Creative in the Countryside: The Simpson Sisters

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Nicola:  Can you start by telling us about the Simpson Sisters?  We’d love to know what you do and how your business came about?

Vanessa: The Simpson Sisters began as a way for me to utilise my skills and experiences in a way I enjoy. I had many different jobs over the years, but often felt trapped by the constraints of office life. So about 18 months ago I took the plunge and decided to work for myself.

 I now run creative workshops, either at my home in Bristol or at our Oak Tree Barn in the North Somerset countryside. The workshops are fun, and the groups warm and friendly. You can learn anything from knitting to sewing, to creating hand-made products.  

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I have always loved creating a beautiful home environment wherever we have lived. To now have both our homes filled with happy people is the icing on the cake, and feels natural to do. My hope is that people will leave my workshops feeling more content and at peace. Much the same as a day at the spa, minus the chlorine and massage! Keeping things simple, and taking time to be creative, leads to contentment. Happiness comes in moments and is contrasted by other emotions.Contentment is more holistic and, I think, more important. To be creative doesn't mean you have to develop intricate skills. It is the simple act of making things that are satisfying.  

Nicola:  You are a country lover who is also a city dweller.  Can you tell us how you combine the two, and where your heart really lies?

Vanessa: We never intended to have two properties, or indeed two so close to each other.Life just worked out that way in an endeavor to create stability for our daughters in their final years of school. My husband doesn't work in either location and spends his weeks away, so it's not perfect. But we try to make the most of both places.  Bristol is vibrant, energetic and creative, and offers something for everyone in the way of city life. It has restaurants, theatres, entertainment, shopping, and sports.

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Our daughters love being at school in the city, as well as only being a bus ride away from everything. I started offering workshops at our home in Bristol before the barn in North Somerset was complete. We are lucky enough to have a big kitchen and a lovely extendable table, so the workshops work well here too.

 I spend a lot of time in the barn and enjoy being there when I’m writing, or need some thinking time. As I write this I'm excited we have a little landscaping going on. It will give me some beds in which to plant a cutting garden. Actually, there is much more than a cutting garden to plant, but I reassure myself that one thing at a time is ok. I'm inclined to want to finish everything as soon as possible. This is partially a result of us never living anywhere for very long. The barn project has really stretched my 'patience muscle', which has been a bonus! 

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In truth, the country is where my heart lies. From a practical point of view our chickens live there, so we need to make regular visits anyway! Splitting my time between the two doesn’t always make sense, but at the moment it is working. Luckily my parents live nearby. They are more than happy to offer chicken sitting in exchange for eggs when I can't get out to look after the chickens myself.

Nicola:  You spent a lot of your adult life traveling around the globe due to your husbands work.  Tell us where you have been and what you have learned from your travels?

Vanessa: I’ve always been curious and happy to try anything, so travel has been a natural part of my life. At 16 I took myself off to New York for six weeks. Then at 18, inspired by Lynne Reid Banks book 'The L-Shaped Room', I spent four months living on a Kibbutz in Israel. At 25, when my then boyfriend (now husband) accepted a secondment in Melbourne, Australia, it didn’t take me long to follow him .It is now more than 20 years since we came home .In that time we have lived in Munich, Johannesburg, Brussels, and Stockholm, along with the odd stint in the UK. We have had many wonderful opportunities and experiences due to the work he does. It’s fair to say though that living in a different country with children is not the same as 'travelling.’ 

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Making a new life in an unfamiliar place and culture can be challenging. Expat life is not as glamorous as some might think. But it is the most amazing way to meet a variety of people, and I feel lucky to have friends all around the world. I acquired a variety of skills along the way. I speak a little German, French, Flemish and the odd Zulu word! I am a dab hand at moving house and can pack a box as well as any removal team. I have had to be brave and put myself in social situations that felt uncomfortable, but which I rarely regretted. I have also developed confidence, resilience and an appreciation of what is really important in life.

As much as I am fond of the many bits and pieces we have accumulated along the way, and how they tell our story within our home, what really matters is people. People like family, friends and all those who have shown us great kindness and generosity over the years. I have a firm belief that the vast majority of people are good, and mean well most of the time .I have had to ask near strangers for help in various situations, and have never been met with anything but willingness. For this I have been immensely grateful time and again. 

Nicola: I'm fascinated by the barn you have renovated and from which you run your country workshops. Can you tell us the story behind the barn and what it means to you?

Vanessa: I grew up in the small village in which the barn is situated, and could see it from our bathroom window as a child. A local builder built the barn in the late 60s on the pretext of it being an agricultural building. In reality, it was constructed with the intention of becoming a dwelling house. On its completion, there was a long, bitter planning dispute between the builder, the parish and the local authority. The barn was eventually abandoned and left to vanish underneath a bramble mountain, much like Sleeping Beauty’s chamber!

When we returned from Australia my husband and I made enquiries into gaining permission to convert the building into a home.We were clearly told that this would not be possible! My father, however, saw an opportunity to get a change of use for a small part of the barn and to work from there. He took a risk and purchased the property. He was successful in his application and spent years with a little office there. Time ticked on and my father retired. The barn was then let for various uses, including painting workshops and a preschool. 

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I don’t remember a time when I didn’t wistfully think about how lovely it would be to convert it into a home. I have drawn a thousand floor plans in many different locations. Some days I think I almost dreamt it into its current existence.

My parents moved from the village to a small house not far away a few years ago. At the time I begged them not to sell the barn, but to give us the option of purchasing it. It was illogical as there was no prospect of being able to live there. At the time we were abroad. But they capitulated, and my lovely husband was mad enough to agree that owning a place in the UK might be a good idea.

We took a risk, but we also got lucky. Shortly after purchasing the barn, the government announced an amendment to the permitted development regulations. On the back of this, we gained planning permission to convert the barn into a residential dwelling. This simplifies the two-year process somewhat, but we got there in the end! I’d be lying if I said that the conversion itself went smoothly. It felt pretty tortuous to be honest, and from time to time we wondered if we were making a huge mistake. 

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When we started the process we believed we would be overseas for the foreseeable future. Our daughters had started boarding school in the UK for stability during their GCSE/A Levels, so a base nearby made perfect sense. The barn is small but big enough for family weekends. Having had a rather transient life it was important to me to have a place where we could spend time together. I also wanted somewhere to make some special memories before the girls left home.

 I’m never quite sure what it is about the barn that makes it such an important place to me. I don't know whether it’s the fulfillment of a long-held desire, or because it is where I grew up and feel rooted. It might be a combination of the two. I love knowing that my familial home is over the fence. The school I attended is up the road, as the Church in which I was both baptised and married. It takes time to become part of a village community and we are looking forward to doing so. There are still many people around whom I have known my entire life and I find this comforting.

Nicola:  We’d also love to hear more about the workshops you run and whom they are for?

Vanessa: I have been fortunate to collaborate with others who have a wide variety of skills.They have been happy to share workshops from Christmas canapés to lino printing, simple silversmithing, and sugar flowers. 

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The workshops I curate are, most importantly, a chance to spend a day in good company.My priority is for people to feel happy and comfortable while enjoying the opportunity to learn or try something creative. I often wonder if the word ‘creative’worries people, and whether ‘making’ is less intimidating? However, any skills required in Simpson Sister’s workshops are easily learned.Nobody needs to have any experience to book a place and enjoy the day.

We always start with tea/coffee and cake and stop to enjoy lunch together.I believe that sharing food and chatting is one of life’s great pleasures. I love baking and often try out a new recipe for the workshops. This has admittedly caused some panic-stricken moments from time to time! 

2018 is looking great already.I have some exciting collaborations planned and am delighted to be hosting some inspiring people who have chosen to run workshops at the barn.

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Nicola:  To finish we’d love to know what you have learnt about running a small business, and what advice you would give to those who dream of doing something similar?

Vanessa:  One of my greatest lessons has been to pace myself and not feel that everything has to be done, or be perfect straight away.  As a ‘solopreneur’ you do everything and it’s impossible to be an expert in all areas. When I think about what I have learned since I started The Simpson Sisters I feel quite proud.

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On reflection, I believe that having a growth mindset is my biggest asset. I could have given up on many occasions and found myself another job. But I allowed myself to believe that if others could do it so could I, and I’m slowly reaping the rewards.

I would encourage anyone to have a go at running his or her own business, but I’d also like to be honest about how hard it can be. Social media can lead people to believe that everything is going well, but of course, it isn’t all plain sailing. I’ve made errors of judgment and have had to cancel workshops. I’m also usually too scared to look at the statistics to see if anyone reads my blog posts!

Being able to admit that we don’t know everything is important.I have joined a couple of local business support/networking groups, which has been immensely useful. It goes without saying that there are endless online resources. The trick is in identifying one that resonates with you and getting too distracted. 

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I have a feeling that The Simpson Sisters, like so many small businesses, is part of my bigger picture. Right now it sits happily alongside my family life, volunteering and allowing myself to explore a simpler, more contented life. But I’m only too aware of how unexpectedly life can change.So who knows what the future holds for my business!

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CreativeNicola Judkins