By the time I reach the bottom of the eleven stone steps leading up to The Edge I thought I knew what to expect. I’d digested all the documents Angela had emailed, read the blog on their website, viewed Google Street View and, last night, as the light was fading, I’d wandered down from my fisherman’s cottage in the harbour to reccé this church-turned-community centre.
Despite one of the chalkboard signs declaring, ‘We Are Open. You Are Welcome’, and then, in smaller handwriting, ‘This is no longer a church’, I could hear what sounded like choral singing from inside and by the fourth step I had caught sight of something that looked very like an alter. By the sixth step I realised it was actually a pool table and, once inside, I heard Angela encouraging a young woman holding a microphone, “That was terrific,” she says, “but if it’s going to be ready by Wednesday, then we have to rehearse more. You have to really ‘wow’ them on the night!”
The Edge is the new home of Brixham YES. The ‘YES’ stands for Youth Enquiry Service and, 15 years ago when it was set up, it was an outpost of a South Devon support service for young people. It’s an independent charity now with young people as its focus and, with its larger premises, is striving to extend its reach to others in the community.
Brixham YES has had an unusual twelve months. It has moved from ex-council office space in the centre of town into this abandoned church, brow-beating the diocesan property agent into selling it to them, a group committed to supporting their local community, rather than to a commercial property developer.
Amidst all the negotiations, financial gymnastics, packing, renovating and unpacking, YES has also been chosen by the government-backed agency, NESTA, to embark on a 12-month social experiment into how best to support local community innovations. Over 600 community groups applied to be part of the Neighbourhood Challenge initiative but only 17 were chosen across the country and YES was one. Most in the town think the prize element of Brixham’s Challenge has been one of the best things to have happened to the community for a long time, some think it has been potentially damaging to community cohesion.
And now, as the end of the financial year approaches, the few paid staff face an uncertain future. Like countless other council-funded projects they have had their meagre funding slashed and the one full-time post that was paid directly from the council’s youth budget has been cut. The staff and management committee are frantically looking for new plates to spin to keep their group going.
In a small room off the main space is one of two workshops. Within minutes of my arrival I’m introduced to Alan and Graham, retired engineers who approached YES some time ago and offered their time and skills. Rather than sit at home or dig their gardens they wanted to pass their knowledge on to young people and so YES offered them a space where they could set up an Aladdin’s cave of mechanical and electronic gadgetry.
Alongside them is Otto, clutching the wooden outline of a what will be an electric guitar. With his long, blonde hair and youthful enthusiasm, Otto could easily be the frontman for the next big thing to come out of Brixham.
“So, what are you making in here this morning,” I ask.
“We’re making these,” Otto says, pointing out some small metallic part of the guitar.
“And I’m making the Brix Awards for Wednesday night,” says Alan. The ‘Brix Awards’ are an annual event organised by the young people at YES to celebrate the achievement of the town’s youth and to acknowledge those adults who have been supportive. Wednesday night’s bash is at the Berry Head Hotel overlooking the bay and this year’s theme is ‘posh’.
“What are they going to look like?” I ask Alan.
“I don’t know,” he says, “I haven’t started them yet!”
I am ‘embedded’ here in Brixham for five days to interview and photograph the people who work, volunteer and engage with The Edge. A tight schedule has been prepared, people lined up. I’m whisked off to meet Ben, my first interviewee.