Reasons to visit Northumberland

My stencilling course at The Stencil Library, by Frances Hinton

Have you ever fancied a go at stencilling? I like to try anything vaguely artistic, but when it comes to stencils, I didn’t really know where to start.

My opportunity came when I met Helen Morris, co-owner of The Stencil Library and we got talking about the courses she offers. 

I soon learned that Helen runs the courses out of one of the outbuildings at Stocksfield Hall, on the edge of the Northumberland village of Stocksfield. So I signed up for the Stencil Day course (9.45am-5pm), made a note of the things to bring – notebook, tape measure and my apron – and booked my train.

Arriving on a cool Spring day I was shown into the sitting room at Stocksfield Hall, where I met fellow students and was offered a very welcome cup of freshly-made coffee. We chatted with Helen about our previous experience (me, none!) and what we wanted to get out of the course (me, anything that looked vaguely respectable!). It was a revelation to find out where the others had come from, too – all over the UK and beyond (one lady from Greece was combining the course with a visit to her niece in Edinburgh, just an hour further along the trainline from Newcastle).

“The idea of the day is to give you inspiration and the building blocks to go away and feel confident to do a professional job at home (or elsewhere),” said Helen.

Our first stop was therefore a tour of the house. Stocksfield Hall is itself a work of art, lovingly stencilled over the 25+ years this creative couple have lived here. It’s a feast for the eyes, offering inspiration at every step, and illustrating just how far your imagination can go with stencilling. No surprise, then, that it has been featured on television and in many books and magazines.

Walls, floors, furniture, soft furnishings (from lampshades to cushions, plus an ingenious blind, stencilled to work from the inside and the outside), ceramics and tiles – all have been stencilled using a huge variety of designs and paint effects. Even ceilings get the stencil treatment: the Napoleon Room has a pleated fabric ceiling, while the nautically themed bathroom on the first floor includes maps on the wall and astrological images above the free-standing bath.

“Feel free to take inspiration from the house,” suggests Helen. “However, I like to think of this place as the visual equivalent of a buffet. You could try and eat the whole lot (not recommended!), or you can choose small ideas to take away and inspire future projects at home – cushion covers, for example, or a feature wall.”

Brimming with ideas and raring to go, we settled into the workshop space and started on the basics: the brushes, the types of paint you can use, and how to get the paint onto the brush. The success of your stencilling all hinges on this bit and believe me, the temptation is to use too much paint. “Even people who have been stencilling for years have a lightbulb moment on this course,” says Helen.

She’s right; as soon as I got it, the whole process became easier. It’s more about applying a light touch and building up the layers – either one colour or different colours for a blended effect.

For my first project, I started with a border, selected from a choice of three stencils proposed by Helen (you get to keep this reusable stencil). I learnt how to repeat the stencil, how to build up and blend colours, and how to do overlays (using different colours). Ensuring that the pattern matches up is quite an art – so once achieved, that felt like a real triumph!

Next, we went on to cutting our own stencil. Helen showed us how, using a sponge and a paint suitable for ceramics, to recreate the shape of the stencil you want. We had been given a bunch of butterfly shapes to choose from; so I set to, lightly sponging through the original stencil, then cutting these coloured bits away to end up with a copy. Again, the point was to be able to take this stencil home and be able to use it for our own projects. I plan to use it on some spare bathroom tiles for use on a garden table.

Finally, we had a go at stencilling fabric, overlaying colour after colour on top of fabric provided by Helen. Yet another technique on a different surface. And that’s what stencilling is, really – a way to achieve amazing effects on a huge range of surfaces from plaster and wood to fabric and ceramics. Even clothing, if you fancy.

So yes, stencilling is another tool of interior decoration – a skill to master, but this course was a really good starting point and left me feeling like I could add it to my artistic skillset… With a bit of practice!

A bit about The Stencil Library

Since 1988, Helen and Chip have been designing and cutting decorative stencils, including historical, retro and contemporary styles, plus lettering. The Stencil Library now has over 5,000 stencils in its archive, with new stencils being made all the time and posted all over the world.

Helen is not only an expert at getting the most out of the stencilling process, she is also an excellent teacher, guiding you all the way, calmly and patiently

explaining what to do and why, making sure everyone stays safe (eg, when cutting the stencil!), and assisting only when necessary.

Who this course is for

This one-day course is suitable for beginners (like me) and those with previous stencilling experience. Helen adds: “This class can also be useful for anyone already teaching paint-related workshops and who want to add extra stills to their repertoire.”

Cost

This course costs £80 (including the House Tour and the take home kit). Refreshments, lunch (vegetarian) and materials are all provided.

Dates of forthcoming courses

Courses resume at the end of March this year. For full details, visit The Stencil Library.

How to get there

I travelled by train to Stocksfield Station from Newcastle Central Station (2 every hour at that time of day, taking about 25 minutes). The Newcastle to Carlisle line is one of the most scenic and The Stencil Library is an easy 7-minute walk from the station. By car, it’s a five-minute drive from the A69 intersection with the A68.

Where to stay

Helen has compiled a useful list of local B&Bs and guest houses in Stocksfield and the surrounding area. Just ask for a copy when you book.

While you’re in the area

If you have extra time, why not explore the Tyne Valley area? The former Roman town of Corbridge, on the River Tyne, with its pretty central square and attractive shops and cafes is just 15 minutes away by car, train or bus. The historic market town of Hexham, a little further along The Tyne, has an ancient abbey, old goal-house, an arts centre with gallery and theatre spaces, and an independent cinema, plus a variety of shops, cafes and restaurants. Hadrian’s Wall – celebrating its 1900th anniversary this year – is a 20/30-minute drive north through attractive Northumbrian countryside offering walks in both directions.


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