A Creative Atmosphere

PUBLISHED: 14:49 18 August 2010 | UPDATED: 14:56 20 February 2013

A Creative Atmosphere 1

A Creative Atmosphere 1

In our December/January issue, we visit Wooda Farm near Crackington Haven - an organic farm and creative space for all types of artists, with award-wining architecture. In a steep valley, two miles from the dramatic North Cornish coast, Wooda Farm...

In a steep valley, two miles from the dramatic North Cornish coast, Wooda Farm is protected from the prevailing Atlantic winds and a world away from the frantic pace of modern living. Among the farm's 20 acres of woodland, pasture, orchards and ancient hedgerows, Max Burrows and Gary Whitbread have cultivated a setting for creativity, sustainable living and relaxation.

Located on the edge of Crackington Haven, Wooda Farm is found at the end of a winding lane, with a rugged cliff face on its north side and sweeping views over the picturesque countryside to the south. The fields at the top of this valley have spectacular views over the Atlantic Ocean - on a clear day, it is possible to make out the island of Lundy, while the hills of Dartmoor are visible in the distance to the east. The sense of peace is immediate, the relaxing rustle of leaves punctuated by the cluck of the hens which roam around the farm.

The historic farmhouse appears to burrow into the cliff-face. Records show that there has been a small farmstead located in this sheltered spot since as far back as 1316, although the present building dates back to the 16th century. The cottage annexe, which opens onto a charming courtyard, and provides rural holiday accommodation, was built in the early 19th century.

The previous owners made a series of major renovations, which saved the aged property from dereliction. "The work was done very simply and respectfully," says Max, so when he bought the property in 1999, there was no need for any extensive restoration work. One of his main projects was the removal of one of the thick stone walls, turning two small rooms into one large kitchen which, with its huge open fireplace and slate flagstone flooring, now has the cosy atmosphere of a traditional farmhouse kitchen. He also changed the cottage annexe into a self-contained unit and enlarged the bathroom.

The farmhouse is a simple, stylish mixture of the old and the new: clean white walls, stripped wooden flooring, window seats and exposed, aged beams are married with flourishes of contemporary styling and vibrant, original paintings. Max and Gary welcome groups of guests into their home; accommodation is offered on a full-board basis to those using its creative space, with Gary cooking up organic culinary delights for guests in front of the open fire in the farmhouse kitchen.

Having previously lived in central London, moving to this rural setting was a radical change in lifestyle for Max and Gary. As Max acknowledges, when he was searching for a home in Cornwall, becoming a farmer wasn't necessarily part of his plan: "I didn't think I would become a farmer. However, when I found Wooda I knew I wanted the farm to be organic and I felt it was up to me to take responsibility. I felt it was important to keep the working farm element alive and not divorce it from the environment. Not only was it important for me personally, I wanted the people coming to stay to feel that the sense of place was grounded in a working reality." The 20-acre farm is now a highly fruitful operation, producing lamb, wool, eggs, vegetables, apples, apple juice, chutneys and preserves.

But there is more to Wooda Farm than high-quality organic produce. It was always Max's vision to offer a creative space where artists in any medium could come to escape their routine, find a focus and hatch new projects. Back in 2001, he set about turning a barn and a dilapidated stable into inspirational and versatile artistic space. He teamed up with architect David Sheppard and the design process was very much a collaborative one; although Max didn't necessarily foresee cutting-edge architectural design as part of his vision, the creative process stimulated some radical ideas.

The long process of securing funding, planning and building meant the project was not completed until 2006, and Max cites the two people working on the project - chief builder Martin Bakewell and Delabole joiner Nigel Hicks - as crucial to the results. The Wooda project has met with considerable acclaim from architectural circles, scooping the Royal Institute of British Architects Award (RIBA) for the South-west region and, most recently, The Stephen Lawrence Award, a national honour recognising excellence in architecture for projects with a construction budget of under 1million.

Despite its ingenious award-winning design, the barn retains its original shape, walls and Delabole rag slate roofing, enhancing the character of its former function and blending in beautifully with the surrounding environment. A huge glazed pivoting door beckons you into the space, linking the interior with the exterior when the weather proves favourable, and framing valley views to the south and east, while on the north side a large window overlooks the cliff edge with its covering of moss and ferns.

The floor is oak, the walls a combination of original stone and white plaster, and the high ceilings, framed by exposed beams, contribute to the barn's magnificent acoustics. Musicians and performers can rest assured that sound levels are not an issue here, as the location of the barn means sound bounces off the valley. The secluded setting and inspired design lend themselves to its creative atmosphere.

The barn is hugely versatile: musicians, dancers, yoga classes, theatre groups, film-makers, painters and business people may all benefit from this space. This versatility is largely due to possibly its most inventive feature: a series of steel-framed platforms covered in birch ply counterbalanced by a series of cylindrical weights. When raised, these platforms open up the whole of the ground floor, creating one large space ideal for workshops, yoga classes and rehearsals. When the platforms are lowered, a series of staggered seating is created. "The curved nature of the platforms instantly makes the room a theatre," Max says.

As well as theatre space, this auditorium makes the barn a perfect venue for film screenings, presentations, talks and even company conferences, being fully equipped for audio-visual work. The leaf-shaped platform that slots into the floor is just another example of its imaginative design. "It is an inspiring place for people to be creative whether they are making an album or working on a painting," says Max. A compact kitchen, a utility room and glazed wet room and WC built into the cliff face make the barn a fully contained unit for a day's creativity.

Suspended on timber stilts and glazed on three sides to allow the natural light to flood in, the stable is a studio space. The turf roof is blended into the hillside, another example of the development's sensitivity to the surrounding environment. As Max comments, "The buildings blend into the environment and, in turn, the abundance of glazing allows the environment into the building."

The stable offers studio space to artists, sculptors and writers, and also serves as an extra space for larger groups using the barn. The sunny room can be turned into a beautiful bedroom, with the adjoining decked area offering outside space. Each spring the stable becomes home to the winner of the Wooda Arts Award: an artist in any medium who is selected to spend six weeks there.

Ensuring that all features of the development were eco-friendly was an uppermost priority for Max and Gary. Both the barn and the stable are well insulated and double glazed; much of the original stone was retained and new materials were sourced as locally as possible. The collaborators were based in Cornwall, thereby minimising the project's carbon footprint: chief builder Martin Bakewell and joiner Nigel Hicks live locally, Wadebridge-based MGC Engineering and Irons Brothers supplied the steel frames and lead counterbalances, while all the glass was sourced from Camel Glass and Cornwall Glass and Glazing. The only non-Cornish input came from architect David Sheppard who is based just over the border in Ivybridge. The electricity is generated by the farm's wind turbine, ideally situated to benefit from the Atlantic winds, and water comes from the farm's well.

I left feeling genuinely excited about the possibilities of these innovative buildings - the ideal space for ideas to germinate and artistic projects to reach fruition.

Wooda Farm, near Crackington Haven, 01840 230140, www.woodafarm.co.uk

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