The wonder of Wingfield
- Credit: Gregg Brown
David Green reports on the mixed fortunes of Wingfield Barns and meets the woman helping to forge a brighter future for the arts and entertainment venue
Sue Preston has a love of the arts, a great sense of community and a lifelong belief in the value of education.
So this ex-teacher is a perfect person to help guide the future of what is probably the most remote professional entertainment venue in Suffolk – Wingfield Barns.
This complex of former farm buildings in a sparsely populated village about six miles from the small town of Eye was renovated and given modern facilities with the help of National Lottery grant in the mid-1990s. It now hosts a variety of theatre and music performances for all ages, as well as workshops for school teachers, activity days for children and local village events.
Artistes to appear at Wingfield Barns in recent months include Richard Digance, Kiki Dee and Gigspanner, a band formed by ex-Steeleye Span musician Peter Knight.
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The venue’s aim is not to make “mega bucks” – although that would be nice – but to break even. Its additional role as a venue for “quiet” weddings and conferences goes a long way in helping to achieve the target.
“If you want a wedding with a rock band playing until 3 o’clock in the morning then this is not the place for you,” Sue says.
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“Once people come here and see what we have they tend to come back time and time again. The challenge is getting them over here in the first place.
“The arts are struggling on a national basis through lack of funding. We have to pay our way here at Wingfield and the conferences and weddings help us to balance the books.”
Until the second half of the 20th Century, Wingfield Barns was part of the working farm attached to the ancient Wingfield College, now a private house, but for nearly 200 years an ecclesiastical college.
The college was founded by the will of Sir John de Wingfield in 1362 and was provided with further funds by the will of the Black Prince, Sir John’s friend.
When fine artist Ian Chance bought it in the 1970s it had been a farmhouse for generations, but investigation and restoration work revealed its grand medieval architecture and history.
From 1981 th house become the venue for many events in a year-round arts festival organised by Mr Chance – concerts, recitals and lectures as well as exhibitions of ceramics, textiles and contemporary art.
In 1996 the National Lottery provided £711,000 to help convert the farm barns into a performance venue, exhibition areas and offices.
Wingfield Arts was wound up in 2003 due to lack of ongoing funding and the house was sold to a private owner. However, Wingfield Barns carried on the arts tradition in the care of Mid Suffolk District Council.
When, two years ago, the district council decided it could no longer fund the venue, a community interest company was set up with the help of a further £5,000 from the Big Lottery Fund.
Sue is one of the community interest company’s six directors as well as its part-time, day-to-day manager. Part-time often becomes more like full-time due to her enthusiasm and she relies heavily on a team of local volunteers, which includes her husband, Roy.
“Weddings and conferences are very important to Wingfield Barns for generating income,” says Sue. “We try to make people attending these events feel special and to look after them.
“This is a fabulous, unique venue and we’re all determined to keep it. Its potential is enormous. There is so much goodwill around the place, so much goodwill for it to succeed. We’ve got to be optimistic.”