Hand Engraved Messages.
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I used to go to Dartington Crystal mainly to shop, although in those days the shopping was fairly limited to the wonderful glass and crystal that is made in the factory and the odd bit of fancily packaged fudge. Now, in addition to an abundance of glassware, you'll find cookware, clothing, cards, all sorts of home and garden bits and pieces and some toys.
There is a family-friendly café on site (reasonable prices and plenty of space for buggies and high-chairs) and an ice-cream parlour through the summer months. It would be easy enough to treat the place as you would any other shopping area, with the bonus of free parking. However a visit to the glass factory, itself, is really worthwhile and offers a particularly good rainy day out.
I had never actually gone in to the factory properly before and realised on this visit that I had missed a treat. There is a raised viewing platform above the area where the glass is blown and you get a good clear view. It is amazing, within a minute or two, half a dozen ordinary blokes in T-shirts start to look like ballet dancers – it's the combination of precision and art that is so fascinating, I think.
The effect seems to be universal. Everyone watching from the viewing gallery was mesmerised, one woman told me she'd been there for hours. But, if you can drag yourself away, you can also see the finishing and packing processes. There is lots of good information on hand and the whole 'Factory Experience', as the folk at Dartington like to call it, manages to avoid the school trip atmosphere that lots of these sorts of tours exude.
If you do decide to skip the science bit though, there is plenty of other entertainment on offer. You can, for example, have your hand (or foot) memorialised in a glass cast. The prices for these are very reasonable, starting at under £15 for little mitts, so they are ideal presents for all those godparents and grannies you're keen to please if you've got a newborn.
Or, for couples, a hand-in-hand cast might make rather a nice way of marking an engagement or anniversary. Mind you, there's also a master engraver on hand for those who fancy a more traditional crystal memorial. You can paint your own glass at Dartington (that's Father's Day sorted, then) or make your own jewellery (so far so perfect for those of you with 10-year-old daughters) or even (booking advised) have a go at glass blowing yourself.
Of course a great day out with kids can still sneak in a bit of education in the guise of a good time and if yours are old enough to sit still for long enough to watch a bit of the film about the factory they will learn, among other things, something about Dartington's importance in the local area.
Not only is it the only large scale working glass factory in the UK. but it was founded (by the Elmhurst family of Dartington Hall near Totnes) as a way of helping to regenerate the local area in the 1960s. Having only ever visited with a mission to replace a broken wine glass or with a very small child in tow in the past I confess that I had never actually sat down for long enough to take this bit in myself. Maybe it's the effect of the recession, or maybe I am just getting sentimental, but I find myself quite moved by these sorts of stories nowadays.
It is nice to think that the simple act of putting some daffodils in a vase has a link with the history of North Devon and has helped to develop a fantastic (and world-renowned) local craft. Which is as good a reason as any for whisking your out-of-town visitors up there with their credit cards at the ready at the first opportunity, right?
North Devon Journal, Thursday May 13th, 2010.