Crediton town centre has come alive this month with a collection of handmade brightly coloured flags, each one individually designed to represent a local shop or community group. Now in its 9th year, the Crediton Flag Project doesn’t just put smiles on faces, but has a more serious purpose of increasing footfall on the High Street. Here project coordinator Rosemary Stephenson looks back to when it all started in 2013.
The idea of decorating the High Street developed during the early planning meetings for the 2013 Crediton Festival. We wanted to brighten up the town with some striking artwork which would celebrate the diversity of the town’s commercial and cultural life. We first considered installing printed banners across the High Street but after talking to the artists who led the Mortonhampstead Flag Festival, we realised we could engage more people and have more impact by installing handmade flags in the Christmas tree holders above the shops. Rather than printing banners in a factory we would encourage local shop owners and community groups to design and sew their own flags.
Mortonhampstead Flag Festival had already been running for 2 years, so we had a fantastic model to follow and two wonderful mentors – artists Andrea Foxwell and Veronica Gould – with a wealth of experience to share.
Thus the Crediton Flag Project was born. With generous grants from Mid Devon District Council and Crediton Town Council, we employed two artists – Charlotte Turner and Bridget Arnold - rented an empty shop on the High Street (the former Treloars Delicatessen, now Mucky Mutts) to be our workshop space, borrowed tables, chairs and sewing machines, bought scissors, needles and thread and ordered offcuts of brightly coloured ripstop nylon from Cameron Hot Air Balloons in Bristol. With our workshop fully equipped, we invited local traders and groups to book a slot to make their flag.
Although people were hesitant at first, interest in the workshops quickly grew, helped by the fact we were so visible on the High Street. People stopped to watch through the window, came in to explore further and before long were getting stuck in with the making process. Some people simply wanted to suggest a design and leave the artists or one of our volunteer helpers to make the flag. But others were keen to have a go at cutting and sewing the flag themselves, some using a sewing machine for the first time. After 20 full day workshops, 40 stunning flags had been created, each one with a striking unique design.
It was not just the flags which were created by the community, but the 2 metre wooden flag poles were also hand made by local people in a series of free weekend workshops run by the Tanglewood Project, an organisation teaching rural skills to young people. They started by coppicing trees in their wood in Bickleigh and the branches were then crafted into flag poles using traditional tools and techniques.
The Tanglewood team also took on the daunting task of installing the flags along the High Street to herald the start of the Crediton Festival in June 2013. The flags delighted locals and visitors throughout the 6 week Festival and quickly attracted interest from further afield, sparking similar projects in Exeter, Taunton and Bovey Tracey.
The flags didn’t just cheer up the town centre, but they had brought people together to learn new skills and, crucially, encouraged shoppers to linger longer on the high street.
There were requests for the flags to return the following year, and what started as a one-off community arts project, has since become an annual event. With a smaller budget, workshops have moved from the High Street to the Crediton Arts Centre, who generously offer us a space each year for free. But the project has continued to be led by artist Charlotte Turner, who helps people turn their ideas into designs and either guides them through the making process or makes the flags herself. She is helped every year by a team of amazing volunteer seamstresses, without whom the project couldn’t happen.
Although made of tough nylon, the flags do get damaged by the weather so each year some have to be repaired or replaced. This year Charlotte repaired 32 flags, and made 9 new ones, 7 of them replacing flags that were beyond repair. A total of 62 flags were installed on 25 July, by a group of volunteers and they will adorn the High Street and Town Square until early September.
The Crediton Flag Project is coordinated by Crediton Town Team and funded by Crediton Town Council.
Charlotte Turner is a contemporary artist who lives near Crediton. You can see more of her work on her website.