We moved house between lockdowns last October. In this home-centred world it seemed both fitting and incongruous. We didn’t go far, staying in the same quiet bypassed village. The two houses couldn’t be more different – from a tall thin 3-storey newish build to a single-storey thatched property dating from 1613. This cottage is known locally as Plague Cottage as it was a refuge for sufferers of the Bubonic Plague in the middle ages. This name resonates in present times, but we stayed with its later name of Bumblebee Cottage as it seemed more cheerful and the building looks like a domed hive.
When we first arrived, the cottage looked like something out of a Hans Andersen fairy tale – trammelled in ivy, over-shadowed by a sinister fir tree, its windows blocked by an overgrown buddleia. Brambles had woven themselves around every shrub, and a yellow rose had climbed up into the thatch. The house had been empty for a while and seemed sad, hunkered down, its thatch hat pulled down over its eyes.
During the first lockdown in March 2020, I spent every day drawing and painting, with the aim of finishing my book, A Year on the Jurassic Coast. The days flew by as I immersed myself in virtual walks along the coast, absorbed in recreating the beauty of the coastline of Dorset and Devon in pen, ink and watercolour. It went to print in June and came out in July, having a brief airing during the Indian summer in various galleries and shops until Lockdown struck again. I created an online shop at http://www.seashed.co.uk and then an article in Coast Magazine, in their October issue, lit up my book in a shaft of winter sun as we approached Christmas.
Now, settled in our dumpy little cottage, I am enjoying my studio in the garden which I’ve finally managed to sort out ready to start drawing, painting, writing, running workshops, etc. But of course, I have no visitors. So I’m writing this wish-you-were-here postcard in lieu of actually seeing people. I’m hoping that I shall be able to participate in Dorset Art Weeks at the end of May when I look forward to being able to welcome visitors. In the meantime I am again working from memories and my imagination. I’ve spent some time framing lots of old photos to hang on the wall to remind me of the good old days. I’m missing family and friends and, sometimes, even talking to myself!
When the weather allows, or quite often when it doesn’t, I walk through the village to the water meadows hoping to see a Kingfisher. This usually appears when my mind has wandered on to something else and, suddenly, one surprises me by skimming past my nose as I cross a bridge. I lean on the parapet watching the glossy mallards towing their reflections down the chalk stream. Winter-bare trees reveal their symmetry. Willows line up like a stack of coloured pencils. A heron stands motionless at the water’s edge pretending to be a piece of grey sky. Distant tangles of bramble have a purple tinge. I wait for the time when the sun starts to gild these with silver and then green.
The thatcher is coming on Monday to re-ridge our roof. The cottage will then look even more like a hive waiting for the buzz of bees. We make soup on the Aga, bake cakes and venture into the garden when the ground isn’t too wet, wondering what unknown plants will start to emerge as the temperature rises. Already there are hopeful clumps of leaves huddled against the frost. We are making raised beds for vegetables and I have trays of sprouting seedlings on the windowsills. It feels as though the whole world has gone into extended hibernation. We wait for the sun to release us from our house-bound dormancy.
Outside our front door, a witch’s broom is mounted on the wall. Lodged above it, under the thatch, is a blackbird’s nest. I used to see the occupant, watching me with a suspicious dark eye, last summer when I visited the cottage. We have left the nest where it is, wondering if she might return this year. Today though the weather is bleak and bird-less with an easterly wind finding gaps in doors and windows. The grass is white and so is the sky. People aren’t venturing out, so there’s no opportunity for a chat over the gate. We find our masks useful to keep our faces warm, and we walk, eyes downcast, fearful of ice.
It is quiet, hardly any traffic, the thatch muffles the wind. However, the evenings are gradually getting lighter and soon the days will be longer – we shall be able to see the way forward. We text, email, zoom, FaceTime, but miss hugs and seeing the grandchildren grow. The younger ones will be wary when we see them again – used to keeping their distance. We have all learned new habits, like crossing the road when someone approaches. I used to apologise – ‘nothing personal!’ – but now we all do it and everyone knows why. The world is different, birds sing more loudly, wild creatures venture into urban spaces, we feel our insignificance and vulnerability. Deep down, we fear for the human race and what we have done to the planet. There is a sense that the natural world is starting to bite back, that harmony may, one day, be restored and human beings put in their place. We hope that things may soon be different, that we may have learnt lessons.
There is some benefit in being confined to the home. We have time to talk, to cook and get to know our surroundings intimately. Like creatures inhabiting a burrow, we are acutely aware of strange sounds, the weather, the phases of the moon and the smell of snow in the air. We have become familiar, even in the dark, with every twist and turn of our walls, know the texture of stone and brick. One day I noticed a distorted face marked in a knapped flint in the kitchen wall. The silence around us seeps into our heads so we hear our thoughts loudly. At night we shut the gate, draw the curtains, pour a glass of wine and try to avoid the TV news.
We are the lucky ones and I hardly dare begin to think about all those who are truly suffering during this time, especially children, missing their friends and schooling, perhaps neglected through poverty or depression. The homeless, the ill and the bereaved are the true casualties of this pandemic – people unable to get out of bed in the morning and who keep the curtains drawn to avoid shedding light on their pain. People who live in flats with no outside space, city centres where there’s nowhere to walk and those who have lost their jobs and income because of the situation. Whenever I start to get cabin fever, I have only to think of these people and I count my blessings.
I wish everyone health and happiness as we tread hesitantly into this new year. We have just had Imbolc – the pagan festival which marks the beginning of spring. It was on 1st February, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It is the Chinese New Year tomorrow, the Year of the Ox – a symbol of strength and forward movement, perhaps a sign of hope for the future.