Stapleford Granary cafe opens at music, arts and business center on farm site
Stapleford Granary, which opened its new on-site cafe this month, is a stunning combination of heritage architecture, music venue, business center and arts hub that has evolved from a working farm for a long time.
The old site of Bury Farm in the South Cambridgeshire village was largely destroyed by fire in 1870.
Rebuilt to a very high standard, the new complex included a two-storey granary which emerged just as crops were harvested by power or steam driven machinery, rather than by hand.
Corn dressing was done using machines inside the granary, where it was also dried and stored. This method lasted until 1950 but, with the introduction of modern industrial farm buildings, the granary went out of use in the 1980s. It was to lie unused for almost 30 years.
In 2010 the agricultural complex known as Stapleford Granary was sold to Paul Brooke Barnes, the son of pioneering journalist Philip Brooke Barnes who founded the Association for Cultural Exchange (ACE), an educational charity promoting cultural understanding and International, in 1958. Paul acquired the site on behalf of ACE and proceeded to transform the beautiful old buildings into an inspiring space for education, culture, music and the arts.
The project was orchestrated by Paul, art director Trevor Barlow and Cambridge-based architects Toni Moses Design and MCW.
Trevor’s role today is that of director of events and classes, and co-artistic director of jazz and folk programming.
The new Stapleford Granary building won acclaim in 2019 when it received the RIBA Regional East Award for its authentic renovation into “an innovative learning space while retaining many of its original features”.
Paul continued as Founding Director until July 2020 when he invited Kate Romano to take on the newly created role of Managing Director of Stapleford Granary. He continues as General Secretary of ACE: the role includes overseeing the development of Granary and ACE Cultural Tours, a subsidiary which is “the UK’s oldest cultural travel provider”.
“It was Paul’s vision, passion and love for high-level design that won the RIBA award,” says Kate as she shows me around the site. “Everything is beautifully done, and the success of ACE Cultural Tours has helped fund this vision, enabling us to pursue our charitable goals.”
Kate, who is both CEO of Stapleford Granary and Co-Artistic Director with Ian Buckle, has a multidisciplinary background that includes 25 years as a professional chamber musician (clarinet), opera and musical theater production, as well as broadcasting and writing on the BBC. She is the founder of Goldfield Productions and was a senior scholar at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for 15 years.
“I ran my own production company as a charity for 10 years,” she says.
She clearly enjoys her role – “my main job is to advance the artistic and charitable vision and to transform this site into a dynamic and lively arts center for all. But we all wear several hats…’ A typical day also means playing in concerts, unclogging pipes, talking to the press, taking out seats…”.
Although Kate started her role during lockdown, when the absence of visitors and concerts must have been disconcerting, what happened, strategically, is something of a master class in how to nurture an organization in difficult times, ready to appear. with an updated business model as the dust clears.
“It was a nice self-funding model until Covid hit the arts and travel particularly hard,” she says. “I have arrived at an extraordinary moment. Previously, the travel agency organized 250 tours a year and it fell to zero. It was immensely hard: sometimes it was grim. The staff has been maintained, mainly to deal with cancellations.
“Now the travel company is rebuilding its tours, the Granary has a new business development manager (Tamlyn Barber) and the buildings are coming back to life.
“Artistic activity has been very difficult during the pandemic. We were streaming and events when we could. We had 800 people here for our village day last year which was about the only summer event to take place in July 2021. Like all arts centers we found that running things safely during the pandemic was difficult and time consuming.
Now things are blooming again and the annual village day – “a day for the community made by the community” – is an opportunity to show the progress that has been made. There is a village day in the summer and another in December, but this year it is different, as there is a huge awning in the courtyard which is there to ensure that concerts and summer activities in the open air can take place whatever the weather.
“It’s a 300m² tent for outdoor events,” says Kate. “It offers a surprisingly well-contained sound; virtually no sound comes out of the yard so neighbors don’t hear a thing.
“That’s what an arts center should be. Having the tent seems a game-changer even though it’s a beast to climb – it has five king poles. we had the support of the Shelford Rugby Club to help set them up! It is a synthetic fiber that imitates an old goatskin hair tent.
“It’s based on the design of a Bedouin tent. It is completely waterproof but keeps you cool enough in the summer.
“It’s a turret shape that can seat 180-200 people, sold by the Stretch Tent Company in Milton Keynes, but the tent was made in South Africa. The money came from a donation. It packs down to the size of a large pallet. It weighs a ton but is surprisingly easy to store.
In addition to outdoor summer concerts, Stapleford Granary offers a year-round program of classical, folk and jazz concerts which take place in the indoor concert hall which boasts excellent musical acoustics enhanced by Douglas fir flooring and local gault brick walls. There are up to 100 seats.
“We have a wonderful loyal following,” says Kate, “but we are doing a lot to reach a much wider audience through our programming and new initiatives such as our Village Days, Christmas Market, concerts and barbecues in outdoors and the new cafe. We also offer artist residencies in August when the site is a little quieter.
Stapleford Granary also includes recording and filming facilities, a seminar room, art studios, gallery catwalk and workshops as well as offices for ACE cultural tours.
Most of the site’s 20 employees work for the travel agency, with a small team – three full-time equivalents, freelancers and volunteers – on the general public programme.
The outbuildings are used as professional premises, the Orchard room is a very elegant meeting room available for hire by the day or half-day. The Granary Foyer, the Ensemble room and the Stable room are also for rent. Longer term commercial rentals are available, either as offices or for other purposes.
This year, Village Day took place at 32C on Sunday, but it was wonderfully cool under the big tent. There was something for everyone, including food and drink, music, arts and crafts stalls, and crafts to take away from the stable, including basket weaving workshops , stained glass and handmade books. The day featured a take-out choir and junior baking, before a samba drumming session ahead of a performance by global folk collective Mishra.
“Village Day is so close to my heart,” Kate said. “Entrance is free and that’s one of the ways we can tell locals…look, this lovely site is yours, it’s your arts center and we want to share with you the wonderful things that we do here.”