There is something truly magical about the Quay on a bright, clear evening. After winding your way down through the hustle and bustle of town, there is a certain purity of air and light which glints flirtatiously off of the quiet water, daring you to relinquish the tension and speed which the modern world demands of us. Everything seems to flow at a gentler pace; people are quietly satisfied with themselves as they trickle in and out of the gorgeous converted warehouses and cellars, exchanging money for handcrafted products and attentive services which come with a quality assurance unique to independent businesses. It is a space which encourages you to think and feel rather than say and do, an ethical atmosphere which cannot help but foster creative brilliance.
It’s difficult to imagine a business with better ethical and social intent than The Boat Shed
No wonder that David Lockwood, creative director of The Bike Shed Theatre, has chosen the Quay as the backdrop to his bold development ambitions. In the early summer of 2015, The Bike Shed announced a huge expansion plan intended to put Exeter’s cultural scene on the map, merging the products of local artists and entrepreneurs with innovative creative work from across the globe. Having acquired the financial support of Exeter Town Quay Trust – a body driven by charitable objectives, including the production of culture – David and his team christened their new acquisition “The Boat Shed” and set to work with architectural practice Howarth Thompkins to begin dusting away the cobwebs of the old Maritime Museum. This summer, the first fruits of their labour will be offered up to the public as £25,000 is raised and invested into a pop up programme which will see the semi-derelict warehouse brought back to life. The sprawling building will host a theatre, a gallery, an ice cream parlour, a mini golf course, a music festival, a craft market and a cocktail bar for just a few blissful weeks this summer – a test run for the final, permanent fixture which is anticipated to open in 2021.
The vision for The Boat Shed is complex to say the least. Although eventually it will be a modern day agora, with fifty small businesses listing it as their address and a six configuration 251 seat theatre, this development will cost a phenomenal six million pounds. The project team are unwilling to plug so much capital into the venture until they are absolutely sure that their vision is shared with and loved by the local community – hence the pop up programme this summer, which will return every year until the official opening of the space. This short time is intended to draw in the public and collect yet more fodder for the drawing board; it is intended as a crucial stage of creative development which will ideally see the fledgling establishment break even financially and make a profit culturally. They want to know what they’re doing right, and they aren’t afraid to be told what has failed. As they see things, it’s impossible to create a space that is both original and useful without making a few mistakes along the way.
eventually it will be a modern day agora
It’s difficult to imagine a business with better ethical and social intent than The Boat Shed. From sourcing their hard furnishings from a local ex-offenders initiative – Landworks, who use reclaimed scaffolding planks from the Dartington Estate to construct their products – to the intense and genuine drive to create a space which enriches the local community rather than just taking their cash. When we met to discuss his ideas, David expressed indignation at how a fifth of the city’s population lives on the west bank of the Exe with only a ten pin bowling alley and the now burnt down recreation centre, whilst we on the east side have three cinemas, five theatres, endless restaurants and artisanal shopping opportunities, all often within walking distance. The Boat Shed, it is hoped, will be the first step in fostering a similarly diverse cultural experience on the other side of the river. Exeter used to be the third richest city in the world, and David is heartbroken by the escalating process of interiorisation which he sees as closing doors for our little city. His intention to see The Boat Shed’s theatre programme split evenly between performances developed within a thirty mile radius and work produced by creatives worldwide would help to continue fostering local talent whilst encouraging refreshing exterior engagement. A three year limit on sub-tenancies will preclude stagnation of resident creatives’ products and keep fresh talent coming through the door.
The Boat Shed is without doubt the most innovative and unique work in progress Exeter currently boasts
The building and its contents will be inspired by Exeter’s trading history, drawing on the concept of globalisation and the incredible results that cross-continentally sharing ideas, materials and skill can yield. On a structural level, Howarth Thompkins will employ their trademark “scrape and reveal” approach to bring the warehouse back to life with as much loyalty and respect for its original features as is possible in creating a modern and workable space. There is plenty of work to do – the currently dark and dour top floor, intended as a rehearsal space, will be revolutionised with skylights and balconies; hazardous, uneven floors will be smoothed; doors and openings will be made in walls to create an open plan flow for footfall through the building; rotting shutters over full length windows will be replaced with weather and child-proof fixtures; rickety stairs will be renovated and a lift fitted for access purposes – but the
structure will retain its history, dignity and originality. It will be transformed without being made unrecognisable.
As much time, energy and money as this new venture will swallow up, David is by no means neglecting his foundation project, The Bike Shed. He promises that The Boat Shed will work symbiotically with The Boat Shed; the hope is that the larger, more diverse space on the Quay will provide a financial stability which will allow the 54 person max capacity space in town to become a more adventurous space to incubate new talent and take artistic risks. The Boat Shed will also mimic its parent venture in certain aspects; for example, fronting the house with a bar rather than a formal space for the box office. It will attempt to replicate the organic practices and spatial management David and his team have so successfully instated in The Bike Shed.
In terms of up and coming ventures, The Boat Shed is without doubt the most innovative and unique work in progress Exeter currently boasts. In a few years’ time, it will be the place to eat, drink, shop, play, educate and – well – be merry.