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Child’s Play: Bilston Craft Gallery

August 10, 2011

VALUE FOR MONEY: ★★★★☆

SERVICE: ★★★★★

OVERALL EXPERIENCE: ★★★★★

Bilston is not a place one would typically associate with the arts. Trade and industry, yes, but intricate arts and crafts? Not so much. At any rate, the prejudices I may have had about the area – mostly as a result of unfavourable media – were allayed completely on my visit to Bilston Craft Gallery. You might put it down to the superb weather (and the fact that I visited on the day of their annual Garden Party) but I left feeling thoroughly uplifted.

Despite being on Mount Pleasant, a popular road just off the Bilston high street, the Craft Gallery is surprisingly tucked away. After a few minutes of walking, I was already feeling a little lost (not difficult for me) and was about to double-check the address, when a building suddenly appeared from behind the bushes. I make it sound tiny and elusive – it’s not.

And – guess what – it’s free!

I forget to mention that it is also a library, which you will realise as soon as you go through the doors (it’s just to your right).

The real treasure trove, however, is the Gallery reception and shop.

Image © Bilston Craft Gallery.

It’s just bursting full of beautiful, handmade crafts and gifts. My favourites were the leather handbags and purses by Birmingham-based designer Gosia Weber. I keep seeing her work around Wolverhampton and aching to buy some!

Image © Bilston Craft Gallery.

The whole room is full of shiny things to get your hands on. Some are kept in glass cases, while others come with tags that just say, ‘Touch me!’ (believe me, I did). Whatever your age or interests, there is something in this room for you – from leather to ceramics to textiles, all part of the Craftsense exhibition.

An eye-catching instalment is the Bilston Mayoral Regalia, which was this year returned to Bilston after heavy campaigning by locals.

Image © Bilston Craft Gallery.

The efforts to bring the regalia back to Bilston, after being kept hidden away in Wolverhampton Civic Centre, show how fiercely proud the Bilstoners (Bilstonians?) are of their independence in the past – something which, prior to my visit, I had no knowledge of at all. Something new every day!

If you’re after a more hands-on exhibition, however, you can check outSensational Clay in the main gallery.

Image © Bilston Craft Gallery.

This is open until September, and is inspired by the five senses. Visitors are invited to plunge their hands into sand, play music on pots and even smell the clay. (It smelled quite nice, actually!)

Image © The Artist and Bilston Craft Gallery.

Image © The Artist and Bilston Craft Gallery.

As you can imagine, this is a huge hit with kids of all ages. I felt almost guilty for picking my way around them while they were carefully arranging bits of ceramic or tentatively sniffing vases. Still, it’s interesting for adults alike, and if you fancy being lazy, there’s also a video you can watch about how the exhibition’s creator, Jon Williams, works with clay.

Image © The Artist and Bilston Craft Gallery.

Right! Just when you’ve dusted your hands off, you’ll look out the window and see that there is a great big garden to go and get them dirty in. I was lucky enough to visit the Craft Gallery on the day of its Summer Garden Party, so on that day it was particularly exciting to be outside:

Image © Bilston Craft Gallery.

I don’t think they could have asked for better weather. It was a perfect day for families to come and learn about crafts, play games, make fridge magnets and have their faces painted. (Or just run around in uncontrollable glee.)

Image © Bilston Craft Gallery.

There was catering on site and plenty of staff on hand to keep everything running smoothly.

Image © Bilston Craft Gallery.

I was rather envious of these lucky sprogs, but not so much of the mothers who had to stand with them in this queue for the face painting!

Image © Bilston Craft Gallery.

I got my revenge, though. I discovered one stall that was not suitable for children (although I did accidentally tell a little boy he could join in, ‘sure, yeah, come on!’, before realising that it was clearly a health and safety issue. Sorry about that.)

Of course, I am talking about stitching!

Image © Wombourne Quilters and Bilston Craft Gallery.

I couldn’t help but be sucked in. I enjoy a bit of crafting here and there, but had never attempted hand-stitching or quilting before. The lovely ladies of Wombourne Quilters took care of that!

First, I tried my hand at a ‘whipped double running stitch’ (sounds like some sort of ailment) with Judith:

As you can see, I have a long way to go until I can make anything close to her Foxglove piece.

I couldn’t leave without a quick quilting lesson, either. This is the fruit of my labour:

I’m rather proud of it! It’s a lot harder than it looks — they made it look like child’s play. It’s all in the ‘rocking’ of the hand, apparently. Somehow I doubt I’ll ever become a pro!

After a wholly therapeutic crafting session with the ladies, I wandered back inside for a final peruse. I discovered another craft haven for children in the Craftplay room, through a door inside the Gallery’s reception and shop.

Image © Bilston Craft Gallery.

This is a great space for kids to get creative in; there are loads of exciting things to play with, tents to run in and out of and even a little chill-out room.

Image © The Artist and Bilston Craft Gallery.

(It’s a good thing I don’t have children or I would probably spend all of my time bringing them here and pretending it was their idea.)

I also had a quick look at the upstairs gallery, which I was told is reserved for work by local artists and changes every eight weeks or so. At the moment, it’s home to Time Passing by photographer Gunhild Thomson, who has taken images at fixed locations around the Wolverhampton area at different times of day.

Image © The Artist and Bilston Craft Gallery.

(You can buy some of these prints too, but at £250 a piece, I’d be tempted to just take the photographs myself!)

It was at this point that I remembered I had left my car in a restricted parking zone and, between all of the clay touching, hand stitching, quilting, photographing and sunbathing, I had run well over my time slot and had to suddenly dart off in a blind panic. I probably alarmed a few people in the process.

You might say that I visited on a particularly eventful day, and on a rainy day in the middle of October one might not have the same experience, but I feel that I hardly even touched upon the indoor galleries. I’m sure I could spend hours exploring this place (maybe next time I’ll park somewhere better!) and, for children, this will certainly be a difficult gallery to top. A hidden gem in the bustle of Bilston, this place is definitely one of my top local finds.

If you’re struggling for cheap, creative things to do with the kids this summer, check out Bilston Craft Gallery’s schedule of Summer Workshops. It might just be the inspiration you need to do something at home, too!

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