Much-kneaded way to bring community together

James Brackenbury, James Thompson, Suzi Vickers.
James Brackenbury, James Thompson, Suzi Vickers.
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Bread is uniting a North Yorkshire community and it’s set to make television stars of its members. Catherine Scott meets the people behind Bread Actually

There’s something cooking in the former station master’s house in Bedale.

The smell of freshly-baked bread pervades the platform of the Wensleydale Railway line and hungry villagers wait to buy the delicious cinnamon swirls or poppy seed bread which emerge, steaming from the ovens.

But this is no ordinary bakery, this is Bread Actually, the community bakery which opened in June and is currently being featured as part of a three-part BBC2 series, The Big Bread Experiment.

The unique social experiment started 18 months ago when the then curate, Cath Vickers, started up a bread group. Cath already ran a support group in Bedale called Whitsend, which saw a group of women from all walks of life come together for a regular chat.

“At one meeting Cath suggested we make some bread and it all started from there really,” explains Carol Brown, one of Bread Actually’s founding members.

What started as a therapeutic hobby turned into something with more serious social implications when the bread-making group met the makers of a television programme about recently restored Crakehall Watermill.

“We’d never really talked about opening up a bakery we just wanted to get more people baking and eating real bread and maybe selling the odd loaf at farmers’ markets. But then the production company seemed to get things moving.”

KEO Film, the production company behind the River Cottage series, decided to spend 18 months following the ups and downs of the group as they tried to get the community bakery off the ground.

The downs included the loss of the woman behind the project, Cath Vickers, who was moved to a ministry in Stratford upon Avon.

“Personally I was sad to see Cath go because she was a lovely lady and we were great friends. But as far as the project goes I don’t think it was quite the big deal the television company made of it,” says Carol.

However with Cath’s departure the group’s numbers dwindled until there was only Carol and another founding member, Valerie Hutchinson, left.

“We had a long chat with family and friends and we decided that we just didn’t have the time to start up a business. We were very happy to continue baking in the community and passing on our skills, but we didn’t have what it took to take the project to the next stage.”

But the production company was keen that the project didn’t fail.

“They were really supportive and kept coming up with suggestions and ‘what ifs?’ and so we decided to stay on board.”

Rather than just record what happened, the production company decided to actively get involved in whether the project would sink or swim.

They carried out a recruitment drive and got more members of the local community involved and two artisan bakers from Bath came on board to hone the volunteers’ skills.

Carol Clark was one such volunteer. Carol runs Big Sheep Little Cow, the farm and children’s attraction opposite where the new bakery eventually opened.

“They had a lot of people who were really into baking and cooking but they didn’t really have the business skills and time to put a proper business plan together,” says Carol, who is now chairman of the trustees of the not-for-profit bakery.

After a lot of hard work and determination Bread Actually opened its doors in June this year. It now employs three bakers, including Cath’s daughter, Suzie, and 16 volunteers of all ages and from all walks of life.

“I had no interest in being involved in the project at the beginning,” says 20-year-old Suzie who at that time was a care worker.

But after her mum relocated south and it became clear that the bakery was going to be very important to the community, Suzie decided to get involved.

“It was the community side of it which really interested me. How baking can bring people together and be really therapeutic. There is something about making bread which just makes you feel better.”

Carol agrees. “When you are making bread you have to stand up and knead it for at least 20 minutes, You have to stop everything else, you can’t even answer the phone. And when there are a group of you doing that you find that people really open up and talk about whatever is on their mind. It is really powerful.

“There is also something about creating something from scratch. It is all natural ingredients, all locally-sourced with no additives. When you know what goes into big brand-named bread you would never buy it again.

“There is something so satisfying about making your own bread.”

The bakery is open five days a week ,Tuesday to Saturday, and volunteers can come in for as little or as much time as they like.

“We have one lady who hadn’t worked for 18 years while she was bringing up her family and she had lost a lot of her confidence about going back into the workplace,” says Suzie. “She spent some time with us and within a few months she had got all her confidence back and now has a job. That’s what I think Bread Actually is all about.”

Other volunteers include James, who is unemployed at the moment and wants to keep busy and learn new skills.

“I heard about the community bakery at my auntie’s wedding and it sounded really interesting,” says James.

“I like making the cinnamon swirls best.”

Other volunteers include retirees who want to keep busy and do something for the community, but any one is welcome.

At the moment the bakery tends to sell to passing trade and at festivals and markets, but next year they hope to set up a wholesale business selling to local restaurants.

“We are talking with the Black Sheep brewery to make a beer bread for their bistro, we really want to work with more local businesses within the community,” says Suzie, who would also like to have a bread van, delivering real bread to those who can’t make it to the shop.

And the success of Bread Actually has inspired its trustees to look at other ways of helping the community beyond its artisan bread and cakes.

“A centre for people with Alzheimer’s closed recently in Bedale and we are looking at setting up a social enterprise not only to offer support for people with dementia but also for people with disabilities,” explained Carol Clark.

“There is a big gap in the provision for people with disabilities in the community and we feel if the community has made this project work then there is no reason why we can’t look to expand what we are doing into other areas.”

They are currently consulting the community on what their needs might be with the hope of moving the project forward in the New Year.

“The success of the bakery has been a catalyst.”

Eighteen months on it seems that Cath Vickers’s dream of bread reuniting a community has become a reality.

The Big Bread Experiment is on BBC2 tonight at 7pm. To see the first two episodes visit www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/

www.breadactually.com

A hobby that grew and grew

The project started around eighteen months ago, initially as a social experience, but the members embraced this new skill, sought professional training and began a journey to take their hobby to the heart of the community. They recruited other like-minded neighbours, with whom their idea of opening a community bakery were shared, and they have been working tirelessly to realise this dream ever since. They took their bread to several local markets to ensure they were right in our assumption that local people were keen for quality, artisan bread. In June Bread Actually’s bakery was opened in the Station House, Bedale.