When Georgie Grant moved from London to Watchet 16 years ago, she knew no one. The town, a small, vibrant seaside community in West Somerset, has more than 100 voluntary clubs and societies, but it is also the most deprived in the district with the lowest social mobility in England.
Grant’s husband found a job teaching in Taunton but, after leaving her job at the British Film Institute, Grant made do with work she hated in a recruitment agency. “I didn’t excel at anything,” she remembers. “I wasn’t happy.”
When Grant had a baby, she realised Watchet was full of women like her — people with an education, ambition and caring responsibilities who had moved to the coast only to find that, unless they could commute to Taunton or Bristol, they faced serious demotion.
But Grant and her fellow members of the Onion Collective — a group of social entrepreneurs focused on grassroots regeneration — have created their own opportunities. They have developed the East Quay, a £7m contemporary space with an art gallery, restaurant, workshops, places to stay and more, set to open this month.
Along the way, they have created about 20 jobs in a town where the last big employer, a paper mill, was closed down in 2015, taking a fifth of the town’s jobs with it.
The East Quay building overlooks the marina in Watchet, Somerset © Gareth Iwan Jones
Onion Collective formed in 2012 when two sisters, Jess Prendergrast and Naomi Griffith, asked Grant to stay behind after their regular Thursday evening pint.
Both Prendergrast and Griffith had grown up around Watchet before moving away for work. When they returned, they also faced a career crisis. Prendergrast, an Oxford graduate, commuted to London two days a week to work part-time for an economic consultancy, while her husband worked full-time in Taunton and looked after their two children. Griffith had given up a London job at Reuters to move back to Watchet to run their parent’s zoo.
The sisters had been talking for a while about setting up a company that could employ women locally who were brilliant but lacked opportunities. “We were just really frustrated that people had moved here and their husbands had careers, and they had one or two degrees and were working in part-time admin jobs,” Prendergrast says. “Everyone was overqualified.”
At the centre of Watchet is a small marina that once gave the inspiration for Coleridge’s epic poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Today a handful of boats are beached in a thick layer of mud in the modern marina, opened in 2001 by then-West Somerset District Council.
The overarching thing for us is demonstrating what the next economy could look like
At that time, the council contracted a developer to build residential properties, including luxury flats and commercial space on the east quay. Then the 2008 financial crisis struck and the development stalled. By 2010, the council was considering turning the land into a temporary pay and display car park.
But at Thursday drinks, the women dreamt of what they could do with the space. Not luxury flats for outsiders, but art projects involving local children and the natural environment, workshops to attract artists and areas to display their work.
In December 2012, Prendergrast and Griffith made Grant and another friend Rachel Kelly a proposal: they would form a company and galvanise a transformation of the east quay.
The Onion Collective was so named in a scramble for something that sounded organic and non-corporate — and, they say, “because we occasionally make grown men cry!” Prendergrast, Griffith, Grant and Kelly started as directors, and were joined five years ago by Sally Lowndes.
The East Quay project started with a feasibility study. This did not involve architects and consultants, but rather asked local people what Watchet needed. Armed with lots of tea and biscuits, the group talked to the football club, the British Legion and schools.
In 2013, they started talks with what is now Somerset West and Taunton Council about what they would do with the area, as the council slowly extricated itself from the developer agreement.
Since the very beginning, Onion Collective has faced funding obstacles, local scepticism and lack of respect. Grant still remembers the chambers of commerce member who, when asked what economic opportunities the women might be able to unlock in Watchet, suggested they “make cakes”.
Worse are those who think that public money is being misdirected. In fact, the Onions only pay themselves through a combination of consultation work and grants. The whole arts centre project hinged on a repayable grant of £150,000 from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. With that money, the Onions were able to draw up designs that were eligible for funding from the government’s Coastal Communities Fund.
The council drew up a £1.5m loan agreement in support of their application, providing critical match funding. They won the maximum £5m government grant — and never drew down the loan. Even then, planning delays jeopardised their eligibility for the funding, while cladding issues, Brexit and the pandemic have also threatened build costs and viability over the past eight years.
Georgie Grant, Sally Lowndes, Naomi Griffith and Jess Prendergrast of the Onion Collective outside East Quay © Gareth Iwan Jones/FT
In August, walking around the bones of the development a month before its scheduled opening the scope of their ambitions is laid bare. The higgledy-piggledy roof has been designed to mirror the Watchet skyline.
Accommodation pods sit tall around the central gallery. One has a suspended cargo net covered in cushions as a sofa, another is decorated with laser-cut ply depicting folk heroes from Watchet.
There is an “anti-classroom” education space designed by local schoolchildren, with bouncy balls for seating. Alongside two galleries, artists and makers have signed up to fill workshops, and a restaurant will spill on to the quayside.
At the heart of the space is a paper mill for a local papermaker who will train apprentices, run workshops and make and sell on site — bringing the ancient skill back to Watchet.
“The overarching thing for us is demonstrating what the next economy could look like,” Grant says.
The Onions root their work in caring for each other, often sharing parenting between them, and listening. “It’s that thing where it does take a village to raise a child,” she says. “Especially if you want to have a job in it.”