Visit 1: 4 - 5 May 2006
The day that we are due to travel down to Dorset turns out to be so hot that it could be the middle of July. First I have to spend the afternoon filming for the BBC, for an 'ident' for the Politics Show (i.e. for the opening credits sequence). We are filming across the road from Euston Station, in one of the hottest, noisiest, dirtiest parts of London! And because it is still spring, the blossom from the trees is blowing around in clouds as the heat makes it fall from the branches. Between the bright sunshine and the fact that the blossom gets on to my contact lenses, I soon can't see at all.
Fortunately we finish early, so my p.a. (personal assistant) and I take the opportunity to cool down in Euston station where there is an air-conditioned coffee bar. I also get some vision back before I hit the road with the disabled friend who has volunteered to drive me down to Dorset. (My p.a. is only funded for an average of three hours a day for work and for an hour and a half for personal care, so in order to do this job I will have to depend on friends and the personal assistants who work at Holton Lee to fill in the gaps in my support.)
We have decided to drive through London and pick up the M3 south of the city. This is obviously a mistake, and we spend a long time stuck in very slow-moving traffic. It is still as hot as it was in the morning, so I have kept on the neon orange vest that I was wearing for filming rather than the more formal outfit I had planned for my first visit to Holton Lee. I can't believe that the weather has changed so quickly, after a very long winter and a spring that seems hardly to have happened. It had actually been too cold the previous weekend to hold a barbecue for my birthday as I'd planned.
Since the traffic has been so heavy, we don't arrive at Holton Lee until after dark. This makes it much more difficult to find. My navigating works until we get to Poole, where I phone Tony Heaton, Holton Lee's Director. He says that he knows exactly where we are, and that we need to turn left. Minutes later we arrive at the docks, and realise that he meant 'right'. Soon we are driving up the lane through the nature reserve, where we see signs telling us to watch out for wild ponies and deer leaping in front of us - this is more than a little off-putting in the pitch dark, particularly for an East Ender.
The lane is much longer than we had envisaged - around three-quarters of a mile through the nature reserve from the main road - but eventually we find the Farm House which is now the administrative centre of Holton Lee. A music evening is just finishing, and Tony tells us that Holton Lee holds one every month. Everyone is invited to come and bring instruments and make music - or as Tony puts it, 'bad' music. This suits me as I recently returned to guitar-playing after around a quarter of a century and will never be that good at it, so I vow to join in the next time that my visit coincides with one of the sessions.
Tony gives us the key to the fully accessible holiday cottage where we will be staying, Gateway Cottage, together with some food that has been left over from the music evening. The cottage is back down the lane towards the main road, so we are slightly nervous of leaping ponies and deer as we go to find it. Liz, who manages all of the accommodation at Holton Lee, comes down to make beds up for us etc, and Tony also pops in to make sure that we are okay on his way home. Only when they have gone do I realise that I am still in the neon orange vest and wearing full television makeup - not quite the first impression that I had intended to give.
When I wake up the next morning, I can see where we are for the first time. The cottage garden is surrounded by wooded heathland, and there is no fence dividing this off from us. Genie, my West Highland terrier, cannot believe her eyes either. We could only see a few feet across the lawn when we went out the previous night, so it just felt like a conventional garden anywhere then. The sun is already shining, and it is obviously going to be another scorching hot day.
A little later, a white hind deer appears in the garden. Tony mentioned seeing one there the night before, but it seemed rather unlikely that we would see it. The sight is quite magical - although Genie misses it completely. She also misses the more conventionally coloured fawn who appears in the garden while we are getting ready to go up to the Farm House. This is much better than the suicidal/murderous deer of the road sign!
Once we arrive at the Farm House, I am introduced to a lot of people. I know that it will take me a very long time to remember exactly who they are and what they do, because my short-term memory is not great and I also have difficulty fitting names to faces because of problems in processing visual information. I try to make it clear that I do not intend to be rude if I fail to recognise someone, and that it will help me if people keep repeating who they are and what they do whenever they see me. Also that there will be times when, however well I know them, I will not be able to recognise them or get their names right, particularly if I am tired. This has been a problem ever since I was seriously ill in 2000, and after I failed to recognise one of my oldest friends, I realised that I needed to be upfront about it.
Tony gives me a quick tour of the Farm House and the surrounding buildings, and shows me the site next to the Farm House where the archive is going to be built. We also need to find a site for the caravan that I have bought on e-bay from a local family. This is for me to use as a mobile studio, as well as for my accommodation over the summer when the holiday cottages will be fully booked. We decide to put my caravan into the small orchard and wild flower garden that the college students are developing next to Ash Tree Cottage, where I can get easy access to power and water. Ash Tree Cottage lies on the far side of the archive site between the Farm House and the Stables artists' studios, so this is ideal. My friend then goes off to meet the family who are selling the caravan, in order to give them the remainder of the money for me and to make arrangements for them to move it to Holton Lee.
Ruth Taylor, who is going to be the project architect, arrives on the train from London, and we look round the site again. I have already met Ruth in London, together with Sarah Wigglesworth who is the architect leading the project, and am very much looking forward to working with them both. I have also sent Ruth and Sarah some notes about accessible buildings, which you can click here to read. I am not an access consultant, and we are all clear that this is not my role within the project. However, good access will be fundamental to the success of the archive, and it is good to clarify that we all mean the same things by this.
Then we have a lengthy and very productive meeting. NDACA is going to be housed in a single-storey building, roughly the same length as the Farm House. It will be next to it, but at an angle to it rather than being strictly parallel. Sarah's firm specialises in sustainable, eco-friendly buildings, so the archive's home will fit in well with Holton Lee's environmental remit. Throughout the day I take a lot of photographs, some of which you can see here.
Then I have to get ready to return to London. I would have liked to stay for longer, but the following day I have to chair the annual conference and AGM of TUDA, the Trade Union Disability Alliance. I am co-chair and the other co-chair has a family emergency, so it is very important that I am there. We decide to try driving a different route home, leaving the M3 when it meets the M25 and going into London via the A2 and Blackwall Tunnel, and this works very well. I realise that it is still going to be a four-hour journey each time, though. However, I am very excited about working at Holton Lee, and it all seems worth it.
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