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 5: 19 - 25 July 2006

Colour photograph of a silver birch tree, with other trees visible behind it and ferns growing beneath it.

It is now hotter than hell, with nothing to choose between the temperatures in London and in Dorset. The last couple of months have destroyed my long-held belief that the country is cooler than the city - although the air is certainly much cleaner in Dorset, which means that I have more energy here. I am therefore happy to dive into the office twenty minutes after arriving, in order to meet with Tony before he leaves for a fortnight's holiday. The Farm House is built using a traditional means of construction, 'cob', which means that the walls are very thick and contain a lot of mud. This has the effect of keeping the building much cooler than modern buildings, and it is a huge relief to be out of the heat after a four-hour drive. Sarah and Ruth intend to use cob construction within the archive building, and I can really understand why. It will be important to ensure that the temperature in the archive is kept at a happy medium, both for the building's users and for the art works. But it is also important to Holton Lee's environmental aims to achieve this without relying on artiificial air conditioning methods, particularly as these add to global warming. Not needing air conditioning will also reduce the archive's running costs considerably.

Trish and I are aiming to complete a lot of the work on the Arts Council application while Tony is away, in order that we can concentrate on the budgets and architects' plans once he gets back. We agree a schedule with Tony, and then I return to the caravan to finish unpacking. It is becoming much easier to manage now that I am familiar with the caravan, and am developing some routines for packing and unpacking and for daily tasks. However, I am still bringing down new items each time, as I try to make the caravan into an environment which is as comfortable and accessible - and as easy to work in - as possible. This time I have made replacement curtains for the front of the caravan, where the curtains were not the originals in any case. I have also bought new cushions, an electric fan to clip on to the shelves for when I can't avoid being in the caravan during the heat, and a booster for the television aerial as the signal is very weak. In addition I have to launder the bedding and towels between each visit and bring them back, and on this occasion the rug too, as it got covered in mud during the shower that occurred as we were loading my van to return to London last time! It's still much easier to wash a rug than it would be to clean the carpet, though.

Colour photograph of a large wicker sculpture of a figure setting a bird free, surrounded by woodland.
Mike O'Hara's Freebird waymarker


The cushions and curtains look good, the fan works a treat, and the television now picks up most channels. However, the signal is still very poor, and I realise that I will next have to buy a new aerial and see if this helps, particularly as Big Brother still has a few weeks to run! There is certainly plenty to do here without watching television, but when the time comes that you are too tired to go out or read, I am still a big fan of it. On this occasion I opt for BBC1, which has the strongest reception - after the drive and unpacking in the heat, we are all shattered. But I also remind myself to buy a radio too as soon as possible, as I don't have a spare one at home.

The following morning, Thursday, Genie and I head to the office for a full day's work on the Arts Council application with Trish. Genie is very well-behaved - perhaps because it is so hot outside, given that Holton Lee must overload the senses and so challenge the training of any dog - and spends most of the day lying under the desk. She only comes to life to alert me when someone has come into the office - because I have difficulty in processing visual information and in hearing sound against background noise, it helps to have Genie signal to me when something significant has happened. She is surprisingly reliable at being able to tell what I need her to alert me to, and what I will notice on my own or don't need to know about. When she is working on my lap, I am also able to follow her head movements as she spots something significant happening. Needless to say this is not 100% reliable, particularly if she sees a collie dog, which for some reason she hates, or a cat! However, from continued contact with various friends who have 'official' assistance dogs, I am aware that none of them are perfect - despite the fundraising hype, at the end of the day, they are all just ordinary dogs.

Close up photograph of bark, covered in orange and pale green lichen. The wood appears to be scarred.

After the heat of the day it is a beautiful evening, and Genie, Julie (who documents my work) and I set off across Twin Oak Tree field into the woods. Genie has special permission to be in this part of Holton Lee, along with qualified assistance dogs, although dogs are usually banned here in the spring and summer in order to protect ground-nesting wild life. I am on my scooter again, but Julie has borrowed a Tramper, which she calls a Scamper! Both of us can completely understand why Holton Lee is so popular with disabled visitors. The sense of freedom is amazing here compared to London, where I am effectively house bound unless a p.a. or friend is available to come out with me. At Holton Lee I can go out on my own, secure in the knowledge that if I am taken ill I can use my shortwave radio to summon help, or if the worst happens, that Genie will bark up a storm and summon help for me.

Colour photograph of a small herd of deer, feeding behind a pond which they are reflected in. Behind them are reed beds and trees.

The woods are lovely, and I stop frequently to photograph them. Over the past few years I have been focusing on close-up photographs of bark, stone and lichen as part of my ongoing practice around landscape, but today I mostly want to begin to build up my snapshots of Holton Lee, which you can see throughout this blog. I also photograph the giant Freebird waymarker sculpture by Mike O'Hara, which is made of wicker and seems perfect for its setting. One of the many nice things about Holton Lee are the art works that are situated throughout the site. It certainly inspires me to produce some work here as soon as possible.

Julie has gone on ahead, but returns to tell me that the sika deer are feeding in the reed beds ahead of us. (These are one of two types of deer found at Holton Lee.) She offers to stay with Genie while I go and photograph them, so that Genie won't frighten them off. They see me, but continue feeding whilst remaining alert. It really is a magical sight - I am quite converted from my original anxiety about deer leaping out in front of the car! There is something extremely primeval about deer, which is probably not surprising as their bodies have provided everything from meat and clothing to fish hooks and sinews for many indigenous people, while still remaining wild. It is hard to see why anyone would hunt them simply for sport, though, and I fear that Walt Disney has spoilt me for enjoying venison - ancient, organic, sustainable, non-farmed food source or not, it would be like eating Bambi!

Colour photograph of a papier mache figure of a man, dressed in a suit and sitting behind a desk with a computer on it. He is surrounded by ferns.
'Steve Jutting', produced in a workshop run by Mike O'Hara, with Sian Williams, Ruth Bailey and Colin Hambrook


After watching and photographing the deer for some time, I return to Julie and Genie and we decide to head on towards the healthland. On the way we pass another sculpture, this time a dummy sitting in front of a computer, buried in the ferns and now covered in mould. What this says about the futility of computer-based work, I do not want to dwell on! However, it is extremely effective in its setting, and brings a darker side to our experience of the woodland. Suddenly it is a place where bodies may be buried, as well as where modern technology offers no comfort: a sinister place, where anything might happen. In fact Holton Lee, like any wild environment, is a place where killing takes place daily, as birds of prey hover over the site, and larger mammals feed on smaller ones. This spills over into the more controlled landscape, too - the next morning we discover that a fox has killed three chickens in the night. It is good to be reminded of the cycle of nature, which is so hidden in our culture, and particularly by our denial of our mortality. The Disability Arts Movement is the only art movement which challenges this, and refuses to acquiesce in perpetuating the myth that science can conquer and control nature.

As we head towards the heathland, four wild ponies suddenly burst across the path in front of us and gallop off deeper into the woods. This is the first time that I have seen them, and I wish that we - or more probably Genie - had not alarmed them. Despite looking out for them as we cross the heathland, we don't see them again. Eventually we arrive at the lane which runs from the main road to the old farm buildings that form the nucleus of Holton Lee, and return to the caravan this way. It has been our longest expedition yet, and Genie and I are both very tired. However, we need to take the scooter down to the Stables Studios before we turn in, where we can leave it to charge its batteries. On the way there I photograph the bullocks, who are grazing quietly in the fields. There is little sign now of the mad herd who chased us during our last visit.

Colour photograph of a brown pony feeding on ferns. Another pony can be seen in the pine trees behind.


The next morning, Friday, we return to the office for another intensive day's work. It is boiling hot again, so we are happy to be in the Farm House. We are also rapidly getting on top of the paperwork, which is great. As well as the funding application, we are writing a proposal to develop Holton Lee's website and drawing up a list of equipment that will be needed for the new digital studio within the Stables complex. On Monday we will be meeting with Hayley, a young disabled woman who will be joining Holton Lee in September as a website trainee. I will be facilitating her training as well as training Trish, and will be project managing the website development in addition to the development of the online version of the archive. So we need to be clear about the project details before Hayley arrives! By the evening I am very tired, so end up watching the television again. Holton Lee also has a large supply of books around that anyone is free to borrow, so I'm not short of things to do while resting. I don't read while Big Brother is on, though - it's eviction night!

On Saturday morning, it rains. This would be incredibly welcome, but unfortunately a couple are getting married at Holton Lee at 12.30. As the ceremony takes place, their nuptials are greeted with a thunderstorm! Also, the camping and events field has been hired that afternoon for the Holton Lee music festival, a fundraising event in aid of the Macmillan Cancer Trust. I take advantage of the cooler temperature to process the photographs that I took on Thursday night on my laptop. Fortunately the rain has ended by 2pm, and the sun has soon dried the site out. However, the numbers attending the music festival are inevitably badly affected, as it would have been thundering just at the time when people decided to come or not. We go to support them, but soon realise that the sound is just as loud in the orchard as it is by the stage! So we return to the orchard, where we can lie down on our sun beds and rest while we enjoy the music. Genie and I do however make return journeys to buy food off the barbecue. Another thing that I have brought down with me this time is a small portable barbecue, but this is much easier! Fortunately the weather remains fine into the evening, when the wedding guests return and party into the night.

Close up photograph of a brown pony feeding on ferns. The trunks of pine trees can be seen in the background.

On Sunday we feel much more energetic, and decide to explore more of the coast. Trish has recommended Sandbanks, which lies on a narrow spit of land between Poole and Bournemouth. On one side lies the more sheltered water of Poole Harbour, where people sail and windsurf, and on the other side is literally miles of sandy beach. I am keen to find accessible beaches, and also to find good places to photograph watersports. I lived in Cornwall when I was 'writing up' my PhD and did a series of beach portraits of surfers while I was there, some of which were published in Surf magazine as well as going into my portfolio. It would be good to do a new series of beach portraits next year, when I am more familar with the area. And when there is some surf - despite the previous day's rain, there is no sign of a low pressure system developing any week soon!

For once we find our way there without going wrong too many times, and are able to find a parking space fairly quickly on the Poole Harbour side. We find that we only have to walk across the road to get to the beach side, where we are not disappointed. The beach is fabulous, and there are accessible toilets and a cafe and shops along the promenade. Best of all, we are allowed to take Genie on to the beach at the end, when the prom is replaced by sand dunes. She enjoys this almost as much as I do, although she has never been keen on waves and today is no exception. However, she agrees to walk with me through the shallow water parallel to the shore rather than pulling on her lead to go back to the beach, which is a definite improvement. In my fantasies, she is an ideal surfer's dog, as happy in the water as she is to play ball on the beach. In fact, her only time on a body board - as a puppy - resulted in her screaming to go back to the beach, as she's a terrible drama queen when she wants to be. Still, she's very keen on ball games, so we're part-way there! Playing ball also teaches her to retrieve dropped objects for me, as she's always been trained to bring the ball back and put it directly into my hand if she wants me to play with her.

As we turn into the lane home, we spot the wild ponies ahead of us. We stop the van alongside them, and this time they take no notice of any of us so I am able to get some photographs. Again, there is something quite magical about this. Eventually we realise that we must move on, and return to the caravan. Later Julie goes down to the studios to charge her wheelchair, taking Genie with her for a final walk. I suddenly hear furious barking, but assume that Genie has taken a dislike to another dog for reasons that would only be clear to a canine. When Julie returns, though, she silently shows me a photograph on her camera (below). She had left Genie in the common room at the studios while she went to check that the chickens were safe for the night, after the fox's slaughter of the previous week. At this point, the bullocks were grazing quietly in the field alongside. When she came back, though, the entire herd had gathered at the common room windows, trying to get as close a look at Genie as possible! The bullocks have returned to form with a vengeance! Genie is still upset, but we nearly cry with laughter.

Photograph showing a Westie barking in front of a wall that is lined with chairs, while bullocks look through the windows above at her.
Genie encounters the bullocks again - from the artists' common room.
Photo: Julie Newman

The next morning I am back in the office, meeting with Hayley and finishing the outstanding paperwork. The meeting goes very well, and I am really looking forward to working with both Hayley and Trish on the websites and database from September onwards, when we have finished the Arts Council application. The paperwork also goes well - until I am interrupted by more furious barking. This time a collie has dared to come into the Farm House, and Genie is beside herself with indignation. Unfortunately the collie concerned is Megan and belongs to Sir Thomas Lees, who founded Holton Lee. Her collie-ship quite rightly considers that she has more right to be there than Genie does, but fortunately is too well-bred to fight however much Genie would like her to do. I hide my embarassment by burying myself in work again as soon as they leave. By the end of the day, we have got through more work than Trish and I would have thought possible during my visit, and I pack up my papers feeling a real sense of achievement.

The following morning, Holton Lee is hosting another wedding. This time Holton Lee's riding carriages are being used for it, as the bride works here. Julie goes down to take photographs for the Riding for the Disabled people, who have a base beyond the Stables Studios. They organise carriage driving as well as conventional riding, which really widens the number of disabled people who can access their activities. Julie has been out driving the previous day, but I still prefer my mobility scooter! Julie has also photographed the grooming of the horses the night before, and is now documenting activities as the carriage brings the bride up the lane for the ceremony. Just about everyone at Holton Lee has gathered for the occasion, but I decide to have a quick peep and then return to the orchard. Genie has still not recovered from her encounter with the bullocks, and I don't want the wedding of the year ruined by her shouting at the horses! She is very quiet and well-behaved, though, and reminds me that she is perfectly familiar with the horses - however, I am not taking any chances.

Once the wedding is over, we finish loading the van for our return to London. Unfortunately it is boiling hot again, so we take plenty of water for the journey. But it is always nice to get home, as it is to arrive at Holton Lee - my terraced cottage now seems like a mansion after the caravan! And we will be back again in Dorset in a week's time.

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