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this life


Hilary Johnson  
Deep in the valleys the mist hovers over the meandering river Taw; calm now, belying the all-consuming frenzy of the floods of the passing winter. Shavings of woodsmoke curl in the wakening air from the chimneys of cob-walled cottages, damp gardens shimmering in the early light. Higher still, the rooks and crows circle above beech tree perches, their caw-cawing the constant herald of the new day.

In the ancient hill town of Chulmleigh work begins before first light, hours before the tide of schoolchildren swarm to their classrooms. The phut, phut, phut of a muddy green tractor driven by an old boy in overalls is followed by the tinkle of milk bottles and the electric hum of the milk float passing down the main street to the doorsteps of the parish.

Opposite the Red Lion hotel comes the mellow, reassuring smell of fresh bread wafting from the artisan bakery tucked between the thatches of 
East Street. 
The butcher, papershop and deli are getting ready too. Busy but calm. It’s always been done this way. That’s how it is.

At the far end of Fore Street, just past the old water pump, you’ll find Hilary Johnson’s shop and studio, its windows a tempting display of the latest creations from the workshop and posters for classes on everything from basket-weaving to meditation. Opening the door, the bell jangles in welcome and the warm smell of leather and polish envelops you as you step inside.

White walls are hung with paintings and screen-prints by Devon artists and an enviable collection of mid-century elm furniture displays ceramics and turned wood pieces by other local craftsmen. 

Hilary Johnson


In the midst of all this are the bags; lots and lots of bags – confectionary bright or shiny brown – they are all here in an ever changing display as new pieces arrive from the workshop at the back.

Originally from Kent, Hilary Johnson studied art and design at Dartington before a yearning for travel took her around the world. Finally making her home in Devon she worked for Green Shoes in Totnes for 10 years before setting up her own design studio.

Zealous about life in the countryside, Hilary and her partner also run a smallholding growing oriental salad and vegetables and they keep rare breed sheep, poultry and horses. ‘It can be a bit of a juggle at times, particularly when we are lambing, but the joy of the changing seasons makes it all worthwhile’ she says.
Visitors pop in to the shop all day interrupting the hum of Hilary’s sewing machine – friends coming for a chat or to flick through the latest copy of Vogue from Hilary’s stash of fashion glossies, tourists passing through the town and people who have made the pilgrimage from further afield to meet Hilary and to choose their special bag.
Talking to Hilary her love of leather is palpable and she is passionate about matching the bag to the individual and the occasion ‘leather is great to work with: it’s a natural product, sustainable, versatile, durable, smells and feels good – and even gets better with age!’ she laughs.

Back outside the little town is busy with self-sufficiency; the latest generations of ancient families carry on the traditions of agriculture and small business. Everyone is greeted; no one is a stranger here. If it is July the whole town will be preparing for Chulmleigh Old Fair; a unique 5 day celebration of rural life that has taken place every year since King Henry III granted a Royal Charter to the town in 1253.

Hilary Johnson

This, then, is life in Tarka country - deep in the hidden folds of North Devon. The secret half of Devon where the bees buzz lazily amongst the cow parsley nodding in the breeze. The bit that only the few who stumble off the A-roads, find. But they find it and return, relishing the calm, the welcome, the good food and the audible tick...tock of life slowing down to a comfortable pace.

Here you can breathe again.


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