Pride of Place Bedford – the grand finale

Urban Sketchers at Pride of Place Bedford. Image: Pride of Place Bedford

Since 12 July, an empty shop in Bedford town centre has been transformed into a creative hub in the heart of the town. Two years in the making, Pride of Place (POP) Bedford is proof of the adage, ‘build it and they will come’.

The brain-child of artist and producer, Talia Giles, POP Bedford has seen a complete reimagining of the town’s vacant retail space, alongside its sister project, POP Art.

The space – a former Virgin Media shop – has attracted hundreds of visitors per day. As towns evolve into the 21st century, it’s vital we re-think the purpose of our community centres. No longer simply shopping destinations, visitors are looking for meaningful experiences, unavailable online.

As the final week of POP Bedford approaches, its swansong exhibition will launch this Wednesday (16 August).

Entitled ‘This Is Bedford‘ it is a retrospective of work created in each of the artist-in-residence projects, photography and work created through the artist takeover.

Taking a well-earned breather, Talia spoke to the Bedford Independent about the POP Bedford project…

“I was apprehensive about what sort of demographic we’d get through the door as from the start, I really wanted to ensure this space was welcoming and appealing to the entire, multi-cultural community of Bedford, not just me as a white, British female,” explained Talia. 

“Through a combination of the exhibits we’ve had, the incredible diversity of workshops and events (most of which have been free to attend), I cannot tell you how moving it’s been seeing every type of human imaginable walk through the door.”

5 Midland Road has been home to museum exhibits, photography exhibitions, a film screening, wild kids’ sessions, artists-in-residencies and workshops.

“The engagement has been unreal,” said Talia.

“So many people just step inside out of curiosity and stay here.  One of my favourite things to see has been when we’ve just left drawing boards on the tables and materials lying about and people just wander in, sit down and spend hours chatting and drawing. 

“We’ve had some wonderful conversations together with Bedford locals.”

Of course, it’s not just Talia keeping the doors of POP Bedford open.

“None of this could have happened without the support in kind from volunteers, some of whom have been in here every week putting in shifts,” said Talia.

“From the build at the beginning to professional photographers photographing an event for free, to borrowing everything and anything at short notice from the local businesses and museums (John Bunyan, The Higgins, Harpur Centre, Corn Exchange), the list is endless.  I have so many thank yous to get through, it’s probably going to take me a month to do it.” 

And while keyboard warriors and Facebook commentators might be quick to suggest that all Bedford’s empty shops should be put to similar use, being a pop-up shopkeeper is not for the faint-hearted.

Regularly putting in 14-hour days, Talia has crammed three months’ worth of her project into just six weeks.

“This hasn’t been without its difficulties,” she confirmed.

“First and foremost, it’s A LOT of work. Too much work in fact, especially in the short time frame we had – just 27 days – to build a brand, a website, programme six weeks of events, recruit help, put systems and evaluation methods in place and then actually operate a space this size daily in a busy town centre environment. 

“It was certainly ambitious but I wanted to try out as many different things as possible so we could get a feel for what type of activities people want to engage with and how they use the space.  

“We don’t want to turn anyone away, however, it does mean you end up being a bit of a hangout space for quite literally everyone and there’s no amount of training that can prepare you for the conversations and instances that happen that you have to deal with.”

Community spirit

Making up for all the hard work, late nights, sleepless nights and stress, the feedback Talia and the team have received has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The place brings together a community spirit”, “I’ll bring the children down, we’ve been waiting for something like this to happen in Bedford”, “We should have this forever”, “It’s so nice to see so many people together in one space”, and one of our personal favourites: “Are you the pop-up lady? You’ve brought something that has gone to sleep back to life.  It’s incredible and I’m really proud of you.”

Of course, one person cannot reverse the fortunes of our town centres, but Pride of Place Bedford has shown that culture has a vital place in the heart of our communities, bringing people together and creating meaningful shared experiences.

“I just hope the momentum carries on, and through a combination of decent landlords, the council and funding partners, they can see that this would make for a vital resource to the town of Bedford, and bring us all closer together,” said Talia.

“I’m getting emotional now. 

“All I can say is, it’s certainly been a journey, but this definitely isn’t the end of the road.

“Can I have some sleep now, please?”

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