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The Plant: Creating Theatre for Society

Apologies for the time that has passed since my last post. As things have opened up, life seems to have got busier for everyone.

The Plant: Creating Theatre for Society: Robbie Humphries
Robbie Humphries

The last series of posts that I wrote featured the SILTings festival and the many ingenious ways that LV21 found to continue bringing high quality cultural experiences to Gravesham, despite restrictions on indoor events and social gatherings outside.

Well we’ve come a long way, and on 28th October LV21 are hosting their first onboard ticketed performance since lockdown in March 2020, and it promises to be a most interesting and entertaining evening.

The Plant is a ‘devised play’ with live traditional music, written by Greg Lawrence and Jeremy Scott, directed by Dave Turner, and performed by other members of The Plant Assembly Theatre Cooperative .

The Nissan car plant in Sunderland

It explores the impact of the Brexit referendum and the divisions it intensifies in an imagined community.

Based around a car factory, known as The Plant, the story has at its centre a young couple, Maddie and Niall, and their attempt to build a life together in the shadow of change.

Three performances, the first on LV21, pay tribute to Robbie Humphries, the play’s original director, who died of cancer in February 2019, before he could see his vision realised.

 

How it all started
In 2016, after the UK had voted for Brexit, Greg Lawrence, a writer living in Whitstable, wrote a short story Heads or Tails in the Darkness about a young couple. One had voted leave the EU while the other voted remain. The story explored  the impact of their differences on their relationship.

Sunderland votes to leave the EU

From that story grew the idea for a play, inspired by the experiences of the workers at the Nissan car plant in Sunderland, before and after the EU referendum.

On Brexit night, Sunderland was the first district to declare for ‘leave’. This was a surprise to many people, as Nissan was the main employer in Sunderland  and employees had  been warned time and again, that a vote to leave could jeopardise their jobs. Nissan said that World Trade Organisation tariffs would render its business in the UK unsustainable.

Greg  Lawrence was intrigued.  ‘I thought, wow, I wonder what’s going on there?’

Fascinated, Greg followed the developing situation in Sunderland, thinking that it might be a possible source for a story, and he wasn’t disappointed.

In the weeks following the ‘leave’ vote, behind closed doors, Nissan and the Government held talks about the future of the car plant.

The Plant: Creating Theatre for Society: Developing the script through improvisation
Developing the script through improvisation

‘I got an image in my head of these people waiting outside the negotiations for a decision that was completely out of their hands,’ Greg explains. ‘And the fragility of the situation, where someone else is making a decision and your entire future is hanging on it, reminded me of so many things that have happened in our past – the primary industries going and all those communities being broken and dying out.’

Greg approached Jeremy Scott, a musician, writer and an academic at the University of Kent, and two theatrical professionals, Robbie Humphries and Dave Turner, to discuss turning his ideas into a play.

‘Rather than just writing the script myself, I wanted to develop it through improvisation, using lots of theatrical devices and tools to see how it would grow,’ Greg explains. ‘And based on a couple of very powerful theatrical productions I’d seen, I wanted to explore how we could use music  to help set the scene – the time and place.’

The Plant: Creating Theatre for Society: Jeremy Scott and Greg Lawrence
Greg and Jeremy wrote the script in  pubs and drinking holes in Whitstable

All three collaborators loved the idea. They contacted a group of local actors who already met regularly to improvise, and secured some rehearsal space through Jeremy’s connections at the University of Kent. Then, once a month The Plant Assembly Theatre Cooperative got together to work on the project.

Later, after they had secured funding from Arts Council England to perform the play across Kent, the Cooperative held auditions, drawing their cast from Kent and South London.

The process
Robbie Humphries was to direct the play. It was his job to explore, through improvisation, the impact of Brexit and the issues it stirred up for the factory, the community and individual characters.

‘We had a few characters in mind,’ says Jeremy Scott. ‘There was a young couple, Maddie and Niall, from very different backgrounds and with opposing views on Brexit, who have come together in this context and tried to forge a relationships. Then there was Niall’s dad, the union representative; Niall’s best friend; the factory manager, the local MP and the workers themselves.’

Niall

The improvisation sessions were filmed,  and afterwards Greg and Jeremy worked together to select the most interesting parts of the improvised dialogue, and turn them into a written script.

These extracts, Are You Calling My Workforce Diesel, illustrate how much the final production drew upon the improvisations of the actors. In these clips they are: Jane Bowhay, Adam de Ville and Grant Simpson.
Improvisation

Performance

Production was fluid and dynamic process. As well as receiving footage of the improvisations,  the writers were able to feed ideas for the narrative back into the improvisation process, via director, Robbie.

The Plant: Creating Theatre for Society: Maddie and Niall
Maddie and Niall

‘We realised that we needed a scene where the two main characters meet for the first time,’ Greg remembers. ‘So Robbie worked with the actors, using a drama technique to get that for us. He did the scene three times – one where the characters weren’t allowed to say anything, one where the couple could use just one word, and a third where they could talk normally. For the script Jeremy and I preferred the second option, as we liked the use of body language and movement in the play. It was lovely, so natural and romantic.’

There was also a research angle to the project. A cast member, Jonathan Fitchett, was studying for a PhD looking at improvised dialogue and how it can become dramatic, and interesting to people in a theatrical setting. The videoed improvisations fed into that research and the outcomes of the research helped inform the acting and writing process.

From script to performance
After about a year, the script was ready and the Cooperative took stock.

The Plant: Creating Theatre for Society: First performance script-in-hand
First performance: script-in-hand

‘The first reading of the play that we did was about three hours long and it was awful!’ Greg laughs. ‘So Robbie suggested that we perform extracts from the whole, just enough to give a sense and the essence of what the play is about. So we did that and we thought that it worked really well as a piece in itself.  Sadly, Robbie passed away by the time of the performance in April 2019. And although we developed it a little more since, that version is pretty much what we have now.’

The final play, which lasts about 90 minutes,  now contains some written elements, others taken directly from the improvisation sessions, and some that are a little bit of both. The writers have also quoted verbatim, some remarks from the people of Sunderland, about the referendum, the vote and the negotiations.

In April 2021, the Cooperative performed The Plant, script-in hand, to some acclaim, as part of the Union season at the Gulbenkian  Arts Centre at the University of Kent.
Performance

The music
An essential element of The Plant is the traditional music, so much so that the writers refer to the music as ‘the  seventh cast member’. Four musicians perform on the stage throughout the piece.

‘I’d always wanted to write a musical but I have no musical talent,’ Greg laments. ‘Jeremy on the other hand plays and sings in folk bands and is fluent in folk music – its chords, its lyrics and its significance.’

The Plant: Creating Theatre for Society: Musicians Martin Kember and Jeremy Scott
Musicians: Martin Kember and Jeremy Scott

But the play is not a musical, both writers insist. It is a play with music.

‘The cast perform the music themselves, but it is definitely not a singing and dancing number,’ Jeremy says. ‘In The Plant the songs and tunes don’t come from the characters, except on one or two occasions. Rather they come from the air. They bring out some of the central themes and are the voice the community, retelling their lives, stories and experiences, which are just as relevant now as at the time the music evolved. Just as you might use a soliloquy in a play to expand on a particular theme, the songs and tunes in the play are the soliloquies of the people.’

You can read more about how music is used in the play and listen to some of the songs used, here.

A long time coming
The Plant has been a long time in the making. It started with Brexit in 2016 and although performances were booked for 2020, these were cancelled because of Covid. The Cooperative kept the spirit of the production going online during lockdown but inevitably with such a long break, some participants moved on.

But the delay also had some very positive consequences.

The Plant: Creating Theatre for Society: Director, Dave Turner
Director: Dave Turner

‘When Robbie passed away in 2019, we lost our director but we were lucky that the actors rallied and stepped up to help put on a great performance,’ Greg says. ‘We really wanted Dave Turner to take over as director but Robbie and Dave were best friends and, at the time, Dave felt that, emotionally, he just couldn’t do it. Later, he did feel able to take on the role and has directed the current production, which I’d always hoped he would do.’

Robbie’s wife, Becks Hill, has also returned to the production, as Maddie.

‘So every step along the way has been a sort of tribute to Robbie,’ Greg smiles. ‘We’ve mentioned him in programmes, in the script, everywhere we can. The Plant is a tribute to him and everyone else who has been with us along the way.’

The Cooperative believe that five years on from Brexit the play will still appeal to a wide range of people, as the themes and issues the play explores are timeless – they have persisted throughout history, are still relevant today and will continue to be so into the future. Also, the writers have been careful to keep the play balanced. It is neither pro-leave or pro-remain.

‘In fact it’s not really about Brexit at all,’ Jeremy explains. ‘It’s about what that debate has done to us as a group of people and how we negotiate our way through it. It’s about questions of Englishness, belonging and identity and I think these will come to the fore more and more as we move forward.’

‘The play also looks at ideas of community,’ Greg adds. ‘The communities that I knew when I was growing up are not there as much and I think we need them back. They are there but we need to appreciate them, nurture them and be part of them to make them work, and the play explores that as well.’

Future plans
The Plant: Creating Theatre for Society: PosterThere are three performances of The Plant at the end of October (dates below) and the Cooperative is applying for more funding to tour the production nationally in the future.

‘I was watching a documentary about Julie Walters talking about the early days of the Liverpool Everyman,’ Greg says. ‘She said they would rehearse a play, jump in the back of a van and turn up at a pub, jump out, put the play on, jump back in the van and go to the next venue. And that, for me, is what theatre is all about. That idea of theatre as education. Theatre that talks about politics, enlightens people and gets communities involved. And I think  that’s what we should be doing with this play.’

The writers see The Plant as only the beginning of a journey.

‘What I want to do eventually  is to take the idea of this play into other communities and leave them with it so that they can do their own version,’ Greg explains. To say right, here’s an idea – you’ve got a community, a set of characters, there’s a division, there’s an aspect of fragility and there are these themes – now you do what you want to do with it. It could be any issue – vaxxers and anti-vaxxers, anything. These are such divisive times. We’re living in a binary world at the moment. You’re either in or you’re out. Yes or no. There’s no grey.’

The castThe Plant: Creating Theatre for Society: cast
Becks Hill as Maddie
Harvey Almond as Niall
Paul Marlon as Gary
Denise Wilton as Jane
Jonathan Fitchett as Geoff
Lauren Mills as Gemma

 

The Plant: Creating Theatre for Society: ImprovisationMusicians
Tom Horn
Martin Kember

Performance dates
LV21, Gravesend  – 28th October 2021 – SOLD OUT (all ticket enquires to the Cooperative, please)
The Churchill Theatre, Bromley – 29th October 2021
The Aphra Theatre, University of Kent, Canterbury – 30th October 2021

Links
The Plant Assembly Theatre Cooperative – https://www.plantassemblytheatre.com/

 

 

 

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Invitation to Pull Up A (virtual) Chair with Anne Langford

Visit Duncan Grant’s gallery
You get to know the place where you were born and brought up, don’t you?

Duncan Grant: Brewery
My version of the old Russell’s brewery which was by the river

You know what you like and what you don’t like. And have a picture in your mind about what that place is like.

But it’s not often you get the chance to see that place through somebody else’s eyes.  As a proud born and bred Gravesender myself,  I’m very interested to see how our community is perceived by somebody – ‘an outsider’ – with a fresh perspective on the very familiar.

At the beginning of March, artist Anne Langford issued an invitation on Facebook for residents of Gravesham to get in touch with her. She wanted to hear about what it is that people living in Gravesham take pride in, and  what it is about the borough that makes them proud.

Anne Langford © Gary Weston
‘Pull Up a Chair, Gravesham’ is a collaboration betwen Anne Langford and LV21 © Gary Weston

Anne admits that she ‘loves chatting and is a little bit nosey’, but her request was not made just out of idle curiosity – something to keep everyone amused during lockdown – but to initiate a month-long Arts project that she is undertaking, in partnership with Gravesend’s independent, floating art space and performance facility, LV21.

The Arts Council England funded project, called Pull Up A Chair, is  a research-focused project run by Brighton-based organisation Quiet Down There, exploring how residents and communities participate in and enjoy (or don’t enjoy) arts and cultural activities. A longer term objective for the independent arts organisations involved – in Gravesham’s case LV21 – is to plan what more they can do to involve local communities in arts and cultural activities.

Anne Langford: Pull Up A Chair, Gravesham
To mourn the loss of her ‘live’ project, Anne I decided to burn a matchstick chair on the foreshore of the Thames – the river that connects her to Gravesham.

Pull Up A Chair  offers a new spin on the familiar concept of an artist-in residence: one that was developed through a collaboration with Apexart based in New York City.  In this model, instead of embedding an artist within an institution – a university, museum or art gallery, for example – artists are asked to immerse themselves in a community for a month, experiencing what it is like to live, work and play there.

Artists are paired with locations of which they have no knowledge, and which they have never visited previously. The idea is that they approach their work with no pre-conceptions about a place or its communities.

During their residency, artists are asked not to produce artwork but, instead to follow an intense programme of activities around the locality, to meet the people, and to report on their activity via social media.

 

The Gravesham project, which has a loose theme of ‘pride’,  is one of three linked residencies each of which has been affected by the pandemic.

In Luton, a collaboration between artist  Alex Parry and Revolution Arts has now been completed but was cut short by the pandemic.  And the project in Swale, Medway, with artist Chloe Cooper and Ideas Test,  was reimagined because of Covid, and took place in June 2020. You can read Anne’s reflections on the loss of Arts projects during the pandemic on her blogpost Resorcing the Ruins.

Anne Langford: Pull Up A Chair, Gravesham
This chair Anne found in the street has become the focal point of her virtual residency from her London flat

Pulling up a virtual chair
Anne Langford’s residency in Gravesham was due to begin in March 2020, but COVID put paid to that. Funding constraints meant the project had to be completed this financial year, so Anne has been challenged to develop the model even further, by looking at what can be a achieved through a ‘virtual residency’.  In fact, Anne has only visited Gravesend twice – once before the project started to meet everyone at LV21 and once, as part of the project, for a solitary walk around Trosley Country Park which she reported on in her blog. The rest of the time, she has explored Gravesham via her computer, from her home in East London.

Anne Langford: PullUp A Chair, Gravesham
Inspiration from Anne’s visit to Gravesham

‘It’s been interesting finding out how to do this remotely, and how to get some sense of immersion in the project when, essentially, I’m in the same flat I’ve been in for a year,’ Anne says. ‘So I’m sitting here with a little bottle of water from the Thames at Gravesend and a little pot of soil from Elizabeth Gardens. I’ve got  some ropes from LV21, a piece of  flint from Trosley Country Park and some chalk. I’ve been on a Google Earth tour and let myself get lost in Wikipedia.’

If the project had run to plan, Anne would have lived in Gravesham for a month and followed a schedule of events – maybe volunteering at the Food Bank, or joining a yoga class – talking to people she met. She was particularly looking forward to ‘ship spotting with Betty and Arthur’! But  beginning the project in lockdown, although she had a number of telephone calls lined up with notable residents, Anne wasn’t sure she was meeting the people she really wanted to reach.

David Banfield: Woodlands Park gates.
‘Beauty abounds in the Borough. History around us. Great buildings’ said one Facebook respondent.

‘I thought how do I get out and meet some of those “other” people, because the project is about starting new friendships and relationships with people that don’t know about LV21, or LV21 don’t know about them,’ Anne explains. ‘So I asked, do you mind if I just go on Facebook – there are a lot of Facebook groups all over Gravesend – and let me see if they’ll let me post and say hello. And it’s turned into this phenomenal source of  people who I probably wouldn’t have met another way.’

Through her Facebook page, Anne has begun to make contact with the everyday community groups that meet around Gravesham.  She’s discovered the Harvel Hash House Harriers (a drinking club with a running problem); the Chalk Village Gardeners Club; the supper club in Higham Village, run by a chef that, in normal times, sells out just from people in the village; and a local Beaver group. She’s also spoken to some local personalities, like Genny, The Confidence Queen , a conversation that left Anne ‘fizzing with energy and joy’.

‘At the beginning of the project I was feeling a little despondent,’ Anne says. ‘And now it has turned into a really joyous thing. I’m just loving connecting with all these people ready to share – sending in photographs and saying, I’ll put you in touch with so-and-so, or I’d love to meet you for a socially distanced walk. It feels like at the end of a long Covid year, Gravesham is giving me a real gift!’

It is the often overlooked stories that Anne is looking for, the ‘ordinary everyday’.

Anne Langford: Pull Up A Chair, Gravesham
Sri Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara

‘I read an article about how a lot of Scandinavian countries work on the basis that most of us will live an ordinary, rather than a extraordinary life,’ Anne says. ‘And because of this,  they make the ordinary things in public spaces, comfortable and beautiful, as well as functional. And I’m interested in that – how if we just valued the ordinary and the everyday, our lives would be so much richer.’

Anne Langford
Anne grew up in a small town in Worcestershire. Originally, she dreamt of being a jockey but later decided to become an English teacher.  But while at university in Aberystwyth, Anne ‘fell in love with drama’ and decided that her future lay there.

After she left university, Anne landed her dream job (‘living in a caravan in the middle of Wales and earning peanuts’) working for Equilibre Horse Theatre, a company that made art and theatre productions in communities with horses.

 

The company, which no longer operates, presented classical riding as a theatrical art form, involving  performance artists to explore the centuries-old relationship between people and horses

Anne Langford: Pull Up A Chair: Gravesham
Horse lover, Anne, spotted the Romany racing Sulkies on her visit to Gravesham

‘It combined my first love, horses,  and theatre,’ Anne recalls. ‘Mid-Wales is a really creative world – all the farmers are poets and musicians. It’s part of their life.  So when we did an open day where dressage trainer, Georges Dewez, shared how he trained the horses and local musicians played some music and a poet performed a poem, everyone said they loved it and asked us to do it again. And from that it grew into this big theatre performance.’

When the company took a break, Anne returned to the Midlands and worked in a call centre for a bit, before moving to Belfast for a couple of years, as a producer with a small touring theatre company called Kabosh.  After that, she came back to the UK, to work as a local government arts development officer for Worcestershire County Council.

‘That job was amazing!’ says Anne. ‘It’s one of the things, professionally, I’m most proud of. Because, after  growing up in a small town without any theatre, I set up a rural and community touring scheme that took professional performing arts into village halls and community centres.’

Anne Langford: The Resilience Project. Anne in the water through an antique lens)
Anne Langford: The Resilience Project © L.M.H.C

But although Anne was working in the Arts and doing important work to increase access to theatre, something still niggled with her.

‘I knew I loved the theatre and I loved performing,’ she explains. ‘But I didn’t have much confidence in my own ability as an artist. I would get involved in productions but as a volunteer, rather than professionally. And then finally, in 2005, I got the confidence and the guts to put myself through drama school.’

It was a great move. She emerged from E15 in London with a Masters in Drama and her own theatre company.

'You Were Us / We are Here' - a performance by Yard Youth photo by Edith Whitehead
You Were Us/We are Here – a performance by Yard Youth © Edith Whtiehead

 

Since then, working mainly freelance, Anne has mixed up working as a performer, with producing and directing shows.  And, increasingly, she has become interested in making work for people who wouldn’t necessarily think of going to the theatre, telling the stories of those whose voices, otherwise, might not be heard.

More recently, she worked for 18-months with Clean Break a theatre company who work with women affected by the criminal justice system, on a show about loneliness and belonging for young women on the edge of society.  She also completed another project with young people at  Yard Youth in East London, looking at their experiences of being in public spaces and the treatment they receive from adults and those in authority. And she has worked with a group of LGBT+ emerging artists at the Park Theatre, in London.

'You Were Us / We are Here' - a performance by Yard Youth photo by Edith Whitehead
You Were Us/We are Here – a performance by Yard Youth © Edith Whtiehead

 

 

‘I’m really interested in the creativity and storytelling that is there in all of our lives,’ she says. ‘Even if you don’t go to the theatre or if you say you’re not creative, we are all storytellers. Everyone tells stories, in the pub or to a friend. Sometimes theatre companies will approach you and say, “we’d like you to work with this group of people on this issue”, and that’s great! But I often think there’s been a step missed out, around spending time with people  and finding out what it is that they are interested in.  That’s why when I saw the opportunity to apply for Pull Up A Chair, I was desperate to do it because it was a chance, as an outsider, to find out what people like about a place and what they don’t like. To give them free rein to get excited or let off steam.

‘We tend to think of culture as something that happens on a big stage in a shiny theatre, but actually culture is the stuff we do every day – it’s the supper club, it’s the gardening group, it’s the running club. That’s what culture is and we need to celebrate it.’

Anne Langford@ Pull Up A Chair, Gravesham
Anne Langford: The Thames at Gravesend

Early Impressions
Although she has only been working on the project for a few days, Anne is already beginning to form the impression of Gravesham as a borough whose identity is strongly shaped by its association with the Thames.

‘I’m really interested in the idea of an estuary and what it means,’ she says.  ‘There’s constant change both to the landscape itself and to the population. The river brings people in and out, and people have come and gone from Gravesham over the centuries. It’s a place that is constantly being built up and taken down. And it seems, more recent movement is just repeating this pattern.’

Anne has also detected a strong  sense of connection among residents.

Anne Langford: Pull Up A Chair
Anne Langford

‘There seem to be phenomenally rich and connected layers of community in Gravesham and people have a real affection for the place,’ she reflects. ‘And they’re not naive. There is a knowingness about the bits that are not so pretty, but it is really lovely to hear people talk so passionately about the place they live in.’

Links
You can follow Anne’s residency journey, which ends on March 31st 2021, on her blog .
If you’d like to suggest any ‘must not miss this’ Gravesham places to visit, people to meet (via a phone call, online or in person when restrictions allow socially distanced outdoor meetings later in March) or stories and thoughts on what ‘pride’ means to you, please send an email to info@lv21.co.uk or post your suggestions on Anne’s Facebook page.

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Iron Pier Brewery: The Art of Brewing

Visit Duncan Grant’s gallery

As regular readers of this blog will know,  my art has ended up in places I’d never imagined.

It’s been on fabrics for Liberty London,  https://www.libertylondon.com/a book cover for Faber & Faber, https://www.faber.co.uk/9780571355075-milkman.html pencil cases in Japan and shirts in Russia.  And this week it is appearing on beer cans in Gravesend, courtesy of the Iron Pier Brewery and Taproom https://www.ironpier.beer/

Iron Pier Brewery
I’ve been drinking at the Iron Pier since it opened in 2018 and they’ve hosted a couple of exhibitions of my art.  Tucked behind Perry Street on a small industrial estate, it’s a fantastic place with a great community atmosphere – and the beer is even better!

Iron Pier Brewery: Charlie Venner & James Hayward
Charlie Venner & James Hayward

The brewery is run by head brewer James Hayward, who used to run the Caveman Brewery in Swanscombe http://www.cavemanbrewery.co.uk,  and his business partner Charlie Venner who, previously, ran The Compass Ale House, in Gravesend http://thecompassalehouse.co.uk/ which James used to supply.

At Iron Pier they produce a range of cask , keg and barrel-aged beer to their exacting standardsas they say on their website,  it is ‘lovingly crafted, full-flavoured and perfectly conditioned’. https://www.ironpier.beer/beers

The brewery is named after the Gravesend town pier, which is the oldest surviving cast iron pier in the world. And many of the beers brewed there, such as Rosherville Red and Perry Street Pale,  have names drawn from the local area.

‘We always knew that we wanted to be part of the community in Gravesend,’ says James. ‘So having the taproom on the same site as the brewery gives us a real link to that community. But we also wanted to be a brewery that went beyond the local market. We supply pubs locally and in East London, and we do brewery swaps, where we’ll send our beer up to Yorkshire or Manchester  and they’ll send theirs down to Kent.  Last year , we took our beer out to a beer festival in Germany. And it’s really nice, being in Germany as a brewery from Gravesend.’

Duncan Grant: Brewery
Russell Brewery, Gravesend

Brewing in Gravesend
Iron Pier is the first brewery in Gravesend for  nearly 90 years. In 1932, Russell’s brewery, in West Street – famous for their Shrimp Brand beers – was acquired by the London brewing giants, Truman.  By 1935, brewing had stopped on the site, although it was used as bottling plant for about 50 years after that.

Truman bottling plant, Gravesend
Truman bottling plant, 1950s

If you’re familiar with Gravesend, you can still see evidence of the Russell brewery  down by the River, near Asda.  Most of the old brewery buildings were demolished, but the original maltings – the building where grain is converted into malt for brewing – still survives, although it has been converted into flats now.  The big square section of  The Maltings with its triangular roof was part of the kiln used to heat the barley.

 

Duncan Grant: Hop picking
Duncan Grant: Hop picking

Hops
Hops are a key ingredient of traditional brewing,  and hop-growing has always been an important agricultural activity in Kent, which is still the biggest hop-growing county in the country. At the end of the 19th century there were about 200,000 acres of hop fields in the UK, now there are only about 6,000 acres.

‘It has shrunk pretty much every year from 1897 to 2017 because of lack of demand,’ explains James Hayward. ‘Beer styles change. Most people now drink so-called continental lagers and those don’t use many hops really, so the hop market completely crashed. But it is coming back a bit now because small brewers like us tend to use a lot of local hops.’

Duncan Grant: Hops and blueberries
Duncan Grant: Hops and blueberries

There are many different hop varieties and new hop strains are being bred all the time, in England and in other hop-growing countries like USA and Slovenia. Every month Iron Pier  brew a different Joined at the Hop beer, where an English hop is partnered with a hop from somewhere else.

‘It’s a form or research and development for us, ‘James explains. ‘It gives us a chance to see what works well, and we’ve found a few that we really, really like. There’s a Slovenian hop, Styrian Cardinal, which we used in a Joined at the Hop beer and that is now in our Session IPA.’

Although much farm work is now mechanised, in the UK  hops are still mostly picked by hand as they always have been. I was talking to my mum, who is ninety in a couple of months, about when, as a child, she used to go hop-picking with her family. The Kidd family lived locally to the hop fields so, for them, hopping was a series of day trips over the two or three week harvesting period. But some large hop fields had accommodation on site and families, particularly from East London, used to stay on site to pick.

My mum dug out a couple of battered black and white photos and agreed to talk about her experiences for the blog.  Friend and composer Ian Kirton kindly offered to edit it altogether.  If you like the music, which Ian composed, you can listen here: https://www.pond5.com/royalty-free-music/item/104662981-mind-and-body-gentle-warm-emotive-inspirational-instrumental

Anyway, here is my mum, Kathleen Grant (nee Kidd) reminiscing.

Iron Pier Brewery: Take-away service
Take-away

Thinking outside the taproom
Before the coronavirus emergency, Iron Pier were planning for a busy summer – full tap rooms,  more community events, beer tents at local festivals, as well as providing beer for pubs and festivals across the country. So when lockdown started, pubs closed overnight and summer events were cancelled,  James and Charlie had to come up with a Plan B to keep their business afloat.

Plan B (part 1) was a socially distanced,  takeaway service. If  locals weren’t able to pop out to the taproom or a local pub for a few drinks with  friends, at least they could enjoy a pint or two of Iron Pier beer in the comfort of their own home. And, as James explains, it is all going very well.

Iron Pier Brewery, Gravesend‘When the virus first struck and the pubs were closed we were terrified, because selling our beer to other pubs was such a big part of our business. But our take-away 4-pint and 2-pint carry-kegs are going insanely well – even better than when we had the bar open. We started with two hours on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, but we’ve had to extend Fridays to three hours now because the queues were just getting too big.’

If you fancy a carry out from Iron Pier you’ll find collection times on their Facebook page  https://www.facebook.com/ironpierbeer/

It’s in the can
Plan B (part 2) swung into operation last Tuesday, as Iron Pier started canning four of its beers – Keller QueenSession IPA, Rosherville Red and  Breezy Day IPA – to sell through the takeaway service and its new online shop. https://www.ironpier.beer/cans.  

‘We always had this idea in our heads that we were going to put our beer into cans,’ James explains. ‘It was originally part of our third year plan, but when this all kicked off it was like, well we’re  not making beer for pubs any more so let’s do this canning thing now.’

Iron Pier Brewery, GravesendJames and Charlie and I had already discussed the possibility of putting my artwork on the cans about a year ago, so they were able to move from idea to product really quickly. ‘Yes,’ James laughs. ‘We didn’t need to find a designer, so for us it was just finding somewhere on the can to put our logo so it didn’t get in the way of the artwork and we were done!’

While the beer is brewed on site, Iron Pier brought an external contractor into the brewery to can the beer.  In the future, if the new cans prove popular, the brewery might consider purchasing its own packaging line.

Iron Pier Brewery, GravesendBy the end of Tuesday, the brewery had three out of the four beers ‘in the can’. But there was a small technical hitch with the fourth.

‘A new process in the brewery always involves a bit of a learning curve, and something usually goes wrong,’ James explains. ‘We brewed all four beers for the canning day  but when we began filling the Breezy Day we noticed that we were still pulling through hops from the fermenter, so we decided not to can it that day.’

The team is going to  polish up the Breezy Day  ready for when the canners return in a week or so.  In the meantime, the other three canned beers are for sale. You can buy them in cases, or individually, through the take-away service or via the online shop.

‘We were really happy to see some great dissolved oxygen numbers in the can,’ James says, ‘so the beer should have a decent shelf life, which was the main thing I was worried about.’

Iron Pier Brewery, GravesendIn normal times, Iron Pier would have held a big knees up to launch their new cans, but since these are not normal times, you are invited to a Virtual Launch/Meet the Brewer/ Beer Tasting event, this evening (17th May 2020, @ 7.30 – 8.30pm) hosted by the Admiral’s Arm micropub http://www.admiralsarm.co.uk/  Follow this link for more information: https://www.facebook.com/events/241388767208060/

Hope to see you there. Cheers!

 

You can follow Iron Pier on:
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ironpierbeer/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/ironpierbeer
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ironpierbeer/

My original ink drawings, as well as digital prints, of the art used on the beer cans and in this blog are available from the gallery on this website. https://www.duncangrantartist.com/shop/

Keller Queen (Small Town #141)
Original ink drawing: https://duncangrantartist.com/product/small-town-141/
Digital print: https://duncangrantartist.com/product/small-town-141-print/ 

Rosherville Red (Small Town #132)
Original ink drawing: https://duncangrantartist.com/product/small-town-132/
Digital print: https://duncangrantartist.com/product/small-town-132-print/

Session IPA (Twenty-eight poplars)
Original ink drawing: https://duncangrantartist.com/product/twenty-eight-poplars/
Digital print: https://duncangrantartist.com/product/twenty-eight-poplars-print/

Breezy Day IPA (Breezy Day)
Original ink drawing: SOLD
Digital print: https://duncangrantartist.com/product/breezy-day-print/

Russell Brewery (Brewery)
Original ink drawing: SOLD
Digital print: https://duncangrantartist.com/product/brewery-print/

Hops and blueberries
Original ink drawing: https://duncangrantartist.com/product/fruit-series-hops-and-blueberries/
Digital print: https://duncangrantartist.com/product/fruit-series-hops-and-blueberries-print/

Hop pickers – SOLD

 

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Only 261 more days until Christmas …time to think about who’s coming for lunch!

 

Visit Duncan Grant’s gallery
How many of you remember the Hand of Artists project back in 2015, when 108 artists designed two sets of playing cards that raised £3,000 to benefit community art charities?  For a trip down memory lane, flick through the slideshow at the bottom of this post.

Well, now it’s time to get out those paintbrushes and pens and get involved in a new community art project to benefit another local good cause.

On 25th December last year Adrian and Andrea at No 84 Tearoom and Eatery at Echo Square, Gravesend https://www.no84.co.uk hosted a traditional Christmas dinner, free of charge, to anyone in the local community who would otherwise have spending the day alone. The event was funded entirely by No. 84.

I’m organising a community art project to fund another Christmas lunch at No. 84 this year (2019) and I’d love as many people as possible to get involved – wherever you are in the world, whatever your your age, artistic skills, experience or ambitions. All you have to do is design a Christmas card and donate it to the project.

Designs will be made into A6 cards (at cost by Singlewell Stationery and Print http://www.singlewell.co.uk/) and sold in packs of 6, with all profits going to fund the 2019 Christmas lunch at No. 84. If we raise a lot of money, any extra will be donated to Crisis at Christmas.

Nearer to Christmas, we’ll have an exhibition of all the cards at No. 84 and a launch event. If loads of people get involved we could also have other exhibitions or events at local venues.

If you want to join in, here is what you have to do:

  • Let me know you want to take part via ‘contact’ on this website, or via Facebook etc
  • Design a Christmas card that you are willing to donate to the project free of charge
  • Get your design to me by the 19th May 2019
    You can send a digital image of your artwork (minimum 300 dpi) to duncangrant158@gmail.com – please put your name and contact details in the email
    OR
  • You can send me the original to be photographed by the talented Roger Crosby. Please remember to write your name and contact details on the back.
    For those of you in the Gravesend area, I will arrange some local collection points and let people know where these are via Facebook. I’ll also put an ‘Event’ on this website and keep it updated with the latest news and information.
    If you live further afield and need to send an original, drop me an email and I’ll send you my postal address.

RULES
Only one – designs must be rectangular. They can be in any size and any medium because they are all going to be photographed.

Here is what I’ll do:

  • Collect the images and arrange for originals to be photographed
  • Get the cards printed and put into packs
  • Arrange the exhibition(s) and launch
  • Put them up for sale online and at events
  • Collect the money and forward it to No.84 to cover all the costs of Christmas lunch, with any extra going to Crisis at Christmas.

Please get involved, it will be fun.  Here are some pictures from Hand of Artists 2015 to get you inspired.

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Picture at the top of the post is ‘Small town at Christmas:
Original https://duncangrantartist.com/product/small-town-84/
Print: https://duncangrantartist.com/product/small-town-84-print/