I have recently visited two fascinating properties owned by the National Trust. They could not be more different, yet the feelings they aroused in me were quite similar: a pleasant though mildly unsettling mix of detachment and personal involvement, and of stepping back into the past whilst my feet remained firmly rooted in today.
The first place, known as The Cabin, is a tiny clifftop cottage on the spectacular rocky coastline of North Devon. It was owned by two artists Judith Ackland and Mary Stella Edwards, who stayed and worked there every year during the summer months from the 1920s until Judith’s death in 1971. What is curious and intriguing about the Cabin is that it was apparently left empty for many years afterwards, until quite recently – with its furniture, personal possessions and everyday objects remaining exactly as the artists had left them after their last visit.
Today the Cabin is owned by the National Trust, who are keen to carry on the artistic tradition, and continue to preserve the interior of the Cabin almost as it was.
I was slightly uneasy about intruding on the private history of Judith and Mary – but I needn’t have worried. The place had obviously been cleaned and tidied, and I knew that a number of people had been active there in recent years – and that by now the entire contents would have been thoroughly explored, and objects removed, cleaned or restored. In fact, I noted the Cabin had an almost museum feel to it.
Yet the sense of the two women was very much present. As I gazed around, I tried to piece together fragments of their lives – the robust wood-burning stove now broken and rusting, that must have given off a good heat, the coats and wellies by the back door, the folded linen in the little bedroom cupboard, the shells and ornaments on the windows sill, the cosiness, the seclusion…
I recognised some of the homely china, piled on the shelves as being identical to some that had been left us by my mother-in-law. Then, when I looked around again, the room seemed to take on the atmosphere of my long dead granny’s kitchen. I re-felt that warm cosy feeling of the bright fire in her black-leaded range, the kettle hissing and bubbling, and a delicious smell of dinner cooking. How odd to have this unexpected personal memory.
And odd to be aware of all these different narratives going on in my head all at the same time. Usually we don’t notice.
As I stepped outside into the winter, I knew that, intriguing though it was, what interested me was not so much the artists’ domestic arrangements, but the call of the surrounding rocky landscape, the woods and the eternal ocean – that so inspired them, and that kept calling them back to this place, year after year.
There is a delightful blog by Kate Paxman, chronicling her artist’s residency at the Cabin in 2010 For me, her sensitivity and simplicity of approach is very moving, and brings the story of the two women vividly to life. http://bucksmillscabin.blogspot.com
My second visit was to the magnificent Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire. It was the home of Henry Fox Talbot, the eminent mathematician, astronomer and archaeologist, though most widely known for his pioneering work in photography. It was here that he produced the first ever photographic negative in 1835.
I lingered outside in the grounds of Lacock Abbey, so entranced by the gardens, the trees and the intricate tracery of winter branches against a cold sky, that I left myself no time at all to go inside the Abbey itself! Bummer… but I will return.
I did manage to visit the Fox Talbot Museum there though, where I did a fair bit of indoor lingering prior to going out into the gardens.
It was fascinating to follow the early history of photography, rekindling an old interest. No matter how much one might know about a subject, there is nothing quite like getting a physical sense of the real thing. Original prints, together with equipment, portraits and interesting textual information gave me a terrific sense of Fox Talbot’s work and the beginnings of photography.
But when I came to the final vitrine, I was startled to recognise the objects inside with a surge of familiarity. Old enlargers, printing frames, porcelain trays, tongs, bottles and a large slightly rusty timer – they could all have come from my own darkroom, many years ago. For one moment, I bitterly regretted giving away my old and well-loved kit when I moved here to Devon– though I knew perfectly well that I would never use it again. I knew my days of sloshing around with chemicals in the dark were over.
Once again I got that strange sensation of my own story being caught up and intertwined with others. I began to ask myself weird questions: whose past is it? Is any of it really real?
Too much lingering in the past will addle my brain, I thought – and went outside to listen to the rooks high up amongst the branches silhouetted against the cold sky.