The Clearing is a vision of the future in the grounds of Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park

Caretaker report

20 June 2017

Tom, Carey and Joni

The Rain

During our week at The Clearing, it rained. Sometimes it rained for a bit of the day. Sometimes it rained for most of the day. And on one day, Wednesday 17th May 2017, it rained from 6.30AM until 8PM.

We were there with our recent addition to mankind, our four month old babe, Joni. She was the thing we were most worried about. She had a whale of a time (mainly because she was in the same room as us, constantly, for a week).

At first it was tough. Stressful. We had to reconfigure the dome a bit, as the mattress on the sleeping deck gave us both the fear of the babe tumbling over the edge at night. We brought it down to ground level. Next we were worried about whatever is living beneath the dome (UPDATE: definitely a rat). So we elevated Joni on a handy suitcase, next to the bed. What would we do for a nightlight? We bought a small camping lantern, and put it beneath a Tesco crate. That would have to do.

The hardest thing the first night was the stove. Our first attempt to light it ended in disaster - smoke started pouring out of the holes in the front like a post-apocalyptic smoke machine. The smoke alarms went off, and there was lots of gnashing of teeth and mutual recrimination. (We eventually realised we were burning the wrong paper – shredded paper from the office shredder looks cool, and is a good dystopian gag, but doesn’t actually burn that well. The stove needs a hot flame to get going, and push the cold air up and out of the chimney, in order for the draft to start sucking the smoke out. If it’s not hot enough, it will sink back down into the dome. A sheet of newspaper, or un-shredded A4, is a much better idea.)

We spent all night fretting about whether the dome was the right temperature. The stove was either on (thus mid-20s, Club Tropicana, sleeping in just your pants) or off (14 degrees, getting nippy). If you close the grate, the fire lasts about three hours, meaning you have to get up in the middle of the night to re-light the stove. It was nerve-racking. But we made it. The baby was fine. She woke up with the light. We didn’t bother with the night-light after that. She slept brilliantly all week.

We were worrying that we were doing it wrong, getting it wrong, making the dome a mess. But, around the second day, someone said ‘not everything can go right, that’s part of it.’ We realised they were right – of course the mattress should come down. Of course it didn’t matter if there were nappies and cheeky-wipes everywhere. That’s the reality of The Clearing as a living thing.

Next, we had to work out the food situation. Pretty much all the food we’d brought along needed cooking. The first night, we built a fire outside, and stood over it with the brolly.

But by Tuesday, with the rain getting heavier, the only option was to cook inside. At this point, we discovered that the emergency gas stove had run out of gas, and we were completely dependent on the stove for cooking. Poached eggs took an hour (with vinegar pinched from the Compton Verney café). Pasta and sauce took two. Coffee would take thirty minutes. We spent the first few days starving, getting the timings wrong, and eating crackers and pickled beetroot for lunch.

But the joy of eggs when you’ve made them on the stove! The way the bread tastes when you’ve toasted it yourself! The sheer pleasure of eating when you’ve made the fire to cook it. It tasted phenomenal. Michelin starred eggs on toast. Paradise.

The rain poured, sliced, globbed, dropped. It turned the surface of the lake into radio waves, bubble wrap. It fell heavily from the needles of the Cyprus tree. Somewhat inevitably, the dome sprung a leak. We moved a gigantic pan into place and feared the worst. But somehow the wood must have swollen up, as it stopped straight away. 100 Clearing Points.

Lots of time was spent peering out of the window, watching the cormorant swim about, zig-zagging through the water, its long neck sticking out like a weather vane, swinging wildly in the wind. There were grebes with ducklings, diving for food, and an entire town of geese and goslings.

The radio was a godsend. We listened to inane DJs rattle on. Happy birthday to Angela Kelly, 84 today. We’ve got Emily in Birchwood on Line 1. Emily? Emily are you there? (She wasn’t). We listened to the bleeps, to Joni Mitchell, to Chaka Khan. The real world, the modern world, burst into the dome through the radio's tiny wind-up speaker. We listened to Roy Orbison’s ‘You Got It’. It sounded incredible: rich, powerful, intense. God we were talented, and creative, and poetic, as well as wasteful and stupid. Make sure to tell your kids.

We didn’t do or change very much. We couldn’t really leave the dome, so my grand plans to make a baby gym out of green wood, and work on the solar shower came to naught. We did manage to get the baby out at some points (this was before she was moving, so health and safety risks were low).

The one thing I did do was repair the Whole Earth Catalog, which was falling apart, and scattering its pages everywhere. I was pretty pleased with the result.

We washed a lot less than usual. Pits and groin everyday, and that was it. I used to be worried that my hair would get greasy. And it did a bit. But after a couple of days I stopped worrying, and started embracing the Fonz vibe. The babe doesn’t get much in the way of baths anyway, so she couldn’t have cared less.

By the end, we had found the rhythm. I’d get up at 6, with the light, to blow the embers of the stove, then get back into bed, and sleep til 7, when it was time to put the water on. It was ok for the days to go slowly. It was ok to read, listen to the radio, put the head torch on Joni, go a bit crazy at 4pm. We spent our time cooking food, taking the afternoon to make a chile, then leaving it on the stove to thicken up, while we went for a walk in the rain.

Then one day, the rain stopped. The mist was heavy on the lake. All the signs outside were soaked. We posed for pictures in the sunlight. I wanted to recreate this picture from Drop City in particular, but the sun was probably too bright.

We walked up to the meadow, heavy with flowers and wild orchids. We got yellow pollen on our shoes. We saw a deer running through the waste high weeds. Everything looked swollen, and happy, and alive.