A look ahead to Potfest in the Pens

PUBLISHED: 11:10 12 April 2013 | UPDATED: 11:10 12 April 2013

The packed cattle market

The packed cattle market

not Archant

Villagers in Greystoke used to hide in the church tower to escape the marauding Scots; this summer they are about to experience an ‘invasion’ of a completely different kind as potters from across the world descend.

This charming village will become ‘home’ to more than 100 potters and ceramicists all exhibiting at an event called Potfest in the Park. Penrith couple Geoff and Christine Cox are behind the idea, both potters themselves they have been instrumental in creating Potfest in the Pens – staged in the cattle market - which marks its 20th anniversary this year. It is now the biggest celebration of the artform in the UK.

Its offshoot, Potfest in the Park, is also an established event in its own right with the two festivals attracting more than 8,000 visitors last year.

Now Geoff and Christine are creating a ceramics village for the first time so all the artists can be in one place. Christine is on record as saying that she and Geoff never get enough time to talk to all the amazing potters. ‘It’s like being at the best party in the world but washing up in the kitchen,’she said.

Taking over the village of Greystoke on the outskirts of Penrith with everyone camping and cooking together resolves that problem.

The idea for Potfest started in 1989 when the couple drove to a pottery market in Holland to sell their work. What they found was a revelation. ‘It was the best gallery we had ever seen,’ said Geoff. Three years later - by this time they had moved to Penrith to do up a derelict barn - the idea was still with them and they decided to stage their first festival. ‘We realised we had to have somewhere under cover and found the cattle market. It was such a stupid idea we thought it could work.’ And it has, from the start 100 potters booked a pen and over that first weekend sold £15,000 worth of pots.

Last year the potters made in excess of £400,000. ‘In the early days they used to leave the bulls in the middle of the market and then they had to be walked out past all the pots in the morning,’ recalled Geoff, laughing about bull in the china shop analogies.

Word soon spread and now about a third of the potters come from abroad, as far afield as Australia and Japan. Potfest in the Pens became such a success it spawned Potfest in the Park in 2001 where larger and more expensive work (some pots cost in excess of £1,000) are exhibited in the gardens of Hutton-in-the-Forest.

The work for the Hutton show also goes through a selection process so there are at least 20 percent of new exhibitors each year. For Potfest in the Pens there is no selection process. Geoff said: ‘When we started we said there would be no selection, every one said it would be rubbish! The problem we had then was we had no reputation so we could not get into galleries and because we could not get into galleries we could not get a reputation. We said at the time if we were ever in a position to do anything for other potters we would make it so it was non selective. Everyone has to start somewhere.’

Both Geoff and Christine had an unusual introduction to becoming potters. They had both attended art college and met when they were teaching in Rochdale, but neither had shown a particular interest in ceramics. ‘I went to a local exhibition in Rochdale and I saw this sculpture work and I thought it was amazing. I bizarrely went to the main office in the gallery and I said ‘I am a potter as well, can I have an exhibition?’ They said ‘yes’ and I thought “oh b****r.”I had never made a pot,’ said Geoff. After reading some books he and Christine started, got good reviews for their exhibition and they gave up teaching in 1985 to become full time potters.

At 66, Geoff says he has no plans to retire as he enjoys the company of potters too much and the contacts he has made has led to him working across the globe. But he does admit: ‘Every time we say this is the last one…it’s something we wanted to see happen and once we stop making it happen it’s going to go away. But it is like herding cats sometimes.’ One thing is for sure, this year’s events look as though they are going to be as popular as ever. Certainly the people of Greystoke are enthusiastic about the explosion of talent entering the village. Edith Fisher, caretaker of the village hall where Geoff is organising a meal for everyone on the first night, said: ‘It will be a wonderful thing for the village, it’s absolutely lovely.’

Potfest in the Pens is on from August 2-4 while Potfest in the Park from July 26-28. More details at www.potfest.co.uk

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