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Stokey mum breathes life into Old Church


You may have noticed a buzz about Stoke Newington’s Old St Mary’s Church - a talented local mum is playing a major role in its transformation.


The ancient space on the corner of Clissold Park has been transformed into an arts centre and, with a little funding from Arts Council England and others, they’re creating a thriving events programme from musical performances to family crafts.


Local mum Rachel Millward, who has a background of founding and directing major London events, was on maternity leave with her second child, when she popped into the church and spotted a notice about turning the church into a community arts centre.  She's now part-time Director there.

Rachel, who received the prestigious Clore leadership fellowship, founded and directed the Birds Eye View Film Festival at BFI Southbank and other central London locations, which celebrated international women filmmakers.


She said: “I had a wonderful decade building that up, but always felt a draw to the live events - I commissioned over 30 female composers to create new live scores to silent films, and that was secretly my favourite part.


“I got pregnant in 2009. I guess that was the beginning of the transition - out of film, into the arts, and into part time work. I had, for many years, had a dream of running an arts centre.


“I emailed to introduce myself, and within days was involved in the committee who were preparing an opening festival weekend post renovations.”


The Old Church is beginning to realise a vision that began a decade ago, when some of the members of St Mary's decided they'd like to make creative use of this stunning building and it's brilliant acoustic for the wider community.


With two churches to maintain, the parish needed new approach to generate an income. The Old Church arts centre is an independent organisation working within the still-consecrated space. It works in partnership with the church, but has no religious affiliation. 


Among the regular events taking place there for families are Tots Tunes Tea and a Gig (11am on the first Tuesday of every month) and Open Art workshops for parents (children welcome too) on the second Saturday of each month.


Breathe, a three-week festival celebrating air, starts on February 20th with contemporary art, music and performance. A key feature will be the installation of a wind harp high in the tower of St Mary’s Church (the main church opposite). As the wind vibrates its strings, the mesmerising sounds will be transmitted via wifi into The Old Church as coloured light responding to the wind is projected onto large screens.


Vox, an art installation and space for meditation, will be open almost daily between 12noon and 1pm and there’s a special Vox especially for little ones, when they’re free to run, dance, jump and even yell.



Around the theme of air, they've programmed an entire festival, with musicians responding to the themes of breath and wind, and / or working with the sound of the wind harp. Performers include beatboxer Jason Singh, singer-performer-diva Bishi, folk goddess Karine Polwart and more...


There's more for kids: John Hegley - local comedian and poet - will run a workshop for primary school kids on drawing, poetry, drawing breath and dragons. 


The centre is largely run by volunteers – if you’d like to get involved, whether that's bringing your professional experience to the board, volunteering at events, helping with marketing, bringing a creative event, they’d love to hear from you.


For more information on The Old Church and the Breathe festival visit

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