By Sid Ambrose
A former creamery in the heart of the Machars, seems an unlikely setting for a bohemian style arts collective. However this is exactly what you will find if you make your way along to the jumble of red brick industrial units known as Bladnoch Bridge Estate.
The creamery closure in 1986 was a hammer blow to the local economy with dozens of direct jobs being relocated to Wales and many local businesses failing from the knock on effects.
Having stood empty for a while the creamery buildings were eventually purchased by a retired boilermaker from Yorkshire called Denis Baldwin. Gradually these were sold off as individual units and became home to a number of different enterprises. Dowling Stoves was one of the first to set up, and has been there from about 1994.
Since then the estate has become home to a marvellous array of concerns, from Andrew Plunkett’s agricultural buildings factory at the west end to Dowling Stoves at the other. Nestled in between are two record labels, a professional recording studio, a blacksmith, a sculptor, Unit 3 Art Gallery, GC Books, two mechanic shops, and a ceramic artist.
Upstairs in one of the main buildings further studios are planned. Neighbouring Wigtown has seen a renaissance through literature, so it would be nice to think that Bladnoch Bridge Estate could become a byword for rural arts regeneration.
If the estate can be described as an archipelago of independent units then Steve Dowling surely deserves the title of creative Tsar. His stoves and boilers are radically different from anything else on the market and everything is manufactured on site. The company prides itself on making the strongest stoves in the world and also on being the only genuine custom stove builder in the UK.
Bespoke boiler designs aside Steve has also recently opened an art gallery adjacent to his workshop: “I am really delighted to be hosting the gallery here at what is known as Unit 3. It gives a real lift to the atmosphere in the Estate. We’re planning shows to highlight the various metal work that goes on down here. There are six small enterprises that work in steel, a mixture of sculpture, craft work and industry, so it would be a showcase of some of the local ingenuity.
“Future exhibitions will be from further afield and in different media – painting and photography, sculpture and installations that will stretch the credulity a bit, for what’s the use of credulity if it’s not stretched occasionally?”
For the casual visitor, the Unit 3 art gallery provides a focal point where they can enquire about some of the other artisans based within the estate. Local ceramicists Jeek and Molly spring to mind. Since 2009 Jeek has pursued his craft in the old electrician’s building simply known as Unit 6A. Fans of the Soviet era and science fiction films would delight in the stark building designations. Jeek works in clay, glass and concrete but also incorporates bonsai plants and car spray paint in his unique signature style.
Hollywood film director and author Clive Barker, who gave the world Hellraiser and Candyman, purchased one of his clay pieces and no doubt found a kindred spirit in Jeek who has a similarly vivid imagination.
Wigtown lass Molly has recently started an apprenticeship with Jeek and seems to share a comparable passion for fantasy-type art and forms.
Jeek said: “There are a lot of young artists in Wigtownshire who for whatever reason do not get the opportunity to pursue their talents. I am really happy to be able to pass my knowledge on and hope that Molly can do the same in years to come.”
Unit 7 recording studio is less than the length of a selfie stick away from Jeek and Molly’s pocket-sized studio. Purchased by Huey Dowling in 2006, he transformed what was essentially a shell of a building into a fully functioning recording studio with acoustic walls and dampened ceilings, wiring and equipment were later installed which allowed the first professional recording to take place in the winter of 2007.
Huey described himself as part of the old Glastonbury crew and has certainly been around the block on the UK music circuit. However, in an industry that can be populated by shysters and charlatans, Huey has retained a love of music as his main driving force.
Recording sessions are a very affordable £150 per day and in some cases Unit 7 studios are willing to do the recording work on a promise of later payment. This can prove invaluable to young struggling musicians who often need a break when first starting out.
About 60 albums have been produced as well as numerous singles and EPs since Studio 7 first flung open its doors.
Record labels and recording studios may operate in the same universe but are usually at least a bus or a taxi ride away from each other. Not so in the case of Distilled Records, officially they are based back in unit 3 but, given the nature of their work, Distilled front man Dave Oldham spends a lot of his time in Unit 7. Dave is another creative and passion fuelled denizen of the estate and also the village of Bladnoch where he lives.
He said: “We concentrate on just a few acts. We encourage original material, and reckon song writing and honest delivery to be the foundation of great music. The best way to develop this is by getting it out and playing it live, from literally out on the streets to gigs in bars, concert halls and festivals.
“We’re not fussy about genre, just as long as it’s got that indefinable ‘original voice’. We are musicians ourselves, and our contracts are simple, non-exclusive and artist friendly though not for managers or agents. We do what we can for our ‘stable’ with the limited resources at our disposal.”
Finally, “The Blacksmith“ was keen to show me round his workshop. A number of projects were on the go including a bespoke trailer for a client’s very expensive Morgan car. Creativity such as this cannot be squared off and fitted into a 9-5 week and, in between cups of tea and listening to Motown classics on his very massive non blacksmith sound-system, some precise welding was being carried out.
Hubs may be the in word for describing homogeneous collectives but I will stick to my guns and firmly believe that Bladnoch Bridge Estate deserves its Bohemian reputation.
The gallery is open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 4pm. Contact 01988 402666 for details or www.unit3gallery.co.uk
Pictures: Stephen Jolly Photography
First published: Summer 2015