I've started this blog to document the journey of finding, procuring and (most importantly) raising the money to open a community and arts space for the visitors and residents of Bromley, Kent. Over the last few years our town centre has been slowing down, shops and restaurants have closed, businesses are struggling and it just doesn't have the thriving, positive feel it used to.
Bromley has a lot going for it, its a historic market town with a whole host of fantastic old buildings (many of which were bulldozed to make way for the Glades and general redevelopment of Bromley sadly though) and if you look up above the shop signage they start telling you their stories, including the 1886 Medhurst's department store (now Primark) and whole rows of Victorian façades that add character and links us to this towns history.
Bromley also has a good cultural scene. The Churchill Theatre is the most prominent of our theatres, sitting half way up the High Street with nearly 800 audience capacity. The theatre host a great array of productions, most notably pre-West End shows and world renowned touring ballet companies. The Little Theatre is an amateur dramatics theatre tucked away in the north end of the town but is very popular and puts on a lot of varied productions. The Ripley Arts Centre, just outside Bromley in Sundridge Park, is a gorgeous Victorian house where amateur artists and musicians get the chance to share their work, they also have eclectic arts cinema showings.
I love the arts and think that injecting culture is absolutely integral to the feel of a place and adds great value to the fabric of society. A very clever and articulate man, Doug Borwick, sums up why arts matter so much and should be celebrated "The arts began as collective activity around the campfire, expressions of community. In a very real sense, the community owned that expression. Over time, with increasing specialisation of labour, the arts – especially Western “high arts” – became distanced from the community. Today the survival of established arts organisations hinges on their ability to shorten that distance. Engagement is important; engagement matters. To engage successfully, arts organizations need to make authentic, substantive connections with their communities. Those communities should not be seen as a collection of market segments to be tapped in an effort to sell tickets or extend reach; they should be seen as indispensable partners in improving lives. It is the creation and support of healthy, vital communities that provide the ultimate justification for the allocation of financial and human resources that the arts require. Communities do not exist to serve the arts; the arts exist to serve communities."
In Bromley I've always felt that what Doug articulates is exactly what we haven't got, by not making arts part of the Bromley community and accessible to passers by and people visiting the centre for the day we fail to connect with them and encourage them return.
So I got to thinking about the need to revitalise and help Bromley in a different way than simply trying to attract more people here to shop (in tough economic times this is very hard to do!) and thought that having a permanent space that hosted a whole host of arts, cultural and community events would bring another element to Bromley town centre. It makes me sad to think that people just come here to shop and then leave, I'd love to offer them a space to explore, learn, engage in, celebrate and be part of Bromley. I want the community centre to be a platform for innovative and inspirations people, opening up the space to artists, performing artists, literary performers and musicians who want to share their passions with the world. To this end I have my sights set on the old Royal Bell Hotel which after being occupied by a few awful and failed pubs over the years has now been redundant for around 3 years (as seen from the Google street view below)
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The Bell is also a historic building and was built on the site of an old coaching inn that can be traced back to the 17th Century (its even mentioned in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice). The current building was built in 1898 and used to act as an important interchange for London bound travellers from Kent and the South where they would refresh themselves while they changed horses. The Bell was given the "Royal" prefix when it gained such a good reputation that royalty horses started changing their horses here.
Currently I am told that a Chinese restaurant chain have put in a bid to take on the rest of the 20 year lease from the owners. I'm now doing as much research as I can to into the building, hoping to get a viewing and see how likely it is that the Bell will be taken on by the chain. I think this building would make an absolutely fantastic venue for the community and arts space that I think Bromley so desperately needs and I'm going to try my very best to make this happen.
I went to a Heritage Lottery Funding meeting yesterday and am still investigating as many revenues streams as possible that we could apply for and help with taking on the Bell, although you won't be surprised to hear it'll be very expensive and fraught with a whole host of difficulties that are inevitable in a project as big as this one.
This project idea has already gone down well when floated to the great and good of Bromley and I know this place will be the perfect venue for our residents and visitors. I started this blog to keep you informed of the journey to make this happen all along the way and I'll post new things as and when they happen, we want comments and ideas and as much of your support as possible so don't hold back!
Watch this space people, this is going to be exciting....!