There can hardly be two places in England as different as Coniston in the Lake District and Stratford in east London.
One is a village nestling beneath the Old Man peak, squeezed between a ring of Cumbrian fells and Coniston Water; the other has been an industrial suburb of the capital, and is now entering a post-industrial future after hosting the London 2012 Olympics on a brownfield site by the River Lea.
Coniston has lost its copper mines, though there’s still a working slate quarry, while Stratford no longer has a railway works though it remains an important hub.
Yet there is a link, with a nod to that industrial heritage, through art, crafts and architecture.
Walk north along Yewdale Road from the bridge across Church Beck and on the left is the Coniston Institute, which was opened in 1878 after energetic fundraising by John Ruskin, who lived across the lake at Brantwood. It was a new home for the lifelong learning promoted from its foundation in 1852 by the Coniston Mechanics Institute and Literary Society.
In extended premises at the rear of the institute is a museum devoted to Ruskin with exhibits also relating to the copper mines and slate, local geology, lace, farming and Donald Campbell. The museum’s website has some great Coniston links to explore.
There’s a public library and function rooms for hire. And since 2012 there has also been the Honest Shop, stocking local produce and craft. It’s this which provides the link to Stratford.
The use value of art
You can’t go far in this part of Cumbria without coming across the activities and influence of Grizedale Arts, which “emphasises the use value of art, and promotes the functions of art and artists in practical and effective roles, as a central tenet of wider culture and society”.
Grizedale Arts has been working with residents on the renovation and development of the institute. Archtitect Liam Gillick has designed a new self-service library and An Endless Supply, a design studio and run by Harry Blackett and Robin Kirkham, was commissioned to design the interior of the shop “a defibrillator-in-disguise for the UK economy”. There’s a touch of these austere times about the interior.
As their website explains, the shop is unstaffed and customers pay for what they take in the honesty box (Grizedale Arts confess that: “Typically for a haven of visitor experience tranquility, the money tin was stolen on day two.”) Profits go to the sellers and are ploughed back into the upkeep of Coniston Institute.
The shop was featured on the BBC’s Countryfile programme. John Craven bought an apricot loaf. We plumped for eccles cakes and a carrot cake with orange frosting.
About 280 miles away (more if you take a scenic route across the Pennines) in London, there’s not yet so much choice at the Honesty Stall situated at the gates to Abbey Gardens in Bakers Row, Stratford, a step away from Abbey Road station on the Docklands Light Railway, where a sign helpfully redirects tourists and Beatles fans looking for a certain zebra crossing to the other Abbey Road in St John’s Wood.
It’s only a stone’s throw from Stratford and West Ham on the London Underground and national rail.
There are railway cottages across the road, and the remains of others within the grounds of this open access community garden (visitors welcome from dawn to dusk when the gates are open). Long before the coming of the railway and the nearby India rubber works and other heavy industry, there had been a 12th century Cistercian abbey on the site, complete with kitchen garden and a gatehouse here.
The Friends of Abbey Gardens has been working to reverse years of neglect since 2006. It initiated work on the garden, which has been designed by artists Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie of Somewhere, a multi-disciplinary, non-profit creative company.
The site had to be cleared of contaminated soil before planting for food could begin. Arsenic, lead and benzoapyrene were among the chemicals found in a survey.
Now there’s a sign on a brick wall that asks What will the harvest be? The answer is whatever the regular gardeners agree and there are thousands of wonderful photos on Flickr capturing the activity at the gardens. And some of what’s grown is also sold on the mobile Honesty Stall designed for Abbey Gardens by Andreas Lang.
One afternoon this week, with a touch of spring finally in the air, preparation and planting in the raised beds and greenhouse with guidance from gardening club leader Hamish Liddle came to a halt while a dunnock sang his heart out from an ivy branch shooting above the wall, attracting a second bird – a possible partner or rival was unclear.
Lang is a key link between Coniston and Stratford through the International Village Shop, a network of trading places for locally rooted goods. A founder of Public Works, he trained at Central St Martins school of art and at the Architectural Association, London. As with Grizedale Arts, Public Works “projects address the question how the public realm is shaped by its various users”.
This spring and summer, both projects are well worth a visit. Don’t forget to put your money in the honesty box.