Island revisited

11 August 2014
Ben Pentreath

One of the annoying things about a meeting out of London at 9.30 on a Monday morning is that the blog is unlikely to happen, as normal, on a Sunday evening. It’s a strange thing, writing this blog. I was never a diary writer. I used to be dreadful at creating a record of what’s going on in my life. To be honest, it isn’t particularly interesting. But then you find that the interesting moments are in fact the bits-in-between; the times when nothing in particular is happening, when you suddenly find yourself looking intently at things or places that you’d never noticed before, and it’s at these moments that you realise how life is worth living.

So… Sunday evenings. They have become a quiet ritual, and I feel rather strange when I’m not sitting at home, quietly reflecting, on the week past on a Sunday evening or night. I guess I would be lying if there wasn’t a moment, from time to time, when I think at the end of a long and busy week ‘oh what am I going to write about now’; and if you’re honest, you can probably tell exactly those blogs from the others. Although, for me, they still have an interest of their own – because now I’ve been writing most Sunday evenings for really quite a long time now, even the space fillers – a few photos of the veg garden or the hills of Dorset – take on their interest, as we see how remarkably constant the world can be, year on year. And that’s a soothing thought.

So – I didn’t make Sunday writing. I was staying with Mum and Dad and it was nicer to have an evening quizzing them about their early days together, and having a delicious dinner which started with sweetcorn from the veg garden in Dorset. This morning, I had a meeting early in the New Forest. So it was perfect timing to make a quick trip over the Solent to a sparkling Isle of Wight.

Hurricane Bertha was rushing through, but it was an afternoon of brilliant sunshine and breeze. We went for a walk in one of my favourite places on earth – Newtown Harbour. If you are visiting the Island and have never been, be sure to spend a bit of time in the wild estuarine landscape. It’s heaven. I love it there so much.


P1040566 P1040573 P1040574 P1040575

Here is Dad, sitting on his favourite seat in the world, and Mum watching birds, which is just about her favourite thing in the world.P1040576 P1040585 P1040588

I adore the black hut, which has been here for ever. P1040593 P1040594 P1040602

In the village is this beautiful, simple house, designed by the grandfather of my great friend George Samaurez Smith, who was the famous architect Raymond Erith. Erith knew how to make a quiet, simple, reticent house that looked like it had always been there. P1040614

Further down the lane, one of my favourite buildings of all time: The Newtown old Town Hall, now owned by the National Trust. In the 30s, it had fallen into complete disrepair and was saved and given to the trust by the elusive ‘Ferguson’s Gang’, and all-female group of activists who were determined to fight what Clough Williams Ellis called the ‘Octopus’ – the creeping malice of thoughtless development and decay. I guess I have a chime with Ferguson’s gang today. This beautiful, crooked building is quite perfect, like a friendly face. Do you see what I mean?P1040621 P1040624 P1040626 P1040629

The bleached, weathered oak door takes on the texture and silver-grey colour of the stone surround, lichen encrusted.P1040642

The view back towards Tennyson Down is beautiful.P1040646

But an hour earlier, we had walked by another beautiful building that needs saving. And this is a real trip down memory lane.

A few years ago, when we first opened the shop, we were thrilled to give the launch party for an amazing book that had been written in the 1950s and lost for over 50 years. Timmy the Tug was a children’s book for an as-yet unborn child, illustrated by the brilliant young Jim Downer. Jim lived across the street from the shop, at 18 Rugby Street. Downstairs was his neighbour Ted Hughes – who was living in the ground floor flat with his then girlfriend, Sylvia Plath. Ted wrote words to accompany Jim’s pictures. 5 decades later, the manuscript was rediscovered and published by Thames & Hudson.

We met Jim, who made a visit back to Rugby Street, and had a brilliant lunch at Cigala with him. Jim mentioned he lived on the Isle of Wight. I told him that’s where my Mum & Dad lived, and we made a tentative plan to visit.  Jim said he lived in Newtown – as you have seen – one of the most beautiful spots on earth.

A year or two later, the lunch happened.  My neighbouring shopkeeper Maggie came down too.  Thankfully, last night, I discovered I’d taken a few photos of that magical day.

Jim’s little cottage was magical.

P1030196 P1030195 P1030190

Do you see what I mean? And not least because above the sofa hung the most beautiful Ivon Hitchens that I’ve ever seen:P1030174 P1030167 P1030171

Every detail was perfectly conceived, as you’d expect from Jim – who went on to have a career as a brilliant industrial, exhibition, logo and product designer, with a remarkable and influential output.P1030170 P1030194

Jim’s Geodesic dome in honour of Buckminster Fuller:P1030169

This beautiful red bench was in the leafy garden surrounded by his sculptures and statues.P1030184

Jim’s workshop:

I tried to get Jim’s house photographed by World of Interiors, but for some reason it didn’t work out. It was one of the most perfect, beautiful places I’d ever seen – complete in every way.

Three years ago, Jim died of cancer. You can read his remarkable life story in this little obituary in the Isle of Wight County Press, here. As you will read, in 1961, Jim invented (and patented) the travelator. Every time you take a moving walkway in an airport anywhere in the world, please give a thought for Jim.

Mum and Dad had told me Jim’s house was for sale. We walked in through the broken gate.


The workshop, once the creative hub of this brilliant brain, was empty.P1040516

Here are the shelves that I’d photographed 3 years ago on that wonderful day.P1040518

We peered through the windows to see the house deserted and sad.P1040520

The most beautiful room in the world was missing its things, its pictures, its shelves of books, its model ship in the window, the dining table, the chairs, the food – and above all the kindest, most generous, most brilliant and intelligent host who was at the middle of it all.P1040521

Jim’s geodesic dome was deserted and quiet.P1040528

The site has planning permission for a grim, bland, desperate suburban 3-bedroom house. I can just imagine the demolition contractors moving in now.

I reflected. Places are not important. People are. Life is deeply precious, and deeply transient. Jim – I missed you so much as we walked through your empty rooms.  The world is poorer without you.


23 comments on this post


Dear Ben,
Wonderful blog as usual. And no, I don’t think I can tell which blog you wrote when not 100% inspired.
I am puffing up with pride that I once owned the same diningtable as Mr. Downer. Was his a prototype? Sadly, I had to let it go, downscaling when I moved into a smaller appartment.
I hope that no creeping malicious octopussies gets hold on your dear Newtown.


I met Jim at a lunch party – he was and still is the most fascinating character I have met. Subsequently walking at Newtown Jim invited us in and showed us around his home and garden what a thrill. Whenever I travel I remember him and of course on trips to Newtown. Your account evoked happy memories – thankyou!

Those are some fantastic photos, love them. Looks like you had a great time. Really love the one of the outside of the house. What a beautiful place to live.

Gillian KirbyFyffesays:

Enriching and inspirational as always and a respite from the Monday evening feeling here in Christchurch, NZ
We had a 300 year old cottage, part thereof in Lyme Regis when I lived in England, wish you were blogging then!!
Your Blogg is a delight Ben , enjoy a much needed sojourn in the Greek Island s….recharge your spirit and your pen. Cheers


What a charming,moving and elegiac piece.It is sad when such beautiful interiors are
broken up and dispersed…am glad you found those images and shared them with the
world. Have a lovely holiday.

This reminds me of Judy Collin’s song, Secret Garden. You can look it up on youtube. It, too, has some very special lyrics that capture this entry exactly. I sometimes go up to my schoolteacher’s home, which, like Jim’s, remains the most perfect room in my heart.


Ben, thank you so much for such a lovely post. Beautifully written and such sensitively chosen pictures. The part about Jim and his house, reminded me very much of my father’s house and how sad it was to see it empty after his death, and how someone’s spirit seems to be in their environment. Thank you for your lovely blog, and for continuing week after week. It really does bring me joy and inspiration to read.

Martyn Chamberssays:

Hi Ben –

While your blog has been TRULY inspirational for me over the last eighteen months or so, I can’t say I share your enthusiasm for Newtown Harbour! But nice to see pics of your parents “in their element”. And the Raymond Erith house!

Anyway, thanks for giving me so much joy each Monday. Living in New Zealand, I don’t get to see England for real very often.

Regards –

From your photograhs, Ben, Newtown appears to have an understated beauty that I look for and cherish; it’s such a valuable, and threatened thing. Easily crushed. Erith’s house is perfect; would that every town had an Erith (or Pentreath!), as long there is room enough for the Jims of this world. Jim’s house (love the wooden paneling) is one of those quirky things that has helped Newtown in its quiet way to be unique. Such a shame to lose it. The ‘Octopus’ has not, yet, been vanquished.

Lovely Ben. Thank you. So true that homes are the people who live there and when they and their stuff is gone, it is never the same. Enjoy the rest of summer.
From western Massachusetts, USA


Ben….we read your blog with great interest. Jim was our dear friend and neighbour for many years. We miss him every day. His house was an inspiration – nothing will replace him, or it. 2 years ago a charming couple bought the house with planning permission for a house that they didn’t like. They have battled for change with the planners for 2 years. Unsuccessfully. The house is now back on the market.
Come and say hello when you are next in Newtown. We live in the white house on the water. We can exchange some happy Jim memories…..


All choked up.


A poignant post. Thank you for sharing with us this life well-lived.


Dear Ben,Your blogs are a true inspiration. You bring to our attention the most interesting details of people and places, enable us to see connections, and offer aspects of your own life for our scrutiny. I do hope you don’t see your blog as a rod you’ve unwittingly made for your own back. I, for one, look forward to many more. Best wishes. Nicola


Monday morning wasn’t quite the same without reading your blog but this was worth waiting for. Beautiful story.

Rebecca Hivelysays:

I always am so thankful for your beautifully worded thoughts of your life! Thank you for sharing, even when you feel you have nothing to say. One never knows what will speak to others.


Typing through tears. Thank you, Ben, for sensitive words and those photographs. This one’s going to stay with me for some time.

Caroline T-Bsays:

Dear Ben
So bittersweet…thank goodness for you to bring humanity to all things. If only we could find someone who would restore or buy that beautiful cottage….If I had the wherewithal …Who would know about that dear Jim Downer if not for you ? Another moving post of all things creative and visual which you send us each week…thank you ! Enjoy Italy when you go


Newtown Creek is one of the most special places in the south coast. we’ve spent many picnics there watching oldies and youngers trying to get the hang of the wind in a Wayfarer. Paddling feet in squishy mud. Heaven.

Tom Colvinsays:

I remember seeing something about the cottage for sale in the Isle of Wight County Press some time ago but didn’t connect it, despite the memorable dome.

I may just have to have a look this weekend.

And so glad that my love of Newtown is shared. A quiet and mostly undiscovered little beauty spot

I will definitely think of Jim when next I’m on a moving sidewalk. I’ll think of that beautiful sky-lit painting. Also, I appreciate that your posts are full of thoughtful words. I look forward to reading them.


So lovely and so sad. Well said, Ben.

People are truly the most important. But places are important, too. Jim’s place, even without him and his things, retains his memory. It’s a tragedy to know that it too will be gone, replaced with something utterly soulless.

deby (in Canada)says:

Ben… oh my… that one was worth waiting an extra day… and you made me cry (again)
Such a wonderful and kind post…
cheers Deby

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.