In my childhood I spent a lot of time with my grandmother who lived by the sea on the Menai Straits.
My husband and I had been living in a really nice terraced farmer’s cottage in Suffolk for about 16 years. We were in a little community of six houses and had two really lovely neighbours. I’ve always painted and taught at the same time and had my own studio.
Just before Covid, my husband retired and I decided I wanted just to work full time on my artwork. Then, within six months of each other, our two wonderful neighbours on each side both died. It really hit us. To me, this really idyllic community just suddenly fell apart.
Not long after that, I lost my mother.
My mum’s funeral was right at the start of Covid. The fear, uncertainty and restrictions on numbers meant there were only three of us in attendance. My brother couldn’t get across from the US. No-one knew what was going on and everyone was petrified. I then had to sort out and sell my mum’s flat.
So, quite a huge amount of stuff was happening. We were thinking: this is the time to make a change. If we are going to do what we always dreamt of we should go now. We had nothing holding us back. Life is so short. Let’s just make a go of it.
House prices in England just went silly during Covid – we couldn’t believe it. We thought: what’s going on here? Everyone wanted a life change. They wanted to get out of the cities and get back into the countryside. My husband is Irish and I’ve always had an affinity for this coastline. So, we thought, right: coastal… Northern Ireland.
We had been looking online, on and off, for about 5 years.
We had very specific things in mind: to be right next to the sea, not near any major roads – because of the cats – and a nice garden. It has taken us a long time to find it – and then to jump at it. I’m so glad we did.
I’m very much linked to my environment.
The house in Suffolk was very light, very airy… that’s very important to me, to feel secure; it’s part of my creativity. The house and the garden and my studio are all interlinked. So, the garden had to be fluid and creative and have particular colours and textures. That kind of creativity runs through how I live in the house, how I live in the garden and how I experience the outside.
We saw this house online and flew over to see it. I was still grieving for my mum but when we drove up this road by the lough I just said: “This is everything that I could imagine…”.
It was the feel of the place as soon as we walked in.
The house felt light and airy, and cosy and enveloping and the garden was just beautiful; a rich palette of warm, glowing colours. And we have the sea right there!
So, we decided to go for it. We were just going to grab this opportunity for however long we can be here for. My husband is 70 and I’ll be 60 soon. You’ve got to live that life now.
This house and its immediate surroundings gives me everything I could want at this particular time.
You’ve got this ever-changing sky… the weather.. birds. It’s very, very uplifting. Just walking up and down the shore road every day is so creative and healing and there’s so much to see.
Because I was grieving for everyone I had lost I had to have some gentle pushing to make me do it. My home and my environment are really important to me so it’s like the rug was really being pulled out from under my feet. And, I had to feel my fear and get on with it. I had to dig deep.
But, I have no regrets at all. It’s just given me so much more.
The people – the warmth of the people here….. the landscape and the seascape it’s all embracing. It’s wild and it’s dramatic every day. Every day there is a different light… a different sky…. a different sea colour… different birds on the shore. It’s just amazing.
We moved here in February. It’s been just over 6 months.
We came across on the ferry from Liverpool in a storm, at night, with all our furniture and our two rescue cats. Since then we have been trying to get the house to feel like it is ours.
I’m quite thrifty. I will find things in junk shops, charity shops and auction houses. I have this large room upstairs that I use as a studio. It’s got a big window at the end from which I paint. But, I also paint outside. I will take my canvas and go along the coast and paint whatever is in front of me.
It was obviously once a fisherman’s cottage but it has been renovated quite a lot by the previous owners so it’s very, very open. We have big windows that go from floor to ceiling so it’s completely open at the front. A second storey was put on top so I have a long thin studio in what would have been the attic, but the roof has been raised so it is a proper sized room.
You go in through a red front door into an open kitchen and then walk through into a huge, big living room that looks straight onto the sea. You’ve got two bedrooms on the lower floor and a couple of bathrooms. Inside, it has a kind of contemporary twist. It was all painted white. I love blue, so I’ve blue sofas and bits of pieces around. I like to have an eclectic mix of objects so I love old and new. And then I’ve got all my paintings on the wall.
The house is beautifully nestled into the hillside. It’s still got some of the original Irish vernacular: a grey roof, whitewashed walls, a red door ….and it’s got a lovely flow about it. It’s full of light and it’s very easy to live in, and it’s very cosy as well. It has warmth and light.
I do like houses with a bit more character. I will probably try to introduce character in terms of old furniture – as an eclectic mix.
My Suffolk garden was a blue-based garden and I’ve inherited a hot-palette garden. But actually it’s really nice to have that because it gives me another way of working with my paintings, which can be very much in cool tones.
We have a summer house which I am going to turn it into a greenhouse and grow lots of verbena and tall flowers that will waft and catch the wind and light so it has a more naturalised look about it, rather than the existing very formal, tight beds. I’d like it to be a bit more free-flowing and less static.
The previous owners created an amazing garden in terms of form and structure. I know just how much work went into this and although I want to change elements of it, I want to ensure that any changes are in keeping with what I have inherited. In my mind continuity and change go together. I do not subscribe to the idea ‘out with the old in with the new’! I was conscious that the previous owners had been here over 20 years and therefore the planting was not only related to taste, but probably had a purpose to it. Hence, my respectful approach to changing and restructuring.
In England houses are expensive, you hardly get anything for your money.
Here, you can get a decent sized property for a similar amount.
In terms of the purchase a lot of things came to us at the right time. We sold our house just as all the house prices were going up. There was no stamp duty – which meant we had an opportunity to get something that normally we couldn’t afford.
It was a difficult time to sell. Because of Covid, you couldn’t see anyone face to face. You had to everything by phone and so everything was much, much slower because people were working from home.
By the time we got here in February we just took a big deep breath. We’ve done it!
We’ve had a beautiful summer and that really helped. We have just kind of slowed down now… taking it all in. My husband has taken up kayaking.
When we got here it was lockdown so there were no shops open and no classes/clubs so I just felt incredibly isolated. Not only were we in this detached house looking over the water – we didn’t know anyone!
The first few weeks I felt really, really lonely.
The three people we had lost were my best friends – including my mum. I didn’t know anyone here. I did feel very isolated. You couldn’t go anywhere. We were very much stuck in the house just getting food in and bringing it back here. Everyone was worried about meeting up – and rightly so. But, once we all started getting our vaccinations things started to open up a little bit more.
England is different from Ireland.
We speak the same language but the culture, the towns… are different. The ways things work is different. I just felt really alone.
But luckily we have a neighbour who is in her 80’s. That day we moved in she came walking up the drive on her sticks (because she had broken her hip) with a box of biscuits. She is a real pillar of the community and does a lot for charity. She has introduced us to loads of people and has been instrumental in us getting to know the community.
I met two interesting artists who live in the area and when things started to open up they said come and join our art group. We meet on a Wednesday and we draw together and have a cup of coffee and a group crit.
But, I have to say, people here are just so open and friendly. In England we are more reserved. We don’t want to bother people, so we will just get on with things. We might wave but that will be it. Here, people really want to know who you are, where you’ve come from – and that’s been brilliant.
Once I started going to pilates you get to know faces. Around April/May I began to feel a bit more part of this area and knew how it worked.
I didn’t know any of the towns or how to get anywhere or where anything was so that was a big learning curve. What I did was to get in my car, put on the satnav and just go out on my own so I could understand the geography of the place.
I was quite fearful at first. But, the more I got out there, the more I drove around, and the more I stopped off at a little charity shop… antique shop… or coffee shop the more I could see where things were and how they relate to each other. Six months in I feel more settled and it’s really beginning to feel like home.
I get up about 7am. If I have any paper work to do I get on top of that. I like to get into my studio no later than 10am and will probably work outside or on my paintings until about 6pm. I work pretty much like that most days – and that includes the weekend. I like to do some yoga or go for a walk. Then… evening meal and relaxing. It’s a bit of a monk-like existence!
It takes me a while to get to know a place before I can produce work that I feel happy with.
I’m not a tourist painter. I can’t just go somewhere and paint. I have to be rooted. I have to feel at home in my home environment and know the place and how it works to understand nature and what’s going on outside. This last month or so, I have been producing paintings that are better than the paintings I produced when I was first here – because I know the place now.
Where we lived in Suffolk we were right in a very beautiful rural landscape and the skies were very dramatic, but the land changes were very slow. Whereas here, because you’ve got the sky and the sea they are constantly reflecting each other.
There’s a great light, and vibrancy and energy which I absolutely love. So, my work has changed in that it’s got much more energetic and fluid and much more light-filled. I’ve got this constant changing view. It can be grey – but even the greyness like today has a beauty about it. It has silvery greys and purple greys and mists and rain. Whatever the weather there’s a real beauty in it. I feel my work has become more fluid and open and I’m really enjoying it.
I think art is very important on all sorts of levels.
For me Art is a constant. It is in my DNA: it is not something I do, rather, it is something I am. I can no more forego Art than I can refuse to eat or drink. It is my constant companion. Without my Art I am diminished.
When I am feeling low the painting process lifts me.
I do it as a routine anyway, but when you have lost someone it gets you through those dark days. It takes you into another place, it almost gives it space. And then you become absolutely locked in and involved in what you are doing between what you are seeing and what you are trying to produce on the canvas. It’s almost like a meditation. You’ve not got that head-spinning thinking about all the other stuff going on around you that we all face every day.
It’s something I will never stop doing because I know it’s been a lifesaver. It’s helped me. I’m not saying its therapy. It’s more than that.
What do I miss? In England there are a couple of really good friends and my dad that I miss. But it is more the psychological effect of living across the sea in another country. Practically, it is as easy for me to visit my father as it was in England . There is undoubledly a cultural dimension to contend with; rural England simply is different. English towns are very different from towns here – they are quite pretty with historic buildings which speak to the Englishness within me. I do miss that. My local town had lots of lovely cafes…it’s older. I miss those old looking towns, my dad and my friends. That’s all really.
You’ve got to get as much out of living as you can – until you can’t.
To live here is like going full circle again because this really does remind me of the Menai Straits. From here I can see the mountains of Mourne and the Dromara Hills, it’s not just the sea and sky.
When we first arrived there were beautiful black guillemots nesting in the sea wall and they would waddle along with their bright red feet. We’ve seen seals bobbing about and fish jumping out of the water and all sorts of beautiful seabirds. Through binoculars we are constantly watching what it is going on. There’s stuff going on out there all the time.
When you’ve got time to sit and look, you see more.