Colour photograph of a white caravan from outside the wooden orchard gates, framed by trees, with a red brick tiled cottage behind it. If you look very carefully, you can see a Westie immediately behind the gate.


Holton Lee

Visit 14: 21 - 23 July 2007

I am due to return to Holton Lee on Saturday, so that on Monday I can spend a day working with Hayley on the Arts section of the Holton Lee website. Hayley is in the throes of finishing this, but inevitably needs some further training and support in order to tweak the final programming code. The site is due to be launched next weekend at an arts networking event at Holton Lee, thus improving slightly on the Arts Council's deadline of 1 August. What makes this particularly exciting is that the new website effectively represents the first stage of NDACAWeb, the 'virtual' archive of the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive.

However, on Friday, the day before we are due to leave, the country experiences the equivalent of a month's rain in a day. Flooding is widespread, and on some main roads travellers have been stuck overnight without water or food and still have no hope of moving. We watch the news channels anxiously for an hour or so as soon as we wake up, trying to work out whether all of the problems are further north of where we are travelling. The broadcasts are full of heroic stories about motorists being stuck for 18 hours or more; of someone giving birth on the motorway assisted by other stuck drivers - and of idiots taking to the road unnecessarily because they are determined to stick to their holiday plans ... I stick to my conviction that we will be relatively okay on the south coast, and as the roads south of London seem to be unaffected too, we decide that it is safe to go.

It is also Harry Potter Day, with the seventh and last book in the series having been published at midnight. It is a sign of how bad the flooding is that this 'historic' event is taking second place on the national news. However, Julie has no intention of leaving without securing a copy for each of us, and so she heads up to Asda where they are selling them for a fiver each - the artist's price. She comes back giggling, as an older saleswoman dressed in a witch's hat leapt out at her as soon as she arrived, brandishing a broken twig in place of a wand. You don't often see performance art in Beckton, particularly at 9am on a Saturday morning. Apparently said witch was surprised but pleased when Julie instantly accepted two copies of The Deathly Hallows.

We then wait anxiously for Ashley, my new PA, to arrive. Ashley is going to give us some much-needed help with cleaning up the caravan and doing some essential maintenance, as well as taking the pressure off Denise for once. We leap on him as he comes up the street and greet him with big smiles, before bustling him along with loading so we can leave before he changes his mind. The accommodation I am providing him with is a very small (but much loved) tent, and it is not, to be perfectly honest, everyone's idea of camping weather. Genie is hugely excited to have Ashley along, and in general is a very happy Westie.

Colour photograph of a small, silver and purple tent, pitched on long grass with a cloudy blue sky behind
Our 'annexe'.

In the event, the drive down is fairly uneventful, although it rains heavily as we drive around the M25 and on to the M3. The roads are full of holidaymakers as it is the first day of the school holidays in the south of England (the schools in Scotland and the north of England break up earlier), so the service stations are quite unpleasant, but the heavy traffic doesn't add more than an hour to our journey. (To be honest, the extra hour rushes past for me, since I am tucked up in the back with Genie reading The Deathly Hallows.) After all that driving, Ashley and I insist that Julie goes to the stables for a cup of tea while we unpack and put up the tent (well, to be strictly accurate, while I supervise unpacking and putting up the tent and Ashley does all the hard work). It is, thank goodness, dry.

Although I hadn't seen him for 13 or 14 years before he started working for me, Ashley used to come camping with me when he was at school; as he very sweetly says, I taught him the meaning of the term 'elbow grease'. (Now I come to think of it, I do remember buying him a mug emblazoned with 'galley slave', but he was learning to sail at the time and it all seemed rather Ransome-esque.) It seems very odd to both of us to be putting up a tent together again after all these years. Somewhat ruefully, Ashley remarks that he remembers the key to successful camping is to be prepared; unfortunately, he says, he woke up this morning realising that he wasn't. I reassure him that Julie and I are prepared enough for all three of us; what we lack is muscle power!

At 6pm we head to the stables for the by-now-traditional fish and chip supper with the volunteers and trustees. Johnny's dog Pippa - the only collie Genie has ever made friends with - died suddenly a week ago, and I commiserate with him on his loss. Pippa was a lovely dog, who reminded me of my previous dog, Jasper, a blue merle Sheltie. Genie is surprised not to find Pippa there to potter around with, and seems to sense that something is wrong. She spends most of the time sitting with us, rather than doing her own thing hunting hopefully for rats and nosing in the stables, which is her more usual way of spending the time there.

Colour photograph of a path disappearing among tallpine trees
The woods are lovely, dark and deep ...

After the meal, Ashley and I head back to get the caravan sorted out for the evening, leaving Julie in the stables. Then we go off with Genie so that I can begin to show Ashley round the site. I am high with pleasure at being on the new scooter again; I can still hardly believe my luck at having it. A familiar camper van has pulled in close to the stables and we greet the son of a regular weekend volunteer at Holton Lee; his father is due down later.

We then go through Twin Oak Tree field to the bird hide, where we are lucky enough to find a group of deer clustered on the tiny island in the middle of the pond. Needless to say, I have left my camera behind ... Ashley is impressed, though. I look at the book where visitors record what they have seen, and there is the most incredible variety of birds listed from just the past couple of weeks.

Once we return to the caravan, we drink beer while boiling the kettle to heat the van and fill hot water bottles. It is certainly a far cry from last year, when the air was so hot and still in the orchard that it was nearly unbearable. The fan I bought then lies unused in one of the overhead storage compartments, while we cuddle our bottles. Still, my campers are now captive, so I can get on with my work, and I smile round at them: they smile back somewhat nervously. We retire early, accompanied by hot chocolate laced with brandy, and, in the case of Julie and I, Harry Potter. Having promised Ashley that he will love the peace and quiet, the music drifting over from the four-week 'folk' camp in the Camping Field continues to get louder as the night draws on ...

On Sunday we get up late, dictated by the fact that I wake up intending to finish Harry Potter first and succeed in doing so. Ashley and I then finish reading the Saturday papers outside in the sun, while Julie, having had a later start than me thanks to all her hard work driving down here, continues with Harry Potter in bed. I read to my horror that, in fact, Bournemouth and Poole did experience some flooding on Friday after all; if I had known that, I might have thought again about coming down. Still, there has been no sign of any flooding where we are, and the weather seems fine.

At lunchtime we persuade Julie to put Harry down for a while and we all head to Sandbanks, the beach Genie and I enjoyed so much last year. My mother, a dedicated beach babe, bought me a trolley for my last birthday which is designed to carry everything but the kitchen sink across the sand, so we load this up for Ashley. This makes it possible for him to carry three burgers and soft drinks as well, after we stop at the cafe on the way to the carpark, and I am able to buy the Sunday papers too. It's fantastic to be at the beach and in the sunshine - there's actually a strong wind blowing, but this year that still counts as good weather so we ignore it.

Colour photograph showing a close-up of a tree trunk, with an eye shape appearing out of the bark
But rather Potteresque ...

Sandbanks is unique in having a 'dogs allowed' beach, which is great. However, I soon begin to regret this when Genie starts to bark at every dog she sees; the combination of the excitement of showing everything to Ashley, and, just possibly, the disappearance of Pippa, means that she is in a very difficult mood. My mood is not improved when a couple walk past with a picture-book Westie, complete with a red bow on its lead, and say 'Oh look, before and after'! I think somewhat crossly that mine is 'after' and theirs is 'before', since, millions of pictures of Westies to the contrary, it is a well-known fact among their owners that Westies only stay clean for 24 hours after a bath. (We rename Genie 'Snowy' for this one day each week.)

Since Julie is keen to get on with her reading, along with the women dotted about the beach reading Harry Potter to their children, and since Genie is not exactly being an asset where Ashley is concerned either, the two of us go down to the water where she cheers up temporarily. I paddle, she rushes in and out of the water, and I notice that the bad weather has thrown up a lot of shells. I have a folding bag with me, so I spend an hour or so sorting through them and picking out the best. I've used a lot of shells within mosaics at home, and have another one planned shortly, so this is great.

The wind seems to get stronger rather than dropping off as the afternoon goes on, so we pack up early and decide to return home via the ferry from Sandbanks to Studland, thus crossing the mouth of Poole Harbour. We've never done this before, but have always been fascinated by the idea of it. In the event, it is amazingly quick and easy; we drive straight on and the ferry is then (I think) pulled across the harbour by underwater chains before we drive off again. Studland is a National Trust beach, and although we don't stop, it is very beautiful. We drive the length of it before arriving in Swanage, where we stop and buy fudge etc. Then we return home to the caravan, where I wash the shells off as best I can before taking my camera and scooting off into the woods, leaving Genie behind.

Colour photograph of fungi growing on the ground
and somewhat sinister ...

I go through the woods to the Chase Manhattan hide, where I am lucky enough to see the deer approaching. Despite having a new longer lens, it is still difficult to get close enough to get a good photograph, but it does teach me more about what I need to do in the future. The wind is continuing to rise, and I get chilled quite quickly. Going into the woods, I felt very privileged, and the only quote that came to mind was 'the woods are lovely, dark and deep'. Coming out through the twilight, though, poetry is replaced with The Deathly Hallows, the trees seem vaguely sinister, and I wish that I had Genie with me after all ... I am actually quite pleased that the giant spider waymarker which usually hangs from the trees has been removed temporarily after last years' bullocks managed to knock it down!

Fortunately nothing can withstand the vapidity of Big Brother, which Ashley is not watching either, so once I get back the three of us gather round the television with more beer and find out what has been happening in the BB house since the eviction on Friday night. Back in Dorset, it is quite clearly about to rain, and in the night it gets underway in earnest. So much for last week's forecast, on which I was depending, that it would clear up from midday Saturday until the following Wednesday.

Colour photograph of two tree stumps among the bracken
and even magical...

In the morning the rain continues to pour down. Thank goodness the site is so well-maintained; the ditches are full, but there is very little water lying around apart from the usual puddles in the lane (which develops a new pothole every time one is filled in quite a Potteresque way). All credit is due to the staff, and in particular toTony, Matt and Stuart, for managing to keep up such a huge site so well - in most parts of the country, the ditches are overgrown and blocked because they're not usually needed in the summer, which is adding to the flooding. As usual, the site for the NDACA building is relatively dry, which bodes well for the future. It is clear, though, that rather than stay until Tuesday morning as originally planned, we will need to leave after I finish work. I don't need a management manual to realise that inflicting an extra night in a small tent on Ashley in the middle of the worst floods in living memory is not recommended as a method of staff retention!

Later in the morning I open up my Blog site in Dreamweaver to show Hayley some programming, and come across the entry for the same time last year, which starts 'It is now hotter than hell'. Hmmm ... Global warming or not, it certainly illustrates to me that architects and builders have got to be ready for everything. Hayley and I have a very positive day, and by the end of it the Arts site has gone live - not, though, before I have managed to over-write part of the main site by mistake when I am 'teaching' Hayley to upload files to the server ... still, we manage some useful additional lessons while sorting it out!

Ashley, too, has done sterling work, and the inside of the caravan is now cleaner than it has been for many years - strangely, this attention to detail has prevented him from cleaning outside despite my helpful comment that he could view the rain as assisting with the rinse water! Genie, meanwhile, has slept all day, having clearly exhausted herself yesterday. Grrr... Loading the van is a haphazard affair because of the rain, which means Ashley has to get things in as quickly as he can. Fortunately, since we are due back on Friday night, we are able to leave most things in situ, including Ashley's tent, and head for a wet and dreary motorway with some relief.

Colour photograph of a white doe gazing towards the camera from the reedbeds

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