In the early fall of 1978 I packed a two year old and the essentials of life into a Morris Minor Traveller and started the drive down the motorway from London to Upottery in Devon. I was about five or six months pregnant. The moving truck would arrive a week later and in the interim I stayed at a bed and breakfast in Chard in Somerset with my daughter. My husband at the time was travelling somewhere in the world as the oil industry took him away for about nine months out of twelve.
I had leased a cottage in a village in Devon, wanting to escape to the countryside after the bustle of London. Even on the edge of London, the activity level, noise and crime pushed its way out and affected how I lived. It seems that Lord Sidmouth had the same idea about one hundred and thirty years before me and I was headed to the same village as he was - with ties to the same land as well. All without my knowledge of the history that went before me.
Upottery lies high up the beautiful, pastoral Otter valley, between two great fingers of the Blackdown Hills and has now been declared a area of natural beauty. The manor, together with that of Rawridge across the river, was bought by Dr. John Addington of London in the later years of the 18th century. His son, Henry Addington, Speaker of the House of Commons, Prime Minister 1801-4, and later 1st Viscount Sidmouth, built a mansion and occasionally resided here. One cannot imagine a more complete change than this from the cares of London and the political world. The present Manor House was built about 1845.
I discovered the tiny village of Upottery after many wrong twists and turns on narrow country lanes. I moved to Manor Cottage which was an old thatched cottage, originally a tied cottage most likely for the Manor House and farm. It was a classic old house with uneven walls, very low ceilings and original slate floors. An AGA was the only form of heat aside from a portable electric fire and a fireplace in the living room.
To gain access, I had to meet 'the Colonel' and his wife and run the gamut of questions round a kitchen table surrounded by the remains of their teatime with a large sticky flytrap hanging overhead. I remember distinctly keeping one eye on the flytrap, fearing that one of the buzzing trapped flies would extricate itself from the sticky mass and fall onto the plate of sandwiches or cakes below.
Later that evening the Colonel's daughter came by to see that I was settled. She was an actress who mostly stayed in London - I forget her name - and judging by the lack of credits to her career, so did most people. She was intense in an irritating kind of way with probing questions that disturbed me. I had started to wonder quite what I had let myself in for there.
But it turned out mostly for the better. Life in the little thatched cottage had some unique aspects and village life was friendly. Attached to the cottage was a long building, known locally as the Justice Hall. It was where justice was handed out to servants of the Manor House supposedly, but in those days was accessible through a door from the cottage kitchen. The room was large with high windows and wooden floors. Along one wall was a very large inglenook fireplace and the only other piece of furniture was a dolls house that stood as tall as I am and that could be opened like a door to look inside. There was no furniture or dolls inside, but it always fascinated me and my daughter. On rainy days when her energy levels surpassed mine, I would take her into the Justice Hall and let her run laps around the room while I explored the dolls house. Unfortunately I have no photos of that space or the dolls house, only in memories in my head. Perhaps I'll translate those into drawings one day.