A group of women and non-binary people in high vis jackets and white hard hats smiling in front of a colourful arch

Building The WOW Barn

Our Learning & Engagement Officer, Imogen Hinchcliffe, was part of the incredible team of 300 women and non-binary people who built a barn in 24 hours ready for this weekend’s WOW Barn Festival – part of Leeds 2023. She tells us more about this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Written by Imogen Hinchcliffe

From 6pm on Sunday 30 April to 6pm on Monday 1 May, 300 volunteer women, girls and non-binary people built a barn in 24 hours with Women of the World and Leeds 2023. I am so proud that I was one of them.

I had never done any DIY – the most experience I had was holding screws for my dad and passing him tools (which I could never remember the names of!). Joinery, carpentry and construction had felt like men’s work and a world I wasn’t a part of – I wanted to take part in this project to learn new skills and meet other women with as little experience as me.

Before completing the build every volunteer attended a boot camp at Leeds College of Building to bring us all up to speed. Here, we learned skills like basic joinery and – my personal favourite – how to use a power drill! We were all issued PPE and then were let loose to build a barn!

The Build

Of course, we weren’t completely let loose. There was a team of incredible professionals from Castle Ring Oak Frame on hand throughout the build to instruct us on what to do.

My shift was 6am-12pm. It was a struggle setting off at 5am but it was incredible driving to Cinder Moor, Headingley as the sun was just rising and there were hardly any other cars on the road – I have never seen the M1 so quiet!

When I arrived, the group that had been working through the night were just finishing up. They looked cold and wet but had huge smiles on their faces. I couldn’t wait to get stuck in!

The groups before us had already created the basic structure. So, after a quick coffee and safety briefing, we were split into groups of 10 and set to work creating the A-Frames for the barn.

At breakfast time we had a sausage sandwich break while we watched the crane arrive and start lifting the A-Frames into place. This was a slow process but it was so exciting seeing our hard work start to take shape on the barn.

A selfie of Imogen Hinchcliffe doing a thumbs up in front of the building site, wearing a hard hat with WOW 23 on it.

Imogen in her hard hat in front of the building site.

A group of women and non-binary people in high vis jackets and white hard hats smiling in front of a colourful arch

Imogen and her building group.

Imogen Hinchcliffe smiling and gesturing towards a big yellow crane

Imogen in front of the crane.

Making Your Mark

Before the structures were raised, every woman, girl and non-binary person made their mark on the barn. With chisels, we engraved our names and drawings onto the oak wood. Some of my favourites were spiders, boats and where people had taken the effort to write out their full names! All the marks will be visible on the barn when it is open to the public – I can’t wait to show my family and friends my initials to prove I actually did it!

At 12pm our group stood down to let the final group take over. We went home to warm up from the chilly morning but then returned at 6pm to see the final product and for the topping out ceremony.

Wood with the letters IH carved into it alongside a smiley face

Imogen's carving.

Topping Out

The topping out ceremony is a construction ceremony which traditionally takes place when the last beam has been placed on the structure. At the topping out ceremony, Kully Thiarai (Creative Director of Leeds 2023), Jude Kelly (founder of Women of the World) and Tracy Brabin (Mayor of West Yorkshire) all spoke of the triumphs of the barn build. It felt so wonderful to be surrounded by 300 other women, girls and non-binary people who had worked together to achieve a shared goal.

We then entered the site for the last time in our PPE to see the structure up close. I reconnected with some of the women who I had met on my shift and we all found our marks we had left on the barn.

The barn is a temporary structure that will remain on Cinder Moor for a short time as a Leeds 2023 event space. It will host the first WOW Barn Festival in Leeds on Sat 13 May, before it is deconstructed and the wood is recycled. I’m most looking forward to going to a barn dance at The WOW Barn with one of the friends I made through this project!

Although I’m disappointed the barn won’t be staying up, the skills I have learned will stay with me forever. I signed up not having a clue what I had signed up for and if I had the chance I’d do it all again tomorrow (but don’t worry, I’m not leaving my job as Learning & Engagement Officer to become a builder any time soon…)!

Imogen Hinchcliffe in a high vis jacket and white hard hat next to a wooden beam with leaves trailing off it

Imogen Hinchcliff at the topping out ceremony.