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Greenwich: How GCDA is celebrating the breadth of its activities in the borough

As Greenwich Cooperative Development Agency marks its 40th, we chat to CEO Claire Pritchard

GCDA CEO Claire Pritchard
GCDA CEO Claire Pritchard – image Matt Grayson

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Greenwich Cooperative Development Agency this year celebrates 40 years since its creation.

It was founded with a stated central mission to support the establishment of community owned, democratically managed cooperatives to boost employment, improve local economic opportunities and protect or provide local services. 

In short, it’s spent four decades working to make the lives of people in the Royal Borough Of Greenwich better and there’s much more to come.

For the last 20 years, Claire Pritchard has worked for the organisation, taking over as director in 2010.

She said: “In our 40th year we really want to celebrate and highlight what we do. It’s still very much about community development.”

That might seem like a pretty open-ended statement, but Claire deserves some sympathy, because efficiently conveying the sheer breadth of GCDA’s activities is no easy task.

It supports, trains, educates, connects, sells, communicates, promotes and gives a platform to a Chinese Women’s Association to perform fan dances. It runs a community centre, a shop, markets and a commercial kitchen.

It hosts Yoga, boxing, Tae Kwon Do, Jujitsu, Mencap, a Vietnamese Women’s Group and provides space for a nursery and a domestic violence drop-in service.

It offers courses in starting businesses, community development, catering, feeding kids, crafts and horticulture, among others. Oh, and later this year it intends to open an art gallery.

It’s a complex web of industry, with threads woven right through the borough connecting entrepreneurs, makers and residents through the likes of GCDA’s operations at Woolwich Common Community Centre, Made In Greenwich and Greenwich Kitchen.

Claire outside Made In Greenwich
Claire outside Made In Greenwich – image Matt Grayson

“This is what we’ve grown into,” said Claire, who joined the organisation in a role focused on food in the borough. “There was a big change about 15 years ago when we had to go from being a grant-funded organisation to one that could fund all of its own activities.

“That was really tough, but it enabled us to go back and see what we really wanted to do – what people’s needs were and how we could respond to them.

“For example, six years ago we found Woolwich Common Community Centre, which was one of the lowest occupied venues of its kind in the borough, located in one of the poorest wards in London. It was an area where people wouldn’t go in the evenings – but now it’s fully occupied.

“We really responded to what people asked us to do, so now there’s everything from table tennis to food growing, boxing training and much more.

“We’ve also always wanted to celebrate small businesses and support them. 

“We wanted to do something called Made In Greenwich as a platform for local artists and makers that was sustainable.

“We’d been looking for years and eventually managed to secure a shop right in the centre of Greenwich.

“We now stock products and works of art from more than 100 makers in the borough – supporting fledgling businesses who don’t have the money to market themselves so they can grow and refine their operations.

“Made In Greenwich has just won the 2021 award for retail at the Best Of Royal Greenwich Business Awards and it’s a brand we really want to develop.

“Our strategy as an organisation is not necessarily about us having practical projects, but about looking at and celebrating what and who we’ve got in the borough – to promote those businesses and their sustainability because that’s how you create local wealth.

“Now we’re pursuing a gallery space, which is in a prime position just around the corner from our shop, because exhibitions are a great way to make campaigns whether it’s around equality, refugees or any other topic. We hope to open that in the autumn.

“What we’ve worked out is that, being local and knowing where we work is really important – we want  people who work with GCDA to be part of that community.

“We also know that in the future we don’t want to get much bigger as an organisation.

“The way to achieve what we want is to have a series of buildings where that work can come from – a gallery, a community centre, a shop or even a pub – so we can curate more activities to serve the needs of local residents.

“We have developed a very particular model for doing this, and we’d like to find a way to support other areas to do it too – not doing it ourselves because we don’t want GCDA itself to get really, really big.

“I did present to Tower Hamlets the other day, for example and Greenwich University have some funding in place to work with North Kent council to replicate our community centre model around food, social enterprise and sustainability.

“Where we have been successful in supporting communities, we would like to support other organisations to replicate this in the next 20 years.

“In Greenwich we want to help our communities thrive socially and economically, whether that’s by creating a nicer environment for people, training them in cooking skills, helping them access affordable fruit and veg or campaigning for more social housing and to protect public assets.

“In the 20 years I’ve worked here, one of the things that has made me most proud has been how everyone involved in GCDA has responded to the pandemic, turning our services on their head in a single day after the first 2020 lockdown and working out how to care for the very vulnerable, something we’re continuing to do.

“We’re a small organisation – there are fewer than 40 of us – but I think we’ve provided more than a million meals to those in need and we continued to support the traders at our markets, local businesses and our makers. 

“If people would like to get involved, they can look at our website or find us on social media, but they can also come and see us at Made In Greenwich or at one of our markets. 

“We’re always interested to talk to people and you can always join as a member. It’s through talking to those using our services and our members that we’ll define what we do in the next two decades.”

Read more: East End Community Foundation unveils Life Chances Campaign

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Greenwich: Why Sew On The Go is a celebration of making and travel

Made In Greenwich curator Mary Jane Baxter’s is the story of her journey through Europe in a van

Sew On The Go author Mary Jane Baxter
Sew On The Go author Mary Jane Baxter – image Matt Grayson

Sew On The Go is many things. Travelogue, inspiration, maker’s guide, cautionary tale, creative outlet. It’s Mary Jane Baxter’s third book and, while it’s packed with crafting projects just like The Modern Girl’s Guide To Hatmaking and Chic On A Shoestring, it embraces something else in its 250 pages – the adventure of a journey.

Six years ago, its author left her job at the BBC after 14 years working across Europe, bought and converted a small van, rented out her flat in London and set off on a trip with the aim of combining her love of travel and making things. The resulting book is the story of that expedition.

“I spent a lot of time building up to it – I did a trip for Newsnight in 2009, which involved travelling around Britain and doing make do and mend tasks in exchange for bed and breakfast with viewers,” said Mary Jane, who curates craft and art shop Made In Greenwich for the Greenwich Cooperative Development Agency.

“In order to have a comfortable night’s sleep, I would do a task, so I made trousers for a stilt-walker, created a hat for somebody to wear at Ascot and swapped a night in a hotel in Edinburgh for hats.

“It was about frugality in response to the last recession and it went down really well. At the time I had a second-hand Nissan Micra. It was quite clapped-out but I’d had the idea for this trip and thought it would be really interesting if I had this really crazy vehicle to do it in.”

Having inherited a few thousand pounds following the death of her uncle in 2014, she decided to take redundancy from the BBC and test-drove lots of “really gorgeous vans” that were all too expensive. Then, while walking through Greenwich Park she spotted a man with a curious-looking vehicle.

“He said it was a Bedford Bambi and told me I could test drive it, so I took it round the park and thought: ‘Yes, this could work’,” said Mary Jane. “I saw one for sale down in Southampton, took the train, bought it on the spot, drove it back to Deptford and started doing it up.

“At the time I was working pretty much full-time in the newsroom at the BBC and, at the time, I lived in a tiny flat, so the van gave me an extra crafting space. I felt like I was building an escape pod – I spent every day working on Bambi.”

The makeover included covering the van’s exterior with wallpaper samples (rescued from a Brighton skip) and varnishing them to protect them from the weather.

“Then Bambi was ready to go and so was Mary Jane, having put together a plan to visit and stay with various friends, mount pop-ups at markets, sell the things she’d made and, most importantly, experience the untold possibilities of the open road.

“It was: ‘Let’s throw it up in the air and see what freedom feels like after working for so long from eight in the morning until seven at night’,” she said. “Setting off on St Gerorge’s Day in April 2015 felt brilliant – it was amazing. 

“I packed everything I needed to craft on the road into Bambi – hats I’d made to sell, books I could offload to help fund the trip, haberdashery and my trusty hand-cranked sewing machine.

“I also had no electrics in Bambi – no interior lighting, no drainage, no water, no loo – it was basic camping. I did have the hob for a fry-up on the go, however. Bambi looked incredible and she got so much attention – people waved as we went off.

“I got to the ferry and it was just that feeling that there was no agenda, no commitment – nothing on the horizon that I had to do. What person in their mid-40s wouldn’t want that? To lock the front door and just go.”

Multiple adventures followed over the next four months as Mary Jane made her way through Belgium, France, Italy and up to northern Scotland. 

Readers can expect plenty of picturesque escapism as well as moments of drama including an encounter with an ageing campsite Lothario and dicing with the terrifying sheer drops while driving through the Gorge du Verdon. It’s also a tome stuffed with ideas for makers of all levels.

“The book contains 26 upcycled craft projects interwoven in the story,” said Mary Jane. 

“There’s always an element of my work that’s about re-using, recycling and creating beautiful things out of stuff people chuck away – everything from no-sew projects to more complicated ones.

“It’s also a rip-roaring travel read, which is an honest and exciting account of how it felt to be in that position of not being able to stand being at my desk anymore answering emails and deciding to bloody well go off and do something interesting instead. It’s light-hearted but it’s also about the creative process and about those life decisions that come your way – you don’t get married or have kids – things you might have expected, but don’t happen.

“What do you make of a life that’s balanced between being creative and being responsible for yourself and how do you make that work?

“The book is about trying to answer the question: ‘What are you looking for?’. I still don’t know the answer, but I’m glad I took this journey in an attempt to find out. 

“Often people have ideas but they don’t follow them through. A lot of people, especially women, don’t travel on their own – I talked to a lot of women in their 40s and 50s and they said they would never go off on their own like that.

“I have to say that, as the trip went on, it wasn’t all plain-sailing. There were real episodes of loneliness, and wondering what on earth I was doing. But I’d had the idea, bought the van and I did it.”

Published by Unbound on a crowdfunding model, the book came out in May.

Mary Jane said: “It took six years of hard work, fundraising, writing and journeying. Of all the books I’ve written, this one does hit the nail on the head. Bambi happened and I’m really pleased that I produced something out of my imagination and got it out there.” 

Sew On The Go: A Maker’s Journey is available to buy at Made In Greenwich in Creek Road or online for £16.99, published by Unbound.

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