Visit 29: 21 - 23 May 2010
This is our first visit of the year after the longest, coldest winter in the UK for more than three decades. Having become accustomed to an early Spring, the fact that it was three weeks late this year made it particularly difficult - even though we were lucky enough to have spent three weeks working in Australia in November and December. But today the weather is glorious and reminds me of my first visit to Holton Lee four years ago. There is a note of sadness, though, because our friend David, who accompanied us here last January, died recently and unexpectedly. This weekend his friend Sylvia, who lives in Twyford (near Winchester) and who visited Holton Lee when David was here with us, will combine her 60th birthday party with a private memorial to David. This means that we will be stopping off to see her during our journeys to and from Holton Lee, as well as going over there on Saturday night.
There is also a note of sadness because over the winter the Holton Lee trustees had to take the difficult decision to close the New Barn temporarily due to lack of bookings. The ongoing bad weather, local authority cutbacks and lack of awareness of the facilities on offer have all contributed to this situation, although the trustees are also taking the opportunity to look at ways of improving the visitor experience while the Barn remains closed. It is still available for groups to hire though, as is the Old Barn where we stayed with David - this week, the Green Island Holiday Trust is in residence there - but it is very sad that individual disabled people who have enjoyed staying at Holton Lee for many years are currently unable to do so. However, Holton Lee will be hosting an Open Day in two weeks' time, which will help to raise awareness of what should in reality be somewhere that is a major source of pride for the local community and supported as such.
NDACA is also facing an uncertain future, since the Arts Council have withdrawn their grant offer due to delays in being able to raise the rest of the building costs. Unfortunately the grant offer was made right at the start of the recession, so fundraising for the shortfall has proven extremely difficult - particularly since the Arts Council also withdrew funding from the arts team at Holton Lee last April. Ironically, the sweeping Arts Council cuts to the Disability Arts sector have actually made the need for the archive that much more urgent, as a wide range of organisations have closed with nowhere to leave their records, documents and, in many cases, artwork as well. Much of this material has therefore disappeared without trace, often to the dump.
David's death has also brought home to me in the most painful way possible why the Disability Arts community wished to found a national collection and archive in the first place. Traditionally, most artists are only 'discovered' at the end of their lives, when they are granted retrospectives and their work is bought by various collections. But disabled artists often live much shorter lives, and so do not reach this point in their careers during their lifetimes. David, who in the last eighteen months in particular produced a large and important body of artists' films, is a case in point. When I first came here, I would have expected that by now NDACA would be open and flourishing, and that arrangements would have been put into place for curating and archiving work when an artist died. Instead, I spent Bank Holiday Monday packing up David's archive myself, and it is now in my art storage unit until we can find it a safe and permanent home. I will also be curating his films and helping to complete his outstanding projects with no professional help to call on at all. However, there are plans to set up an independent management structure for NDACA, and museums and archive consultant Janice Tullock has set out a number of future options for the steering group to consider. Hopefully the Open Day will attract supporters and potential volunteers to come and find out more about NDACA and help us to take the project forward.
After stopping briefly at Sylvia's to finalise the plans for Saturday, we arrive at Holton Lee at about 4.30pm. As we approach the turning we are impressed to see a large sign for the Open Day (including teddy bear parachuting!), alongside a sign for a VW/Porsche rally in the camping field this weekend which shows that the site is still thriving. Three years ago I was pleased to be able to buy appropriate stickers - 'Girl Racer', etc - for my then-new offroad mobility scooter at a VW rally here, but the weather was very different then. We are further impressed by the fact that the lane from the road has been resurfaced after the torrential rain of the past three summers had washed out large craters in it. If this summer fulfills its early promise, perhaps other regulars will return too.
No sooner do we get a little way up the lane than I see the deer herd, among them several white does! This is surely a good omen, given my repeated hunts for good photographs of them. We pull in at the cottages so I can walk back and try to take a few pictures now. Unfortunately I would have to be able to cross a ditch and clamber over a fence to get close to them - at which point I think they would have noticed me coming! - but I manage to get a few shots from the lane, which makes me very happy. When I was in Australia, it was amazing to think that only last Spring I had been researching dot painting techniques for the Antler Blog without any thought that I would be seeing a wide range of Australian art before the year had ended. Then we drive on past the camping field, where stands and tents are already being erected for the VW rally.
As we approach the caravan, we see that someone has not only cut the grass for us, but has built us a magnificent set of steps up to the caravan door. What a welcome! No more wobbly metal step on top of a concrete slab to contend with; no more risking life and limb every time we go in and out. Despite the Barn closure, Holton Lee has definitely come through its most difficult time and began to renew itself.
Julie is exhausted from the drive, so she stays in the van while I take the caravan cover off. The caravan has survived well thanks to Eddie's ministrations last year, although perhaps the roof is even saggier. I will try to find a way of supporting it better, although I have to admit that what it really needs now is to be more protected from the weather. Maybe there is a way of giving it the same protection that a carport would provide by temporarily erecting a frame with some corrugated plastic behind and on top of it? Although I discovered a popular and thriving Mustang Caravan Owners' Club last year, I turned out to be the only member who is still using an actual Mustang, meaning that the caravan is not only a classic, but unique. Continuing to camp here also seems to represent an act of faith in the future, both of Holton Lee and of NDACA, particularly as it connects us back to the foundation of the Holton Lee Trust by the Post Green community who camped here before the Barn and Faith House were built. I have been made even more conscious of the need for NDACA since stopping to see Sylvia, who has pointed out that she has more than 35 years' worth of work - produced across three continents - that needs cataloguing, but she is no longer in a position to pay an assistant and can't do it herself.
As I am working, Stuart appears - it is great to see him again. He tells me that he has cut the grass, and that Matt, the environment manager, has built the step with one of the volunteers. How kind and thoughtful of them! I am still emotional after David's death and feel like crying, but then Spock appears from next door, demanding attention, and I laugh instead. Genie is very pleased to have canine company, particularly as she was a bit lonely over the first three weeks after David died and I was heavily involved with organising the memorial event and helping with everything else. She is very good while I sort things out and unpack, then I go over to the common room to use the toilet and both dogs come with me! Fortunately I find a ball while I am there, and after stopping to photograph an oak tree in the distance, I have a game with them. Really Spock wants me to chase the ball, but I only have my mini scooter with me this weekend so it is just not possible. (My trailer is in Suffolk with my godfather, as Julie is waiting for her housing association to complete - well, start - the overdue outside works on her home, so I can't store it there as usual.)
After the dogs are satisfied I see our neighbour, Spock's owner, and once again she is kind enough to allow me to hook the caravan's electricity supply up via her sitting room window. Then we head up to the little shop in nearby Sandford and stock up on a few treats and essentials including the local paper. (The Echo has given a lot of helpful publicity to Holton Lee over the winter, including publishing a letter from me about the importance of the arts programme and the great work of the volunteers.) The staff are very friendly, and help me by carrying the shopping out to the van. Then we return to the caravan and our supper.
To my amazement, the TV comes on when I try it - last year it failed to work at all. It is great to have so many things go so smoothly this time, particularly after the strain of the past few weeks. As always, Holton Lee has the power to heal - one of the many reasons why it is so important to support it. However, the birds are so loud that we can hear them above everything else - what a change from London. The last time the weather was this good was on David's last day on earth, a Sunday in April which was unseasonably hot and sunny.
On Saturday we wake up slowly to sunshine, blue sky and birdsong - wonderful. At 10am Wally and Denise arrive to have coffee with us, bringing the papers with them. We sit in the sun and catch up slowly; we have also arranged to have Sunday lunch together tomorrow. As we sit there a lot of machinery arrives; next week the lane past the orchard to the stables will be resurfaced too - or I should say for the first time as it has always been not much more than a dirt track before now. This will make life much easier for the taxi and minibus drivers who bring many of the people to the stables, as well as for Wally and Denise and the other volunteers.
At midday we drag ourselves away and go into Wareham to pick up supplies and a birthday gift for Sylvia. To our surprise and dismay the Country Store on the way there - past source of many items including the caravan's1960s glass fish - is no more. We were always made very welcome there, and I hope the closure has been voluntary and not forced. The building itself is a very old pottery, so I hope it gets put to a suitable use in the future.
Once in Wareham, we go straight to our favourite Kucchi Bazaar, which as always has a wonderful selection of relatively inexpensive items, many of them brought back from the owner's travels each winter. It is very hard to decide, but eventually we choose an Egyptian pendant, with a silk gift box and a feather wand (Sylvia we know will be dressed as a fairy!). The owner is extremely patient and helpful, and in the process of trying to find a suitable chain, destroys another necklace trying to make the pendant fit. In London, we would have to pay for this ... I also buy two cushions made from old carpets, which will make good foot rests for me. At home, the most comfortable position for me to be in is semi-reclining with my feet up - I spent most of the winter like this in front of the fire with my laptop, writing a book about the themes of my Abnormal exhibition - and Julie similarly benefits from having her feet raised. These should be really sturdy and supportive as well as attractive.
After that I go into the wholefood shop, and as usual take advantage of the fact that they sell non-dairy icecreams - yum! Then we return to the caravan for a late lunch. The new road surface makes a huge difference to the last part of the journey, and Holton Lee is bustling with people setting up for the VW rally, Green Island holidaymakers, walkers and twitchers. Derek is working in his immaculate garden, and everything is bursting with new life. Hopefully this is another good sign for the future.
We have a relatively smooth journey to Twyford - fortunately, most of the traffic is going in the opposite direction, to the beach - and arrive at Sylvia's around 5pm. There we meet up with David's local friend Tim and his family, including his daughter Kaya who was the subject of one of David's last films. Tim read David's poem about Kaya, which forms part of the film soundtrack, at the funeral which we held at the Mile End Eco Centre. Sylvia's garden looks entrancing with its decorations - although she is Australian and of Latvian heritage, Sylvia was a Hollywood artist for many years and it shows in everything she does - and we feel very privileged to be there.
By the evening it has turned into an all-female gathering, with the exception of Tim who stays on as our serving man - it was only really obvious at David's funeral how many of his close friends were women, although we are also missing his friends Byron, Hugh and Tim who had other commitments. At the end of the garden Sylvia has made a fire ring in an area surrounded by trees, and has wired jars containing candles in the trees. As dark falls these appear to be floating, which is entrancing. Sylvia has also bought out the local pound shop's supply of motion-activated plastic frogs, which form a chorus against the rest of the music as they react to the flames of the fire. (David was very fond of frogs, and also of animatronic toys - his Furby is currently guarding his archive in my storage unit and greets me noisily whenever I open the door.)
We arrive back at Holton Lee just before midnight, and see that the VW campers are also sitting around a campfire. The sky is very clear and the stars are bright; we feel very lucky to be here. There is no sign of the deer herd as we approach the caravan - they are obviously spending time on the other side of the site while so many people are here - but we are still aware of lots of eyes watching us as we head for the caravan, hot chocolate and bed. A good sleep continues to help me to feel able to deal with everything that awaits me on my return to London, including helping to ensure that David's projects are all completed.
Sunday is beautiful again - hot and sunny with a blue sky and light breeze. We get up slowly, but then hurry as we realise how much we need to get done before lunch. After clearing up the caravan and loading the van, we go to look round the VW rally before leaving to meet Wally and Denise. I buy an artist teddy bear as a mascot for the caravan, intending to enter it into the teddy bear parachuting at the Open Day. (Apparently they will be dropped from the top of a fire engine's ladder, which is perhaps a good thing given the possibilities for losing favourite bears otherwise!).
We leave reluctantly, but are soon enjoying a roast Sunday at the Craft Courtyard, along with the company of Wally and Denise. Afterwards we walk round the shops, and I leave with a frog garden ornament to put with some of David's plants which are now in my garden. I also stock up on wool at the same time, since the haberdashers is the source of the garden ornaments! On my last visit I bought a gargoyle from them, which I have very much enjoyed since. Now though my real priority is the wool, since I have bought a loom and intend to start weaving one-off art pieces once I have time - though with some trepidation since it is 30 years since I last did this.
We go home via Twyford again, where we join Sylvia in burning a wreath for David. Then we get back on the motorway, looking forward to returning again soon.
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