A 21st century project for a 14th century building?

Across the country, people in rural areas are coming together to save their local village shops by turning them into not-for-profit enterprises. In towns, we’re fortunate that we don’t need to do that – you can always get those basic groceries for which village stores are so important, and many more things besides. But where there are specific types of shops or amenities we think the town would benefit from, yet which private entrepreneurs are reluctant to provide, could similar social enterprises provide the answer?  

In a previous article, I talked about the idea of a community-led shop selling local history books, art and crafts and doubling up as a heritage information centre with a small exhibition space. This is currently a gap in Wellington’s offer which many of us want to fill. Following that article, someone asked ‘where?’ Good question. Rent on a private property would be a big cost for a new social enterprise to deal with. I think it would be manageable, but if there is another option, we should look to that first.

Edgbaston House

This is Edgbaston House in Walker Street – or rather, two parts of it. Comprising three separate buildings joined end to end, it was a solicitors offices until 2009 when it was bought by Telford & Wrekin Council. The council needed to demolish the building’s modern rear extensions to make way for its work on the Civic Quarter and new walkway immediately behind. At one stage early on, there was even crazy talk of demolishing the three historic buildings themselves, but a few protesting voices (including 200 on facebook) encouraged that idea to be dropped fairly promptly.

And so, the buildings remain, probably to be sold to a developer for renovation into attractive period apartments along with the old library buildings alongside. After all, the council understandably has to get the most value out of its assets, particularly as cash is in such short supply.

But might some of the building be left for another purpose? The largest part of the complex – a three storey Georgian town house, out of shot in the photo above – has the potential to give the council a good return when it’s sold. The white cottage at the end, however, they’ve always been less interested in, and thus willing to listen to any ideas from the community about how it is used. Small and surrounded by public thoroughfare on three sides, it is probably less attractive as a residential property, nor as a commercial property for a retailer.

It is attractivce to us, however. A conservation survey showed it to be the oldest part of the site, dating right back to the 14th century. This makes it one of the oldest known buildings in the centre of the town. What’s more, recent archeological excavations have unearthed evidence of tanning and horn-working here, suggesting this was the house of someone involved in the tanning trade (note Tan Bank is very close by) – an important business in Wellington’s history. It would be fanstistic to have these finds displayed in situ, along with a small display about the medieval life of the town. Add to this the rare interior features of an early 18th century sash window, an even earlier banister rail and a few other treasures, and you’re left with quite a special and ancient little house that we could make something of.

One idea we’ve been pursuing is to use this as a location for our proposed ‘Museum of The Wrekin’, but in all honesty its simply too small and wrongly configured to serve as a museum worthy of the name. Unless the council can offer us any more sections of Egbaston House, and also help us find money to restore them, it seems likely that we’ll be looking elsewhere to house our museum.

But as a modestly sized shop and gallery space, this white end building could be a much do nicely. Located just yards from the new civic quarter building and on the route into town from the main car park, it’s a brilliant spot. Moreover, it is a building with character and charm, befitting of a heritage book shop/craft shop/information centre. With the downstairs as a modest retail space, the two vaulted rooms upstairs could provide space for displaying local artists’ work, along with a historic display about Wellington at the time the house was built – and as such the area’s only mini-attraction about medieval life.

What next?

We need volunteers to come forward to help man any future project. Do you think you could you offer a few hours a week or a fortnight to run a shop counter or exhibition space? Five or six people have already been in touch, and there are others out there who have shown interest in similar projects in the past. A pool of 15-20 people should be enough to get started.

We also need to help and cooperation of the council, of course, as they own the building – and they also have expertise that will be valuable in setting things up. We know their resources are tight at the moment, but we want them to imagine how brilliant an addition this could be to Wellington – a project that gets people involved in their town and could help them develop a range of skills; a new enterprise to attract people into the heart of the town; and an exhibition space – all volunteer-led. To see ‘The Horner’s House’ shop and exhibition space open its doors would be a great example of what a community and a local council can do when they work together in new ways. Councillors, history-lovers, artists and volunteers – let’s make it happen.

We’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, let us know your thoughts!