NEW STARTS AND CRAFTS (THE SUNDAY TIMES)
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Like many London-based couples, Cath and Jeremy Brown swore they’d never leave, until they did. The birth of their son, Milo, now two, made them realise how polluted London’s air was and before long they were plotting a move to the countryside. ‘Everything smelt of fumes and we were very conscious of his little lungs,’ explains Cath, holding the latest addition to the family, Beatrix, who is just six weeks old and fast asleep. At the time they were living in a tiny flat in Hackney and looking for a larger apartment nearby, when Jeremy wondered what would happen if he put the same budget into house-hunting app Zoopla, but changed the location to Devon. ‘Suddenly there were all these rambling farmhouses and woodlands – and my dream centre started working overtime,’ says Jeremy. ‘I came home and said to Cath “Why don’t we move to Devon instead?” and she just said “OK”. Within three months they had both resigned from their jobs and moved into rented accommodation in the middle of Dartmoor National Park. In London, Cath had been working as an architectural designer, while Jeremy worked for the UN helping luxury fashion brands to build ethical supply chains, and travelled up to 25 days a month, once visiting Africa, Tokyo and Australia in a fortnight. ‘I was burnt out,’ he says. ‘And Cath was on unpaid maternity leave, so we decided to take six months off.’
They moved to Devon with no more detailed plans than to spend time with Milo and recuperate a little. They started gardening and making things as a way to relax. Then the lease came to an end on their first property, just as the house where they live now became available, so they jumped at the chance to move in. At the far end of a bumpy lane on the outskirts of a village North of Dartmoor (‘No-one comes here by accident,’ laughs Jeremy), the four-bedroom house is partly thatched, dating from the late 15th century, and the ‘new’ part is 19th-century. The higgledy-piggledy construction means that there are eight ways in, but no front door. ‘It really confuses couriers, but luckily we have Bernie to let us know when someone’s here,’ Cath says of the family dog, a pointer-cross. The ground floor comprises a double-height kitchen filled with natural light and views of an oak tree that’s as old as the house, a playroom, a living room with inglenook fireplace, a loo and a boot room – and in the thatched part, the pottery and woodshed. Upstairs, there are two bedrooms and a bathroom in the new part and two bedrooms in the eaves of the thatched part.
‘Suddenly, we had this big house with nothing in it and we wanted both our families here for Christmas,’ says Jeremy. They set about making the things they needed – a dining table, a stool, and all the tableware. ‘I used to work as a boat builder in my holidays from university and I did pottery at school,’ says Jeremy, with a characteristic lack of concern about the task he was undertaking. Having hosted Christmas dinner for 20, their confidence boosted, they set about making everything else the house needed, acquiring a potters’ wheel and building a woodworking studio in the garden in the process. But as much fun as it was, their six months – and their savings – were starting to run out.
Cath found a job in a local architecture firm and Jeremy decided to set up as a consultant, but as their return to work drew closer, they both began to have doubts. ‘The architecture firm was on the South Coast, which meant Cath being out of the house for 12 hours, and if I went back to the same sort of work, I would be away all the time too,’ says Jeremy. ‘We just hadn’t thought it through.’ But looking around their home – by now filled with beautiful objects they’d either made or bought as research for new projects – they were struck by an idea. ‘We had always talked about starting our own design studio,’ says Jeremy. ‘We’re both quite opinionated about design and were always findings products we could have done better, so we decided it was about time we got on with it.’
Their first product was a coffee cup – inspired by the wobbly walls of the house. ‘There isn’t a straight line in this house. In the old cobbled part, the walls have dimples,’ says Cath. After experimenting with earthenware and stoneware, they settled on bone china. ‘We wanted to do something that had the hand involved but wasn’t… ‘crafty,’ adds Jeremy, hesitating over the word. ‘We wanted… handmade elegance.’ Designed to fit in your hand, the wall-inspired dimples perfectly align with your fingers, the fine walls make drinking a pleasure, and the handles are painted in either blue in homage to traditional blue and white tableware or gold ‘to add a bit of bling.’ They were an immediate success and spurred the couple on. Unable to find a butter dish they liked, that was the next addition to the collection, with the same blue or gold handles – and soon they were selling everything from blankets to homemade soap and candles through the likes of the Conran Shop and Fortnum & Mason. They make all their products themselves or work with local craftsmen. ‘The biggest compromise we have made, is that the matches that come with our candles come from Europe not the UK,’ says Jeremy of the pair’s unwavering commitment to ethics and quality. Even their packaging is made locally. ‘One of the reasons we started Feldspar was so that we wouldn’t have to compromise,’ explains Cath. ‘In our previous jobs, we both worked with people with good intentions, but things always got watered down, so now we control the whole process, from design and manufacturing to distribution.’
The other thing they haven’t compromised on is their quality of life. As fans of BBC Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs, they noticed a commonality amongst the interviewee’s regrets: ‘Everyone says they didn’t spend enough time with their children when they were growing up,’ says Jeremy. ‘So we wanted to focus on what was important.’ Today their days are spent as a family, and largely dictated by the weather. On rainy days, products get packed up for dispatch, and when the sun shines, they work outside. And they’ve got the time and energy for side projects like Jeremy’s Heath Robinson-inspired treehouse for Milo. Cath shakes her head quietly with an indulgent smile while he excitedly describes the intricate details of the light winching device, the copper rain-water collection system and the miniature replica treehouse for owls he’s got planned, but one thing is clear – this growing family is high on fresh air and has never been happier.
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Photography by Emma Lewis.
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