Tuesday, 30 March 2021

Looe and Looe Island, then and now

When Evelyn and Babs Atkins bought their cottages in Looe they looked like this:










Today they are Grade II listed buildings

After Evelyn died in1997 Babs remained on the island alone until she passed away at the age of 86 in 2004. AS far as I can tell, Evelyn is buried in Looe, while Babs' grave is on the island. 

Additional interesting information on the sisters can be found here
and here .

Babs left the island to the Cornwall Wildlife Trust

Who knows, I may get to visit it this summer. Last year we had a holiday planned in the Scilly Isles.  It  was postponed to June this year and I have just postpoined it again to August. When we do get to go I want to plan some extra stay on the South West Coast, so maybe . . .


Monday, 22 March 2021

Tales from our Cornish Island by Evelyn E. Atkins (1986)


This is one of my recent buys, 2nd hand from the UK. It came with that typically musty 2nd hand book smell.

I ended my last post by wondering what life on the island would be like for the sisters. This book gives the answer, and it can be summed up in three words: Very Hard Work.
Evelyn writes: We have often wondered how, on that radio programme Desert Island Discs, the castaways had the strength left to put on or listen to their eight records, let alone the time to browse through Shakespeare, the Bible and the tome of their choice. For us, in those early days, surviving was a full-time occupation - and often still is.

She starts by telling us she constantly gets questions on what it is like to live on an island. The book is an attempt to answer these questions. It is impossible to cover everything that has happened to them, so she has written a series of tales, each dealing with a different aspect of island life.
When she first moved to the island (in February 1965), Evelyn was on her own, helped from time to time by friends and volunteers. Her sister Babs, teaching in a school in Looe came over during weekends and holidays, sea and weather permitting.
The consensus of local opinion was we would last three months if we were not drowned before then.

Evelyn and her helpers face many challenges: taking care of the water supply, fixing the AGA and the generator, establishing a vegetable garden, harvesting the daffodils that grow on the island etc. They learn as they go along and adapt.
When you live close to nature you have to get your priorities right, and fussiness over food and drink gives way to thankfulness that you have any at all.

They buy a goat, a number of cats, and become bee-keepers. They do up the two cottages to let to tourists and to house volunteers. They grow lots of fruit and vegetables, and harvesting starts in July, going well into November and even December. Seaweed is used as manure.
In winter, storms cause the island (which has no harbour) to be isolated for long periods. On one memorable occasion Babs was unable to land between Christmas and Easter and I just had fleeting glimpses of her as the all-important mail was tossed to me over the raging surf.

In summer things change, and they discover that while owning an island may be many people’s dream, owning an island only a mile from shore comes with a lage fly in the ointment: visitors.
In the summer visitors come to Looe in their masses and the bay teems with craft. The previous owner has warned them about this: To keep your privacy you wil have to bring out a shotgun.
This Evelyn is not prepared to do. She tries to put off visitors by charging an entrance fee, but people happily pay. What I cannot understand is that she goes so far as to prepare food and drink for them, thus having to work all day and every day in summer.
Volunteers from the Conservation Corps and students come for working holidays. At first they cook for the volunteers too, which only adds to Evelyn’s workload.

They often wonder „why they are doing this"? They are having to use their own income to keep the island open to visitors and to feed the helpers. However it seems such a worthwhile project and appreciated by so many.  So they carry on.
Often we are tempted to close the island and revert to help of friends and the offers of voluntary organizations for the conservation and cultivation of the island which is our primary aim. We often dream of a more leisurely life . . .
Their are moments when we do not think our efforts are worth the strain on our energy and finances, then along wil come someone whose encouragement wil put us on course again.
Such sentiments sustain us and enable us to carry on, and so we shall - as long as the money lasts.

This is a bittersweet tale. It is clear that Evelyn and Babs love the island, but owning it has come at a price.
Visitors say they would do anything to exchange their lives for ours. But would they? We understand their envy but doubt if they understand the responsibilities involved.
Christmas holidays were very precious to us for it was,  and still is, the only time we take a „ holiday”. We have the usual chores to do, the generator and the water pump must be attended to, but we do relax mentally. It is then that we also can appreciate the sheer joy of our island paradise. We feel, on those rare summer days in the depth of winter that sparkle like a jewel in the darkness, that we are on another planet; that we are privileged for a short spell to be part of a timeless universe, where there is nog beginning, no end, only an magical limitless „now”.

This photo made me smile: Calvé Pindakaas is a very popular brand of peanut butter here in The Netherlands. I wonder how that bucket ended up there?

Evelyn and Babs Atkins.

More on Looe Island in my next post.

Monday, 15 March 2021

We Bought an Island by Evelyn E. Atkins (1976)



In the early 60’s sisters Evelyn and Babs Atkins live in Epsom, Surrey. Evelyn has a demanding job at I.C.I. in London, Babs is a deputy head of school. They have busy social lives and many hobbies. Following an accident and a period of ill health Evelyn takes early retirement. She takes up pottery, buys equipment and takes courses.
Evelyn and Babs decide to buy a cottage in Cornwall. They find two adjoining cottages in Looe, one of which Evelyn wants to use as a pottery studio. 


While exploring they discover that there is a small island (St. George’s Island) close to Looe and during they first summer there they find out the island is for sale. Having always entertained fantasies about living on an island, they immediately head for the estate  agent, and after only a short visit they decide to buy it.


Evelyn will live on the island permanently while Babs will try to find a job in Cornwall and live in Looe, visiting the island during her holidays. By some miracle there is a vacancy in Looe and Babs is appointed senior mistress at a school there, They quickly make friends with Wren Toms, who ferries furniture and equipment to the island. A giant removal van takes all their stuff to Looe. 

Moving to the island is not going to be easy:
Like a douch of cold water it hit us that late December is hardly the best time to move furniture in an open boat in darkness to an island that did not have a harbour.  What sent our spirits plummeting however was when Wren Toms said several journeys would have to be made and that the would have to be at the top of the spring tides.


As spring tides come twice every month with the new moon and again with the full moon, it is going to take some time to move everything to the island. Almost half the book is devoted to these, sometimes very hazardous, trips. In February 1965 Evelyn  definitely moves to the island

The book seems one long friendly chat. Evelyn takes her time and clearly thinks we should have all the details: the parties they give, the people they know,  the cameras she owns, her family’s history etc.  This is mostly very entertaining although I could have done without the seemingly endless tale of all the boat trips needed to transport all their stuff to the island. What you would like to know is what life on the island will be like. But then the book ends.
Like the title says the book is about the Buying of an island. If you want to know what life on the island was actually like you will have to read the sequel: Tales from our Cornish Island. More on that in my next post!

Friday, 5 March 2021

Place of Stones by Ruth Janette Ruck (1961)

"I have always wanted to have a farm". Ruth Janette Ruck grows up in a town, but likes to keep animals and grows vegetables in the garden. After finishing school she has no idea what she would like to do next, but then she suddenly falls ill with diphtheria and nearly dies. A long recuperation follows, after which she and her parents, sister Mary and nanny Fred (who has been with the family since Ruth was born) take a holiday in Nantmor, North Wales. During the holiday they discover that Carneddi is for sale, a small farm in the hills (83 acres, of which only a fraction can be used).

"I think it was mother  who first suggested that we bought Carneddi. The thread of out normal existence seemed to have been broken by the end of the war, which made my father’s work redundant, and by my sudden illness. A moment of pause and choice had come to us. (…) At first the idea of farming in the hills seemed quite impracticable. My father was fifty, I was seventeen and we had lived in the city all our lives. It was true that Carneddi was to be sold cheaply, but even so we had little money to cover any mistakes we might make. Yet somehow we were unwilling to settle back into a suburban routine once more. We talked, wondered, and at last decided. We bought the farm, and burned the boats of the life we had always known."

They move to the farm in 1946. With the farm they acquire sheep, cows and a sheepdog. Their neighbours (whose first language is Welsh) are very helpful. At first their policy was "to farm as it had been farmed in the past". Ruth reads all she can find on farming and is especially encouraged by The Farming Ladder by George Henderson.
They watch other people’s farming activities with an eager eye, and copy them.

The farm comes with a small mountain flock of sheep and they find a shepherd, Tom, to help them with it. They make improvements to the house and buy a cart horse.

To learn more. Ruth goes to work on a farm but returns when she realizes her family cannot manage without her. To make the business pay they need to farm more intensively. I wonder it Ruth had any idea what „ intensive farming” would come to mean a few decades later . . .
She starts by keeping more chickens and taking part in a government scheme that means she receives food coupons for chicken feed.
The few cows they keep provide them with enough milk for their own use. I presume they grew their own vegetables but no mention is made of this.

Ruth thinks women do not make good employers. "By nature they prefer to follow rather than to lead and the thought of employing a man can be a horrifying one.”  Nevertheless she employs Paul, to help her with improvements, partly subsidized by the Hill Farming Act. 


Paul is an experienced climber and together with friends he and Ruth make many trips into the hills. Although initially apprehensive, she later begins to relish climbing

After 5 years at Carneddi Fred leaves for Australia; Ruth gets the chance to work at George Henderson’s farm.
Back home again she builds a new shed for the chickens. With an asbestos roof!
Later she keeps turkeys. She also joins a successful scheme for growing strawberry plants in isolated place to keep them far away from aphides.
She manages to rent a cottage (Ty Mawr), does it up and rents it to tourists.
The book ends with the story of how Ruth spends summer months working for a film crew, filming The Inn of Sixth Happiness.


In the first chapter Ruth says: „We had little money to cover any mistakes we might make.”
This makes it even harder to understand what the family lived on, especially during the first few years, when sheep die and chickens are killed by foxes. During this time Ruth spends long periods away from the farm (studying and working on another farm) and her parents are not able to manage on their own.
And then there is „nanny” Fred, who, presumably, they pay. They also employ people to work on the farm.

The family start out as amateurs, but Ruth becomes a real farmer. It is interesting to read how you could apparently make a living from such small scale farming in the 40’s and 50’s.
To the 21st century reader, the enthusiastic use of insecticides and asbestos is startling.

I like this book because of the combination of the personal and the practical. It can be read as a handbook for hill farming, but it is also Ruth’s autobiography.
Ruth went on to write two more books, which I will cover in later posts.