If you’ve ever dreamt of escaping to the country, the richness of village life captured in a new photographic exhibition may tempt you to make the move. Sharon Dale reports.
Every fortnight since 1976, hairdresser Lynne Lynch has arrived at Betty Fox’s door with a broad smile and a washing up bowl containing a highly effective mobile salon. She shampoos Betty’s hair over the kitchen sink with a rubber shower hose before delivering a lovely cut and blow dry interspersed with tea, homemade cake and plenty of laughs.
It’s a domestic ritual captured by photographer Lucy Saggers for a project aimed at documenting everyday life in and around the village of Ampleforth, which sits on the edge of the North York Moors. Over the past four years she has taken hundreds of photographs that tell the story of a largely self-sufficient community rooted in one of Yorkshire’s most beautiful rural landscapes.
Now, a curated collection of 32 of the pictures form Of Life and Land, a touring exhibition launching at Ryedale Folk Museum on February 10. It runs until March 25 and includes an accompanying book.
Betty, 89, who lives next door to the Saggers family, is one of Lucy’s favourite subjects and she and her late husband, Herbert, who died aged 96 last year, are the undoubted stars of the show.
Betty is seen on “baking day” with a table full of ingredients, including Camp coffee, and the couple are also pictured in their garden. “They lived a simple life and didn’t have masses by modern measures but yet they had everything. They were a wonderful couple with good values and a great sense of humour,” says Lucy.
“Every day, at four o’clock, they would sit side by side with a cup of tea, outside if the weather was good enough. In my picture, Betty got the giggles telling me about the nurse’s visit that morning.
“She came to give them their flu jabs and Herbert said he hoped her needle was sharp enough to get through his tough skin, and if it wasn’t she could borrow his grindstone to sharpen it.”
Albert Humphrey, shown setting mole traps on his farm, remembers the days when you could make a good living from 15 dairy cows.
The aptly-named Mr Burn, the coalman who features in the exhibition, has already stopped delivering but the part he played in keeping the fires burning has been recorded on a large black and white print.
The late Jeffrey Todd is also pictured for posterity. He ran the local poultry farm and is seen transferring eggs from the incubator drawer into the deeper drawer where the chicks will hatch. One of his 150-year-old incubators is in the background and it’s where his father played surrogate to Buff Orpington eggs for the Queen Mother, such was his reputation.
There’s also a series of images depicting the Thompson family, who can trace their Ampleforth roots to the Domesday Book. They are builders who also operate a discreet funeral service.
Jack has been an undertaker all his life, following on from his father who set up the business around 1898 and he is shown hand-lining a coffin with his daughter Nichola. Another image features him using the traditional method of taking wood shavings from the workshop floor to make a coffin pillow and there is a photograph of his wife, Barbara, ironing a shroud.
“The shrouds arrive folded in packets, but Barbara does not like to use them until she has ironed out the creases. No-one will see them but it matters to her. The love and care the family puts into the undertaking service is remarkable,” says Lucy, who has lived in Ampleforth since 2004 and has been a professional photographer since 2013, working to commission and selling limited edition prints.
Using prime lenses and available light, she works in black and white, which she says helps her get closer to the timeless essence of a scene.
Her obsession with photography started when she was ten and she soon progressed to learning darkroom techniques. It helped to record her years working in wildlife conservation and rural development in Nigeria and Uganda, though the rainforests wrecked her Pentax camera, which was invaded by mould spores.
She invested in a full frame Canon 5D and did a diploma in digital photography to update her skills after moving to Ampleforth with husband Will, a builder, and their children Molly, 15, Kit, 13, and Albert, 11. “Moving here really inspired me. I saw pictures everywhere and I knew I wanted to document the village and portray its sense of community and endurance. I’ve always preferred people to landscapes,” says Lucy, who believes that the impetus for her photo-documentary may lie in her childhood.
Photographer James Ravilious, son of the artist Eric, was part of her extended family and his famous book, The Recent Past, was on the coffee table at home. Published in 1980, it revealed a vanishing way of life in rural Devon through black and white images. “I was fascinated by that book,” she says.
Working in an unhurried, unobtrusive way has been crucial in capturing what Lucy refers to as “ordinary goings-on”. Her skills have developed and residents have become used to being photographed so don’t bother posing.
She has long hoped the resulting images might result in an exhibition and book and is thrilled that distinguished photographer Joe Cornish offered to print the photographs for her, while poet Ian McMillan wrote a foreword to the book.
“These wonderful photographs are poems and short stories; they are miniatures and epics,” says McMillan, adding “There could almost be a sense of elegy here but this is not a looking back: this is a looking around.”
Rarely seen without a camera, Lucy is out in the village most days taking pictures. Her much-loved late neighbour, Herbert, regularly teased her with the question: “Have you got that bloody thing round your neck again? Do you sleep with it?”
It always raised a smile and the answer is that the “bloody thing” is set to stay. “I am carrying on with the project,” says Lucy. “There’s so much more to do.”
Of Life and Land, a touring exhibition and book with prints for sale, is at Ryedale Folk Museum, Hutton-le-Hole, from February 10 to March 25. lucysaggers.com