Moving house, starting a business and having a baby are stressful events by anyone’s account. Doing all three at once is ill-advised in the extreme. Yet that’s exactly what Aiden and Louise Collins did when they moved to the Isle of Wight, with a three year old and newborn baby, to set up Chessell Pottery Barns in July 2003. But the gamble certainly paid off, as Chessell celebrates its tenth anniversary this year and continues to go from strength to strength.
When Aiden and Louise Collins came to the West Wight, they took on the site of the original Chessell Pottery founded in the late 70s by Sheila and John Francis, who were then planning retirement. With several years of running pottery cafes in London, the couple were convinced they could breathe new life into the pottery and barns. Aiden set up a decorating studio, based on the successful London model, where people could come and paint their own pottery, using beautiful Emma Bridgewater blanks. An on-site cafe quickly became a big draw for tourists and locals alike, as people flocked to the pretty courtyard garden for the fabulous cream teas, with scones baked by Louise to a recipe she’d learnt as a teenager, working in the tearooms of Arreton Manor.
Today, management of the café is the responsibility of Bridget Wells, former patisserie chef at The Royal Hotel in Ventnor. Chessell currently produces around 20,000 of its famous scones each year – baked by Sharon, who has been part of the family-like team at Chessell almost since Aiden and Louise started out. As well as the award-winning cream tea (judged the ‘Best Island Cream Tea’ in 2010, 2011 and 2012), the menu now includes a full, tiered Afternoon Tea and varied lunch menu, starring local Isle of Wight produce. This year Chessell have also secured a license so that customers can enjoy a glass of wine or locally-brewed beer with their meal. For those who want to stay at Chessell longer than a few hours, there’s also a 4-star holiday cottage (www.littlestables.co.uk) on site – with lucky guests receiving a cream tea on arrival and a voucher to decorate pottery during their stay.
The trained baristas producing beautifully frothed lattes and cappuccinos (as well as a great choice of teas) show how far the Courtyard Café has come from its early days. Aiden and Louise haven’t rested on their laurels and they continue to update and invest in the business – as well as setting up another London-based Pottery Cafe (in Battersea) two years ago – this winter, they re-modelled part of Gift Barn to provide new café seating, with a brand new Charnwood log-burning stove to keep guests cosy in the colder months.
The studio team at Chessell produce over 15,000 pieces of their own earthenware annually. The Chessell-made pottery is part of the range available for customers to decorate on the Island and in all the London studios. The production team are also responsible for making and decorating the popular Strawberry range of tableware, which is used to serve the famous cream teas, and is available to buy in the Gift Barn. The well-stocked shop sells a gorgeous range of gifts and traditional children’s toys as well as the biggest range of Emma Bridgewater pottery on the Island. All the distinctive Bridgewater pieces tie in beautifully with any pottery that customers paint themselves, as the blank plates, bowls, jugs and mugs in the decorating studio are supplied to Chessell direct from the Emma Bridgewater factory.
The Pottery and Café are hugely popular with holiday visitors (at the height of the summer, up to 150 customers paint pottery daily) and Island families love to visit throughout the season. Parents bring their babies to personalise plates with hand and footprints; children enjoy creative birthday parties, and groups of friends meet up to relax and enjoy painting their own unique designs. And the cream teas are ever popular come rain or shine !