It’s four walls and a roof; a place where home happens. Yet, a house can also open unexpected doors, as ceramicist Elizabeth Adam discovered when she moved into a classic character cottage.

People move house for all sorts of reasons: a growing family, a new job, a lifestyle change. And with all the planning, comes the romance; visions of how that new life will be and all that can be achieved, thanks to a change of address. Yet, events don’t always pan out as planned…

Take ceramicist Elizabeth Adam and painter Denis Lansdell. Like so many others who spend years striving in cities, they eventually left London in 1989 for a house in the country – in their case, The Old Forge at Nether Compton, just outside Sherborne in Dorset. And like so many others who reach an age when they can give up the day job, they moved with the intention of pursuing their lifelong passions, which for them was their art.

This was their second marriage. Both in their sixties, Elizabeth had been widowed in 1970 and over the years that followed, her longstanding friendship with Denis matured into a marriage. Now they were looking for a fresh start, especially as they had just retired: him from teaching art, her from teaching languages. And as Elizabeth’s two daughters were in their forties, there was no need for a traditional family home, but rather a place to inspire and create.

The Old Forge was just that – a picture-perfect, large L-shaped thatched cottage (which might have once been two) with four bedrooms and three quarters of an acre of land, in a place described in Pevsner’s Architectural Guide to Dorset, as ‘a stone village and one which rarely for Dorset, has some sense of formality.’ It’s quintessentially English, with an active church (St Nicholas), home to all kinds of reassuring activities (in usual times), like flower-arranging. It’s no surprise that Bafta award-winning actress Kristin Scott-Thomas grew up in nearby Trent – she won her 1994 Bafta for her role in Four Weddings and a Funeral as a black sunglasses-wearing sophisticate at odds with the bucolic happiness of floral dresses and English country weddings. She had much to draw on.

So, with its wide-ranging rural views of The Goodden Estate, which then housed a working butterfly farm (Princess Diana’s wedding dress was cut from silk made here), The Old Forge provided the ideal inspirational canvas, particularly because it included a former, separate coach house to the side of the building, which was to become the couple’s studio.

As the 20th century French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in his 1958 treatise, The Poetics of Space: ‘I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.’

Elizabeth and Denis retreated to their rural idyll and immersed themselves in creativity. Denis, who had taught Art and Design in Willesden in London, had also always been a talented painter, whose landscape oil paintings had often been exhibited in West London. Elizabeth, by contrast, was a self-taught artist who had honed her skills in ceramics, photography and painting at night school. They threw themselves into their creativity.

Then sadly, just five years later, Elizabeth was unexpectedly alone.

How did she cope? ‘Mum initially contemplated going back to Twickenham, where we had grown up,’ remembers Jenny Adams, Elizabeth’s younger daughter on FaceTime, who moved to the village in 1991. She is sitting with her elder sister, Cath, who moved to the area two years later. The sisters are now selling the house on Elizabeth’s behalf, as their mother is being cared for in a home nearby. ‘She had a hankering to be back near the River Thames. But as well as us being here, she also felt a responsibility to the village and the house. So, she stayed.’

Elizabeth became the heart of the village, throwing herself into supporting local events at the village hall, holding art workshops for visiting children from Chernobyl and joining local art groups like WESCA (Wessex Contemporary Artists). She also fell in love with local history. ‘The history of the house made mum feel very rooted to Nether Compton and Dorset,’ agrees Cath, who continues, ‘the house is on the site of a 17th Century forge which still exists. It’s very ramshackle now, but the walls, roof and cobbled floor are still there. Mum was always talking about Oliver Cromwell’s horse,’ she laughs, referring to the story that Roundhead troops had had their horses shod at The Old Forge before the nearby Battle of Babylon Hill, although it’s very unlikely ‘Old Ironside’s’ horse was actually one of those.

The forge continued to operate until the early 20th century and the sisters even have a photograph of a former resident, a blacksmith, standing outside the cottage. The garden is full of mature planting and heritage touches too, like a pond with bulrushes and lily pads and a Victorian glasshouse which, although needs repair, is beautiful.

But it was Elizabeth’s ceramic talent that really blossomed after Denis died, as she found herself producing hundreds of ‘pots’ (as the sisters refer to them), making them by hand (she had a wheel but rarely used it) in her home studio. ‘The coach house is a wow place,’ enthuses Jenny, ‘It was, and still is, over two floors. When you entered, you were greeted with mum’s pots. Upstairs was used for artwork and over the last 20 years, there’s even been a regular life-drawing class up there.’

Elizabeth got to know renowned local potters and volunteered at the Alpha House Gallery in Sherborne, where she became an expert in ceramics. Elizabeth Adam’s own work exudes earthy charm, with their bold, confident shapes and muted colours, which seem to represent Elizabeth’s character. Eventually, some of her work sold for £300 plus, but the sisters think they should have sold for more. ‘Her art is good,’ says Cath, ‘but her ceramics are really brilliant. She could have made a lot of money from them.’

So, the move to Dorset and the protection of The Old Forge gave Elizabeth the space to explore other dimensions of herself, which she may not have had the chance to do if she had stayed where she was. Now it’s time to let the place go to new owners, who might also fall in love with it and grow within its walls. ‘I really hope the next owners appreciate the history of this house,’ says Cath, as Jenny nods in the background. ‘We’ll be very sad to see it go. But we know how much it can give.’ Maybe, as you sit here reading this, it could be you?

Catherine Rapley, Lodestone Property

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