Located in the historic heart of Exeter, St Sidwell’s community centre is a lively independent charity, working to strengthen the local community and to bring people together for learning, volunteering and employment opportunities, giving a warm welcome regardless of background, ability or circumstance. The building was bought from the diocese in 1998 for £1 and conversion from its 1958 Church interior began. Despite what many still think, we are not a church at all, although a small portion of the building was asked to be set aside for the use of a small congregation to continue services, as a condition of the sale.
There has been a church building of some description here since at least Anglo- Saxon times and is indeed the birthplace of the legend of Saint Sidwella, Exeter’s little known Patron Saint. Her martyrdom is a tale worthy of a Hollywood thriller movie. A beautiful, virtuous young woman, a jealous, evil step mother, mercenary assassins, a brutal murder with a scythe and a miraculous twist in the tail pay-off.
The site of the centre, just set back from Sidwell Street does indeed have a rich and fascinating history all of its own. In last the couple of years, the centre has been very pro-active in helping to unearth, promote and celebrate the ‘hidden history’ of the area, due largely to a grant from the Heritage lottery fund.
In that time, a unique and comprehensive project, co-ordinated by myself and co-worker Marie Leverett, helped to really put St Sidwell’s back on the heritage and cultural map of Exeter. Two series of heritage talks including some of the local history fraternity’s ‘big names’ such as Todd Gray, Mark Stoyle and Richard Parker were hugely successful. Several heritage related projects were run in partnership with community, city council and other social groups and a permanent exhibition and interpretation panels revealing the rich history and heritage of the site and street were researched, designed and installed.
The legacy of this project has seen a renewed interest in the history of Sidwell Street with the ‘Red coats’ guides devising a specific heritage tour for the area, the establishment of a Sidwell Heritage & History society and the continuance of other Heritage related events and talks.
This is proving to be especially pertinent and relevant in the context of the potential changes that will be brought about by the proposed re-development of the bus station and how it will affect life and business on Sidwells street.
We are probably all too aware of the ‘image’ that Sidwell street has locally, and possibly the slightly apocryphal stories of ‘street drinkers bagging pigeons for food’, as what made the national papers last year but it is also probably Exeter’s most culturally diverse street, with its numerous food stores, cafes…and hairdressers of various ethnic origins.
Interestingly, this has always been the case with the Sidwell parish over history. From the times of the city wall, St Sidwells has always been the ‘outsider’ both physically and otherwise to the main city rulers and has always found itself to be a favoured landing spot for itinerant traders, migrants, vagabonds and other colourful characters. Sidwellians have always been a hardy breed and were mentioned in an 1865 edition of the Charles Dickens magazine ‘All Year round’
“There was a remote parish—that of St. Sidwell’s—the claims of whose “boys” to the right of citizenship were doubtful. They were contumaciously called Grecians; but the parish being large, and its warriors numerous, the citizen lads were accustomed to combine against “the outer barbarians,” and the battles raged furiously, and black eyes and bloody noses were left to exhibit the results of the fray”
This past year I have been funded as a community engagement and events coordinator, so have been tasked with setting the wheels in motion for the establishment of a Sidwell street traders association and broadening the cultural involvement and activities of the centre.
We have expanded the social enterprise aspect of the cafe’s work and were rewarded with the contract to run the catering arrangements for a new build office space at Skypark business park. Our cookery and bread making courses are always popular and we now supply our delicious, fresh baked sour dough bread to local diner’s too.
Culturally we have established firm links across the city arts sector including, the City Council and tourism Dept and Redcoats, RAMM, and the Exeter Street Arts festival. We successfully played host to bands, performers and appreciative audiences in our grounds for the festival in August. Ideas for a mini ‘Sidstock arts festival ‘ in the new year were even entertained.
At time of writing the ‘Ripple Project’ theatre company are staging a sell out play about homelessness in the centre and we are also delighted that we have recently secured planning permission from Exeter City Council to build a new workshop in our grounds.
The Sidwell Street Workshop will give us the space that we need to offer a whole range of arts and crafts activities at our community centre – traditional wood-working skills projects, pottery classes, willow-work, jewellery making, book-binding, mosaicking, and much more. We launch a crowdfunder project to start raising funds for the ‘Sidwell Street workshop’ and on December the 10th
So, St Sidwell’s centre. It’s NOT a church and is perhaps more than you think it is. Come and visit us sometime.
You can find out more about the heritage and history of the site and the whole of Sidwell Street by visiting or ‘heritage hub’ on the Sidwell’s website or pop into our cafe for a meal and coffee and view the free permanent exhibition there. http://stsidwells.org.uk/heritage/