This month a really cool thing happened in Leeds: 300 women and non-binary people gathered together to build a barn in just 24 hours, supported by The WOW (Women of the World) Foundation and Leeds 2023 City of Culture.
I was there for the duration to document the action, tell stories about the ace women taking part and tackle important questions such as: would it be done in time? Would it ever stop raining? Was there enough Yorkshire Tea in the world to support this long endeavour?! (Spoilers: yes, yes and YES!)
The WOW Foundation was set up by Jude Kelly in 2009 to celebrate the achievements of women and girls and confront global gender injustice. It holds WOW festivals in the UK and all around the world and is responsible for bringing #TheWOWBarn to Leeds. And the team might just be the nicest bunch of people I've ever met. They have a sequinned cape and everything!
The build began at 6pm on Sunday 30th April and finished on time at 6pm on Monday 1st May. There were four shifts of women doing six hours of work each, some of whom had to work in relentless, Biblical-style rain that never felt like it would stop.
Traditional carpentry methods were used, which meant it could all be slotted together with minimal engineering and faff (I think 'mortise' and 'tenon' are the technical terms). Many barn-raisers I spoke to commented that felt a bit like a giant IKEA flatpack, although to say this would be to do it a serious injustice. These were huge, substantial, weighty hunks of oak that had been beautifully (and I suspect lovingly) crafted for the occasion.
And there were some lovely little touches. Every barn-raiser got to carve a little something into a beam, which is apparently traditional when a barn is being raised by hand. Someone did a croissant, while other markings of note included a noughts and crosses design and a pair of boobs!
As the night wore on, I realised that the barn-raising had almost became secondary to the fun and friendships that were being built alongside it. Joyful laughter filled the rest-tent as the women chatted and drank tea together during breaks.
And I loved talking to them all. Engineers Thasonum, Chelsea and Emily wanted to come to raise the profile of women in the industry, “to prove that women can do anything they want to.”
Mum and daughter dream team Fiona and Emma wanted to be involved in something empowering and fun. Said Fiona: “I’m a teacher and I always want to show the girls that they can do it!”
Hattie's was my favourite story. She trained as a plumber 33 years ago, but couldn’t get an apprenticeship - as a female in the industry no one would take her on. In the end she took matters into her own hands and founded her own business geniously named StopCocks. After 17 years of working without meeting a single other female plumber, Hattie expanded to teach other women the trade. She also trains women survivors of domestic abuse and runs an annual event to celebrate women in plumbing.
For two weeks after the build, The WOW Barn became a venue for talks, comedy nights, workshops, food, music and more, as part of the Leeds 2023 City of Culture. It was a brilliant fortnight of events and I went to some amazing things. But I'll never forget the 24 hours when I met so many inspiring women - all of whom were united in their believe that women can do it too.
Two cool things that arose from the epic 24-hour build:
- Countless women told me during the build that they’d been so inspired by the day’s bootcamp of basic skills (prior to the build) at Leeds Building College that they wanted to learn more – and Leeds Building College is looking into providing evening classes and workshops to accommodate.
- The barn now has A NEW HOME! It’s been moved to Kirkstall Valley Farm in Leeds to be used as an outdoor classroom for children – so has a new role and a new purpose. Hooray!
Prints and postcards to celebrate The WOW Barn are available here in my shop.