Studio informationa chronological look at Alan's work
1984 - 1989 "Abbotsford", Woodhouse Hill, nr Lyme Regis, Dorset.

Despite various setbacks, Alan was able to produce some excellent work whilst at Abbotsford experimenting with organic form and texture. Undoubtedly, some of Alan’s inspiration has come from the surrounding landscape of Lyme Regis.

It took some time to sell, the setup at Marnhull, not everyone’s cup of tea a complex like that! A huge stone chapel like building, a long extension built off that, a purpose built studio, and the wing I had built on as our living accommodation, again not everyone’s taste, open plan downstairs, lots of arches etc. So, eventually it was a property developer who showed interest, and had the capital too! An ex Vulcan bomber pilot investing his gratuity. He was however an accommodating man and allowed me lots of time to move out, which I needed! I didn’t get a good price from him, the market had gone right downhill and mine was an odd setup. I’d sold off my field at the back easily enough and that money paid off the debts that had accrued. Now I had a buyer for the buildings I could look for somewhere to move to. Preferably right on the coast.

We’d seen a place with lots of land on a bleak hilltop near Eype, but it really looked as though it caught the weather and its immediate surroundings weren’t special, but we might have gone for it if our money had come through quicker from our buyer. But there were delays. Then we got details of a property that looked magnificent from the photos, two houses side by side, A three bedroomed, tile hung, 1930’s sort of thing with a long balcony looking out to the sea. Next to it, a small substantially built cottage, as if added for guests, family etc. It looked as though it had letting potential or for putting up parents, (Mary’s).

We drove down to have a look. It was not that easy to find, one turned off the main road to Lyme into a network of tiny lanes snaking through heavily wooded slopes,very steep slopes,forming a long valley with a little stream at its bottom. We climbed up the other side of the valley, still in woodland and came across the agent’s sign on the verge. But the houses themselves were below the road, only the ridge of the roofs was level with it. We parked on the verge. The view was spectacular! One could see across the whole expanse of Lyme Bay, as far as the Portland Bill peninsula stretching out to close the view. It was breathtaking…. We went down the steps to the door of the main house and met the seller, Admiral, Sir William Crawford, a distinguished naval figure who’d ordered off the salvo that did for the Bismark, I think it was the Bismark..

He showed us round the house and then the garden, or some of it. It was quite big, maybe an acre? Lots of big trees. But most of it was at a steep angle. Over the years terraces had been formed across the slopes, flights of steps leading down to them….but one could see why it was proving difficult to sell! It was not suitable for young children, there would be constant tumbles down the steep slopes, and it would be even more difficult for the elderly. But it looked so magnificent, I wanted to take the risk, even if for only a few years. There was a substantial double garage along the lane above, along from the houses and, down a steep drop from the lane, an area of concrete adjacent to the lower storey of the garage above. I thought I could just get my big kiln in there though it would take a crane to lower it down. The ground floor rooms below the garage would make three small workshops. Not nice workshops, concrete floored and ceilinged, they were dark and chill, but I could manage! So we said we’d buy it…

Then we waited, and waited…for the money! Sir William got restive, I got desperate. Then it came through and I went into action, taking out all the massive switch gear I had installed for the row of eight electric kilns for tile firing, moving the kilns themselves down from the upper studio in the big hall to ground level. The house itself sold almost immediately once it was offered as a single dwelling, and for the same price that I was getting for the whole group of buildings! If I hadn’t been so exhausted by the pressures of the previous years I could have done all the splitting up, selling off bits at a time, myself….but that is with hindsight. Things were then as they were! I’d been driving my self too long, needed a break, a reassessment.

I gradually stripped the studios, making innumerable trips down to Lyme in the big van I then had. A 30cwt Austin delivery van from which I had stripped the body, welding on something looking like a canvas roofed army vehicle. Because the steep land I had to unload each consignment on to the verge of the lane, meaning to move everything down later. The locals must have been appalled at the lines of apparent junk against the hedges. I did catch a distant view of Sir William himself further up the lane, no doubt he’d heard tales of what he’d let the locals in for, selling to a ruffian like me! But no one complained to me directly, a wonder the council wasn’t informed, it was an area of Special Natural Value, or whatever the phrase is. It took months to shift all my clobber. Tons of clay, tons of kilns. The big kiln alone weighed over two tons and I’d had quite a job moving it out from the studio I’d built on, along the concrete roadway, about fifty yards, and down the steep slope to the road way. I did it all with levers and rollers, like the Egyptians and Romans did. I used to like doing things like that.

I’d found someone locally with a huge lorry mounted crane who was prepared to lift the kiln onto his lorry, transport it to Lyme, and drop it down into position. I followed him down there and he lowered the hydraulic pads of the crane to steady the load as it was lifted. All went well at first, the kiln was raised in chains off the lorry and the jib began to swing round. I was down below, where the concrete space was, ready to position the kiln when it came down to my level. Suddenly there was a noise, the kiln was jerking and swinging above me in the chains and the lorry driver was leaping from his cab and shouting to me to get right out of the way! “ The whole crane may roll over!” he was shouting! We waited. The crane stayed where it was. The kiln stopped swinging about. We waited…The driver explained that when the jib moved out the steadying pad below the jib had crashed through the road surface into a cavity beneath!

Very cautiously he raised the pad and we packed in rubble, filling the cavity and he lowered the pad again. Before that we’d shored up the kiln from below with some heavy timber beams I’d had around, just the right length! The driver explained that it had been quite possible that with the leverage of the jib with two tons of kiln on it that his whole lorry could have rolled off the road, and all the way down the hillside! The big chestnut trees would have stopped it no doubt, but it wouldn’t have been easy getting a huge crane, and a kiln, up out of the garden! But it didn’t happen, and after a breather, the kiln was lowered into place, and without me being under it….

That was only the first, though most dramatic feature of trying to work in that spectacular setting. In Marnhull I’d had at first a big propane tank installed, with all sorts of safety regulations to comply with. But once I’d had the house built on access to the studios behind had to be through the archway that joined the house to the old main building. I had the arch built high enough for a propane tanker to get through but it was the weight of the tanker I could see was going to cause problems. With the very first delivery I noticed, with alarm, that the substantial concrete roadway we’d put down was moving under the massive weight of the tanker. After only a few deliveries I could imagine the road surface breaking up, and the drains lay just beneath….

So I got the big tank removed and I put in a row of eight 100lb cylinders, four coupled each side of a changeover valve. This was a more costly solution than bulk storage but I found I now had an additional problem, when taking off gas at the peak of a firing, the cylinders began to freeze in cold weather and I then had to pour hot water over them at frequent intervals from a watering can to regain pressure. At Abbotsford, fortunately, one of the garages on the lane above had a trap door in its floor so that, with a block and tackle hung above the opening which was above one of the rooms below, I could lower the cylinders, one by one, and roll them into position along the workshop wall down below. A slow process. But the slope caused many a problem. I had to take sack after sack of clay down a narrow pathway, edged by a steep drop, to a rough shed I had built into the hillside to store it in.

My geese didn’t like the move from the field they’d happily lived in either. They didn’t like the look of the trees around them, fearful of what dangers they hid!. There was much less grass available too, but also there were more people about. My land was a triangle with one lane along the higher edge, then a hairpin bend with a branch lane running off along the lower boundary. People walked dogs along these lanes and soon a silly woman, not in control of her dogs, let them run up on to my land, panicking the geese. The geese could fly, given an incentive, and the two barking dogs sent them all winging off into the surrounding woodlands, where they cowered in terror. I only found half of them again. For a few nights I heard the lost geese calling as night fell but soon the foxes go them one by one. It wasn’t goose country!

Another aspect I hadn’t considered either was where the sun rose, and went down. We’d always called either early, or before late afternoon. I soon found that one got the very first of the morning sun, but by mid afternoon the house lay in shadow, the sun was cut off by the big trees on the hillside that went on up behind. When the house had been built that hillside had been heather and grass, sheep were grazed there, but, long since, the hillside had been left, in some places deliberately planted for timber, in others left for whatever grew, some pines, chestnuts, and, unfortunately, near my house, dense holly coverage, dark and without undergrowth. I did toy with the idea of finding the owner of the land and asking if I could do some felling, but I never did. I tried to make the best of my venture, getting up early, working in the early sun. Good in its way, but I do love sitting in the evening sun, away the day’s work, drowsing, with a big glass of red wine, glowing in the warm light, and plenty still in the bottle… I wasn’t going to get that, ever, at Abbotsford…..I took to taking a bottle and a glass up to the clearing at the very top of the hill , settling on the cut off stump of a big tree, where I could see the great bay stretching out, and also the line of hillside across the valley between. I could see a whitewashed house up there, right on the ridge. That would be a nice place to live, I thought, I saw, enviously, it got the very last of the sun up there!.....

Abbotsford had a terrace built out along the house, also a long balcony off the French doors to the bedrooms. I cobbled the terrace with flat stones brought up from the beach. I put a long heavy bench out there and worked out there as often as possible, in the sun. One of the many advantages of handbuilding, one doesn’t need a power supply nearby, the work is easily shielded from direct sun, while one basks in it. When one’s eyes needed rest one had that long, long view….That is, sometimes one had a long view!

Quite often a sea mist rolled in, filling up the valley. Magical in its way. Sometimes it was as if looking down on a milky lake, the shore line picking out unfamiliar contours. All the houses, Lyme Regis itself, buried from view. It could be days before one could see beyond the ridge across the valley. And I was glad it hid what was below, because with my eagle’s nest view I became aware that change was on its way. One noticed building was going on. New roofs slowly appeared. One could visualise the valley, slowly, slowly, being filled with roofs, all the way up from Lyme. It seemed inevitable, relentless…..

Also, being surrounded by trees, I realised how much humidity they gave off. I grew tired of the warm, blanketed feel of the site, I longed for a dry wind to be blowing, wanted to breathe in deeply, feel freshness. The house across the valley beckoned to me more and more. I drove over there. It was a bit ramshackle, neglected, but the position had many advantages, too much along the road perhaps, but that made access easy. And it got the evening sun, I made doubly sure of that. I never found anyone in, so I left a note, saying, “ if you ever want to sell your house, I’m interested!” But for a year I never got a reply.

In the meantime I made a lot of pots. I had a worrying period when I had lots of pots cracking inexplicably. I lost great quantities in every firing. Unpacking the kiln was a dispiriting experience, relieved a little by the kiln being perched over the steep drop down to the tree filled garden. I took to hurling each pot failure out over the void so they disappeared from sight amongst the sea of bracken down there. I wrote a piece about the time for Ceramic Review, I called it “Concealing Evidence” but Eileen Lewenstein changed that to “Destined For The Deep” which displeased me…. After a costly period another potter suggested that my troubles perhaps arose because of the clay I was using, one I’d used for years, and liked, and it was cheap, but was, I was told, was blended in a very crude, unreliable, manner. I’d been lumbered with a dodgy batch! So I changed to another body, and those troubles were over.

Concealing Evidence - Lyme Bay (click here to view)

Then, one day, driving past the house across the valley I saw an agents sign. It was for sale! I stopped, called by. “I’m the guy who left you a note saying I’d like to buy it!” “Oh, that was a long time ago, I didn’t think you’d still be interested!”, the woman said. Oh, I was interested still, alright. “But you don’t need to use an agent!”, I said, you’ve got my letter, offering to buy, long before you got an agent in!” “Oh, I daren’t tell him…” she wittered. “Well, I’ll tell him!” I said, and went and did. And he was furious! But his fellow agent was just amused, “Look, mate, you win some, you lose some….” So that was it, I put my house up for sale, using the bitter agent, but also a nicer man, ( who found a buyer) and before too long we were off across the valley, thinking all was now well…another huge crane hired to lift my poor battered kiln up and out to somewhere less precarious. And the geese, what was left of them, would have better grazing!

I said when describing the end of the Marnhull Studios that I spent months transporting tons of equipment down to Abbotsford, on Woodhouse Hill. Kilns, switchgear, benches, the big pugmill, thousands of pounds worth of equipment that I’d acquired over the years, and which I assumed still had value, and, in the exhausted, demoralised state I was then in, I couldn’t decide whether or not I would find continued use for. Certainly at Abbotsford there would never be scope for a workshop on the scale of Marnhull, where I had had room, and work, for numerous assistants, up to 14 at one time, including those who went on for a while working at Greenwich Studios.

When I had been setting up the workshops in Greenwich I had made many trips to a business in Deptford that specialised in selling off secondhand electrical equipment and I had been able to save a great deal of money buying from them high quality equipment, ex municipal switches, including superb clockwork mercury time switches which enabled us to fire the tile kilns overnight, thereby being able to benefit from off peak tariffs. I therefore assumed I would find buyers for my surplus equipment, kilns, switchgear etc, people looking for bargains as I had once done. But times had changed! There were no where near as many people setting up workshops, handmade ceramics were less in vogue, the whole market was changing. I put all my heavy duty switches, cast iron and copper rich, into an auction, expecting to realise hundreds of pounds at least. A scrap dealer bought the lot for £1! I could hardly believe it! All those weeks of work removing it all from the Marnhull Studios had been a complete waste of time and effort. I advertised the electric kilns I had laboriously winched down to the roadway, loaded on to my big van and heaved off again at Abbotsford.

I got a few enquiries. “Will it run off a 13 amp plug?” was the most frequent query. No, they would not, they were either three phase or two phase, needing a substantial power supply, and they were heavy. They weren’t hugely heavy, or large, about five cubic foot internal capacity. I’d believed in using many small kilns rather than one large one so that cooling times were shorter, allowing quicker turnover, but also I wasn’t putting too much reliance on every firing going entirely as one hoped, and sometimes we had bad firings, overfirings. So weeks went by and I kept re-advertising the kilns, getting few enquiries, and reducing the price…. I ended up just wanting them taken away! I kept a solitary kiln, and later, when I blew up my big kiln I was very glad I had kept it when I adapted it to fire with propane and managed to keep up a small output.

When I’d found that the house across the valley, Whitty Down Farm, was up for sale I’d immediately put our house, Abbotsford, on the market, with two agents in Lyme Regis, one iffy one, the other run by a man I had much more respect for. The housing market had changed enormously since we’d had so much difficulty selling at Marnhull. But then that had applied generally, the Admiral had had difficulties selling his unusual property, as had I. And he’d been desperate too. He and Lady Crawford were elderly and the extensive, steep, land was a burden for him,as it became for me. I got Abbotsford for £75,000. The agents now suggested it could fetch £220,000, if the market remained buoyant…. I don’t remember now how many people we showed round. All admired the view, were not too enthusiastic about the house which had had little modernising done to it, was poorly heated. That hadn’t bothered us too much, coming from an age when seasonal discomfort was expected. But times had changed.

The steep land deterred people too. If they had children they were put off, if they were elderly they were even more put off. The land needed a lot of maintenance. Then one day a very unlikely looking couple arrived. She was dark and somewhat exotic looking., had the air of well off North London about her. He didn’t seem to “fit” with her. He had a florid complexion, was wearing one of those waxed Barbour jackets. He looked like a farmer. I let them look wherever they wanted, unsupervised. But she didn’t do much looking, ventured a short was along one of the grassy terraces the led off the patio round the house but her stiletto heels sank deep into the turf and she hobbled back on to the paved area, left her man to do the looking. I mentally wrote them off as potential buyers!

The man came back. He said they wanted to buy! I still didn’t start rejoicing, they didn’t seem solid customers, would they need a mortgage I enquired? No, no mortgage, they’d pay cash, the man said. I could hardly believe it! What do you do? I couldn’t help asking. “Bit of this, bit of that!” was all I got. I tried to press him, “ I buy things people want, then sell it to them…” was all he added. “Cars, mainly…” he added, grudgingly. I didn’t go on trying, drug dealing entered my lurid mind. But what the hell! The nice agent confirmed that they’d been in, paid a deposit, all looked hunky-dory. I shot over to Whitty Down Farm, told the lady there I’d got a cash buyer, things were going to get moving! I told her how much stuff I’d have to bring, was there a chance I could move the most awkward things in a bit before the purchase was quite complete? My news meant that she could go ahead with the purchase of the flat in Bovey Tracy she was interested in, it meant a chain of sales and purchases could go ahead.

The big kiln was the most difficult of my belongings to transport, I needed a big crane again to lift it out, swing it on to the lorry body, take it across the valley, and then lift it high over the hedge and bank and drop it down the other side where there was a concrete area, at one end of the house. Hiring the crane had to be arranged for a certain day, so I picked a date when I expected the contracts to have been signed by. The crane duly arrived and the kiln was lifted up without any of the dramas there had been the last time of moving. I followed the crane across the valley and directed the lifting of the kiln into position. I’d only just done that when the lady owner of Whitty Down Farm appeared, “Your wife’s on the phone, Alan!” I followed her along to the house, took the phone…..”Alan, the solicitor’s been on the phone, the buyers have signed the contract…..but they can’t raise the money!” My blood ran cold.

Mary said the solicitor had never known anything like it, the buyers must live in Fairyland he said, they’d never had the cash, had just expected the bank to hand it out! Just like that! The Whitty Down lady was overhearing all this, now seemed on the verge of total hysteria, “What am I going to DO, what am I going to DO?” she started, almost screaming. I rang the agent. “Not to worry,” he said calmly, “They’ve signed the contract, they owe you the money, no matter what!” “Yes, but if they haven’t got any money, what good is that?” I thought was a reasonable question. “ Oh, we’ll put it on the market again….” he said….But the market was dropping like a stone, it had peaked, I might now only get half what I was hoping for. Being told I’d still get my original price….in the end…didn’t console me. But the agent did add that now interest would have to be paid all along the line of frustrated buyers and sellers, and, as I was top of the chain, I would not be out of pocket!

Two weeks went by. The Whitty Down lady calmed down a little but began demanding she would only hand over for REAL cash, twenty pound notes, whatever. Then the phone rang. The agent. “They’ve got the money, borrowed it from an uncle!” The sort of uncle to have, I thought. So then it all went ahead!......