Homes & Antiques

HOMES
& ANTIQUES

A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN September 2012

Many of us dream of escaping to a country cottage for a few months with nothing to do but write – but is the reality quite so romantic?
Mary Jane Baxter spills the beans
PHOTOGRAPHS SARAH CUTTLE

Wading through floodwater at dawn perilously clutching a rabbit hutch containing two disgruntled occupants wasn’t really what I had in mind when I became a resident writer in the Warwickshire countryside. But, when the rains of May arrived, and with the mistress of the house away, it fell to me to ensure the safety of the menagerie at the bottom of the garden. Fortunately, a kind neighbouring family had already helped me shift the pet duck and her nearly hatched eggs and now I fervently hoped I wouldn’t have to rescue a soggy cockerel and assorted hens at half past five in the morning.

I’ve always been a city girl, you see. I’ve lived in London for several years and I’m used to the relentless pace, the crush on the tube and the endless choice of sandwich fillings. Now, here I was, ankle deep in mud, receiving a crash-course in country life courtesy of The Hosking Houses Trust and, what’s more, I was finding it strangely rewarding.

My odyssey began a couple of years ago when, sitting in a cafe waiting to interview someone, I was passing the time re-reading Virginia Woolf’s classic A Room of One’s Own. My interviewee duly arrived, noticed my book and mentioned that he’d heard of a scheme inspired by its title offering exactly what Ms Woolf had prescribed – a place to write undisturbed and the financial means with which to pursue one’s passion. It seemed far too good to be true but, after some research, I discovered that The Hosking Houses Trust does indeed offer such an opportunity: for women writers over the grand old age of 40 they offer a sanctuary in the shape of the trust’s own cottage and a bursary to boot.

TAKING THE PLUNGE

Regular readers of my column in H&A will know that rural isolation and I are not always the happiest of bedfellows. A two-week experiment helping to run a coffee shop in the Hebrides last year didn’t quite work out as planned. Life on a tiny island emphasised how dependent I’d become on my daily dose of cappuccino and regular flea market forays. And yet, something about the idea of getting away from it all to write appealed – a lot.

With a publishing contract under my belt for my second book – all about my first love, hat-making – I decided to apply. After a nail-biting wait I was accepted and so, earlier this year, I swapped the rush of London for a few months of scholarly tranquility in an early 18th-century cottage in a small village just outside Stratford-upon-Avon.

Taking a break
The 18th-century cottage where writers stay is in the Warwickshire village of Clifford Chambers

Most women arrive at Church Cottage blissfully free of paraphernalia. Everything you need is already there so you can make as smooth a transition as possible into your temporary life by simply adding to the mix some clothes, a laptop and your research notes. I imagine it leaves the head uncluttered, giving the old grey-matter freedom to focus on being creative.

I, on the other hand, found it slightly harder to sort myself out. Writing a book about hat-making means that I inevitably trail yards of fabric, bundles of trimmings, various vintage accessories and a sewing machine in my wake. The clutter-free existence I’d dreamed of soon disappeared under a heap of toiles for hats of various shapes and sizes. In no time at all, the little cottage was packed with as much stuff as my own home. Worse, having discovered the local auction house, I accumulated even more as time passed. Where else would I have the chance to purchase five Edwardian nightdresses at such a bargain price?

Mary on a bike
The purchase of a second-hand bike helped Mary Jane to get to know the area>

Friends were slightly harder to acquire, though. It takes a while to get to know people in a small place and I missed my old social life – weekend entertainment seemed restricted to local fêtes. I toyed with the idea of taking up ballroom dancing but the village poster made it clear you needed a partner to join in. Undeterred, I invested in a second-hand bike and found huge pleasure in cycling around the lanes, discovering a fabulous train-carriage cafe a couple of miles away that served fantastic bacon and egg baps. Car-boot sales (where I picked up some Staffordshire pottery cats and vintage shoe lasts) replaced my flea market fixes, and seeing spring emerge around me woke up my senses.

CREATIVE SUPPORT

Sarah and Daisy

Luckily, one of my neighbours was the Trust’s founder, artist Sarah Hosking. As time went on I discovered we had a lot in common and that Sarah’s tastes complemented my own. The first time I saw the cottage, I remember being mightily impressed by the patchwork curtains and the beautiful rag rug she’d made – not to mention the fact that she was planning to make a boa out of her chickens’ feathers!

It’s this creative drive that underlies the ethos of the trust. ‘I’ve worked hard my whole life and I know how difficult it can be for women to find the space, time and freedom from commitments to write,’ says Sarah. ‘After I retired, I decided to help other women achieve their creative goals.’ The Hosking Houses Trust was registered as a charity in 1999 and, since then, 23 writers have passed through its doors, including Louise Foxcroft, who won the Longman-History Today book award in 2009 for Hot Flushes, Cold Science.

Chic on a Shoestring
Mary Jane Baxter is the author of Chic on a Shoestring (Kyle Books, £14.99).The Make-Do Milliner is due to be published next year

Whether my book will be as successful remains to be seen but I do feel the cottage gave me some ‘mental space’ to work. After a couple of weeks, my writing took on a certain rhythm. Having been woken by the unbroken chorus of birdsong in the morning, I’d settle down at my desk at nine. After a brief break for lunch, I’d resume until about six, when I’d go for a stroll in my wellies in the surrounding fields. I revelled in the unexpected joys of my new surroundings: the snatched sight of a wild hare in the grass or the way a swan improvises by using its wings as sails.

All too quickly, my time at Church Cottage came to an end after three months. Anyone who saw a small blue car heading south along the motorway with antlers strapped to the roof and papers piled high will know that I had a productive time. I’ve written half my book – something that I doubt I could have done in a similar time frame at home. I’ve been privileged to meet one incredibly inspiring lady and I like to think I’ve made a small, but significant, contribution to village life. Remember those duck eggs I rescued? One feisty fellow made it through – and I’m happy to report that mother and duckling are both doing well.