Studio informationa chronological look at Alan's work
1989 -2004 Whitty Down Farm, Uplyme, Dorset


Whitty Down Farm had indeed once been a farm, but most of its original land had long been sold off, now all I was getting with the name was the old, original farmhouse a simple whitewashed flint and rubble building with a few nice features, a wide, heavy front door with a wide staircase leading straight up to the upper floors. Good views from the windows, only rolling fields, hedgerows, distant trees. From one bedroom one could glimpse the sea. And there was hardly a house in view, and it was unlikely any ever would be built to bother the eye. A long single storey extension had been added, I think intended for summer letting, we thought it could accommodate visitors, or possibly an eventual use by Mary’s aged parents. In the meantime the large sitting room at the far end would suffice as a workshop for me until the substantial detached workshop I had in mind could be put up. For the first time ever, I had, I thought, a hefty sum in hand to enable the construction of a studio to my liking, the balance left over from selling Abbotsford.

So I felt relaxed and confident again, after the trauma of the purchase and sale and the lengthy process of once again moving all my tons of equipment, pottery materials and my hoard of timber, stone, bricks, old machinery, old iron, old kilns. That took time and many, many trips across the valley. Fortunately the mysterious purchaser of Abbotsford, the house on Woodhouse Hill seemed in no hurry for me to completely clear the property of all my belongings. This time however I had a yard with a wide field gate so that everything could be dumped, to await further sorting.

While not this time strewn for yards along the lane verges, it made an unsightly heap which soon aroused the ire of a feisty lady who regularly walked her dog, a Staffordshire bull terrier, along the lane. “What ARE you? What do you DO? Are you a DEALER?” “We get up Petitions here against people we Don’t Like…” she told me fiercely. Some instinct made me stoop and admire her dog. I’d had a Staffordshire once and liked the breed. I told the angry lady that. That changed things. I told her what I did and we became almost friends.

I’d originally been attracted to the property by its distant aspect, gleaming in the evening sun, across the valley, high up on the opposite ridge, catching a lot of sun. But, now I’d got the place it was brought home to me very soon that it also caught a lot of wind! We’d only been there a week or two when a gale got up and the gnarled old apple tree I’d been pleased to find in the garden began to visibly rock, one could see the ground beginning to heave and the roots were barely anchoring the old tree down. Feverishly I began carrying sacks of clay from the big pile in the courtyard until I had a ton or so weighing the tree down, stacked round the trunk, saving it just in time. That was only the first intimation that what had seemed to me such an ideal setting to end my working days in, offering almost everything I’d hoped for, had unforeseen flaws.

My daughters set to in their uniquely energetic, if slapdash fashion, stripping wall paper and then slapping on white wall paint to hide the idiosyncratic tastes of the previous owner for lurid yellows, purple, crimson, dark brown walls. I moved my wheel and benches into the big end room of the single storey extension which had been designed for holiday lettings, or a granny flat…. There was a huge window looking out on to the garden and down across the fields but the room did not have the height I like, I’d been used to generous space and height, when I’d worked in low rooms my work seemed to become low and horizontal rather than tall, and soaring. But I’d have to make do until a builder was found.

I hadn’t thought that would be a problem, I’d been recommended an elderly local builder with a good reputation, had called to see him, he’d visited, seemed willing and quoted a very favourable price indeed It seemed too good to be true…. I got plans drawn up by Roger Bettles, an architect who also ran the Bettles Gallery with his wife, Gill, they had for some time sold my pottery. I gave him my sketches and he did plans for submission for Planning Permission, which eventually came through. I had designed a building with a large clear ground space with a staircase leading up to a big attic floor with a kind of hay loft door so that large objects could be hauled up from outside with a block and tackle. I had no clear idea what, but I just like barn type buildings, I found a supply of old Single Roman clay roofing tiles, already lichened and weathered.

I hoped the building would look as though it had been there for years. Most of the house lay close along the adjoining lane, convenient for deliveries but a nuisance from the mud being splashed up on my new whitewashing by passing cars. The field gate on the lane gave on to a little yard with a little tiled outhouse where I’d installed my three remaining geese. The studio backed on to the yard and I had asked for very wide doors, the whole width of the workshop which, when open would admit light and sunshine into the work area. I waited for work to begin on the building…

Another asset of Whitty Down Farm had been the addition of a pretty hexagonal summerhouse tucked in at the lower end of the sloping, sunny garden, below a big ash tree with several old apple trees framing a bit of vegetable garden. It was well built, the summerhouse, with a little wood- burning stove. The ex-husband of the previous owner had been a graphic designer and he had used the summerhouse as his studio, and had also built on a long narrow single storey office/cum studio at one end of the main house with a run of windows facing up the lane. This I had immediately shelved up and filled them with my collection of my pots from over the years. This had a disadvantage because passersby sometimes called to ask on what beach I had found these objects. Inspired as my work often is by natural forms, they assumed my pots had been found, not made!

So, I had options of where to work, in the warm, but very ordinary room in the extension, or down in the summer house, with its little stove, and a paved area off the door where I had put a bench and could work unobserved, screened by hazel bushes growing on the steep bank high above the sunken lane below, the other border of my vee of land. I could work with the minimum, or absence of clothing, an asset I find if working as I do making much dust, glaze and slip splashes, hard on clothing, but easily hosed off one’s body if the weather is clement!

Although bordered by lanes, the garden at Whitty Down was hidden from view by hedges and height above the lanes. The garden had been neglected and we set to to create a wild, natural garden with unusual, tall plants, woad amongst them! I also put in many more fruit trees, plums, a quince, damson etc. I was expecting to be there a long time, perhaps forever…. I got the big kiln installed under a somewhat makeshift shelter, a decent roof, but the walls formed of secondhand French doors bought cheaply from a local firm of window fitters. It was fine in summer, but draughty in winter until the kiln got going. The kiln though was showing signs of its age, I’d had it from the 60’s and it had done a lot of firings, and had been moved twice, cracks were beginning to show up, the firings got slower. But sales were good, I was making frequent runs down to Bovey Tracey, to the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, and I was still going down with batches of pots to Berey Pealing’s nice shop near the harbour in Lyme where my sales matched my output.

Weeks went by and no builder arrived. I called at his house at more and more frequent intervals. “Oh, yes, we’ll be along!” I was assured. But when? Then the inadequacies of the septic tank showed up. I had been so keen to get the house that I hadn’t checked on the septic tank, but I had been put off by the odd cover to it, and had investigated! It seemed to have a very flimsy roofing in and seemed only to consist of a small oblong concrete tank; it wasn’t one of the modern fibreglass onion shaped jobs. I still felt fairly flush with money in spite of the long delay in getting proper workspace fixed up so I asked the old builder whether he could at least make a start on a new septic tank. That he could, next week! Next week went by, then another week. “They’re out of stock of tanks” the old chap told me. I’d only that day been down to the yard, had seen rows of them! I told him so. “Oh yes, is that a fact?” he said. Then...”It’d help us “he said….”if you’d find another builder….good luck!” I was near speechless, “You’ve messed me about for nearly a year!” I said…. It made not a scrap of impact on him. Later I was told, “Oh he was,… once… a very good builder, lost his marbles though some time back!”

Months had passed, I’d managed to get work made in the big end room of the annexe but it was not an inspiring environment. I wanted on with the spacious, purpose built workshop I’d hoped for. I’d enjoyed the periodic visits of the tanker driver who came to empty the septic tank, a jolly man who seemed to be amused by his unromantic calling. I told him of my problems with the builder. “! We’ll put you a septic tank in, we don’t just empty them!” he said. “We could build your workshop too!” My problems seemed to be solved, they could start straight away. How naïve I was…..

They were a jolly bunch, the men who started work, as they’d promised. First a digger driver who dug out what seemed very impressive foundations, and also dug me out a big hole for a garden pond, for my geese as well. My garden was a hive of activity, as the digger finished, concrete was poured in, heaps of concrete blocks were delivered. Two new men arrived, started on the walls which soon reached waist height. They seemed to know what they were doing though the mortar lines seemed unusually thick. But I left them to it. But I’ve got a good eye for what is level or vertical, developed over the years, and when I went out to see how they were getting on I could see clearly that one line of blocks was clearly not perpendicular. I pointed this out. The men seemed puzzled, checked with a spirit level. “You’re right!” they agreed. I knew I was, but it was disconcerting that they couldn’t see by eye that something was wrong. After that I checked daily. But I didn’t check closely enough… When they reached the level when the roof was to be built on they found that the building was some three or four inches out of level! They had to add another course of bricks to correct for this. They were such nice men though, the materials were good, they worked hard, but they just didn’t seem very experienced in building, maybe holes in the ground for septic tanks was more their line. They’d subcontracted the roof building to another local firm; I hoped they’d be more professional. Competent… They were not.

Lots of timber arrived, really good looking stuff, I was impressed. Then two men in their twenties arrived early, knocked on my door, asked me if I’d mind giving them a hand to get started. They said they had to nail a framework together to hold the ridge bar in position until the roof beams could be nailed on. Summer was over, it was a windy, bleak day and I reluctantly went out to join them and climbed a ladder and stood nervously on top of one wall, one of the men did the same on the opposite side. The other man explained that he wanted us each to hold a length of timber vertically while he went up another ladder and nailed out two uprights to the ridge bar. BUT….the two uprights he’d given us, he said, were too short, they hadn’t got two ten-foots, or whatever was needed, he wanted us each to hold the uprights some two feet above the wall height.

The wall I was on had about a ten foot drop to ground level because the garden fell away on that side, the other man was only about eight foot up. It was windy, cold and I wasn’t a young chap anymore, felt old….and have never liked heights either. The whole set up seemed ludicrous, it still does! “Have you ever put a bloody roof up?” I asked the man who seemed nominally in charge.

He seemed a little indignant that I should question his competence. I said that I could see no way that his mate and I could hold up out two verticals, two feet in the air while he climbed up a ladder leaning against what we were holding. I suggested that at least if we rested the verticals on the wall top we stood a chance... I felt ill, old, and very cold. The man said the roof had to be a certain height to meet the Planning requirements. “To hell with that, it’s my roof, no one’s ever going to check, just bring it down two feet!” So that’s what happened.

Once they got started on the geometry of the roof timbers they seemed to know what they were doing. Years later I see vans with their name on them in the locality so, obviously, they somehow built up a business from the sorry start they made with me, but I still feel a quiver of rage at what they put me through that miserable day. It didn’t end with the farcical raising of the roof; they messed up the spacing of the battens for the tiles, messed up the spacing of the tiles themselves. One slope looks alright, the other side has lines of tiles bunched together. It offends my eye every time I pass, but, at the time so much had gone wrong, for so long that I hadn’t the will power to take on my ramshackle workforce and insist that they did the job they were being paid for properly. I didn’t know then that I was heading for a minor stroke, perhaps as a result of all the stress I’d been under for quite a time….

The workshop was at last ready for occupation, the windows were a little too small, but I had the wide doors so that virtually one whole wall could be opened up to the light and air. I installed all the big benches I’d been moving around for years. I thought I’d be settled at last. The year of waiting for builders, and the unforeseen cost of the work, prices had escalated no end, had eaten alarmingly into what I had thought was an ample reserve of cash. We used the little remaining on a wonderful trip South through France, camping in woods and by streams, probably the last time one was so free to do this. Even France was changing…..

When we got back I got into action in earnest. I started making big pots again, freed up by the wide workshop space. I made a series of massive double skinned forms, like segments of a sphere, with a bowl shaped centre. They were intended as garden forms, the bowl intended to fill with rain, moss, whatever. But, technically, I was pushing my luck, a lot did not survive the firings completely intact, somewhere there would be a minor, or major, crack. Not perhaps vital with garden sculpture but off-putting to customers generally. But I sold them all to a new gallery to me with very pleasant, enterprising owners.

My other work sold well there too. As it was still at the Devon Guild where, under the benign rule of Andy Christian and the charming, energetic Annette Vaitkus, running the shop and show space with the assistance of several intelligent, engaged volunteers. They let me do my own arrangement of my pots in the space I was allocated, and I was free to use plant additions, picked along the riverbank close by to illustrate my liking for my work to have arrangements made in them. My sales were brisk indeed and I was constantly having calls from Annette to bring down more things, urgently. Those were the days! Things have changed…..

I was feeling oddly unwell, and my deafness seemed to be increasing. Just old age coming on, I assumed. My big kiln too was showing its age, firings were taking longer and longer, the brickwork was cracking and, though I patched it up, the kiln lost more and more efficiency. Then one morning I went out early to start a firing, it was early, everyone else still asleep. My kiln was an early model, from Kilns and Furnaces ltd, massively built, a sturdy steel framework, a very heavy door with a whole brick in its centre one took out to view what was going on inside, judge the long tongue of green flame as one reduced the oxygen supply. I turned on the pressure valve a few slight turns to admit a gentle flow of gas to the burners and knelt with a taper at one of the four apertures through which the lighting flame could ignite each burner in turn, there were four. I inserted the taper, gently turned the wheel of the valve….

After that everything is visually very clear, but I have no idea what had happened. When I turned on the main pressure control valve did it fail and let out a huge rush of gas? If my hearing had been normal would I have heard the hiss? I’ll never know. What I do know was that I should never have lit the kiln with the door closed, and held closed by heavy screw fixings. If the door had been ajar there would have been a “whoomph” of gas, a blast of flame, and I could have immediately shut off the gas supply…..But, by closing the door, the gas filled kiln chamber had become a bomb, which I had put a touch flame to.

There was a deafening report, like a rifle shot it seemed, a CRACK…. I was kneeling by the lighting port, and that saved me I think. Everything seemed to become opaque, a dense white cloud enveloped me and I could hear objects thundering against the roof above. Then they rained down on me, a hail of shattered bricks that seemed to go on, and on for a long time. When eventually it was quiet I staggered up and made my way to the front of the kiln. The ironwork surrounding the massive door was bent dramatically outwards. There was no sign of the brick in the kiln door, I later found that, yards distant, across the garden. It had shot out like a cannonball, would had smashed me in if I’d been opposite. The whole roof of the kiln had disappeared, the fragments strewn all around. The kiln seemed a total ruin, all the walls bulged outwards, beyond repair. I couldn’t see much clearly. My eyes were gritty with fine dust and I could feel my hair also was matted with debris, I could see that I was entirely crusted with the same white powder, disintegrated high temperature brick. I lurched indoors and woke my wife, “I’ve blown up the bloody kiln…” I told her. Then I made a cup of tea.

An hour or so later, a bit steadier, I rang Berey Pealing, told him what I’d done. “I’ll fire your stuff for you, Al, in my kiln…” Good lad, old Berey. But it took days to get over the initial shock, it seemed an utter disaster. But gradually, gradually, ideas began to form of how to deal with the cataclysm….. The situation seemed desperate, the big kiln seemed a total ruin, irreparable. I still had one remaining small electric kiln from the many I had once used for tile firing. It was one of my earliest purchases, an early Kilns and Furnaces model. The others had been from Cromartie or Bricesco, I’d bought four of each when starting the huge tile order in the ‘60’s. I was hedging my bets, seeing which type functioned best. These I had managed to dispose of in one way or another, I never thought I’d ever use electric kilns again. The one I had hung on to, with no clear idea why, was typically Kilns and Furnaces, sturdily built, good insulation, heavy ironwork. I considered whether I could adapt the chamber for propane firing…..

Unlike the other kilns it had an ample vent to assist cooling and I could see I could build in a chimney to connect with the vent. I removed all the elements and drilled two large diameter holes up through the kiln floor in each far corner at the back of the kiln chamber. These were no easy matter, I found how abrasive the soft high temperature brick is, wearing the teeth off several hole saws in no time. But I soon had the kiln ready to fire, two small burners mounted below to fire upwards. I packed the kiln with an assortment of pots and lit the burners. All went very smoothly. When I opened the kiln next day I was amazed how good the results were, I had never expected to be so lucky. The little kiln saved my bacon, I could only fire modest pieces but I could keep money coming in, for now I had regained hope about somehow repairing the shattered, big kiln. I had begun sorting through the heap of fragments of the roof, seeing if I could piece them together…..slow work. The bulging kiln frame seemed the greatest problem, there was a wide vertical crack in each corner where the walls leant outwards.

I managed to get the door back into position, forcing into the distorted taper by winding a very heavy chain right round the kiln, then tensioning it like a tourniquet by inserting a car scissor jack between the kiln door and the chain…and tightening…. It worked! I had ordered several tins of kiln cement and I carefully buttered this into all the vertical cracks in the corners and walls, shut the door again, and applied my tourniquet, using several more chains and more scissor jacks from the supply I keep at hand, picked up for a song at boot sales., I’ve found lots of uses for scissor jacks! Next day I examined the results. The interior brickwork seemed sound again. Now for the roof arch. I made up a former to support the fragments as I pieced them together, buttering them well with kiln cement. I had to cut a few bricks to replace those that had totally disintegrated. Eventually it was all done and I packed a biscuit firing, and, very…very…cautiously lit up, (keeping the door open as I did it!). All went well. But would a glaze firing work? It did, the kiln firing almost as quickly as it had when new, and with good results, like the old days! I seemed saved…..
So I got back to work again, feeling I’d been very lucky. I made some batches of work in terracotta, figurative heads for planting in, I did it just for kicks, as a change from what I’d been doing for so long, high temperature stoneware, perhaps I was not wanting to push the battered kiln too far. I was still selling well, at The Devon Guild and Berey Pealing’s shop in Lyme Regis. I can’t now remember the sequence of events but I remember the first blow was when Berey and Annie announced that they’d had an offer for their shop, down by the harbour, an exclusive position. I knew they were tiring of running the shop, lucrative though it was, but it was tedious being stuck indoors at the height of the season, and in the fine weather. And there was also the factor, a dramatic one, that the hillside opposite seemed on the move! Lyme has a long history of instability. A shop opposite had been closed by the Council because of earth movements, and Annie was justifiably worried that their property could become unsaleable. So, getting an offer seemed not to be missed! I have never expected good times to last though, so I was not too devastated. The Devon Guild was still going great guns.

It was a Sunday and I’d driven down the lane to the post office to get the newspapers. One arm was tingling in an odd way and I thought I must have brushed against some stinging nettles without noticing it. I put out my right hand to open the car door but my hand only seemed to fumble, I had no normal control over it. I can’t remember exactly what I did, maybe used the other hand, went across the road, got the papers, somehow drove home, my mind in a whirl. I somehow knew what had happened, some sort of stroke….. I think I went out to my workshop; I’d been going to throw some pots that morning, as the clay was ready. I threw a lump down on to the wheel head, centered it, then began to pull up a cylinder. My left hand did what it was used to, my right though didn’t seem to be doing at all what my brain was telling it to do. My fingers plunged straight through the spinning clay. They were useless.

So I went indoors and told my wife. She seemed unperturbed. We had for quite some time been growing apart in our ways, the house was big enough to live separate lives. I was sleeping in the summerhouse, way down the garden where my unruly ways caused no disturbance to her. I could play music as loud as I liked, and at any time of night and day. It was a way of getting by, the children were all by then away. My wife too had got into strong beliefs about conventional medicine, and was strongly opposed to it. She said she could cure my problems, but, if I went to a conventional doctor, she would disassociate herself. So, for a week I dutifully swallowed garlic preparations, maybe other things. They made me feel queasy, and I made an appointment with an NHS doctor who diagnosed a minor “event”, or stroke. He said he had medication which could avert another such “event” which might well be more serious. I told him of my wife’s convictions. It was my choice, he said, he had statistics. He asked if my wife had…..

So I made my choice, went on a course of medication, which brought their own problems, I’m still trying to find one that doesn’t have awkward side effects! But I’ve still not had another “event”, twenty something years later…..and after persisting and persisting with working with clay my right hand functions, I think, as well as it ever did, my right foot is, I think, a little clumsy, so that I take care in driving. I think it was the wedging of clay that was the most therapeutic, one could see clearly the impression of the effort each hand was making and gradually the connections in the brain adjusted for the faulty messages it was receiving. Perhaps clay work could be used as therapy!

So, I managed to get back into a modest production, but found that the various blood pressure medications my GP tried out had a variety of side effects, susceptibility to cold being the most noticeable, trying to work with chilly clay in a big, chilly workshop was no joke. My GP seemed surprised to hear I was still working, not sitting in front of the telly by the fire like many of my age. His pills caused no complaint I suppose with them. Eventually he came up with something that suited me better, but was more expensive, why it hadn’t been a first choice! But I still didn’t feel well, and disagreement with my wife about alternative healing etc caused further alienation and doubts about our future at Whitty Down together. I couldn’t keep up with maintaining the large garden, or the house itself. I had for years yearned to go to live in France, had toured the country at times looking for possible properties, regions I favoured. My wife was ten years younger than myself, not inclined to want to leave England and all her associations with people involved with alternative therapies, beliefs.

Our future seemed very unclear. I was due to have an exhibition at the Harlequin Gallery, in Greenwich. I was expected to be present at the Private View. I tried to think of somewhere I could stay overnight in London after the Private View. I remembered that a friend from way back had a flat in Blackheath, Barbara Huxley, she’d worked for me a couple of days a week back in the ‘60’s in my workshop in Blackheath Road, Greenwich. She was an accomplished graphic designer, painter and craftswoman, making relief wood constructions but thought she’d like to try clay work. So she’d worked as part of my then team of hand builders, helping to build up large sculptural forms. She’d been very good, a feisty energetic, sharp tongued woman, athletic, a keen sailor, had taken flying lessons, loved flying Tiger Moths. A little formidable, then…

After her time in my workshop she had gone out with her then husband to Gozo, a small island, next to Malta, they had bought a catamaran, and had sailed it, with their cat aboard, who loved the trip, through the Canal du Midi and then all the way to Gozo. There they had bought a vast, half-ruined stone farmhouse for a song, property in Gozo and Malta was then very cheap! I had visited them then when my close friend, Brigitte Appleby was also contemplating buying in Gozo, which she later did. I hadn’t seen Barbara for some years, didn’t know a great deal about how her life had been going, only that she’d come back to England with her small son, was divorced.

I rang her number, went into a long whine about all my tribulations, the blowing up of the kiln, the mini stroke, etc, etc… “ I’ve had the hell of a year, Barbara ”, I wittered, “can I come up and stay overnight after my Private View? ”. “ You’ve had the hell of a year! ” retorted Barbara….and she told me what an appalling event she’d had to cope with, which I shall not relate. I was unable to make comment, could only say that my problems, vicissitudes, paled into utter insignificance. “ Oh, God, Barbara, is there anything I can do? ” Suffice it to say that I went up to the Private View, met Barbara there, and a couple of years later we set off to drive together to the Pyrenees to see what we could retrieve from our wreckage…..