Why on earth would anyone want to start a Centre in a tiny hamlet in the least populated county in Great Britain and, in the 1970s, with no traffic lights? It is a good question!
It was in 1970 that I purchased the Old Rectory at Bleddfa for my parents and whenever my work, running the Hampstead Theatre, would permit, I would come down to stay. Bleddfa had fewer than 100 inhabitants and most of those lived in scattered farms and cottages, with only a handful of houses in Bleddfa itself including the Hundred House Inn, the village school, and a tiny post-office cum stores. Next to the Old Rectory was St Mary Magdalene’s, the village church, first built in the 13th century. Whenever I was in residence I would attend the Sunday Eucharist, bringing the total number of the congregation up to four.
Because at that time I had, albeit as a layman, a weekly article on meditation in The Church Times, the then Rector, the Reverend John Tipping, who lived in Llangunllo, used to call on me regularly for tea and chat. And so it was that, in 1973, he came to tell me that Bleddfa Church was on a provisional list for closure. What could be done to prevent this? Having in 1959 founded the Hampstead Theatre in London on a shoestring and for seven years, without any grants, lurching from one financial crisis to another, I was not eager to launch into trying to save a small church in a tiny hamlet in the least populated county in Britain! For a year I reflected and meditated on the matter and I realised that if I did nothing, no one else would. Launching the Hampstead Theatre was an act of faith and I realised that whatever was done for Bleddfa Church would be likewise.
I suggested that, while continuing to be used as a place of worship, the church be developed as a Centre for Sacred Art, offering a programme of exhibitions of sacred art, seminars, retreats, concerts and workshops. John Tipping responded warmly to this; the matter was put to the tiny PCC, and passed. In this way the Bleddfa Village Church Restoration Society was formed. I then wrote to George Pace, then the leading church architect. He generously donated his services, drawing up a scheme for reordering the church so that it could be used in a variety of ways. This was then submitted to the Diocese for what is called a Faculty, giving permission for the work to go ahead, and so In the autumn of 1974 an appeal was launched, and I organised a concert in the church, to announce the scheme, saying that although we were but a few, we had only to reach out our hands and others would come to join ours in an ever-growing circle of friendship.
It was in this way that the Bleddfa Centre for Caring and the Arts (later to be renamed A Centre for the Creative Spirit) was born, based on my belief that the arts should nurture and enrich people’s lives. The word ‘caring’ has come to be associated with Social Services, which is why the title was eventually changed but I had in mind what a wise woman once replied, when asked, ‘What is Truth?’ She pondered for a long time and then said, ‘It’s another word for ‘Understanding’. It’s putting yourself in the place of another person and showing that you care.’
In 1978 we were registered as a charity, under the name of The Bleddfa Trust, with the aim of ‘providing a centre for those seeking through prayer, through the arts, and through encounter with others, a deepening of spiritual understanding’. It was in this year that the Trust received its first grant from the Welsh Churches Act.
The first three years saw a programme of workshops on the environment, day retreats, events for children, exhibitions of art by such outstanding artists as Thetis Blacker and Peter Eugene Ball. Surprisingly a local farmer who had never bought a work of art before purchased two of Thetis’ remarkable batik banners, a major sequence of which hangs in Winchester Cathedral. It was Thetis Blacker who brought other artists to Bleddfa such as the poet Kathleen Raine, and Peter Burman, Secretary for the Council for the Care of Churches
From the exhibition of sculpture by Peter Eugene Ball in Bleddfa church a magnificent almost life-size crucifix was purchased for Birmingham Cathedral where it now hangs. There were concerts of music by Leon Goossens, the York Winds of Toronto, the Claydon Ensemble and others, all giving their services free.
Lord Anglesey, as Chairman of the Historic Buildings Committee for Wales, secured us a major grant of half the amount needed. Ironically one local woman insisted that I hand this back as, she said, there was no way I could raise the other half, there was opposition also from certain local inhabitants. One chapel woman tackled me in the churchyard one day saying, ‘It’s evil what you are doing!’ And because we also had workshops in meditation another inhabitant spread the rumour that we were smoking pot in the church! Interestingly most of the opposition came from those who never came anywhere near the church!
In 1987 I secured a grant of £5000 from the Ernest Cook Trust which enabled us to appoint Irene Vickers as our administrator for that year when, over a period of six. months, from May to October, we organised The Festival of the Tree, with some 31 events, including workshops, concerts, films, meditation days, and guided walks. The Trust, in association with the Forestry Commission and Coed Cymru, launched new forest trails in the area around Bleddfa, and also undertook to restock the oak wood above the village. All this achieved by voluntary help with the exception of our one paid official, Irene Vickers.
I was also Correspondent for the village school which about this time was threatened with closure because of falling numbers. Although I led a campaign to save it, which gave it an extra year of life, it was, nonetheless, doomed. With its closure the tiny village went dead. No longer did mothers assemble to collect their children at the end of the day, call in at the village shop, so that it became important to try and preserve it as a public building. In addition, the Bleddfa Trust needed to have its own premises, and no longer to be dependent upon the whims of a PCC!
I sat down and wrote several hundred more letters, saying I wanted to secure the school for the Bleddfa Centre, as our official premises. I raised £l5,000 and then went with the estate agent to the auction. There was only one other bidder, a mother and her daughter, who clearly wanted to convert the school into a bungalow. As the bidding climbed, I closed my eyes and began to pray. Suddenly the other bidder stopped just short of the amount I had raised, with the result that the Bleddfa Trust acquired the old school. This meant, of course, that more money had to be raised to convert it into a gallery, with offices, and a tea room and so yet more letters had to be written!
To the first exhibition in the as yet unconverted building came Brandon and Flavia Cadbury who lived at Pant-y-dwr. Brandon was one of the Cadbury Family, and apart from his father’s Trust, he and his wife had their own charity, the Oakdale Trust. I was subsequently invited to supper and handed a cheque for £2000 towards the conversion of the school. Later on Brandon Cadbury was to become our much valued Secretary, to whom the Trust will always be indebted. I also applied to the Prince of Wales Trust and obtained a grant to have a garden designed and created alongside the school cottage, which would provide a space in summer for those coming to exhibitions or other events in which to congregate. It was from the raised pergola at one end of this garden that, for a number of years, such dignitaries as Kathleen Raine, Richard Livesey (now Lord Livesey) our MP, and others opened seasons, or individual exhibitions.
After its conversion the old school was formally opened as the official centre of the Bleddfa Centre for Caring and the Arts, by Lady Anglesey, then Chair of the Welsh Arts Council, and whose husband had secured us the first grant for the church. We continued to have Festivals, lasting several months such as The Festival of the Family, of the Garden, of the Mother; while under the direction of John Cupper the Old School Gallery began to attract a wide audience, especially to major exhibitions such as that of The Brotherhood of Ruralists, Robin Tanner, The Shakers, etc.
Dennis Vickers, a local architect, generously drew up a scheme which united the two barns creating a chapel, a reception area and kitchen space, shower and toilets, and a large hall, with an adjoining annexe for storage, built around a courtyard with a fountain. To one side was an orchard which was converted into an area suitable for outdoor activities, while the field below, which linked the Old School Gallery with the Barn Centre, provided ample parking space. But how to raise the very large sums needed to carry through this imaginative conversion! It was at this juncture that two things happened. Another friend of mine, Wendy Hall, (who eventually was to leave half her estate to the Bleddfa Trust and half to the Purcell School of Music) generously contributed some £60,000, (Cynthia Charlesworth also contributed,) and then Dr Miriam Stoppard, wife of Tom Stoppard, who had joined our Board of Trustees, used her influence to get us a grant of £38,513 from the Foundation for Sport and the Arts.
In the reception area is a pine cupboard on top of which stands a piece of sculpture by Peter Eugene Ball, entitled The Holy Man. In one hand he holds a candelabra in which a lit candle usually stands. On the wall above, painted in large letters by John Hencher, are some words by the Jungian analyst and author Anthony Stevens: ‘Each of us carries a single lamp for humanity.’ These words remind us of those of the Buddha to his disciples: ‘Be ye lanterns unto yourselves’, and those of Jesus, ‘You are the light of the world.’ The chapel, which is used for meditation, is named after Cynthia Charlesworth, while the large hall is called The Hall Barn, in memory of` Wendy Hall, whose ashes are interred in the orchard.
The Trust has owed much over the years to the support of local people, in particular Jean Thomas, who ran the little post office, and who for some 25 years was the glue that held the work of the Trust together, while her husband Albert is still responsible for general maintenance and uses the large field below the Barn Centre to graze his sheep! Jean Thomas, until her death in 2007, was not only treasurer and in charge of all bookings for workshops, but ordered stock for the Trust’s shop as well as being on duty at the Old School five days a week. John Cupper, who was in charge of the Old School Gallery, built up a loyal following of people who came from far and wide. A key part of the attraction, and part of the ethos of Bleddfa, was the welcome, that essential feeling of caring, with which people were greeted on arrival, so that they were made to feel, not just customers but friends of Bleddfa.
An outstanding feature of the exhibitions was John Cupper’s visual skill in adapting the space in different ways, finding a different style for each exhibition, often enhanced by the calligraphic contributions of John Hencher.
The early years were sustained by the mainly unpaid commitment of a considerable number of people but slowly, as an organisation expands, it had to be more professional, offer wages, and above all be able to pay its way. Through various mistakes, experiments, vicissitudes, the character of the Centre has emerged more clearly. It was founded on my belief that all art should nourish and nurture people. Unlike most galleries which are primarily commercial enterprises, we wanted to care for those who came and, through the shop window of the gallery, discover what was going on up at the Barn Centre, where the relationship of the creative and the spiritual was being explored in a variety of ways.
At its best art, no less than religion, is about the need to search for the reality behind everyday life when, as Wordsworth expresses it, ‘our souls have sight of that immortal sea which brought us hither.’ And it is because many are put off by the word ‘art’ which can suggest the ‘highbrow’, something for those with a specialist education, I prefer to focus on the word ‘creativity’, for that is something innate in each one of us. lt is by the exercise of our imaginations that we are able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, as Ian McEwan has observed, ‘Imagining what it is to be like someone else is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of humanity and the beginning of morality.’