How it Started
By Christopher Wright
From £600 to £75,000 in seven months: how the people of Bath began the rescue of Smallcombe
Smallcombe was becoming more derelict daily, but its hidden, edge-of-city location meant it was out of sight, out of mind. We needed to get the public involved and making a difference if the gates of this magical place weren’t to close. It was essential that we get the Smallcombe story onto the high street, but we had a pittance for a budget, so we bet what
little we had on a novel approach. We put on a show.
IT WOULD BE HARD to come up with an idea for a show less likely to pull people from the pavements of Bath’s busiest and most famous shopping street, and over an August Bank Holiday weekend to boot. That idea? Exhibit a selection of 50 photographs, all taken by amateurs. And the subject of these photographs?
A cemetery. (photo 1)
Yet this 2014 exhibition went on to attract audiences of six-times the norm for shows at the venue. In a matter of days, some 1,400 came.
What was drawing them in? A unique grass-roots experiment both to flag up the perilous state of one of Bath’s most beautiful and poignant Victorian green spaces and also to trumpet the community’s determination to restore Smallcombe and make it safer. (photo 2)
The inspiration for this experiment had come from Smallcombe itself. Back in June 2014, I’d been asked by my neighbour Ian Linkins, formerly Finance Director of Future Publishing, who knew of my past in London as an advertising agency director specialising in copywriting and creative, if I’d walk up to the cemetery with him to meet a man called Steve Kerss, who was mulling over becoming involved in the graveyard’s restoration.
It was a first-time visit to Smallcombe for Ian and I, and we took the spectacular Skyline Walk. As we strolled on, wondering where on earth this cemetery could be, we spied an old stone bell gable, all but hidden by trees, in a stunning and distant sunlit valley, and I was reminded at once of all the Thomas Hardy films I’d seen. (photo 3) It was extraordinary, just a short walk from town, to see stretching far ahead of us a heart-stoppingly beautiful landscape, which can’t have changed since Hardy’s time, and then to look back and see the city so close that we could still hear it humming. Much of England must have looked this way once, I thought to myself: how lucky we are to have this on our doorsteps.
Five minutes later, as we opened the cemetery gates, the only sound was birdsong. I’ve been to hundreds of heritage sites, and Georgian always trumps Victorian for me; neither am I a big one for cemeteries, but there was something rare and very special about this place, not least its uncanny ability to whisk me instantly back in time. You could film scenes from Far From The Madding Crowd here and you wouldn’t have to change a thing. This is not because heritage experts have made Smallcombe that way. It’s because for the most part, it’s been left alone for 160 years, or so. I was hooked.
Introductions exchanged, Steve, a former MD of a pioneering IT company, showed us the dangerous state of many the stone walls and memorials. (photo 4 & 5) Trees had either toppled them or were on the verge of doing so. Another few years of neglect, and this place would probably be off-limits and virtually impenetrable.
“I hate to resort to a cliché,” I said after Steve’s tour, “but it’d be a waste of energy sending out written appeals for funding because this is a prime case of the right kind of pictures being worth a thousand words. We need to get people to come out here with their cameras to capture the magic of this place, and then take their photos back to the city centre to show everyone what we’ll all lose unless we get on and do something. My suggestion would be a photographic competition cum exhibition. (photo 6 & 7) A load of snaps won’t do it though. We need people to really put their minds to this - ourselves included - so that we get shots that really do this justice.” And before I could elaborate, both Steve and Ian said words to the effect of, ‘we’re in …. when do we start?’
Within a week, the three of us had fully developed this rough idea and worked up a comprehensive plan of action, with our experiment relying upon the simple premise that people in Bath tend to be unusually proud and caring of their city, and public-spirited with it.
So six weeks prior to the scheduled date for our show of amateur photos, and thanks to a full page of space kindly donated by Bath Life (photo 8), the Smallcombe team - which had now been bolstered by Jemma Bartholomew, a former commercial executive in the oil & gas industry - issued a public appeal. Unusually, however, we weren’t asking for pennies and pounds to help renovate the cemetery.
Instead, we wanted people to give of their time and talent both to raise awareness of Smallcombe’s importance and its predicament, and then to gauge how much people cared about its future.
If we could prove that Bathonians cared in large number, we felt confident of persuading the Heritage Lottery Fund, plus significant local donors, to take serious account of their views. And so ours was a shoot-it-or-lose-it, appeal-cum-competition, launched via the pages of Bath Life, to everyone in the city who could frame a scene. We asked them to head out to the cemetery – with cameras, smartphones and ipads – and use their artist’s eyes to capture the poignancy and the magic. We were hoping they’d come back with photos worth a thousand words, and we got them. Stacks of them. More than 500 photos in total, taken by residents aged from 9 to 81.
While people were out shooting their photos, the Smallcombe team was already well advanced on a campaign of explaining the project’s aims to Bath & North East Somerset Council and to Bathwick St Mary’s Church (who share a split responsibility for the cemetery’s acres) as well as to the National Trust, whose land and Skyline Walk border Smallcombe. Each of these organisations at once became enthusiastic supporters. Indeed, the National Trust backed our idea to build a stepped path and a stile to the edge of their ancient wood at Smallcombe, to replace the steep mudslide on which walkers currently risked their necks (photo 9 & 10), and promised in turn that they would continue the path into their wood, to create a circular walk.
The team was also out across the city persuading, begging and borrowing, in order to get the photographic exhibition off the ground.
To lend the exhibition credibility, we needed an expert both to recruit and to chair a panel of judges. We were also very much aware that producing and framing a large number of exhibition-standard photo-prints for the show was going to prove pretty costly. Smallcombe’s hidden, edge-of-city location meant it was out of sight, out of mind, so it was crucial, too, that we hire a city-centre venue to hang the photos, along with 15 text panels we would create, to tell of the cemetery’s importance and plight. We had to have a number of prizes as well; plus posters and street banners to pull in passers by. The cost estimate to put on the whole “show’ was circa £9,000, and we had all of £600.
And so we employed the approach of one person saying to another “X is going to help do this or fund that – can you help too?” and every time we asked for a helping hand, the responses exceeded all expectations. Dr Michael Pritchard, Chief Executive of The Royal Photographic Society, not only agreed to chair and assemble the judging panel, but also very generously took responsibility for photo-printing and framing, as well as donating a number of prizes. (photo 11)
With Michael Pritchard on board, we rang Milsom Place’s doorbell and made our pitch. They kindly gave us use of the stunning (and temporarily empty) Grade II* listed Octagon as our exhibition space, free of charge (photo 12), and also promised promotional support. Other prizes were generously donated by the then Mayor of Bath (Cllr Cherry Beath), as well as by Ace Optics, the National Trust and Bath Preservation Trust. Minuteman Press gave us a generous discount on the printing of our exhibition panels and banners; and when we called for stewards to take turns at manning the show, numerous local people stepped forward.
While Steve, Ian and I were generating media coverage for the upcoming show - including Smallcombe-team interviews on BBC Radio and in The Bath Chronicle (photo 13) – Jemma Bartholomew was establishing relations with the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and boning up on their criteria for funding.
She discovered that qualifying for funding isn’t just a matter of flagging up a heritage asset worthy of saving. The HLF also want to know that enough people care about and will visit the asset in question, and in doing so will have the opportunity to discover more about their heritage. Funding is growing harder to obtain too, owing to an ever-increasing number of competing bids, and it soon became clear to Jemma that impassioned pleas for money weren’t going to cut it unless supported by facts, figures and well-founded public-involvement projections, and here Ian Linkins came up with a solution.
It was Ian’s idea to use the exhibition for an additional function: to elicit the public feedback crucial for our bid. He did this by devising and producing a voting paper which would be given to every visitor to the show, inviting them to vote for their favourite photograph. Also on their voting paper for their ‘people’s choice’ was a request for answers to a few questions. The replies would give us objective information as to whether the Smallcombe project had enough public support and interest to qualify for HLF funds. Visitors would be asked if they lived in Bath or elsewhere; if they had ever heard of or visited Smallcombe, and if they hadn’t, did they now intend to do so, or not?
Most of the 1,400 exhibition visitors would go on to answer these questions, with many also making cash donations (totalling £1,000) and offering to lend a hand. Weeks later, Ian’s prescient idea was to prove its worth. After the show closed, analysis revealed that 52% of the Bath residents surveyed, even those of long standing, either had no idea of Smallcombe’s existence and/or had never visited, but now intended to do so.
Together with those respondents who already knew of and/or had visited the cemetery, we now had compelling evidence for the HLF that funding for Smallcombe would be money well spent, not just in terms of rescuing an important part of Bath’s often overlooked Victorian heritage, but, critically, that this was also a place significant numbers of people were keen either to discover or to revisit.
But we’re jumping ahead of events.
As the photographic exhibition’s opening-day drew closer, Jemma and Steve were keeping the HLF updated on our plans and also on the very positive community response, and the HLF were intrigued. Our Lottery bid wouldn’t be ready for months and we’d been told that it wasn’t normal policy for the HLF to head out and visit enthusiasts seeking funding until they’d received a written submission.
However, our unique example of the way a grass-roots, word-of-mouth movement with a tiny budget was making waves prompted the HLF to make an exception, and to come and have a look both at the photo exhibition and the cemetery. Indeed, six HLF personnel would visit the show in all, and in what is believed was a first for the city of Bath, our bid to the HLF for £48,600 succeeded at the first time of asking. (photo 14)
Steve Kerss, meanwhile, having promised the HLF he would gain substantial financial backing from within the city, was out and about using our photographic-exhibition success to gain promises of additional funding from BathNES Council, The Friends of the National Trust, The Norie Trust, The Raby Trust and The World Heritage Enhancement Fund, with the result that just seven months after the core Smallcombe team of Kerss, Batholomew, Linkins and Wright had got together, the pot pledged for Smallcombe’s rescue totalled some £75,000 in cash and in kind.
Those pledges were soon to be turned into £s. In late October 2014 our bid went to the HLF; by mid-December we knew it had succeeded; in January 2015 the first tranche of HLF funding was paid into our bank account, to be immediately followed by all of the funds so generously pledged by those who backed us from within the city, and in February 2015, the restoration of Smallcombe began.
Of course, this whole notion of one person saying to another “we must do something …” had to start with the first to speak up, and at this juncture, it’s entirely appropriate that we set down who that person was.
Suffice to say he was a very difficult man to say ‘no’ to. Sadly, he died in 2016. It’s fair to say, however, that had Alastair Cowan – who was elected Life President of Smallcombe Friends and had previously orchestrated the successful bid to rescue Henrietta Road cemetery – failed to persuade his neighbours to get stuck in at Smallcombe, who knows what state of dereliction this most atmospheric and affecting of Bath’s Victorian gems would be in today.