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Artist Billa Edwards on why she wanted to capture the 'lost village' of Tyneham on canvas
I was warned that Billa and Simon Edwards live off the beaten track. And as was the Purbeck lanes narrow, cow parsley slaps the sides of my car and branches tap the roof, I believe it. It’s another world.
A bit like Tyneham.
“I suppose it started because I wanted a bit of a project and thought that settling down to paint the buildings and views in Tyneham would be a great way of spending time there,” says Billa, showing me the exquisite artwork that has formed the basis of her book: My Tyneham Sketchbook.
There are images of the school, the church, of Worbarrow Bay, cottages, walls, wildlife; all painted at different times of the year but only ever on Friday afternoons.
Because, as anyone from this part of the world well knows, Tyneham is only open after noon on Fridays and even then access is severely restricted by the Army, which uses the area for tank firing practice.
So how did she wangle it? “I went to see them and got permission from the range officer,” she says.
“I had to be signed in and out each time and the first two times I went I had to have someone with me. I think they thought I would be there for an hour and I remember a chap coming and saying ‘are you finished yet’ and me saying ‘No I’m not!’”
Eventually she was allowed to have her own key.
“Gradually they trusted that I wouldn’t do anything stupid and I always had to say exactly where I was going,” she says. The reason for this was eminently sensible.
“They do their best but there could be live rounds out there,” she says.
“You really have to look where you’re putting your feet.”
On one occasion she walked to the restricted area of Baltington where she discovered: “All these wires for the moving targets.”
For some of the time she was there she was aware of other people; doing plant or wildlife surveys, or repairing the buildings. But, for most of the time, save her dog, she was totally alone.
“It was the silence which got to me, it was quite eerie,” she says.
“It’s so silent and you can think you’re there on your own, and then the deer come right up to you.”
On some occasions, especially in the summer months when she was allowed to remain until 7pm, she lost track of time.
“There was a timelessness to it all – you did feel you had that sense that there were so many people who had been there before you and you’d stop and wonder what they did, whether they had walked there, done that, that sort of thing.”
She would often contemplate how the residents’ lives may have been.
“There are a lot of places like that which get romanticised and while I came away feeling it was very beautiful, you soon realised how remote it was.
“They had no running water or electricity so it can’t have been idyllic, wonderful in some ways, but a hard life.”
During her visits she would spot the secret gems; the snowdrops and then violets and daffodils that emerged in the spring in the walled garden of Tyneham House, with its remnant of box hedging.
“It’s a ruin now but you can still see the footprint of the house, and the sweep of the drive as well as the avenue. It’s all there but very overgrown.”
And she also fell victim to hornets, their presence forcing her to abandon a sketch of the Old House in October 2009.
The project took her from 2009 until 2014 so how will she fill her days now? Quite easily, it seems.
As well as being an artist, Billa is also an adventuress; she leads tailor-made painting trips to secret places in India. The trips are booked by word of mouth and she already has a waiting list for the trip after next when they’ll be travelling to Tamil Nadu.
She got her taste for adventure in her young married life when, as an Army wife, Billa and Simon drove to Bahrain. As you don’t.
“It started as a joke, we said we wanted to take our dogs with us and were told it couldn’t be done unless we drove so when Simon got enough leave, that’s what we did,” she says.
They even got a route map from the AA.
“They told us they had very little information beyond this point, which was Tehran in Iran, and advised us to follow the telegraph poles running south and if we could give them information.”
At 76 most people are contemplating a quiet old age but, for Billa Edwards, it seems quite the reverse.
“There are so many beautiful places to explore and paint,” she says.
My Tyneham Sketchbook will be launched in July.
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