From the moment the door opens there’s an unforced welcome that not only greets the newcomer but uplifts as well. The Purbeck Workshop is a small space that has seen more than its share of tears shed, but it certainly feels good to be there.
Offering a creative distraction from the exigencies of living with cancer, it’s a place in which many things are made – far more than the artworks, bags, toys and gifts that are for sale. It’s clear that the pleasure derived by being with friends, some met for the first time, in this light and airy unit on a small industrial estate near Wool station more than outweighs the anxiety about the disease that unites them. At least for the time they are there.
‘That is such a welcome thing,’ says Susan, who leads a papercraft workshop but also comes along to other sessions. ‘We can come here and talk as much or as little about cancer as we want – sometimes we don’t mention it at all; other times it’s all we talk about, particularly when someone is new to the group and they absolutely have to talk about cancer.’
The Purbeck Workshop opened four years ago, in November 2014, and offers free workshops and events to anyone whose life has been touched by cancer in any way. A registered charity it makes no charge for materials and the course leaders, some of whom are professional makers, give their time freely.
The scheme was the brainchild of Paul Feeney who died aged 35 just a week before the workshop opened.
‘The till was Paul’s last Christmas present from me, which I gave to him early so that he could take it to the Workshop himself and see it set up,’ says Sinead, his widow and mother of their two children, who works full-time and runs the charity with three other trustees.
‘This place was his idea and yet he wasn’t really a crafts person – we joked he couldn’t paint a wall or draw a stick man – but he was incredibly sociable and made everyone who met him feel special. My promise is that Purbeck Workshop won’t close until every single person has been invited to come and join in.’
Paul had been diagnosed with the aggressive Lynch syndrome cancer in November 2012 and while undergoing treatment found learning new craft skills, particularly woodworking, offered a welcome interruption from the medical routine. Being with people who understood something of what each other were going through lead him to create the Purbeck Workshop and appoint its four trustees. Even as he embarked on palliative care he oversaw the transformation of the premises and the workshop is now run as his legacy to the community.
‘It is a remarkable place and they are very special people,’ says Jane, a workshop regular and not alone in her admiration for Paul’s vision and Sinead’s gentle management of it.
‘This is such an important part of all our lives and I remember reading something that Sinead had written in which she spoke about this being a lifeboat launched by Paul to give her a focus. I think it feels like that for a lot of us. Coming here is an incredibly positive experience and that has everything and nothing to do with making crafts – who knew messy play could bring such joy?’
Usually everyone leaves with something they have made, but that hardly seems the point. What is made is far less important that the coming together to make it.
‘When my husband died I felt very alone as all my friends were to do with golf clubs – that was his thing and I found it quite difficult to go on my own,’ says Liz who runs the Tuesday craft sessions. ‘Coming here put me in touch with lots of new people and we all have this one thing in common so you don’t have to explain to anyone if you don’t want to.’
Susan picks up the thread: ‘It’s a safe place and nobody judges anyone else. I don’t have cancer but I look after a very close friend who does. When groups get full I always used to say that I’d drop out because I felt other people’s need was greater than mine, but they soon told me that I absolutely had to stay.’
The thread is passed to Jane: ‘We all support each other and not just while we’re here. If someone is sick there’ll always be a message from someone to ask how you are and if it’s right to do so someone will pop round, sometimes with craft materials. Cancer care in Dorset is exceptionally good but there’s such a lot of travelling and it gets expensive so having somewhere to come that doesn’t make any financial demands is so important.’
The Purbeck Workshop works with Macmillan so that course leaders and facilitators receive some level of training, but its primary purpose is to maintain an open door to any and all whose lives have been touched by cancer – women and men, old and young alike.
‘It can be difficult getting the message out there, especially to men and younger people,’ says Sinead. ‘We’d love to hear from people who might be able to bring their skills to new workshops or events. We’ve had astronomy and food tasting events and I hope to set up some music groups soon as well.’
There is something about making things in the company of others that connects people on a different level enabling them to push their battles with cancer aside – just for a while.
The Purbeck Workshop helps all sorts of people in all sorts of ways, says Jane: ‘The people that come here are aged from thirty to ninety perhaps, but it affects other people as well. It’s quite a long way from my house so when I wasn’t up to it my daughter would drive me. She had only just passed her test and wasn’t confident but because she knew it was important to me she made herself do it and that was a real help.’
• First published by Dorset Life The Dorset Magazine.