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Starting school in your late 40’s | Vanessa Simpson

‘That is the privilege of slow living I guess: being able to give yourself the time and permission to really indulge in those things and activities that you really enjoy.’

Vanessa is a writer and photographer who shares her thoughts and images on her website. She is also the owner of Oak Tree Barn, a beautiful event and workshop space in the Somerset countryside which has been in her family for decades and which she renovated from derelict with her husband. She has two grown up daughters.

As her daughters have finished school and begin life independently, she decided to follow her passion – photography – and get an education for herself as well and become a full-time student at Cardiff University. We talk to Vanessa about her path, her motivation and her view on slow living.

words by Fiona Barrows and Vanessa Simpson / images by Vanessa Simpson

Hello Vanessa!

Maybe we could start with you telling us a little bit about yourself?

As I get to the end of my forties it’s ever more difficult to describe who I am, I think. We become more and more people the older we get, so I’m a daughter, sister, wife, and mother in addition to anything else I choose to do. 

I’ve spent much of the last twenty years raising my children, following my husband’s career around the world and slotting in bits of work, as and when I was able to. But since we returned to the UK four years ago, I’ve established a business of my own. I’d always wanted to be self-employed but never knew really what to do, and, in fact, when I began I still didn’t know what to do, so in hindsight it’s all been pretty intuitive. I’ve just sort of let it happen.

So how did your business develop?

I started by thinking that when I lived overseas I’d always enjoyed attending creative workshops as a way to meet people, and learn something new. And I thought “I have this great space at home, and potentially at the barn, and a nice table, so I could host creative workshops myself”. I started with things like lino printing, and I’ve done a couple of sewing ones, and canapé making and cake decorating, small business workshops, personal development and day retreats. But the whole process has been very organic. One thing has sort of led to another, one connection has led to another. I couldn’t possibly say I’ve sat down and planned any of this, at any stage. 

It seems to me though that that’s a slow business, in that you have let it develop naturally and seen where it’s taken you. 

I definitely didn’t have any great goal other than I knew I needed to be a bit purposeful and I find something I actually I enjoyed doing. It needed to not cost me money, ‘wash it’s own face’ as my father might say, but I didn’t have any great goals for world domination or to produce anything that people were going to buy. Perhaps because my ethos is more around experiences than things. I’ve been very lucky to be able to do that. I haven’t felt the pressure to ‘succeed’, nor have I had any major financial pressure, and I do acknowledge that I’m very privileged to be able to allow a business to happen in this way. 

view over hills at sunrise
vanessa simpson overlooking a bonfire

So what does your life look like now? 

Right now I have been, and have a reputation for I think, hosting retreats, workshops and days that people are likely to come away from feeling like they have made connections, been well looked after, and experienced warmth and camaraderie, regardless of what they actually came for; whether it’s a day of floristry, business planning or personal development.

Yet along the way I’ve discovered that what I actually really enjoy is the the writing and photography involved in the marketing. And, like anything creative I suppose, the more I did the more I realised how big the gap was between what I was able to do, and what I aspired to do. Which has led me, quite surprisingly really, to apply for a degree course in photography. I never went to university, I nurse trained at nineteen. At the beginning of the year, I set myself some intentions and made a few notes on how I could fulfil them (lets not call them goals and a plan because they make me want to rebel!), and one of those was to improve and learn more about photography. I just allowed myself the time to really think about it, and explore it, and that is the privilege of slowing living I guess: being able to give yourself the time and permission to really indulge in those things and activities that you really enjoy. 

I sort of stumbled across this course at Cardiff University, and something made me think: “I really want to do that”. I’d done a workshop before, in Greece last September, but although I learnt masses, I remember feeling like I’d only skimmed the surface. I wanted more than that. A bit of depth that I perhaps haven’t studied in before. So I applied for this course, wrote a personal statement, but together a portfolio and felt nauseous as I pressed go. I got an interview, and at the interview the course tutor offered me a spot there and then, which I was massively surprised at!

It’s quite a step becoming a full-time student. How does it fit in with your day to day life?

The course is full-time, although how full-time full-time actually is we will find out! We are in the process of simplifying our lives right now. We’ve ended up in the ridiculous situation of living between two properties, and my husband working somewhere else entirely. But we’re currently selling our house in Bristol, and we will all move into the barn in the Autumn. I often laugh when people say to me that I’m an advocate for the slow, simple life, because our life is really quite complicated. But I think that is the crux of it. Because our life is complicated, and full, and busy, it’s been really important to keep it as simple as possible, and to really, really appreciate the slow moments. To enjoy the benefits of allowing yourself to be a bit slower and to not say yes to everything. 

How do you feel about going back to school in your forties? Are you nervous?

I’m swinging between excitement and feeling utterly terrified! I’ve been battling every sort of imposter syndrome (who do I think I am pretending to be a photographe?  Too old, too middle class, too entrenched in the role of wife/mother, not clever enough etc, etc, etc) but by virtue of the sort of workshops and retreats I’ve been hosting for the past couple of years I have a little insight into why I feel like this. So, I made the decision to just buckle up and go for it. I am of course highly aware of probably being the oldest in my group and am hoping they won’t all roll their eyes at the prospect of me being there. I worry about being tired all the time and whether I’ll manage the commute, but I think somehow if we feel we’re on the right path we’re all capable of surprising ourselves.

What are you hoping to get from the course? Where do you see your work going after it?

I am honestly relishing the opportunity to learn in a supported environment, I didn’t thrive at school and have wasted too many years punishing myself for that. I hope that this course will not only give me really thorough practical photography skills, in portraiture in particular, but will enable me to explore all the things I’m interested in with a little more structure. I am looking forward to being pushed a bit and to be challenged to see and think in different ways. I’m not honestly sure where my work will take me, but without wishing to sound too ‘woo woo’ about it I’m not worried because I just feel confident that I’m heading in the right direction and that if I’m open to opportunities and prepared to have a go that I’ll find my way. I’m particularly interested in the many ways in which the small changes we can make in our lives all add up to greater effect which is something that so many of us trying to live our lives a little more slowly seem to embrace, so perhaps I’ll start there.

oak tree barn at night
oak tree barn by day

So what does slow living really mean to you? 

That is a really hard question isn’t it? Is it a movement? Is it an ethos? A hashtag? I think if it’s anything, it is appreciating nature’s rhythms, and allowing yourself time to see and appreciate the things that go on around you. Summer gives you the longer evenings, and winter perhaps a bit more time coped up inside, and maybe those are the rhythms we all need to live by a bit. But slow living… I think it’s moments of slower. It’s not packing your life so full. Not everyone can bake their own bread everyday, but most people can learn to just breath for 30 seconds or so. To just slow down a little. 

Yes, to really eek the pleasure out of every moment.

Exactly, really taking the time to savour the things you enjoy.

So what are your favourite slow moments then? 

Probably gardening, or sitting out in the garden, although that doesn’t happen a great deal! Slow living isn’t just about loafing around in a deckchair! A garden takes a lot of work, but I really enjoy it. I’ve been guilty in the past of trying to multi-task, of listening to podcasts or audio books while I work. But now I leave my earphones inside so I’m not listening to something else. That’s not to say I don’t love listening to podcasts or audio books, but you miss things if you are getting caught up in a story or having an emotional reaction to something you’re hearing.

Mindfulness is important I think. You have to learn to do things mindfully to really enjoy doing them slowly, and gardening is a good example of that.

SLOW FIRE QUESTIONS

Favourite place to read a book: It depends on the time of day and year. In the winter that would be on the sofa in front of the fire. In the summer, later morning in the part of our garden where we have the perennial flowers, or otherwise on a swing seat we have under an oak tree which is just blissfully comfortable.

Favourite coffee shop or tea shop: Somerset Flower Farm. There is a lovely little cafe there that does beautiful cake, tea and coffee. 

Favourite nature spot: I love the beach, I do love water, and whenever we are near the water I do think how much I love it. But trees just do it for me more, so I’d probably say the countryside. But my absolute tip top would be areas in which the forest meets the beach.

Favourite maker or independent shop: There are so many! There’s a jeweller called Kate Wainwright, who is just lovely. She makes ethical silver jewellery, alongside being a health worker and community midwife, that’s just beautiful.

And someone who I’ve bought from recently is Rebecca Fletcher. She lives in Hampshire where she and her husband took over a derelict farm and lavender field which they’ve brought back to life. I bought a gorgeous lavender wreath from her.

Favourite thing to do slowly: I suppose I’d have to say writing and photography. I’m very slow at both, I can’t bung out a blog post in an hour and a half; it takes days and days, or weeks even, to mull everything around in my head. And it’s much the same with photography.

VANESSA’S SLOW LIVING TIP

 

Roasted vegetables

roasted vegetables on a baking tray and a black kettle

‘I was thinking about a recipe, but that sounds a bit too prescriptive for my slow living ethos. So instead I thought that my best kitchen tip is roasted vegetables. Any sort of veggies you like. I think roasting them you always end up with a lovely sweetness, and you can add any sort of spices you like. You can have them with a poached egg, or mix them with a green salad, or put them with rice, or stick a steak on top. Not much prep, no real cooking effort and there is so much you can do with them. Maximum bang for your buck! You can use whatever veg is in your fridge, in your garden, or is at the bottom of your drawer. You literally just chop them up, stick them in the oven, and leave them for an hour. Which gives you time to lie on your back, read a book, look at your garden or drink a glass of wine! Perfect!’

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Starting school in your late 40s - Vanessa Simpson - pin