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Sometimes the stars align – even if not quite how you'd planned. For years, Anna-Lisa De'Ath daydreamed about leaving behind the daily slog of work and commuting, to run craft workshops from a little place in the country. A few animals and a vegetable plot were part of the picture and her plan was a solo venture: a brave new life.
'Throughout my career I always had it in the back of my mind that one day I would have a smallholding in the West Country,' says Anna-Lisa, an editor and consultant. 'My parents had an allotment, so I was into growing my own fruit and veg from an early age. I'd go foraging with my dad for chestnuts and berries, and dream of having chickens and goats – out of the question at my parents' council house in the suburbs of London!'
About four years ago, Anna-Lisa was returning from a work trip to Devon and decided to stopover at a friend's house on the Somerset border: 'We went to a pub and I got chatting to a local chap called Tim, who, I found out, is an amazing cabinet maker. There was an instant spark between us and, to cut a long story short, overtime we became an item – albeit with Tim in Somerset and me still in London. As luck would have it, he shared my dream of having a small holding and running arts-and-crafts courses. So we set out to make that our reality!'
The happy chance of their meeting led to their search for a home that would match their joint 12-point tick list. Then, after a couple of years, serendipity played its part again. 'A house came up that Tim had known and loved since being a child. He used to call it the "Pointy Palace" because of its little turrets, and when we went to see it I burst into tears because I had such an emotional pull to it' says Anna-Lisa. 'With stunning views over the Blackdown Hills, it had been built by its owner in 1937, and they were the only family to have lived there. As well as the pointy turrets, it had a greenhouse, an old orchard, a redundant kitchen garden and, crucially, outbuildings for Tim's carpentry, and an old studio, very down at heel, where I could run craft courses.'
Anna-Lisa's enthusiasm for crafts began as early as her passion for growing, and she is never without a project: 'I went to art school and have always loved making,' she says. 'A few years ago I went to an arts-and-crafts workshop in Whitstable in Kent and was invited back to teach. I loved the energy: people coming together, new friendships being made as they learnt new skills, everyone helping each other.'
As soon as she had the keys to their new house in her hand, the hard graft began – with the exterior taking priority: getting the derelict studio into shape (even the concrete floor had completely degraded), setting up a rainbow veg patch and working on the outbuildings. The old kitchen, complete with Aga, was the warm hub of the home, the faded-glam pink bathroom essential for cleaning up at the end of the day. And all the while Anna-Lisa was planning the array of craft courses she would run.
By the beginning of 2020 all was moving apace. Having left London for good and set up home in her new property, she had resigned from her job, ready to go freelance. Then Covid hit, putting paid to her crafty aspirations. It was hugely disappointing but, as it turned out, the lull gave Anna-Lisa valuable time to research further, grow more and put her plans together for the following year.
'I did a trial run with friends and got their feedback on what they'd be interested in,' she says. 'My crafty Instagram connections also helped me get a feel for what's current. I began to realise I wanted the workshops to be in tune with the seasons and rely on natural materials – people have become much more connected with nature through lockdown, and also want to try their hand at making and creating.
'My workshops now include beginners' lino printing inspired by the nature in our four acres; visible and creative mending – a great way to extend the life of your clothes; twig weaving, where you use twigs to create a loom and weave with recycled wool or scraps of fabric (very tactile and mindful because it's a slow process); and making Christmas decorations from foraged natural materials. And that's just to mention a few!'
Her studio has been transformed into a welcoming, creative environment; her vegetable patch is growing apace; and she keeps chickens, as well as geese that she raised from goslings. Two baby goats are arriving soon, and she's also fostering a couple of alpacas.
'The past few years have brought such huge change,' Anna-Lisa says. 'Selling the place I lived in for 20 years, getting engaged to the man of my dreams, buying our home and setting up my workshops. What I did before seems very distant now. I can't believe I spent so many years working ridiculous hours and facing the commute every day. I always had a dream at the back of my mind but I'm not sure I ever thought this would really be my life. I am amazed!'
Thinking of running a craft course? Anna-Lisa's insights:
• Research what courses are already available locally, and make sure you offer something unique.
• Your space should be as inspiring and appealing as possible, so people feel instantly creative. We've filled the studio with finds I've squirrelled away for years, including an antique daybed I bought 20 years ago, and vintage suitcases.
• You have to love what you do. I'm never going to make pots of money but I do have a lovely quality of life. I step out of my back door into this amazing landscape, am greeted by animals that are pleased to see me, and eat food I’ve grown myself. It' s the best of all worlds!
Follow Anna-Lisa on @mycraftycountrylife.
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