When you walk along Bridge Street in Chester and look up, it’s easy to spot the eye-catching black and white timbers of Cowper House, a handsome Grade I listed building built in the 1600s for a former mayor of the city. The four-storey building that was once the home of Thomas Cowper is now home to a business that is already trading as a retail shop on street level and a stylish cafe up on the row.
Bloom & Albion opened at Cowper House at the end of 2021, with the retail shop opening first in October and the funky Arthouse Cafe more recently, at the beginning of April. It will soon offer creative workshops in the studio space in the rib-vaulted crypt and the floorspace on the top levels.
Bloom & Albion director, Lisa Harman
The couple behind the creative enterprise is Lisa Harman and Andrew Bruce. While both are trained architects, Lisa has stepped away from the profession to concentrate on building up a business that’s environmentally-aware and gives customers, artists and makers a platform for creativity. Andrew works full-time in construction management but the running of Bloom & Albion is, says Lisa, very much a joint effort.
So how did they begin their journey from architects to creative stakeholders? It was a process that started just a few years ago.
“I was frustrated with not feeling creative in architecture because it’s heavily computer-based and there are so many constraints,” explains Lisa. “I found a lot of time was spent sat down at a computer and I like doing things, making things. I was missing that creative edge to do something.”
While trying to decide what to do next, Lisa came across a 12-month, one-day-a-week letterpress course in Salford. She’d just started working for herself and things fell into place, and when she started the course she fell completely in love with it.
With her new-found skills under her belt the couple – Lisa is from North Wales and Andrew from the Wirral – set up The Ffowndri studio in 2019, in the Denbighshire village of Dyserth.
“We both carried on working full-time and then we were holding letterpress workshops at weekends,” Lisa explains. “We brought in other artists to run courses in other areas that were related, like lino print, book-binding and paper modelling. So it was quite varied.”
They would open up for community days so people could come in and learn about printing while giving it a go. “We worked a lot with Mostyn Gallery, helping them at print fairs,” says Lisa.
Then the pandemic struck.
The enforced closure of the Dyserth studio gave them time to rethink their plans: they moved to Cheshire, cutting Andrew’s commute to Manchester, and kept an eye open for other premises. Their revised plan was to have a financially sustainable workshop studio with a retail element while helping other independent makers sell their products.
“The idea of having somewhere that people knew that they could come in and see individual or handmade products that had some sustainability to them felt like a good match to the studio,” says Lisa. “We set up a website selling the makers’ products with the aim of looking for a premises where we could have a studio and a physical store as well,” says Lisa.
When they discovered Cowper House they knew it was the perfect fit for them. Now the couple heads up a team of 10 people who work across the building.
“When we found this building we just fell in love with the crypt. It’s Grade I listed and the only one in Chester with windows in it. It just felt like the perfect setting for our products,” says Lisa.
The facilities offered by Bloom & Albion fill a niche in the market, she adds. “There seemed to be a need for it in Chester. There wasn’t anywhere in the city centre offering that sort of retail aspect or the makers’ space.”
When you step off the street into Bloom & Albion you step into a retail space selling products that range from homeware, books and greeting cards to wall art and skincare. Everything for sale in the shop is handpicked, curated and selected to keep things contemporary and bright. You’ll find gifts and decorative items made by ceramists, woodworkers, textile artists, glass makers and more as Bloom & Albion is one big creative hub: there’s creativity in everything they do, from the makers’ studio to the products in the shop, the artwork on the walls of the cafe and even the menu.
The aim is to have the workshops up and running by the end of July. They’ll be offered as a one-day course and will be open to the over 16s. They plan to offer holiday workshops for children where they can have a go at making a poster for a couple of hours.
“It’s about having a creative outlet and also the tactile nature of both the ceramics and the letterpress – actually making something with your hands instead of it being something on a screen,” says Lisa. “With letterpress it’s such a mixed experience. You’re getting the history, learning how this is how things were first printed. Then there’s the art and English side of it: it’s a way of expressing yourself in words and also an artistic way if you want to use the letters as shapes and symbols.
“And it’s always important that they understand and have an appreciation of the history of the print trade,” she adds.
“I’ll be running the letterpress workshops so we will be doing poster and card workshops and we have local ceramicist Kirsti Hannah Brown on board with us so we’ll be able to offer ceramic workshops, too,” she says.
Lisa and Andrew plan to use the top two floors of the building for art exhibitions and they will also be made available to artists who can hire the space to run their own workshops in other art forms, such as life drawing.
People can also join up as a member and can use the makers’ space during the week.
“Once people have completed a workshop or we know they’re proficient, then they can come in and set their own type,” says Lisa.
The idea for the cafe came organically, because of the space available. While the studio and makers’ space was integral to Lisa and Andrew’s plan, they also knew they could offer more to give their customers an even better, more rounded experience.
“We fell in love with the crypt and we thought, what could we do with the rest of the space?” says Lisa. “It seemed like a really nice fit where you could come shop, have a go at making something and have something to eat and drink, too.”
The creative vibe continues in the Arthouse Cafe where the wall space is put to full use exhibiting other artists, giving them a platform to sell their work. Artists who are looking to sell in the shop can pop in for a chat, or message Lisa and Andrew on Instagram.
Cafe customers can look forward to a menu offering a wide range of meat, vegetarian and vegan dishes, alongside gluten-free options. Drinks include alternative lattes and cold coffee and there’s the option to have regular milk or plant-based mylk. There’s table service for the cafe visitors who prefer an alfresco experience and choose to sit outside on Bridge Street itself and the menu both inside and out is a mix of breakfast, brunch and lunch.
And there’s no problem at all if you want to bring along your four-legged friend. The cafe is dog-friendly and staff offer vegan chews as well as bowls of fresh water.
While the shop is on Bridge Street level, the cafe is up on the row, and is accessible via stairs in the shop, an outside flight of stone steps or via a ramp along Pierpont Lane – ideal for wheelchairs and buggies.
“We want to expand the cafe and do a few evenings a week of small plates – just offer more experiences,” says Lisa.
Experiences that will encourage even more visitors to Bloom & Albion to fully enjoy everything the creative team at Cowper House has to offer.
- Bloom & Albion is at 12 Bridge Street, Chester CH1 1NQ
- For more information and for details on how to sign up for the workshops visit the website at bloomandalbion.co.uk
- You can also follow them on Instagram (@bloomandalbion @chester.makersspace and @arthouse.cafe) and on Facebook