Historic Norwich church reborn as thriving community hub

Sarah Herman learning the art of mKing a pinhole camera during classes at the Trade School using the Common Room, a community space at St Lawrence's Church in St Benedict's. Picture: Denise Bradley Sarah Herman learning the art of mKing a pinhole camera during classes at the Trade School using the Common Room, a community space at St Lawrence's Church in St Benedict's. Picture: Denise Bradley

Monday, March 31, 2014
8:28 AM

A historic city church is being given a new lease of life after being turned into a community hub.

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Elspeth Hart, 2nd right, teaching the art of making a pinhole camera at the Trade School, using the Common Room, a community space at St Lawrence's Church in St Benedict's. With her, from left, Simone Davis, Valerie Livina, and Sarah Herman. Picture: Denise BradleyElspeth Hart, 2nd right, teaching the art of making a pinhole camera at the Trade School, using the Common Room, a community space at St Lawrence's Church in St Benedict's. With her, from left, Simone Davis, Valerie Livina, and Sarah Herman. Picture: Denise Bradley

Fifteenth-century St Lawrence Church on St Benedict’s Street is the venue for the Common Room, a scheme being piloted by the Churches Conservation Trust, in which the space is handed to community to start up their own.

It hosted a Living Room day on Saturday, when it opened its doors for people to find out more about the initiative and the projects being developed within it.

They include a social cinema, book exchange, cookery club and stained glass and woodcarving workshops.

Rachel Barrett, regeneration officer for the Churches Conservation Trust, which owns the building, said: “The idea of the Common Room is that it’s a new kind of shared space, made and shaped by the community. It’s based on the principles of collaboration, connection and resourcefulness.”

The Trade School in the Common Room, a community space at St Lawrence's Church in St Benedict's. Picture: Denise BradleyThe Trade School in the Common Room, a community space at St Lawrence's Church in St Benedict's. Picture: Denise Bradley

“The idea is that this is a space for people to have those seed ideas or sparks, to experiment, talk with like-minded people and launch these ideas into actual projects.”

The Common Room began in 2012 and will be running in a development phase until September, when the longer-term future of the scheme will be decided. It currently has around 160 members.

One of the most successful start-up projects at the Common Room is Trade School Norwich, where volunteer teachers lead classes to share their knowledge or passions, and students pay in a barter system.

It runs entirely without cash transactions – Saturday’s line-up of classes included a workshop on making a pinhole camera, with students asked to pay for it with their choice of a jar of local honey, organic bread flour or an offer of somewhere to practise piano.

Volunteer coordinator Colin Hynson said the ethos of Trade School Norwich chimed with a wider ‘sharing economy’ movement.

“Not only does taking the financial element away make the relationship between student and teacher closer, it also means that people from all backgrounds are able to participate,” he said.

“The items requested by the teachers are often things we may have lying around at home, like coat hangers or jam jars, so it’s also a way to recycle and reduce waste.”

Workshops at Trade School Norwich on Saturday included making a pinhole camera, beginners’ Greek and drums and percussion lessons.

Since it started in December last year, the trade school has delivered around 30 classes and taught more than 100 students.

Freelance writer Sarah Herman, 29, moved to Norwich two months ago and said she had come along to the pinhole camera workshop to meet new people and because the Common Room “seemed like a cool concept”.

“In a city the size of Norwich there are so many opportunities to build that sense of community,” she said.

“Places like this offer people from all kinds of social backgrounds the opportunity for education and to learn about things you wouldn’t otherwise. Using these spaces in a new way is great too.”

Trade school member Jack Godfrey, who teaches drawing classes, said the Living Room days were a chance for people to discover the possibilities on their doorstep.

“The trade school developed out of the members of the Common Room, but in the last few months there has been so much more going on.

“It’s just been snowballing and getting more popular. We’re hoping to continue that now, and will be putting on more classes in the evenings and at weekends.”

Membership of the Common Room is free, and another Living Room day will be held at St Lawrence Church on Saturday between 10am and 4pm. To find out more, visit www.thecommonroom.so

For more on Trade School Norwich, see www.tradeschool.coop/norwich

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