Visit 2: 18 - 22 May 2006
I am about to see my caravan for the first time, having found it for sale on e-bay. It was previously used for seasonal accommodation by a local woman who spent two summers working at a wildlife park, so it's already kitted out with all the basics that I should need. I am used to camping, as I usually camp in Wales for a fortnight each summer. However, I have never had a caravan before, only tents, mosty because tents are so much easier to store! Lots of disabled people enjoy camping, partly because it is cheap, but also because it can be much easier to manage in a small space, where everything is on one level, than in a hotel or holiday cottage. It wouldn't really be practical to live and work in a tent during this residency, though! And I have always wanted to get a caravan, so that I can work anywhere in the country.
I am very fortunate, because Dave, who runs the Garden training project for the college students at Holton Lee (more about this later) has a caravan himself and has set mine up for me, including putting down paving slabs for the legs etc to make sure that it is level. Once we arrive he checks what equipment I have, and then takes my friend off to buy the necessary electrical connections and to fill the gas bottle etc at a nearby camping shop. On their return Dave fixes up a power supply for me, and also connects up my fresh and waste water tanks and shows me how to use these. I have the phone number of the family who sold the caravan to me if I need further help, so I feel fairly confident that I will be able to manage. There are a number of people at Holton Lee who have offered to help me load and unload, empty tanks and collect water etc - and hopefully I will soon be able to remember their names . . .
The caravan is twin-berth, and is 17 feet long. It was built in 1980, but is fabulously seventies in its design. The walls are covered with sticky-backed plastic in a mock-hessian design, and the main colour scheme is orange and brown! I decide to add some blue into this, but otherwise to keep the contents as authentic as possible. I moved into my first bedsit in 1980 and some of the kitchen equipment and so on that I plan to bring down dates from then, as does my portable black-and-white television, so this won't be difficult! It's a great bonus to have the power supply, as it means that the lighting levels at night are really good. The caravan can run mainly off gas, with the addition of battery power if necessary, but the full lighting set-up only works off the mains. As I have a degree of visual impairment, good lighting makes it much easier to manage in a new space.
In contrast to my first visit, the weather is appalling, with torrential rain and gusting winds. This is a great test of the caravan, which fortunately turns out to be water-tight. I can see that the joints will probably need resealing by the autumn, though, and that generally it will need regular maintenance. However, it seems to have been lovingly maintained to date, allowing it (just) to be described as a classic caravan rather than merely being very old! The original instructions are still with it too, and the only difficulty I have is with the heater, which I can't get to work however hard I try. As it's not particularly cold, I decide to leave this for now.
Genie thinks it is fabulous - although to be fair she loves any accommodation that allows her to sleep with me, rather than being banished to the kitchen as she is at home, while I share the bedroom with my cats. We speculate about whether she will be able to smell the lions and tigers from the wildlife park on the caravan, and therefore will expect to find these at Holton Lee. As she is from Essex, she probably finds the deer equally exotic and wouldn't be surprised by anything!
It takes most of the next day to move into the caravan properly and to decide on the best place to store different things. I keep finding new storage places, and new pieces of equipment, that I haven't noticed the night before. I also need to make lists of what I need to buy straight away in terms of stores and so on, and what I need to buy in London or bring from home. We find that there are some very useful general shops relatively close to Holton Lee, and also discover the Argos and Maplin in Poole for more small pieces of equipment. I still can't make the heater work, so have phoned the family who sold me the caravan for some ideas. I seem to be doing everything right, but still don't have heat. It's not actually very cold, but the continued rain is creating a lot of condensation.
Then I get to work with Tony, and Trish, who is the Arts Administrator at Holton Lee. Trish has a degree in photography, and is currently doing an M.A. alongside her full-time job (you can see some of her photographs on her website imagesofmusic.co.uk). I remember what this is like, and am just glad that my studying days are now over! I spent nine years studying alongside work in order to get my M.A. and PhD. I cannot begin to imagine how students manage to fund postgraduate study now that they are already left in debt from their first degree. It was difficult enough for me, and I did my first degree in the days of full student grants, access to benefits in the holidays and no tuition fees. As it is I have not been able to reduce my student debts at all, despite finishing my research in 1997.
Tony, Trish and I are working on a funding application to the Arts Council for the building costs of the archive. The Arts Council have promised the money in principle, but only if a lot of very detailed criteria are satisfied first. Unfortunately - though correctly - Holton Lee has to submit as much paperwork as it would for a project that was ten times more expensive, but has only a fraction of the staff time available to do this that a larger organisation would have. It is good to be able to represent Disabled artists' interests within the process, though. Ruth has sent down her latest plans for the building for us to look at and comment on, and we also need to draw in a lot of existing documents about Holton Lee as appendixes. We are having a meeting with the Arts Council's representative, Simon Jutton, on the Monday, so have a lot of work to do first.
Away from the office and during a break in the rain, I discover the Trampers that Holton Lee loans out to visitors with mobility impairments. These are essentially a cross between off-road powered wheelchairs and electric quad bikes. There are level paths which go all over Holton Lee, enabling disabled visitors to enjoy it as fully as non-disabled people. Or possibly more, since the Trampers can go quite fast! However, I find them quite hard to use, as they are controlled by twisting back the handle bar. I developed carpal tunnel syndrome following a serious illness in 2000, when the ligament around my wrist contracted from disuse. This had to be severed completely to stop pressure on the nerves to my hand, leaving my wrist quite weak. I decide that for now, at least, I will stick to my mobility micro-scooter. This has caused a great deal of amusement to many people, including to Ian Laker, the mobility dealer who sold it to me and who calls it my 'shopping trolley'. However, it has already proved at music festivals etc to be more than up to use in fields, at least in the summer. Genie is also very good at helping me to balance it, as well as providing extra power uphill. She is training as an assistance dog with the help of Dog AID, an organisation that helps disabled people to train our dogs ourselves. She really enjoys working with the scooter, perhaps because when I use it we are usually outside together with some degree of freedom - the power wheelchair usually means that I am working indoors or am at some indoor event.
On Saturday morning I finally get the heater to work - shortly before the family who sold me the caravan is due to come over to help. As I haven't done anything different than before, I can only conclude that there was air in the system from lack of use since the previous summer which has now cleared. I will have to remember this next year. This is the first time that I have been camping with a heater, so I am very impressed.
Later there is a private view at Faith House, Holton Lee's purpose-built exhibition space. (This was the Guardian newspaper's building of the year in 2002.) Two local artists have produced work in response to Holton Lee's landscape. Abi Kremer works with paintings and prints, while Richard Jeffery works with photography. Abi has arranged for some musician friends whose work is closely linked to her own to play, and this works very well. Genie rides round on my lap, inclining her head graciously as we meet people from the local arts community for the first time. Most of the time, unfortunately, she has delusions of grandeur. However, this does encourage her to behave very well at events like private views, although I have a strong suspicion that she thinks people have come to see her.
In the afternoon we go down to the harbour viewing platform, which is at the bottom of the fields in front of the Farm House. It is ramped to allow people using the Trampers and other mobility aids to get high enough up to see over the gorse to Poole Harbour. It's great to have my first proper view of the harbour, having seen many tantalising glimpses of it already. It makes me determined to get even closer to it in the future. I grew up by the sea, love sailing and body-boarding, and have a particular interest in environmental issues that affect the coast. On the way back, I see a seagull's wing on the ground, and stop to photograph it. There are a number of birds of prey at Holton Lee, including buzzards, and one has obviously made a recent kill.
On Sunday we decide to start exploring the coastline around Holton Lee by car, and head for Lulworth Cove. This is the most famous part of Dorset's 'Jurassic coast', to the west of Holton Lee. It is really interesting to see the changing countryside within what is a relatively small area, and to begin to get some idea of the towns and villages. We have bought an Ordnance Survey map, but have yet to find a Tourist Information point to get more written information. When we do eventually arrive at Lulworth Cove, though, we find that we can't see the 'Jurassic coast' at all, because cars are not allowed to drive down to it during the summer. Instead you have to park inland and walk/roll, and unfortunately it's too far for us to use the manual wheelchairs that are all we have with us. We decide to return to Lulworth when we have more suitable transport, but the drive in itself has been so enjoyable that we aren't too disappointed.
Monday's meeting with Simon goes really well. We even have better weather for it, so he is able to see the site properly. Ruth's plans come to life as we show him exactly where the linking corridor will run from the Farm House and where the entrance to the archive will be. The building will include office space for the curator, storage space for the collection, an area for handling objects, a small library and a study area for researchers. By the time I leave for London, I really feel that we have moved forward.
All contents © 2006
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