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23 Nov 2017

Changing Channel: Clare Dowdy on Co-Working

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In Bexhill-on-Sea, a south coast town famed for its elderly population and glacial pace of life, the WorkShop is setting out to attract a younger, creative demographic

Over the summer break, I needed to do some work. Not from a Greek villa, but from my 1970s static caravan which is parked in a wood near Bexhill-on-Sea on England’s south coast.

Normally, this involves the traditional freelancers’ exchange: the cost of a cuppa for an hour’s worth of plug socket and internet access from the De La Warr Pavilion’s cafe. Good for the soul to be overlooking the Channel from Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff’s modernist icon. But not designed as a working environment.

This August, I tried out the local library, which had the advantage of being free. Buzzy was not the word. Each morning, there was an orderly queue outside before opening time, and the low-rise booths filled up quickly. Slight inconveniences included not being supposed to eat at my desk, and the chit-chat of other, less focused, library-goers. And like the De La Warr’s café, a trip to the loo involved precious minutes packing and unpacking valuables.

Thank goodness, then, that 46,000-strong Bexhill has at last got a shared workspace. The WorkShop (pictured right) is a bright retail unit a few roads back from the seafront, with restored parquet flooring, decent task chairs from Cult Furniture, a tropical mural and copper piping housing the electricity cables. A £15 day pass allowed me to make myself some mint tea, use the printer, and gaze at the telling cocktail of pavement traffic: mobility scooters and buggies.

Bexhill is flanked by bigger places with their own co-working spaces. But why, asked The WorkShop’s founders, should Bexhill residents have to commute to Hastings or Eastbourne?

What’s more, Paul Bailey – who was previously general manager at the De La Warr – spotted an influx of young families and “forward-thinking people”. His wife, Kaela Mills Bailey, epitomises the type. She grew up in Hackney but now runs the adjacent shop, which stocks children’s products from designer-makers, and her own flourishing childrenswear line, Sprout.

Unlike some high-octane co-working environments, this one is only open from Tuesday to Friday, between the very civilised hours of 10am to 5pm. That allows the space to be rented out for evening and weekend events. 

And, fabulously, if I had had my school-aged offspring underfoot, she could have been entertained with a drop-in creative workshop. Meaning she could have painted a picture or decorated a bag while I checked my emails.

Despite plenty of interest, The WorkShop’s half a dozen desk spaces were not packed to the gunwales. Perhaps Bexhill’s self-employed are not yet climbing the walls of their back rooms, or the modest £200 a month price tag for a full-time slot doesn’t appeal. Or, unlike much of the Western world, they haven’t caught the co-working bug.

But while it might be a slow burner, The WorkShop is part of Bexhill’s tentative repositioning from pensioners’ dumping ground – in some wards the over-65s account for more than 40% of the population – to happening seaside town. Over the road, the year-old Wickham Bistro is decked out with – shock, horror – distressed panelling. And on the promenade, HTA Design’s stylish and thoroughly un-Edwardian landscaping has bedded in well.

Like many co-working operators, the duo hope to create a community of creatives and sole traders. By my next trip to the ’van, that could be taking shape.

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