The Bensham Grove Chronicles Summer 2015

A long delayed summer has arrived here at Bensham Grove, as indeed it has in the whole of Bensham itself. In the long rows of Victorian and Edwardian streets that surround our Centre, and stretch as far south as wonderful Saltwell Park, the residents are stirring. Winter-pale figures emerge blinking into the sun-shine and thoughtful frowns convey the owner’s stressful dilemmas. Is to-day the one to gaily abandon winter clothing and display areas of flesh that even the tattooist hasn’t seen, or is that playful little breeze likely to move on to an out and out storm requiring a full-hooded cover up?

The members of Bensham Grove appear to miss a lot of this indecision but I’m sure they have dress problems of their own. Yours truly has noticed that in our secluded, walled and comparatively-shielded from traffic enclave, we have our own dress codes, and yes, it is quite often dictated by the weather. The members with cars very rarely wear heavy out-door gear even in winter’s extremes. If they can manage to get parked in our almost vertical car-park, a quick dash to near-by buildings relieves the necessity of a cover up. Or they are so hot and bothered by trying to squeeze their vehicle into the surrounding street and running the gauntlet of annoyed neighbours that full thermals are totally unnecessary.

On the other hand the bus travellers, or those who walk in the winter, need full gear of parkas, plus a unique selection of Christmas woolly hats, scarves and gloves, as well as water-proof foot-wear. Summer days of course require the jettisoning of all the above gear as often our old house swelters in the warmth, despite doors and windows opened to any little passing breeze.

What however does one wear to a class or meeting at Bensham Grove you may well wonder? The gardeners sport old tee-shirts, jeans and, quite often, wild hair. Their progress through the house and into the kitchen for tea can be followed by the sprinkle of soil and the smear of occasional muddy foot-prints. The Potters can also be traced to the kitchen and the loos in the Activity Hall but this time the foot-prints are white and dusty. Miss Marple would have no problems here. They can also be recognised by the selection of pottery-induced detritus on the aprons they wear.

The Silver-smiths, who are moving to their own residence in the 1930’s Hut in the garden, show none of the hands-on, thumping of the clay look of their previous neighbours in the pottery, but wear a more ethereal arty look. Both groups however produce art work in its various forms to a wonderful high standard.

The Ladies Indoor Carpet Bowls Group wear sensible shoes balanced by elegant hair-styles and discreet jewellery. They are very happy as long as they have their long mat and a little bit of space. Access to a kettle goes without saying. The Craft and Needlework and Art Groups, wear suitably arty and crafty clothes, jewellery and a plethora of scarves depending on the different seasons.

The Fund-Raising/Events Group wear haunted and frazzled expressions in all seasons!!

Now that the various classes will be closing down for the summer break the house still need to earn a living. The Finance Group has worked out how much each room needs to earn on a daily and weekly basis. To do this we need to fill them with people. If not the classes bringing in the income then who?

This is obviously where a new/old group is required to arise again, which begins the whole chain again of one group leading to a whole clutch of others, The Fund-Raisers need events to produce the where-with-all to keep our heads above water which brings forth the Events Group. The Events people can, however, come up with the ideas but others are needed to make these happen. Teas, cakes and buffets need people to make and serve them. Events need organisers as well as people to attend. Publicity need attending to or no-one will come to the events. Gardeners are needed to tidy the grounds and cleaners, and dare I say, scrubbers would be useful to help our very busy caretaker. Is it any wonder hair stands on end, eyes glaze over and people can be found muttering to themselves in corners.

However we love our house and Centre. We hope visitors will keep visiting and will help us by their support at the events that miraculously do eventually take place. We need you to keep watching and support this wonderful, eclectic and unique little haven.

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The Bensham Grove Chronicles March 2015

From somewhere deep inside Bensham Grove can be heard a tap-tapping. It’s not particularly loud, nor is it particularly annoying, and it only happens on certain days. It’s just enough to arouse a certain amount of curiosity as it is quite new, adding another dimension of sound to all the other house noises. To the more fanciful it brings to mind stories of shoe-maker elves tapping merrily away, to the more prosaic it sounds like problems with the water pipes.

Where it’s coming from is another mystery and only a few of the initiated know that it comes from a little room up in the attics. Who is making this noise I hear you ask. Well it’s our new volunteer, named, rather pretentiously on our part, our ‘Art Curator’, Graham.

Here at Bensham Grove we have long wanted someone to help us with the Fine Art side as opposed to the crafts. We have a few bits and pieces we really like, such as two large portraits and some interesting 1930s engravings, but we have also wanted to display local artwork. We know that in the days of Robert and Elizabeth Spence Watson the wall were covered with pictures contemporary to the period, some of these Pre-Raphaelite paintings. They were providing space for local artists as well and we would like to continue with this into the future. If it worked then, why not in our little gallery today.

So why don’t you try to see if you can spot our new Art Curator with his long grey coat and Rupert Bear scarf. It could be thought of as on a par with the search for the lesser-spotted woodpecker! He is busy framing the incoming artwork, using a selection of old, donated frames from the bowels of the Laing as well as some found in local charity shops. We are not proud!!

Talking of the two portraits in our collection, one of Robert Spence Watson and the other of his wife Elizabeth, we recently had our feathers ruffled a little. We had decided to have them cleaned. Years of cigar and cigarette smoke seemed to have covered them in a dark brown substance, particularly on Elizabeth who also has a little tear in her canvas. Enter an expert art conservator with a suitably arty look and a little light which was shone on our two, much loved, portraits very reminiscent of one of those trendy BBC art programmes, and delivered a verdict.

Poor old Robert, who has hung in the main entrance hall since he was donated by family members, is not a painting but a print!! Shock, horror! Nothing can be done about him. The sepia colour is part of the original painting but can’t be removed because it is a photograph. Elizabeth however proved to be far more interesting.

“There’s evidence of previous botched work” says our conservator.

“Look at the halo around her head, some-one’s been messing around there, and those hands look very dodgy”.

We suddenly remember half-listened to stories from older members about Elizabeth being stolen and eventually found in a second-hand shop on Saltwell Road. What happened to you, you poor soul? Will we ever find out? The  upshot is that only Elizabeth will once again go off into the unknown, in this case the tunnels under the Laing, and have her face attended to and not forgetting those dodgy hands.

There has been some louder noises recently as well, but this time more like a frustrated banging than gentle tapping, and coming from the garden. Our disappearing, on-off gardener has appeared again. Turning up unannounced, in his time here he is a man-sized tornado, hammering rotten garden furniture together, mending punctures in wheel-barrows and finding things to paint.

It is in the borders though that he really goes to town. Nothing gets in his way. In a fine fog of soil particles plants go flying. No difference is made between delicately nurtured flowers and thunking big weeds. His sole aim is dedicated to beautifully turned soil without an invading plant in sight.

I mused about this whilst forlornly gazing at a newly denuded herbaceous border which had appeared over- night, debating on whether it had really been getting so over-grown that it needed starting over again, or have we really lost a wonderful colourful summer display. Heigh-ho! Please refer to previous blog about community gardens and who owns them.

Don’t forget you can start now booking your seats for our J.B.Priestly event on the 24th May as part of the May History Month. Chris Phipps who starts off the day with his talk about Priestley’s journey through the North in 1933 was a sell out when he did his stuff at the Lit and Phil last year. He will be here to tell us why Priestley disliked Gateshead so much and why he was so rude about the unemployed men at the Bensham Grove Settlement. To counteract the argument there will be a series of displays showing what he missed.

The Bensham Grove Café will also be open. Please refer to forthcoming events on our web-site.

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The Bensham Grove Chronicles January 2015

The New Year is here, the volunteers are girding their loins, and the Chair is back in her chair! All is well in the world.

Yours truly is feeling much better. The sock-puller-upper, although a marvellous example of ingenuity for the afflicted, has been cast to the winds with gay abandon. The crutches, embarrassingly high toilet seat and chair-risers have all gone the same way.

If you are reading this and have been brave enough to trawl back to the very first musings you may realise that they are entitled The Bensham Grove Chronicles. Now they are a ‘Blog’. What!! How did that happen? How can a set of Chronicles, based on those of Elizabeth Spence Watson, our Victorian predecessor, have turned into the utilitarian title of ‘Blog’?

You may also have noticed that we are in the way of having a brand new website. Your writer has been sternly informed that twittering and tweeting, as well as face-booking, is absolutely the way to go. Well tough! I may concede that this is probably correct, but if you want to have permanent arthritis in your hands as middle-age approaches as well as forgetting how to write proper sentences then go ahead. Me, I’ll stick with the written word whilst continuing to observe the rich tapestry of life at Bensham Grove. Even if I have to call it a ‘Blog’.

I know I’m not being fair really because if you follow the Restoration click-ons on the new web-site I can guarantee that you will be astounded. Look at Ceramics, Needle-work, Stained-glass and Silver-smiths and wonderful colours, designs and inspirations will take your breath away.

It’s fascinating to see all the steps, processes and hours of hard work that have gone into the volunteer’s input into the house. The modern-day craft-work has clearly taken inspiration from the past. Nature abounds in their work as it did in that of William Morris and his friends.

Original window designs can be seen to have evolved into modern-day stained glass, copper door furniture, and needle-work. The ceramic tiles in the conservatory tell the story of Bensham Grove, from the original Quaker owners to modern day activities. Have a look!! You mustn’t miss it.

If you read some of the very first musings of this blog you will begin to notice the patch-work of groups that have evolved from the restoration and the writer’s conviction that one group spawns another group, and another . . .. Take for instance the Fund-raising Group. From that grew an Events Group and from that a Refreshments Group etc. etc.

I am therefore pleased to announce yet another spawning. The Bensham Grove Guides! The brainwave of the Chair who has been beavering away for years (and I do mean years) collecting and researching the history of this old house. This has resulted in tottering files and bulging boxes of research, ephemera and images, and only one person knowing which particular file to rummage in to find the answer to one particularly obscure question.

The problem had to be addressed and yet one more group has been born, the afore-mentioned Bensham Grove Guides, which now consists of eight people willing to give their time to enlightening the public about our wonderful, intricate history.

The truth of the matter though is that yours truly believes that if they had known the scope of the matter they may well have run for their lives. Two hour training sessions on Friday evenings and Sunday mornings resulted in dark mutterings such as ‘I didn’t know you were such a slave driver’, or ‘it’s very hard’ could be heard. Well of course it’s hard! It’s amazing that they have taken in as much as they have. Haunted faces approach asking ‘When did you say that extension was built? Was it 1850 or 1950?’ or ‘What on earth is the difference between Morris and Co. and Morris, Marshall and Faulkner’?

They are however very clever people who enjoy talking to visitors, passing on knowledge and working hard at their ‘difficult’ home-work.

January 5th, when we had an open day, was their debut and it is pleasing to report that half an hour after opening the whole house was buzzing and our Guides, thrown in at the deep end by their horrible leader, were soon chatting, explaining and doing that extraordinary waving of their arms outside in the garden that only a good Bensham Grove Guide learns to do. To the uninitiated who haven’t experienced a tour yet it is the explanation of the architectural additions to the house viewed from the outside.

Future Open Days where you can see our Guides in all their glory are being worked upon now. On May 10th we will be following the Arts Trail through the house at an Open day. On May 24th we will also host a talk by Chris Phipps, expert on J.B. Priesley, about his ‘English Journey’ in 1933. Why did the esteemed author hate Gateshead and was so rude about the unemployed men at Bensham Grove Settlement. Exhibitions and guided tours afterwards will point to the good things he missed such as the Mother and Infant Clinic, the very first Nursery in the North- East and a rather mad Art Group. This one will be by ticket only so keep watching for more details coming soon.

The Bensham Grove Chronicles Edition 4

What a mild winter we’ve had!  Our piece of the North East seems to have missed completely the terrible floods elsewhere.  Yes, we’ve had some rain but, for the first time in a long while, we haven’t had water coming through the roof at Bensham Grove.  An architect’s quick eye spotted the mystery historic problem during the restoration and, so far, the repairs seem to have done the trick.
Although the weather has been mild, it has produced a sort of gloomy, dank weariness at times.  This is also the feeling that our Chair is suffering from.  Expecting to be in and out of hospital for a hip operation before Christmas, it is now heading to mid-March before it can be done due to emergencies and cancellations.  The term ‘in limbo’ takes on very personal connotations, and whoever would have thought that a contraption called a sock-puller-onner could cause such elation.  She was unable to chair the recent Management Committee meeting, which is held bi-monthly, but stories of a rather rumbustious meeting are unfolding and the words ‘Health and Safety’ have taken an urgent place at the top of the agenda.  It would appear that we haven’t been taking things seriously enough and need to sort ourselves out in this matter.

Our small, cluttered and exciting little pottery is busy all day long: potters and tutors pounding away, mixing powders, creating dyes and generally producing wonderful stuff.  But the accumulated residue is clogging the drains and, due to lack of space, bags of this and piles of that are also blocking exits, light and escape routes, making it a H&S person’s dream (or is it nightmare?).  Added to this is the hard-learnt lesson that potters and silversmiths should never share the same space for their activities, even at different times.  Potters’ dust and silversmiths’ detritus do not make good bed fellows and never the twain should meet.  Lack of space is of course the problem (or, in politically correct terms, the challenge).  It is not possible to put two such messy and volatile disciplines in the main house or in the activity hall.  There is a scheme, spearheaded by John Sanders, our lovely architect, but it requires plans and of course money, which sends us back to the poor over-burdened Fundraising Group.  Watch this space!

Moving on to happier things, we have hosted the most wonderful International Women’s Day event, with large numbers of women cramming into our house, hall and garden.  Celebrating the role and the rights of women was the name of the game but it morphed into a right regular bun-feast.  As previously mentioned, we are renowned for our fabulous buffets to suit all tastes, and we also had workshops in such diverse crafts as beading, card-making and flower arranging vying with ones on how to make a glorious African headdress and on beauty pampering.  Two of our more mature committee members were spotted coming out of the library in a rather shaken condition after undergoing eyebrow threading treatments.  Elegant silver hair topped rather suspiciously-reddened brows but did they care?  Not at all!  They were off to have their nails done next.  A little suspicion lingers however that a strong cup of tea might have been needed to take away the heat of the brow when they returned home and took their first look in the mirror.  Another more seasoned fan of threading however, raved about the speediest, most pain-free session she had ever had, including those at Fenwick.