From the bustle of east London’s Ridley Road Market to campfires in California, Cressida Knapp discusses leaving her nomadic lifestyle to settle in a former school house in rural Ireland. And what’s it’s like living in isolation as a new mother…
I moved to London to study illustration at Camberwell. I spent three happy years researching folk and outsider artists. I loved looking through these windows to the past, depictions of a simpler life, often amongst nature. It was in London that I met Andrew, and he became a regular at mine and my best friend’s flat, a dingy basement on the famous Ridley Road Market. We used to finish our days at work and meet on the stoop to drink beer and watch as people gathered around the stalls to buy vegetables, salted fish, and shea butter.
On Thursday nights we would go to the Market Bar, drink frozen mojitos and dance to 60s music. They were happy times, but after a few years London started to feel very crowded, and we wondered if it was time to go. Andrew being Irish suggested we look around Co. Wicklow. With its stunning landscapes, cheaper houses, and being close to home it seemed like a good option. But leaving London meant leaving our friends, my family, and good jobs as outdoor teachers.
We decided to take a road trip around California, to see if time spent exploring the National Parks would make things any clearer. We packed a few clothes, some maps and a dog eared copy of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and set off in an old white camper van. We rose every morning with the sun, hiked through mountains and alpine meadows, swam in rivers, lakes and oceans, and debated who was most like Gary Snyder – the beat hero of Dharma Bums.
One night around a campfire, a dome of stars arching endlessly over our heads, bears moving in the shadows, corn gently popping in an aluminium pan on the fire, we knew that being outside was where we felt most alive. Our years in London had been transformative, but now our lives were moving along a different path, and that path led to Ireland.
After a few months house hunting, we came upon an old school house. It was built in 1834 from granite mined from the surrounding mountains. We walked through the front door into a large classroom. With a double height ceiling, exposed beams, and tall sash windows it was a refreshing change from the pokey old cottages we’d been viewing. Leading off the classroom we explored a warren of corridors and rooms, separated by arched doorways and oak doors.
The school had been on the market for a long time… were people put off by the walls painted oxblood red and indigo, by the feral smell that indicated a rat infestation, and by the army base located just down the road? Luckily for us, I think they were. Our family of two doubled in our first fortnight in the old school. First we found out we were expecting a baby, and then a beagle pup was dumped on our doorstep. We took her in, we had lots of room for a dog, and walks to discover in the trails that lay just outside the door.
A year into country life, our days are starting to take shape. Andrew leaves in the mornings, to work as a wildlife ranger. Astrid (our daughter) and I have breakfast in the classroom looking out at the mountain through the window. Sometimes it’s capped in snow, sometimes its top dissolves in a silver mist, but more so now it’s spring the burial chamber can just be seen at its peak.
After breakfast we take the dog for a walk. The swallows and swifts have arrived, and the sky is full of shrieks as the birds crisscross madly overhead. If our timing is right we spot a little chocolate brown stoat hiding in a ditch, or see a hare’s giant body moving gracefully over fields. Once home Astrid is usually asleep in her sling, giving me an hour or so to work on the delicate job of collaging the pages of my children’s book. When she awakes, I sit her on my knee and do some quick drawing, her hand traces my paintbrush in the air, and she watches in fascination as the colours fill the page.
Living in the country miles from the shops and cafes is a quiet way to live as a new parent. I think it might’ve been very hard, had it not been for generosity and support of our friends, family, and new neighbours. They have helped us make it work. The guest bedroom is often occupied, letters come through the door telling news of home, and impromptu invites for cups of tea come from next door. There is lots to do in the house this summer, most of the red walls have been painted white, but the floors still need to be stripped and varnished. The garden needs to be tamed, with the lawn in long knots of dandelions, and the gravel a patchy sea of green weeds. Astrid seems to like it that way though, and I reassure myself that it’s a ‘wildlife garden’.