Stowford Rise Community Centre, Sidmouth - the new prestige venue for FolkWeek social dances.

This webpage gives a brief history and some summary details of the Stowford Rise Community Centre, Sidmouth EX10 9YL. The Centre is situated immediately opposite Sidmouth's large Waitrose store map here. Its facilities and charges are compared with those of a large village hall in Somerset.

stowford satellite.jpg (201309 bytes) A piece of history, from an out of date Google satellite image, April 2012. This still shows the Waitrose store before its expansion. The car park was extended to the west and to facilitate this, the access road from the A3052 was moved, shown by the red arrow.

The Stowford Rise Community Centre (red rectangle) was then constructed on a green field site.

The steep snaking entrance road to the Waitrose car park no longer exists. The junction to Stowford Rise from the A3052 was also extensively remodelled.

The trees to the left of the Centre run along a part of Core Hill Road that is inaccessible via motor vehicles. It is a useful footpath down to Woolbrook Road (see map below, and take a torch at night.)

The Stowford Rise Centre was first suggested two decades before it was built. Finance (all from the public sector) did not become available until 2009/10. It was controversial well before it was constructed, if only because of its location.

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Building work started in late 2010 and there was the usual upbeat press release - from Devon County Council. It included a prediction about community involvement - here was a 1million building that, after it was handed over, would have little ongoing financial support.

It is an 'architecturally expressive' building - the sort that councillors stand in front of being photographed. The part on the left with full height windows is the main hall. The children's centre is on the right.

Unfortunately, the striking south-facing front facade of Siberian Larch cladding can only be seen once you have arrived at the entrance. If you didn't know exactly where the building was, you'd miss it. From the main A3052 it is largely hidden behind an earth bank. Postcode = EX10 9YL.

Overall usage in its first few years of operation has not been encouraging, probably because of location and high rental charges. Daytime usage has increased to a modest level. As of 2013, evening usage remains low.

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Needless to say, local councils and councillors took a leading role in the project, and with Sidmouth's 'lunatic' councillor claiming (as is usual) most of the credit.

He is unlikely to claim credit for any shortcomings.

At the planning stage objections were raised and centred upon the possible viability of the project as well as its capital cost. One local businessman claimed the project was far too expensive.

This half of the building is the children's centre and is not normally accessible by members of the public.

The newly constructed Sidmouth Cadets Centre (complete with rifle range) can be seen at the left of this photograph. This too has attracted criticism. Surrounded by a high wire fence it seems incongruous so close to a children's play area.

stowfordhall1.jpg (82163 bytes) The main hall can be subdivided into two halves with the full height and largely soundproof room divider, shown here stacked against the side walls.

Everywhere you look the quality of construction stands out. The floor is superb for dancing.

Windows either end can be opened thus ensuring cross ventilation, at least when the two halves of the hall are being used together. Exit doors and roof vents are also available.

From the planning documents, the area of the hall is 180 m2 (or about 58 by 33 feet) but with an allowance for a few chairs and some space for the band, the available dancing area might be 165 m2. The room dividers would militate against using the full width of the hall for very long longways dances!

Based on these calculations the hall could be comfortable for 110 dancers with up to 160 being possible, subject to adequate ventilation. In 2013 a contra dance with Cis Hinkle attracted 110 dancers - this was considered 'about right' for the hall, with space for perhaps 10 more.

The adjacent cafe/reception room (area 35 m2) provides some of the the necessary seating.

stowfordhall2.jpg (75662 bytes) In 2012 and 2013, Stowford Rise served well as a modern 'prestige' venue for Sidmouth FolkWeek Festival social dances.

Its principal disadvantage for FolkWeek proved initially to be its out of town location but events in 2013 attracted 60 and 110 people - once transport arrangements were understood many dancers were prepared to make the effort to attend. It is a 1.2km walk from the main campsite (see map below).

As a venue that can accommodate about 160 people (up to 120/130 dancers) it has only 20 car parking spaces but this was not be a problem in the evenings because of the large Waitrose car park nearby. Many social dancers car-shared during FolkWeek 2013.

The centre was opened to the usual fanfare for vanity building projects: the Sidmouth Herald dutifully recorded the event. There was little analysis of its strengths or possible weaknesses.

Local developers who were making a mint out a nearby housing development threw a few crumbs in return for favourable press coverage.

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However, it was not long before the 'volunteer' aspect of the Centre was highlighted as a weakness - not only was the integral cafe not doing well (and given the location of the Centre, who could be surprised) but it was closed down owing to lack of volunteers in February 2012.

It is simply not in a location where people would seek out a cafe. Probably the only customers will be people attending events.

Late in March 2012 the cafe was 'rebranded' and reopened under new management. This lasted a few months before it was closed again.

Also in March 2012 a large (160 person) fashion show fund raising event for the NSPCC had to be moved at the last minute from the Stowford Centre to a town centre venue because it was discovered that the appropriate licence for entertainment and alcohol had not been obtained from EDDC. Planning the event and discussing the premises licence had been ongoing for six months!

All of this does not instil confidence in the Stowford Centre management - or in EDDC, who threatened to prosecute if the charity event went ahead without the required piece of paper. It could almost have been an April Fool story, published as it was as a front page article on 30 March 2012.

stowford roofwindows.jpg (123620 bytes) The Stowford Centre will not suffer from excess solar overheating (owing to its design and including solar blinds on the south facing elevation) but 150 enthusiastic dancers could easily dissipate 40 or 50kW.

However, the building has roof extract vents and a number of electrically operated opening windows at high level. No expense spared!

Good ventilation can also be provided by opening emergency exit doors on several sides of the building - ensuring through ventilation even with only a light wind.

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In mid April, after the fuss about the fashion show had almost died down the Sidmouth Herald published an update. This refers to a 'complaint' - either about the Centre or maybe about the fashion show charity evening.

If local people are going to complain about a charity event, would they also complain about late night noise from FolkWeek dancers, given that we may need doors and windows open in order to dissipate heat from maybe 120+ bodies?

Dancers at Sidmouth have suffered for many years because of inadequate ventilation arrangements at the Blackmore Gardens marquee.

In mid 2013 management of Stowford Rise Centre changed again with Jeff Turner stepping down. The cafe was once again scheduled to be re-opened and the usual platitudes about the Centre being of value to the whole community resurfaced. The Centre continues to be grossly underutilised and with at least one event having moved to Kennaway House to take advantage of lower room hire fees.

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Stowford Rise Community Centre is conveniently situated for Sidmouth's Waitrose car park (top right of map).

Following the orange line, it is a 1.0km (approx. 0.75 mile) walk from the main Sidmouth FolkWeek Bulverton campsite entrance. From the campsite to the seafront is about 2.4km.

The route shown in orange cannot be driven. Part of Ice House Lane is one-way and Core Hill Road is not a through road onto Stowford Rise.

If using a car, refer to this map. Drive down Alexandria Road and turn left onto Woolbrook Road. Drive past LIDL and turn right into Stowford Rise.

stowfordcost.jpg (52044 bytes) Half of the capital money for the Stowford Centre came from the government's 'surestart' programme. One half of the building is usually closed off from the public. It is utilised primarily for children's activities. Investing in Devon money resulted from the sale of Exeter Airport by Devon County Council.

Waitrose were forced to pay 200k towards local projects as the usual sweetener under s.106 before East Devon District Council would grant planning permission for their car park and store extension.

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The website of Pollard Builders gives the cost as 0.85 million - this may have been the value of the main contract.

Here is a typical piece of self-praise by Councillor 'lunatic' Hughes from his devoncarnivals website and dated September 2008. He should have said the vast number, not the vast amount of youngsters.

I am really excited about the prospect of the much needed Stowford Rise Community Centre being built within the next 18 months..... I was over the moon when I received the 250k from the airport money (Investing in Devon). With the 106 agreement money from the revamped/bigger Waitrose and other interested parties the funding is almost there. I am also delighted that I have been instrumental in getting the Children and Young People's Services to also get involved and that the Community Centre will also be the HQ for the Sidmouth Children's Centre. These centres are places where families with children under 5 years old can get services. With an additional 150 more houses for our young people being built on the remaining land at Stowford Rise this will be the area where the vast amount of future youngsters will hail from.

stowford.jpg (150118 bytes) The Stowford Rise Centre is only one of a number of 'public' halls in Sidmouth that can be hired for large functions or smaller events.

Stowford Rise charges 50 per hour for the whole centre, including kitchen.

Their 2012 charges can be compared with those of a much used village hall in Somerset.

In 2012 Hambridge charged as follows: Main Hall + Kitchen 10 per hour, Committee Room + Kitchen 5 per hour. Weddings 120 - 175 per event.

The Hambridge hall has a large free car park and can accommodate up to 200 people. It has Hallmark 1 and 2 Charter Award status. The main hall is not as large as at Stowford but the floor is equally excellent for dancing.

The Stowford Rise Centre has its own Facebook page on which proximity to bus routes is highlighted as a positive feature. But think for a minute - are nearby bus routes a primary consideration when planning an evening dance (which may end after the last bus has departed) or a wedding reception or for events where well-attired guests may wish to return to hotels and guesthouses without getting soaked in the rain? Or for any event when 100+ people may wish to arrive much at the same time? And are buses the transport of choice for 10 or 15 young mothers (or fathers?) and their 10 or 15 buggies all on the same bus? If you were planning a large food store and wished to attract people during the daytime, then bus routes might indeed be a factor. On their Facebook page the Stowford Rise Centre claim:

"A well needed Community Centre not just for the community of Stowford Rise but for the whole of the Sid Valley and further afield. The centre is a modern and attractive building (opened in September 2011) suitable to a wide variety of commercial and community uses. The Centre is conveniently located on a bus route directly opposite the Waitrose store at Sidmouth."

kennaway-house-charity.jpg (199191 bytes) Stowford Community Centre can be contrasted with the much loved and heavily utilised Kennaway House in the centre of Sidmouth. Both cost around a million pounds (Stowford Rise as a new build, Kennaway House as an extensive and heroic refurbishment). In contrast, relatively minor alterations to the town council building cost 0.25 million. This may have been a rip-off, but I couldn't possibly comment.

There was once a chance that Church House (as it was then called) would be demolished. The people of Sidmouth had other ideas.

The grounds of Church House were once home to one of the main Sidmouth International Festival social dance marquees - those were the days! It has also been used more recently by FolkWeek. Latterly the grounds have become the home for the craft marquee.

kennaway-house-after.jpg (337875 bytes) Both buildings have their strengths and weaknesses. You could hold a wedding at Kennaway House, and indeed this is where they make a lot of their money - it is grand, stately, memorable and has immense character.

You could hold a large dance or disco for maybe 160 people at Stowford Rise, but how many times in a year is such an event held in the city of Exeter (population 120,000) let alone in sleepy Sidmouth (population 15,000)?

However, for sheer class - and bearing in mind the old maxim "location, location, location", there is little contest between Stowford Rise and Kennaway House. The Kennaway House website is also superb.

Booking a wedding reception at Kennaway House is probably like buying a Rolls Royce - if you need to ask the price, you probably can't afford it.

Thankfully, intelligent debate still occasionally occurs in Sidmouth, even if in council chambers it has largely been replaced by the type of servile obedience that characterises single party states.

All three tiers of local government (Sidmouth Town Council, East Devon District Council and Devon County Council) are totally controlled by Stuart 'lunatic' Hughes and his fellow Conservative councillors. When most important planning decisions are often claimed or perceived to be taken in advance of any public meeting and with a complete disregard for any objections, why bother to object, argue or debate?

At an EDDC public meeting held at the Stowford Centre on 13 April 2012 councillors were full of self praise for taking on board the government's 'localism' agenda. I told them that most people didn't bother to comment, ask questions of councillors or get involved in local matters because of a long history of councils and councillors only pretending to take notice of well founded objections and suggestions. I could also have referred them to this letter dating from 1999. Few things ever change in Sidmouth!

In March 2012 the Sidmouth Herald was full of letters demanding that the Knowle area of parkland (where the International Folk Festival had its Arena show ground) should not be extensively developed for housing when (as is expected) EDDC relocates its headquarters from Sidmouth to a new building in Honiton. What many objectors fail to realise is that some EDDC councillors would love to see areas of Sidmouth desecrated. It is not their town and they have memories of Sidmouth getting maybe a larger share of the EDDC cake than it deserved when Ted Pinney was a hugely influential Sidmouth councillor. Local government is far less about serving the people or protecting the environment than empire building, petty power struggles and settling scores - as well as claiming credit for vanity building projects.

In 2012 Sidmouth Town Council gave a further 5000 of public money to FolkWeek both to pay for the hire of Stowford Centre for the evening social dances and for 'advertising' these events. Hire costs for the whole centre for (say) 4 hours per day for evening dances should come to no more than about 1200 with a block booking discount. So what is the rest of this money for? Given that anyone and everyone who is a competent folk dancer knows what goes on via word of mouth, Set & Turn Single magazine and the internet, what possible justification can there be for expensive additional 'advertising'? The events to be held at Stowford would be unsuitable for anyone who is not an experienced and competent dancer - and we will all know what is on offer in good time for FolkWeek.

In the event, the pre-festival publicity organised by FolkWeek in 2012 was abysmal. Although everyone knew there was a new venue, no maps were available, the festival working programme didn't have even a sketch map and stewards in the Box Office told people they could drive up Core Hill Road to Stowford Rise (you can't, it's a dead end with no parking and difficult turning around). The whole week saw frenetic efforts by local volunteer stewards and social dance callers to encourage people to try out the new venue. Organisation in 2013 was much better but with some events still being very poorly attended.


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