North Devon’s arts venues struggle to survive the covid pandemic

Updated: Jul 10, 2021

The museum has had to reduce all activity in and behind the scenes of the museum.

Torrington's Mayflower is now scheduled for cremation on the 28th August 2021. Credit: https://www.mayflower400uk.org/events/2021/august-2021/great-torrington-cavaliers-mayflower-400-bonfire-pyromusical/

The car makes a low groan on the incline into Torrington, North Devon. From the right-hand window, redbrick terraced houses overlook the town’s common, whilst in the left-hand window, the ghostly husk of a ship’s hull pierces through sprawling green hills.


The vessel in question is a timber replica of the famous Mayflower ship. This modern reimagining began its life in mid-2019, and was assembled to mark the town’s quinquennial bonfire in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the boat’s maiden voyage. Across the Atlantic, a petition was started in protest of the boat’s cremation, reaching over 182 signatures to date.


The Mayflower’s incineration was eventually postponed after the UK and the rest of the world slumped back into a second national lockdown in November 2020 as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.


The boat lies in waiting, anticipating oncoming attacks like a stern watchman. It stays perched on the brow of the former Cavalier town; a spectre of 2020s cancelled cultural futures.


Facing the town square, The Plough Arts Centre is the beating heart of the town’s cultural community. In usual times, the Plough would host a lively annual schedule of events, screenings and workshops; so when covid struck the South West, the Arts Council’s covid recovery grant narrowly staved off an untimely cardiac arrest.



The Plough Arts Centre in Torrington, North Devon. Credit: The Plough

The South West, which is constituted of 28 local authorities, enjoyed a grand total of £10,232,630 in the first round of covid recovery ‘capital kickstart’ grants. From this sum, North Devon benefactors included familiar local names such as North Devon Theatres (£553,086), The Palladium Club, Bideford (£50,000) The Plough (£80,424) and Barnstaple Museum (£58,330).


Speaking before The Plough’s projected reopening on the 5th November, their Director & Live Event Programmer, Richard Wolfenden-Brown, gestures towards the cinema with an embarrassed smile, “We’re in the midst of some serious sprucing up. The auditorium seats had gone mouldy after eight months of closure.”


Prior to being accepted for the recovery grant, the Plough cut 80% of their paid staff to avoid going bust. The centre’s volunteers are their “backbone”, Wolfenden-Brown says, referencing recent data which shows the town has more volunteers per capita than anywhere else in the country.


“In retrospect, it might have been possible to keep some of our staff on,” Wolfenden-Brown admits, “But at the time we didn’t think there was going to be any government support available after furlough finished in October.”


Although the centre was delighted to have been accepted for their £80,424 grant, Wolfenden-Brown expresses remorse for the “huge swathes of people in absolute dire straits without support” as a result of the selective funding.


Another vital driver of The Plough is their Outreach Director, Sophie Hatch, who is committed to fostering the creative development of young children as well as providing an impactful insight into a professional future in the arts.


Sophie oversees the centre’s weekly dance and youth theatre groups for children and adults with additional needs. She speaks warmly of her student’s ongoing projects, describing the impressive range of productions which centre on advancing the students’ creative ideas.


“The dynamics are always changing,” Sophie says, “But they’re really lovely, fantastic groups. There’s an older culture at the Plough, and it's really important for young people to help us see the way forward as part of The Plough’s driving force behind.”


The Plough's Youth Theatre groups have been meeting since the 1970s. Credit: The Plough Arts

Flexibility has been a crucial skill required by arts organisations throughout the pandemic, and the government’s changing guidance through the covid crisis resulted in a sharp drop in footfall for the fellow North Devon culture grant benefactors, Barnstaple Museum.


"The museum has had to reduce all activity in and behind the scenes," Barnstaple Museum's Learning and Access Officer, Adam Murray, tells me. As a result of many of their volunteers being unable to return to work, the museum put their grant money towards 3 new part-time members of staff.


The museum completed a £2 million extension and refit in 2020, however they’ve subsequently been negatively affected as a result of local government budget cuts.


Despite their depleted funds, he hopes to diversify their digital offerings with the aid of their new Digital Consultant, jointly building a “future-proof” online museum experience in case of future pandemics.


Although a lucky few of North Devon’s arts institutions were spared closure with government handouts, many organisations have been left feeling bitterly shortchanged.



The Burton Art Gallery, Bideford was notably absent from the successful grant applications. Credit: The Burton

Whilst the Arts Council have not published the names of unsuccessful applications, local arts institutions such as Broomhill Sculpture Park and Bideford’s Burton Art Gallery were notably absent.


A short drive away in South Devon’s Torquay, the Babbacombe Theatre was rejected for funding because they were deemed "not culturally significant enough"; a label which its owner Colin Matthews furiously criticised in a public Facebook post.


Six months on from my initial meeting with Richard, the Mayflower remains on Torrington Common. Strong, sturdy, but vulnerably flammable. At the time of publication, the now twice-delayed cremation is set for the 28th August 2021.


Whilst incredible work is being undertaken by organisations such as The Plough and Barnstaple Museum who qualified for the government supported Arts Council funding, it’s a sad fact that at least for now, the future of arts and culture in North Devon rests with those with their fingers on the pulse, eyes on the calendar, and the capacity to compile a funding application which ticks the appropriate boxes.


Broomhill Sculpture Park and Bideford’s Burton Art Gallery declined comment.

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