Island revisited

One of the annoying things about a meeting out of London at 9.30 on a Monday morning is that the blog is unlikely to happen, as normal, on a Sunday evening. It’s a strange thing, writing this blog. I was never a diary writer. I used to be dreadful at creating a record of what’s going on in my life. To be honest, it isn’t particularly interesting. But then you find that the interesting moments are in fact the bits-in-between; the times when nothing in particular is happening, when you suddenly find yourself looking intently at things or places that you’d never noticed before, and it’s at these moments that you realise how life is worth living.

So… Sunday evenings. They have become a quiet ritual, and I feel rather strange when I’m not sitting at home, quietly reflecting, on the week past on a Sunday evening or night. I guess I would be lying if there wasn’t a moment, from time to time, when I think at the end of a long and busy week ‘oh what am I going to write about now’; and if you’re honest, you can probably tell exactly those blogs from the others. Although, for me, they still have an interest of their own – because now I’ve been writing most Sunday evenings for really quite a long time now, even the space fillers – a few photos of the veg garden or the hills of Dorset – take on their interest, as we see how remarkably constant the world can be, year on year. And that’s a soothing thought.

So – I didn’t make Sunday writing. I was staying with Mum and Dad and it was nicer to have an evening quizzing them about their early days together, and having a delicious dinner which started with sweetcorn from the veg garden in Dorset. This morning, I had a meeting early in the New Forest. So it was perfect timing to make a quick trip over the Solent to a sparkling Isle of Wight.

Hurricane Bertha was rushing through, but it was an afternoon of brilliant sunshine and breeze. We went for a walk in one of my favourite places on earth – Newtown Harbour. If you are visiting the Island and have never been, be sure to spend a bit of time in the wild estuarine landscape. It’s heaven. I love it there so much.


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Here is Dad, sitting on his favourite seat in the world, and Mum watching birds, which is just about her favourite thing in the world.P1040576 P1040585 P1040588

I adore the black hut, which has been here for ever. P1040593 P1040594 P1040602

In the village is this beautiful, simple house, designed by the grandfather of my great friend George Samaurez Smith, who was the famous architect Raymond Erith. Erith knew how to make a quiet, simple, reticent house that looked like it had always been there. P1040614

Further down the lane, one of my favourite buildings of all time: The Newtown old Town Hall, now owned by the National Trust. In the 30s, it had fallen into complete disrepair and was saved and given to the trust by the elusive ‘Ferguson’s Gang’, and all-female group of activists who were determined to fight what Clough Williams Ellis called the ‘Octopus’ – the creeping malice of thoughtless development and decay. I guess I have a chime with Ferguson’s gang today. This beautiful, crooked building is quite perfect, like a friendly face. Do you see what I mean?P1040621 P1040624 P1040626 P1040629

The bleached, weathered oak door takes on the texture and silver-grey colour of the stone surround, lichen encrusted.P1040642

The view back towards Tennyson Down is beautiful.P1040646

But an hour earlier, we had walked by another beautiful building that needs saving. And this is a real trip down memory lane.

A few years ago, when we first opened the shop, we were thrilled to give the launch party for an amazing book that had been written in the 1950s and lost for over 50 years. Timmy the Tug was a children’s book for an as-yet unborn child, illustrated by the brilliant young Jim Downer. Jim lived across the street from the shop, at 18 Rugby Street. Downstairs was his neighbour Ted Hughes – who was living in the ground floor flat with his then girlfriend, Sylvia Plath. Ted wrote words to accompany Jim’s pictures. 5 decades later, the manuscript was rediscovered and published by Thames & Hudson.

We met Jim, who made a visit back to Rugby Street, and had a brilliant lunch at Cigala with him. Jim mentioned he lived on the Isle of Wight. I told him that’s where my Mum & Dad lived, and we made a tentative plan to visit.  Jim said he lived in Newtown – as you have seen – one of the most beautiful spots on earth.

A year or two later, the lunch happened.  My neighbouring shopkeeper Maggie came down too.  Thankfully, last night, I discovered I’d taken a few photos of that magical day.

Jim’s little cottage was magical.

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Do you see what I mean? And not least because above the sofa hung the most beautiful Ivon Hitchens that I’ve ever seen:P1030174 P1030167 P1030171

Every detail was perfectly conceived, as you’d expect from Jim – who went on to have a career as a brilliant industrial, exhibition, logo and product designer, with a remarkable and influential output.P1030170 P1030194

Jim’s Geodesic dome in honour of Buckminster Fuller:P1030169

This beautiful red bench was in the leafy garden surrounded by his sculptures and statues.P1030184

Jim’s workshop:

I tried to get Jim’s house photographed by World of Interiors, but for some reason it didn’t work out. It was one of the most perfect, beautiful places I’d ever seen – complete in every way.

Three years ago, Jim died of cancer. You can read his remarkable life story in this little obituary in the Isle of Wight County Press, here. As you will read, in 1961, Jim invented (and patented) the travelator. Every time you take a moving walkway in an airport anywhere in the world, please give a thought for Jim.

Mum and Dad had told me Jim’s house was for sale. We walked in through the broken gate.


The workshop, once the creative hub of this brilliant brain, was empty.P1040516

Here are the shelves that I’d photographed 3 years ago on that wonderful day.P1040518

We peered through the windows to see the house deserted and sad.P1040520

The most beautiful room in the world was missing its things, its pictures, its shelves of books, its model ship in the window, the dining table, the chairs, the food – and above all the kindest, most generous, most brilliant and intelligent host who was at the middle of it all.P1040521

Jim’s geodesic dome was deserted and quiet.P1040528

The site has planning permission for a grim, bland, desperate suburban 3-bedroom house. I can just imagine the demolition contractors moving in now.

I reflected. Places are not important. People are. Life is deeply precious, and deeply transient. Jim – I missed you so much as we walked through your empty rooms.  The world is poorer without you.


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