Parkwood Pottery in Alfreton - an inspiring project for adults with learning disabilities

Inga and Nathan making a bowl

Inga and Nathan making a bowl - Credit: Archant

Set amid the extensive grounds of Alfreton Park, Parkwood Centre is owned and operated by Derbyshire County Council. Its aim is to provide meaningful activities and opportunities for all who attend

Parkwood Pottery team

Parkwood Pottery team - Credit: Archant

A long drive down past Alfreton cricket pitch led me to a cluster of workshops, craft rooms and specialist facilities near to the old walled garden of Alfreton Hall, where I found the bright and airy Parkwood Pottery which provides training in pottery skills for adults with learning disabilities. This self-funding project was set up in 2007 by Graeme McKenna and Inga Heppleston, both established potters with a passion for ceramics as a medium for therapeutic art. Employed by Derbyshire County Council (DCC) as day service workers, they both have a background in art and over 15 years of experience each in person-centred work with people with learning disabilities. Although initially the pottery sessions focussed on training in pottery skills, with massive support from their DCC managers, it gradually became a profit-making enterprise. Being experienced potters, Graeme and Inga throw the commercial products but individuals help out in various procedures and stages from clay to cup, mud to mug and puddle to plate.

I was there because on a recent visit to Scarthin Bookshop at Cromford I had come across some Parkwood Pottery colour-washed stoneware mugs and wanted to discover more about how they were made. Stoneware is the broad term for pottery or ceramics fired at a relatively high temperature, glazed or unglazed, and generally used for utilitarian wares and Derbyshire has a tradition of pottery-making that dates back centuries. There were Romano-British pottery kilns found at Hazelwood and Holbrook, and in the 18th century Cane Ware was an English stoneware made in the county, while Crouch Ware was a light-coloured Staffordshire salt-glazed stoneware made from clay sourced from Crich (Crouch is thought to be a corruption of the village’s name).

A warm welcome awaited me from Graeme and Inga followed by an eager handshake from Graham, one of the longest serving potters who has been coming to the pottery four days a week for almost ten years – there is no time limit to the number of years that individuals can attend, no regime of coursework, tests or exams to worry about. Everyone is here because they choose to be and Graham is a stalwart of the team. Evidently he loves to help set everything up in the morning and tidy away at the end of a session. ‘I’m a big Derby County fan,’ Graham told me, pointing with pride to his Rams football shirt. ‘Coming here allows me to meet people and have a chat. I love the coffee break too when we sit down together at the big table to eat biscuits or cake and drink proper coffee from the mugs that we have helped to make.’

I then had a lovely hug from Anthony who was keen to show me a tray of colourful Christmas ornaments that he was working on. As well as helping with the production of commercial domestic ware, students can work on their own projects such as slab building, hand-building and modelling. Anthony was painstakingly painting a selection of stars, stockings, reindeer and little Baby Jesus figures ready for their second and final firing. Anthony is a good teacher and likes to encourage anyone new. He handed me his brush and patiently showed me how to apply a choice of pastel shades to each piece. He loves festivals, celebrations and special events so as soon as Christmas is over, Anthony will start on items for Easter. However, one of his prized designs available all year round is a stoneware cheese box. When one was first put on display at Buxton Farmers’ Market, where the Parkwood Pottery used to have a regular stall, it was instantly admired by Mary at the cheese stand. Anthony is a Blackpool town supporter and a big fan of Gary Bowyer so I can well imagine football being a popular topic of conversation before and after matches.

Anthony painting his ornaments

Anthony painting his ornaments - Credit: Archant

Suddenly the pottery studio became more of a dance studio – Graham, who loves the music of Michael Buble and Kylie Minogue, heard a lively tune on the radio which had been quietly playing in the background and he was quick to turn the volume up a little. Evidently it’s not unusual for everyone here to have an occasional dance, as well as cracking jokes and laughing a lot. ‘The whole Parkwood Centre has an ethos of friendship and fun,’ explained Inga.

Sitting back down at the work tables to a quickly restored calm and contemplatively peaceful atmosphere, I watched Peter who was working on a slab-work stable for a Nativity scene that he was going to fill with figures of Mary, Joseph, a baby and a donkey. Peter loves crafting animals from clay that he has rolled out and cut to shapes, often taken from his own drawings. He was the first person in the pottery to introduce Mr Men ornaments, Mr Nosey being his original assignment. As well as pottery and drawing, Peter told me that he loves gardening.

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I’ve never actually had a go at pottery myself but I was sorely tempted when I watched how a lump of clay sourced from Valentine Clays Limited at Stoke-on-Trent was being carefully made into a ball by Nathan, the final member of the team on that particular day. He was creating the ball after measuring out an exact weight to the specific size for a particular item. He then sat at the wheel opposite Inga for the throwing process and in only a few minutes the clay was transformed by them into a recognisable and beautiful bowl. The look of pride on Nathan’s smiling face said more than a page full of words.

‘Every pot created here has an input from at least one member of the 25-strong team,’ Inga explained. ‘Every day in the pottery has a different dynamic as some students attend most days whilst others might come here for part of the day or one day a week. Generally there are no more than eight individuals per session and they choose what to do when they arrive. Although there is a rota for which one of us washes the coffee pots,’ she added with a smile.

Graeme helping Peter to shape ornaments

Graeme helping Peter to shape ornaments - Credit: Archant

A sectioned off area of the studio is the Sales Area, with shelves lined with an assortment of plates, bowls, mugs, jugs and teapots in muted pastel shades of mottled finish stoneware, all individually priced. Visitors are welcome to visit the pottery and commissions can be taken. Alternatively, tableware products can be purchased from a number of Derbyshire outlets such as Wirksworth Heritage Centre and Derby Museum, where a piece of Parkwood Pottery is also on permanent display in an exhibition. Money generated from sales helps to fund projects and enable further development. Orders of any size are welcomed from a single piece to a crate of crockery, although purchasers must appreciate that it might take some time to complete a large order.

A few years ago Mercia Café in Wirksworth was kitted out with Parkwood Pottery whilst another interesting order was placed for plates, cups and mugs to be used in the private fishing temple in Beresford Dale made famous by Charles Cotton and Izaak Walton. Parkwood Pottery has also exhibited paintings by some of the potters at the Post Mill in South Normanton and has plans for other exhibitions in 2017.

Graeme and Inga are always on the look-out for new sales outlets and ways to develop the pottery further. They are looking to take on a volunteer to help out in the pottery, to assist in supporting the groups and in joining the friendly team here. Anyone interested must have some knowledge of pottery and an interest in social care.

In June, Parkwood Pottery will be celebrating its 10th anniversary. I have no doubt that Anthony will be inspired to create a commemorative piece and can just picture the party, which is sure to involve everyone gathered around a large cake with mugs in hand and beaming smiles all round.

Graham at the wheel

Graham at the wheel - Credit: Archant

For more information view or call 01629 531841.

Open Monday to Friday, 9am to 3pm

Parkwood Pottery pots

Parkwood Pottery pots - Credit: Archant

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