Visionary Norfolk workshop born in prayer
A visionary idea born in a small home prayer group in a seaside village in north Norfolk led to a pioneering project to help needy people in Norwich which this year is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Mike Wiltshire reports.
Today, hand-made wooden products from the award-winning St Michael's Workshop in Bowthorpe are exported all over the world - the workshop is also the UK supplier of the popular "Godly Play" creative materials used in many churches, schools, hospitals and care homes.
The original vision was shared by Christian friends with Barbara and Peter Tomlinson in the village of Bacton. The couple moved to Bowthorpe, Norwich, and Peter started a workshop in his double garage, close to the Bowthorpe Church Centre, located alongside the 600-year-old ruins of St Michael's Church.
With the encouragement of Sally Simpson and her brother, Ray, the former minister at Bowthorpe, the pioneer workshop project grew, despite many financial challenges.
The fully-equipped workshop is now located in modern premises in former stables alongside Bowthorpe Church, teaching skills to people with physical or learning disabilities and to unemployed people. The charity project is part of Bowthorpe Community Trust and funded in part by the Norfolk Learning Disabilities Service.
Peter recalls: "We started by making toys. The Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation were the first to support us. Today we have a fine workshop supplying wooden educational materials and other items all over the UK and worldwide."
Peter, who formerly worked in the gas industry, retired from the workshop 10 years ago, but returned five years ago, and he is still there on a part-time basis, working alongside the workshop staff and volunteers.
Sally Simpson, a retired teacher from City College, is still very much involved in the workshop project, as well as being the pastoral co-ordinator at Bowthorpe Church.
Among many giving strong support for the workshop is Canon Simon Stokes, a former minister at Bowthorpe who, even though he is registered blind, jogged the Beachy Head marathon to raise money for the project with his Labrador guide dog, Tigger. Simon is now vicar at St Cuthbert's Church in Wroxham Road, Sprowston.
Customers of the Norwich and Peterborough Building Society in Bowthorpe recently voted for St Michael's Workshop to win the N&P Community Award.
Meanwhile, workshop trustees, encouraged by the Rev Mark Elvin, minister at Bowthorpe for the past two years, are planning an "anniversary open day" for May 16, 2015, and plan to invite all former clients and their families, support workers, staff, patrons and community leaders to a lunch and tea event.
"It's remarkable to think that all this began more than 30 years ago in a small prayer meeting," says Peter.
Pictured top, the St Michael's Workshop and Bowthorpe Church Centre, above, Barbara and Peter Tomlinson and, right, St Michael’s Workshop wins an N&P Community Award.