Every so often it’s nice to get out of Glastonbury and explore. I can’t quite believe I’m suggesting this, but Shepton Mallet is really worth a visit. I popped over there last week to visit my friends Dimitris and James who are running the pop-up ‘Art Bank Cafe‘ in the old HSBC bank, which also houses the ‘Rubbish Art Project‘
A few years back Shepton was known for being a bit, well, rubbish. Disastrous town planning decisions, in the name of 1970’s modernity, saw beautiful old buildings in the heart of the town torn down to be replaced with a concrete monstrosity of a theatre known as The Amulet. Shepton never seemed to quite recover. It always felt drab and grey in contrast to Glastonbury, even Somerset locals referred to the town as ‘Shit and Smell It’.
In 2014 I lived near Shepton Mallet for a few months while I volunteered at Windsor Hill Wood Retreat. We ate communally and most days around the dinner table someone would remark that ‘Shepton is on the up’. This became a running gag as it was hard to see much hope in the town with its empty shop fronts and a general sense of deprivation and neglect. Nevertheless, I came to appreciate the many old and beautiful buildings in the town and the beauty of the surrounding landscape. I spent days exploring Ham Woods, with it’s hidden abandoned railway tunnels, bridges and old quarries. The locals I met took pride in their town and were busy organizing lantern parades, pop-up community shops and the yearly Collett Park Festival.
Visiting the Art Bank Cafe it felt to me that these green shoots of community development were at last beginning to flower. There was a palpable buzz as I entered the formerly imposing building, The interior has been transformed with plants and artwork, but retains the beautiful wood panelling, classical proportions and large windows of the bank. Most of the cafe tables were full, three generations sat around one table. Stalwart Glastonbury event coordinators Sandie and Andy were relaxing on a pink sofa while a large group of children were absorbed in a crafting workshop using recycled materials in the Rubbish Art Project half of the space.
Dimitris Koutroumpas, who set up the pop – up cafe, is an artist himself, his paper collage and photographs adorn the walls, he has decoupaged the cafes furniture and his quirky book gardens are dotted around. The overall effect is colourful and fun. The cafe offers vegetarian and vegan snacks and cakes, the day I visited the savoury option was Greek feta and spinach pie. I went for the blueberry cake, which tasted as good as it looked. Dimitris told me he’d spent weeks sourcing the best possible Fair Trade coffee. I was initially disappointed that they didn’t offer cappuccino, but having tasted their excellent cafetiere coffee I’m happy to forgo the froth.
It felt to me that Shepton had something here that Glastonbury is rather lacking nowadays. I know we have the fantastic Yeast Scrap Store and various projects at the Red Brick Building, but these are located on the outskirts of town. I suspect that the Art Bank’s High Street location encourages a broader range of people to drop in and get involved. The Shepton community has embraced the Art Bank and the Rubbish Art Project with real enthusiasm. It was lovely to see such a wide age range engaged in some genuine grass roots arts activism.
Up until recently houses were cheap in Shepton, while other small Somerset towns, chiefly Frome and Bruton, have become desirable places to live, with hipster coffee shops and retro boutiques. As the house prices in these places have risen attention has now turned to Shepton. The Telegraph recently suggested Shepton as a travel destination, see the article here. Initiatives like the Art Bank can only add to Shepton’s appeal. And there is the irony. As in Glastonbury, the creative and visionary people who contribute so much to regenerating towns like this, with genuine grass roots art, environmental, community and music projects, generally aren’t the ones who profit when the place begins to attract money. Often they find themselves priced out of even the rental market.
This problem has been recognised and acknowledged in Bristol, there is even a campaign to ‘Make Bristol Shit Again’, perhaps one day there will be a call to ‘Make Shepton Rubbish Again’, but until then it’s art from rubbish that is putting this town on the ascendant.
On the 14th September 2018 The Rubbish Art Project will be launching ‘SHEPTOPIA’ an immersive exhibition in the town. ‘SHEPTOPIA will coincide with Somerset Arts Week on the 15th September – 30th September and run for another 2 weeks until 14 October. I’m really looking forward to seeing Shepton’s High Street transformed with colourful artworks, which will include “inspirational, engaging and thought-provoking art around consumerism and waste designed to inspire people to reduce and recycle”.
If you’d like to visit the Art Bank
News as of May 2019: The Art Bank now has a bar!!
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