

“We were so sorry that our craft markets and bird display could not go ahead,” Lynne continued.

“There would have been a theme of pottery, with potters from far and wide to take part in the weekend. 

“We were going to have Matt Wilcock, the winner of the first BBC Great Pottery Throw Down to open it. But now we have to reschedule all this for 2021 and the decision has already been taken to do that.”

Mid-June found ACM reviewing whether its biggest event of the year – the August Bank Holiday Weekend Craft Market – should go ahead. 

Lynne explained: “The Government was relaxing some rules but not for events, and an event of this size takes time to organise properly. Alford Manor House had told us that they would not be open, and other events in August in Alford had already been cancelled. 

“Musicians and street theatre performers were finding it difficult to find a safe way of working, so it was with a heavy heart we decided to cancel too.”

However the organisation is hopeful that its Christmas craft markets can take place and will be reviewing the situation this month.

Early in July the shop and the Craft Centre were able to reopen albeit with limited opening hours and in September it is hoped that the number of classes on offer will be increased and that the shop will open four days a week instead two.

“We are open, and hope we will have the support of our community to keep things going,” said Lynne. “We are pleased to say that we had record sales in the shop during our first few weeks of being open again so thanks must go to the customers for their support.”

In November ACM is looking forward to hosting its two Christmas Craft Markets and is planning to join with the Alford Christmas Extravaganza on Saturday 28th November in the Corn Exchange.

Another attraction in Alford that brings in the crowds and has missed out on its usual footfall is Alford Manor House, which is home to The Museum of Rural Life (Hackett Barn), the Manor House Gardens and Manor House Tea Rooms.

They are now welcoming visitors once again but are only open two days a week and regular events have been curtailed.

Reputedly the largest thatched manor house in the country, Alford Manor House was built to a traditional H plan in 1611. The House, Tea Rooms and Gardens are all open to visitors. The Museum of Rural Life located behind the Manor House is home to many of the town’s historic artefacts.

Alford is also home to the only remaining five-sailed windmill and the only windmill left in Alford. In 1932 there were three – each with different sets of sails (four, five and six). Built by Sam Oxley in 1837, the mill is over 30 metres high and has six floors. In its heyday it was capable of grinding four to five tonnes of corn a day.

The mill worked until 1955 and after two years standing idle it was restored to full working order. Until recently the mill has operated as a tourist attraction but is currently closed.

Alford sometimes suffers from being a through road to the East Coast but more and more people had started to stop and visit the town en route to other destinations. And they have been pleasantly surprised with what they find. No wonder then that properties in the area are being snapped up and new housing developments are proving to be highly sought after.

Despite the restrictions of lockdown the final home has now been sold at Chestnut Homes’ Willoughby Chase development in the town. The housebuilder began work on the site off Willoughby Road in 2013, and has built a total of 107 homes since then.

Meanwhile, construction work at Chestnut Homes’ neighbouring Bridgeways development has recommenced. The developer is building 103 new homes at Bridgeways, 30 per cent of which will be provided as affordable housing for rent or shared ownership.

In line with the planning agreement, Chestnut Homes will invest more than £370,000 in local services, including £191,669 for primary education, £136,841 towards secondary and sixth form education, and £41,921 for health services.

The housebuilder is also providing a new play area and creating green corridors throughout the development to increase biodiversity on the site.

David Newton, managing director of Chestnut Homes, said: “While all the homes have now been sold at Willoughby Chase, we are continuing to deliver high quality homes in Alford at Bridgeways.

“Willoughby Chase was a very popular development and there has been a significant level of interest in the homes at Bridgeways from both local residents and people looking to relocate near to the coast.”

Alford Manor House and Museum of Rural Life has received £17,500 from The National Lottery Heritage Fund to help address the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on heritage.

The funding is to secure the Millwright Collection project presently in progress and will also help to ensure the future of the Manor House and Museum of Rural Life.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown began, the venue has been closed to visitors and staff have been furloughed. It has now been able to reopen but only for limited hire and functions and for members and visitors to visit the Museum of Rural Life and acclaimed walled gardens.

The funding, made possible by National Lottery players, was awarded through The National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Heritage Emergency Fund. £50 million has been made available to provide emergency funding for those most in need across the heritage sector.

The UK-wide fund will address both immediate emergency actions and help organisations to start thinking about recovery.

Ros Kerslake, chief executive of The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: “As the lockdown has lifted, and the public begins to return to some of our much-loved places, the true value of our heritage is more obvious than ever.

“Heritage is vital in creating economic prosperity, in making local communities better places to live, and in supporting our own personal sense of wellbeing.

“Heritage has an essential role to play in making communities better places to live, supporting economic regeneration and benefiting our personal wellbeing. All of these things are going to be even more important as we emerge from this current crisis.

“Thanks to money raised by National Lottery players we are pleased to be able to lend our support to organisations such as Alford Manor House and Museum of Rural Life during this uncertain time.”

Like Alford Manor House and Museum of Rural Life other charities and organisations across the UK that have been affected by the unprecedented impact of the coronavirus outbreak are being given access to a comprehensive package of support of up to £600 million of repurposed money from The National Lottery.

Though lockdown resulted in the cancellation of Alford Craft Market’s regular events, and the temporary closure of its shop and centre, it did not stop it trying to engage the community in craft schemes.

During April it soon realised it had to do something for local parents and children during lockdown to keep their spirits up by being creative so it gave the people of Alford and the surrounding villages a fun and creative community project to do.

“We had the idea of people making a really big pom pom garland made of multicoloured pom poms,” explained secretary Lynne Le-Voir.

“Each pom pom had a label attached where people put their name and a message to a friend, or family [member], or just a message to the world. We sponsored 240 free pom pom kits and these were delivered safely by the Alford Hub volunteers.

“People liked the idea so much we ended up with 400 pom poms and the pom pom garland is now on display in the tree in the Market Place and in the shop too.”

Alford Craft Market then turned its thoughts to the children and gave them a choice of five free craft kits that were delivered safely to them on request and directly to their homes.

“There was an Activity Pack, a Bird Kit, a Bug Kit and Butterfly House and a Fabric Painting Kit,” Lynne explained.

“We gave out 270 of these and have received many wonderful messages of thanks, some amazing pictures, and heart-warming tales.

“In May some customers suggested that we should have an online shop where some of our sellers could sell their work. We started off with just a few but this has proved very popular and we now have an online shop with 15 craftspeople selling their work through us.”

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