Toast, marmalade and Emma or Emma’s inspiration
PUBLISHED: 06:45 02 June 2014
“I am definitely one of those girls with embarrassing drafts of started novels in my drawer,” laughs pottery designer Emma Bridgewater as she discusses her new book. “I had a special Jilly Cooper sub-genre of my very own.”
Her book Toast & Marmalade and Other Stories has just been published but it is not by any means a straightforward autobiography, more a series of stories, anecdotes and family snaps. And it is not just about the fun-filled, idyllic times, it tells starkly of the strains of growing a business while juggling four children and the consuming sadness of her mother’s suffering following a terrible accident which left her with brain damage.
“I always wanted to write something but it was never the right time, but two things happened in my life which suddenly made it viable,” she says.
The first was that her husband Matthew Rice took over the day-to-day running of the business, and the second was a deterioration in health and subsequent death of her beloved mother Charlotte. In 1991, Charlotte fell from her horse after it slipped on concrete and although she was wearing a riding hat, she suffered a severe head injury and spent three months in a coma. When she did come home she had suffered irreparable brain damage.
“After two decades, the doctor told us that her outlook was suddenly quite short term and the knowledge that she was going to be released from the appalling purgatory she had been locked into for so long seemed to enable me to think more clearly,” she says.
“For 22 years it had been very hard to unlock any happy memories, to think of her in a reflective way and remember she wasn’t always like this. Suddenly I was able to think about the inspiration she had been, how she shaped how I lived and what a wonderful woman she was. Writing the book was an instantly pleasurable experience, sometimes almost meditative.”
Her cheerful pottery is part of the fabric of kitchens the length and breadth of the country, and the feeling of sentimentality which it evokes in part reflects Emma’s own emotional connection with her designs, inspired by her mother’s kitchen dresser laden with mismatched mugs and bowls. It was while searching for a gift for her that the business began.
“I remember now so clearly, standing in a china shop looking for a gift for my mum. I knew what I wanted it but couldn’t find it anywhere and I just thought I can do it myself.”
When it became apparent that Charlotte wasn’t going to make a meaningful recovery, Emma, Matthew and their daughters Elizabeth and Kitty swapped their London home for Norfolk, closer to her mother, and she stepped back from the business. For Emma it was an easy choice. Her family, including her mother and grandparents, had lived in the county and she enjoyed many wonderful times there as a child.
“For me it was the obvious place to go to create a happy family life for us. First of all we rented a farmhouse in Worstead and then we bought a very draughty old rectory in Wickmere. It was just such a lovely place to be, right in the middle of nowhere. I used to call it the Bermuda Triangle of Norfolk as no-one really knew Wickmere was there.”
She and Matthew created the dream rural home, complete with chickens and goats, for their growing brood – which now included Margaret and Michael – and the book paints an idyllic picture of family life, of adventures, den building, freedom and nature.
Matthew’s parents Peter Rice and Pat Albeck – herself a renowned textile designer and artist – moved to Norfolk to be close by, something Emma is forever grateful for. “It was just an incredible thing to do, as the children just had so much fun with them. As a family we were all so so happy there.”
But when Emma made the decision to return to the helm of the company after Michael was born, it gradually became apparent that the strain of commuting between Norfolk, London and her manufacturing base in Stoke was taking its toll.
”On those beautiful summer mornings at 5am, it seemed unthinkable to be driving away. But the feeling of arriving home, turning off the car and stepping out and being hit by the smell and the darkness and silence was a never failing thrill. To begin with the constant driving was okay but it started to wear me down. Suddenly I knew I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Matthew took over running the business and the family moved back to Oxfordshire – and for Emma is has proved life-changing.
“I am not involved in the day-to-day management of the company at all, so these days I am mostly designing and working on new product ideas. I can’t tell you how wonderful that is.”
The family still have a house in Blakeney and like to get back whenever they can. “For me, the marshes, particularly at Morston and Blakeney, are just so beautiful. Whatever is going on in my life, you walk out and can only be completely happy and calm. It blows everything that might be troubling you away, I profoundly love being there.”