In August 2018 I was artist-in-residence for the North Devon National Trust at the Artists’ Cabin at Bucks Mills. In the tradition of uncanny tales told as one year turns to another, here is one from the week I spent there in two rooms still filled with the clothes, paints, teacups & other possessions of its two former owners.
The Ladies’ Cabin is a cliffside, one-up, one-down Grade II-listed former boathouse that was a summer home from the 1920s to 70s of two remarkable women – the painters & model-makers Mary Stella Edwards & Judith Ackland. (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/…/featur…/bucks-mills-cabin)
Some time after Judith’s death in 1971, the cabin passed into the care of the National Trust with a commitment that every item of their shared artistic & domestic life should be preserved. Each object in the little interior is kept as and where Mary & Judith had them.
As its resident for a week, I had the freedom of this precious interior, & had only to open it to visitors on the last weekend. I decided on the first day however to write very little & welcome everyone who passed by so I could share the story of these remarkable women.
Dozens of people came through in single file each day, and everyone was moved by a different little detail: cups that were like their gone grandmother’s, the way the women’s two artist smocks were still hung inside one another…
Many people asked me if I found it unsettling being there alone without phone signal and electricity, surrounded by the possessions of the two dead artists. I said that first catching sight of myself in the dark mercury mirror in the little upstairs bedroom had been, just a little…
……but otherwise, no. I did feel the need for respect though, just as I’d show in any living person’s home. I opened no cupboards or drawers, even when visitors asked me to. I moved nothing but the chairs, fitting myself to the spaces between objects in their left-behind lives.
(The only thing that did feel strange, and in a good way, was that I’d had pictures of this very cabin on my wall at home, cut from a World of Interiors magazine, for over a decade – long before I dared to be an artist myself.)
Strangers tried hard to spook me. Had I lain on the bed? Drank from their cups? Tried on their smocks? No, I smiled. I have my own tin cup, my own work apron, & a bed in a borrowed caravan at end of day. It is only their view I am here to share, and their story.
Then one day the weather turned from blue to bad, and no one came down the steep path to the beach. When I did finally hear footsteps, I almost didn’t bother to open the door and call out. (The cabin is unheated, with no electric, and I wasn’t allowed even a candle).
The man going past was from the local area and had gone past the Cabin often over the years, but had never seen inside. So yes, he would be glad to come in, thank you. Once in, he listened politely to my description of the women & the downstairs objects…
……but when we went, heads bent, up the little wooden stairs to the bedroom he gasped, became animated. Might he kneel down and examine the floor? He was a floor man, you see, it was his trade but also his passion…and yes, yes. Oh my word…
…he would have made a trip of many hundreds of miles to see something like this, and yet all these years he’d been walking within inches of it!
(Of all the objects visitors exclaimed over all week, & which I had studied in my alone hours, the floor had only been walked on.)
I knelt down with him. It was just a dirty, brown and fraying thing to me. Up close, I realised it accounted for the odd but not unpleasant smell in the room, a bit like the damp Methodist chapel of my childhood, but I could see nothing worth travelling for.
‘This is a very old and quite rare example of linoleum,’ he told me. ‘I travelled all the way to Scotland once, just to see where it was made. A place called Kirkcaldy is where it comes from. Oh this has made my day. Thank you.’
As a former hospice scribe and now a writer who works in residence to collect stories of people & place, this was sweet in and of itself. I smiled and went back to my solitary day.
The next day was quite different. Dozens of people came through. I became tired & throat-sore from telling the story of the Cabin over & over. To the last small group who came up to the bedroom I said only a few words about the mercury mirror, the view. Went to go back down…
……but then something had me stop & turn. Go back. ‘I will just tell you a silly, sweet thing that happened yesterday’ I said, and told them about the man with a passion for flooring, and how this floor here was made in Scotland, in Kirk-something or other.
‘That’s it’ I said to the woman in the middle who’d spoken ‘How did you know?’
‘I know’ she said ‘because my mother worked in the linoleum factory there and when my father, an electrician, came there to fix something, they met and fell in love. And now I’ve got tears in my eyes, because I’m looking down and this is the floor we had in our house too. I haven’t seen one like it for years.’
So there we are. It’s only a sweet little story about a fraying old floor that made two strangers & me very happy. It’s not a scary tale of a haunted house that my friends & visitors hoped I’d encounter there. But I treasure it because it’s why I do what I do.
I wish I’d had what it takes to be a nurse, a doctor, a lawyer: someone who can be of huge, daily, practical use to others. But as a writer I can at least listen carefully to people & places…
…and just sometimes I get to pass on what I find to the one person who needs to know it most.
You can find out more about the work I do at www.tanyashadrick.com.
My Wild Patience mile of writing was featured this year on BBC Radio 4 – alongside the 40-year old Ash Dome of my mentor the sculptor David Nash – in a show called Pursuit of Beauty: Slow Art.