Banwell Pottery, a thriving social enterprise that supports people with learning disabilities and autism to design, create and sell high-quality products
Based just outside the popular seaside holiday town of Weston-super-Mare, within the community leisure centre ‘@Worle’, there is a hidden ceramics studio with a difference.
Banwell Pottery is part of Brandon Trust, a UK charity which works with people with learning disabilities and autism to live the lives they choose. Brandon Trust provides individualised support and services to approximately 1,600 adults, young people, and children across southern England, from Cornwall to London.
The pottery is a social enterprise that supports people to design, make, and sell ceramic items with all profit going back into the charity. It provides supported employment, work experience, training, and leisure opportunities for up to 30 people. Attendance ranges from half a day to three days a week, and some of the potters have been coming for 15 years or more!
The social enterprise has grown from strength to strength, successfully producing high-quality handmade items that are sold on-site, at selected events, and through local stockists.
The primary ethos of the pottery is to provide an excellent and enjoyable service for users, but also to ensure that every item created, is designed and made by people they support, and can compete with quality market stock regardless of the fact it’s been made within a charity setting.
The service users also gain valuable skills and often embark on new projects, learning entirely new skills. For many of the potters, it’s also an important opportunity to meet friends and socialise.
In 2017, the pottery started to offer supported employment opportunities, and in April 2017, three people with learning disabilities or autism, who had been regularly attending the pottery, started paid work as pottery assistants. They now create the main bulk of stock to sell, complete orders for customers, and attend sales events. The pottery staff support the new employees to learn a broad range of work skills.
The small, dedicated team of four staff all hold degrees in ceramic and art subjects. They work part-time, often so they can produce their own work too. Project coordinator, Dianne Slingsby, set up the original project and has worked in the field for over 20 years. Martin Webb, the project leader, joined the team more than 10 years ago, to help develop the project. In the past few years, new staff have been employed, bringing in a range of different skills and projects, to increase the range of stock and keep up to date with trends.
Banwell Pottery is located at the back of the @Worle Leisure Centre, which also houses a café, gym, and other Brandon Trust services, such as gardening, crafts, and independent living skills sessions. It’s a friendly, social, community environment. A lot of the people who come to the pottery also attend other sessions at the centre throughout the week.
It’s a large room with lovely, big windows looking out onto the garden and tennis courts. There’s a small office which helps keep the clay off the computer and paperwork! In the far corner is a large electric kiln. There’s a central work table, and some separate tabled areas which allow other tasks such as printing, drawing, glazing, and even a bit of woodwork, to be carried out alongside clay work.
The pottery is equipped with an electric wheel, slab roller, pug mill, two tile presses, woodwork area, screen-printing facilities, and sink area, with plenty of shelving and drying racks for all the items being produced. There is also a small shop area displaying a good range of stock for sale. The pottery is open to the public, and they love having visitors pop in to see them and buy their unique products.
The pottery used to be based in Banwell, a village five miles from Weston-super-Mare – hence the name – however, five years ago it moved to a purpose-built studio, which is better located and more accessible to the service users.
Banwell Pottery is open Monday to Friday during normal working hours, and hosts a Wednesday evening class for the general public.
Activities can range from day to day. Tuesdays are solely for the three supported employees who produce stock for external orders, and to restock the onsite shop. The other days are either work experience sessions or leisure groups, or sometimes a mix of both.
Taking a person-centred approach is vital to the social enterprise. Individuals are encouraged to choose what they would like to do each session. Some choose to create items to sell, some choose to draw designs for future projects, and others choose to create their own clay sculptures. It varies depending on how people are feeling, their interests, and skill level. Staff are on hand to help and oversee the running of the pottery, making sure that everyone is happy and has something to keep them busy.
Production involves making a wide range of pressed tiles, coasters, and ceramic hangers in a buff or terracotta earthenware clay. The prepared clay is first rolled to the correct thickness on the slab roller and then either pressed into a plaster mould using a tile press or cut into shapes using a variety of cutters.
All the plaster press moulds are made onsite and are cast from original designs produced by the potters. The original tile press was handmade from bits of old plumbing, wood, and a scaffold pole! The newer, more improved model was kindly made and donated by a retired local engineer. This press is much easier to use and more accessible for the potters.
Work is left to dry on the racks and when leather-hard, is fettled and sponged. After bisque firing, work is hand-painted using Bath Potters’ brightly-coloured earthenware glazes and fired for a second time.
The run-up to Christmas is often the busiest time of year. The pottery attends a number of local events to sell their stock, and they produce a wide range of successful Christmas items.
What we make
The most recognisable items produced by the pottery are brightly-coloured tiles of local landmarks such as Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge and Weston-super-Mare’s pier, which are mounted in handmade wooden frames.
They also make a wide range of hanging ceramic decorations, with a particularly popular Christmas range. Other ceramic items include bunting, round picture tiles, coasters, and bowls.
They have recently introduced a range of screen-printed items, such as cards featuring designs by the people they support and tote bags, as well as ceramic transfers onto trinket pots.
The work features vibrant, cheerful colours with a strong aesthetic value. Products are stocked locally in the Weston-super-Mare Museum, as well as in Brandon Trust’s Bristol charity shops.
Our future vision
Despite current cuts in care provision, the pottery continues to develop and remains a popular choice of day care for the service users who attend. It enables people to access a community environment, socialise and make new friends, gain skills and experiences, as well as having a creative outlet in a supportive environment.
The pottery is keen to continue promoting and developing their potters and their work, so that it can be enjoyed by a wider market.
You can also visit the studio and shop: Banwell Pottery, @Worle, 58 New Bristol Road, Worle BS22 6AQ.