Ruthin - A place to inspire

Some of the world's finest contemporary art can be found in the pretty town of Ruthin<br/>WORDS BY EMMA MAYOH PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COCKS

Think of places to see contemporary art and galleries like Tate Modern and the Saatchi might spring to mind. But lovers of modern art, as well as its creators, all head to a picturesque town in the heart of the Vale of Clwyd.

It is easy to see why Ruthin and its surroundings have inspired artists - and encouraged so many to settle in the area. But another reason is Ruthin Craft Centre. Since it opened in 1982 it has been a hive of activity for lovers of contemporary craft. It reopened in 2008 following a �4.4 million redevelopment and it is said to be the most important gallery for craft in Wales.

Exhibitions held here have gone on to show at renowned galleries like London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and work showcased in the craft centre’s collections have also been sold at prestigious shows and venues including the contemporary art fair Collect at Saatchi Gallery, at the international Sculpture Objects and Functional Art expositions in Chicago and New York, as well as at several European shows. A collection of work by Welsh artists was sent from the centre to exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, the world’s largest museum and research complex.

Philip Douglas, director of Ruthin Craft Centre, said: ‘We showcase the best of contemporary craft in Wales and the best of contemporary craft in the UK. People are surprised to see something of this quality in Ruthin.

‘We get a lot of interest from collectors and art lovers from all over the world. But that is because of the quality that is produced by the artists we show here. Many of them are local which is fantastic and others choose to come back here. We had one artist, Ruth Duckworth, who fled Nazi Germany as a child and came to North Wales. She moved to America later but then wanted a collection to celebrate her 90th birthday shown here. It is very exciting for us that people feel this way.’

Later this year work will begin on a new Ruthin Art Trail, designed to link the centre with the main town. The last few pounds are now being raised through sponsorship from local businesses. In the autumn artists will be asked to tender for a commission to produce their own piece for the new project.

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As part of the trail the gates at St Peter’s Church, originally made by blacksmiths Robert and John Davies in 1727, are being restored by talented artist Jessica Lloyd Jones, a former artist-in-residence at Ruthin Craft Centre. She will also create a light installation around the gates that will be powered by photovoltaic panels hidden on the roof of the church.Michael Nixon, project manager and arts consultant, said: ‘We have this fantastic centre in Ruthin and the idea of the trail is to encourage people to move from here into the main town centre. It’s the whole idea of arts and regeneration working together.

‘As well as giving visitors something extra to enjoy we also want to make Ruthin an even lovelier place for the residents. The artists will work with local schoolchildren and the people who live here to get a sense of what their town means to them.’

Two people thrilled with this are Christopher Frost and Gavin Harris. The pair, who run restaurant with rooms, Manorhaus, celebrate the creativity and wealth of local artistic talent by displaying contemporary art created by people who have a link with Ruthin. This includes work from Royal Cambrian Academy artists Ann Bridges, Ian Williams and Dave Merrill as well as an accomplished photographer, originally from Ruthin but now living in New York, who captured dramatic scenes from the attack on the Twin Towers in September 2011.

The entrance hall, lounge, dining room and stairway are filled with paintings, ceramics and embroidered art. Interestingly, the pair have created galleries in the bedrooms, each showcasing the work of a particular artist. The d�cor of the rooms has also been designed to harmonise with the art.

Christopher said: ‘There is a lot of talent in the area but with such a beautiful area you can appreciate why people are so inspired. It was only after we met with Ian Williams, the first artist who displayed his work here, that we discovered this and we wanted to make the most of it. We are known for it now and people come here to see the art. It is certainly a talking point.’

Manorhaus, two Georgian homes that were merged into one, was first built in the 16th century. The building has been home to everyone from Edward Pilkington, a surgeon of the 17 Lancers, to a former master of Ruthin Grammar School and Cynthia Lennon, former wife of John Lennon, who ran a restaurant here. Some of the rooms were used as the headquarters of the Ruthin Library Institute.

For Christopher and Gavin, moving to Ruthin and setting up Manorhaus, was a far cry from their previous careers in London. Gavin, originally from Bangor, was an architect and Christopher, from Manchester, was working as a musician and vocal coach in the West End. He was involved with famous stage shows including Les Miserables, Mamma Mia and Sunset Boulevard and worked with stars including Stephanie Powers, Emma Thompson, Petula Clarke and John Barrowman.

But they have both settled into life in Ruthin. Gavin is on the local council and has been the town’s mayor. Christopher has chaired the Ruthin Music Festival and  is on the board of the North Wales International Music Festival.

Christopher said: ‘It was a gamble for us, but it definitely paid off. Ruthin is a beautiful place to be and we are so pleased we are able to make a success of things.

‘We love it here. There is something to discover around every corner. It is an incredible place.’

Where is it? Ruthin is located at the meeting of the A494 and A525 in Denbighshire near to Mold and Wrexham. Type LL15 into your sat nav to get you there.

Where can I park? There is plenty of parking in the town in long and short stay car parks. On-street car parking is available but please do check the signs as there are time restrictions.

What can I do? Explore the winding streets of the town, admire the architecture, visit Wales's oldest timbered townhouse Nantclwyd y Dre, take a tour around Ruthin Gaol, which in its day was a fearsome prison, or visit the craft centre. Have a look at Maen Huail, a large stone located to one side of St Peter's Square. It is said King Arthur beheaded Huail on this for winking at Guinevere.

Are there refreshments? Plenty of choice from lots of quaint cafes to award-winning delis and great restaurants.