A Viking in my Dustbin. (31) Elves and Hippies down on the farm.

All in all my Foundation year was far more about finding out about myself than it was about work. I suppose that’s true for most first year students, especially if you went to college straight from school.
When it came to art and design work, I hardly did any to speak of. My mind was on other things
And whilst Ken and most of the rest of my peers were attending classes, meeting deadlines, trying out new techniques; learning how to etch, use a camera, process film and screen-print and importantly along the way building up huge folios of work, mine remained thin and wanting, like me.
So spring had slipped by and the summer term came around. I came back to Corsham with a letter from college offering me new digs. Guess I hadn’t quite cracked it at Misery Mansion, because someone else turned up for my room.
Mrs. Manson, the landlady and gaoler, hadn’t warmed to me at all, especially as she’d realized I helped myself once a week to a chocolate biscuit from the round tin in the pantry and had constantly over-excited her over-strung little fiend, Chewey.
I didn’t care. I was happy that I wasn’t returning to the Manson Family after the Easter break. Instead, by some glorious conjunction of fate and fortune, I found myself in hippie heaven, down on the farm
Quite by chance, I’d landed an attic room at the top of an ancient farm-house. It looked like how I’d pictured Mervin Peaks’ Gormmenghast but with added manure.
The crooked old house was reached via a long and delightful stoney lane all of a couple of miles away from the village.
The farmhouse floated between ancient oaks; an amber island in a delicious landscape of poppie-speckled emerald, to and from which I cycled to college most days. It was glorious and I loved it.
That term the sun shone bright and warm for three whole months. The grass in every sense could not have been greener, somehow time stood still.
I wasn’t alone at the farm, there were several students, long term residents who lived in various odd rooms scattered around the top of the house. These were occupied by senior painters; the college Gods.

Whilst below in the fetid bowels, between dark creaking corridors, in mysterious old rooms, lived a family of Wiltshire peasants (or Farm Elves) who all looked alike and who must have been at least two hundred years old apiece. They appeared earthy red like potatoes, with plump arms and faces and spoke in a thick and almost impenetrable accent, for example;
“Owarree” =Hello- how are you?
“Cooows” =Cows.
Basically that’s all you needed to know to get by.

The whole family, several generations, were all employed on the farm, and went about their daily business as though we didn’t exist, as though we not they were from another dimension. Whilst they were part of the ancient fabric of the place we were just shadows insubstantial.
I fancied they’d been conceived in the house or in the barn, born there, grown there and no doubt would die there and somehow by some morphemic process would then be absorbed into the fabric of the house.

I imagined they all slept at night curled up together with their dogs and ferrets under the roots of an old tree, all snoring, farting and scratching together, crawling out as the first sun beams penetrated their nest.

The mother, Maisie, who took our meager rent once a week only ever spoke a few words to me, but they were kind words. On the day of my arrival, she creaked with me up the bare wood stairs. Higher and higher we went, until we took a detour up a steeper and narrower flight. At the top she showed me into a warm and smelly space darkly under the eaves, in which swallows unconcerned as we entered, were busy building their nests.
I thought that was going to be my room but I was mistaken. Mine was beyond. She pointed to a hole in the wall. It was about two foot wide by three foot high. Smiling, her rosy face turned to me, she said,
“thaabeeyoroom’ or something similar and pointed with a short fat finger to the dark hole.
I looked through. Inside all I could see was a large ancient looking rusted iron bedstead, which on seeing for that first time I thought must have been crafted by a Celtic smithy. How they ever got it in through that hole I never did work out. They must have built the house around it.

Maisie, like Mrs. Manson was also interested in economy, but for a different reason. Maisies’ economy wasn’t miserly, it was all about water and necessity.
She told me that as it had been a very dry springtime so the “coows “would always get the “wartr” first (which was piped to the house from the well by way of the barns and cowsheds) and that we’d have to take our turn in the bathroom or if we wanted a drink after they, the coows, had drunk their fill.
I didn’t quite understand how it worked. But it did explain the strange mooing sounds which came from the bathroom sink and why it was best to use the toilet at certain times of the day or once a week, or better still go at college or behind a bush.
It also explained the deteriorating state of my personal hygiene and why I never had a bath in three months until I got home and why my teeth went bad. In fact it was like being on a short peasant-manufacturing course, I passed by the end of the term with flying colours.

It was rough all right; creaking, rotten, crumbling and mice infested, but oh my God it was wonderful! This is what art-college was about; the sun shone, the sky was pottery blue, the coows mooed and doves cooed by my little window in the roof. Whilst the mysterious and beautiful gentle third-year artists, like romantic characters from a Victorian novel lived their peaceful hippie days out in the sun-warmed upstairs of the house.
They lived quietly just a few steps down in rooms bedecked with books, lace, and crystals which spun rainbows round the old lime painted walls and wild flowers gathered by the armful from the edges of the fields.
What made it even more wonderful was that these blithe spirits of summer, actually acknowledged me and befriended me. I shared in all of this for five quid a week, it was almost too good to be true.

I remember two of them in particular. One was a beautiful red-haired girl, with whispy dresses and blue eyes. Her room always had fresh flowers in glinting glass vases set on the deep window-sills.
She spent a lot of time sewing by the window, rocking in a spindly old rocker. I’d pass by and see her looking out beyond the orchard to the ruminating Friesians in the fields as they went about their daily business, turning the green stuff into milky cream.
She was like a Goddess to me, way beyond my mortal reach. Besides she was shacked up with one of the cowboys, the one I’d seen originally. His gun-belt with two real pearl-handled guns hung on a peg just inside her door.
Less distant, and generally more accessible was James. He was a second year painter, who had a complete room to himself off of the landing below. He’d lived there for two years and said that I’d arrived at the best time, as there was no heating in the winter.
His room, which he soon invited me into,fascinated me. He asked me in for a cup of tea shortly after I’d moved in. Once in through the old latched door, I was hit by a heady mixture of incense, lilac blossom, pot and damp woolen socks. Different colours, pegged to dry on a string by the open window.
I sat and shared the joint he offered (my first).
It all seemed perfectly reasonable and lovely to be happily-hazily stoned and rattily disheveled sitting on the quilted bed edge drinking tea from a cracked porcelain cup.
James was not just arty; he was practical too. I was impressed by his little camping stove on which he boiled water and cooked up simple meals of rice and vegetables. This was the way to live, simplyt and respectfully in harmony with the nature all around.
As I sat there taking in the room and becoming softly stoned for the first time, I noticed that his books, lots of them, were not on shelves but were spread about all over the floor, in neat little piles.
I asked him if he was organizing or doing research for a project? He said no, he used them to keep the mice out by placing them over the knot-holes in the bare planked floor.

I hadn’t appreciated, as I’d just moved in who really owned the house, it wasn’t the spuddy family downstairs, it was the mice as I was soon to find out.

A Viking in my Dustbin. (31) Elves and Hippies down on the farm.

John Sunderland

New York, United States

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From Misery Mansion to halycon days down on the farm

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