‘I never knew that I was going
to have a museum,’ says Ella Carstairs. ‘It’s bizarre, it really is.’ Step inside and judge for yourself…
Originally featured in Issue 01
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Meeting Ella Carstairs is like finding a meadow in the middle
of a dual carriageway. Attached to her house in Cromer, Norfolk, is her own unique – and truly esoteric – straw museum.
‘People think I’m mad,’ says Carstairs, 84. ‘They’ve never seen a place like it. Yet what else could I do but put it here?’
When she bought the house, 30 years ago, when it was derelict and there was an old boy, a vicar, living next door, you’d never have expected this.
It was when she was living in Dulwich in the 1980s that she first saw a sign in the local library for corn dolly classes. A chance meeting in the museum in Forest Hill brought her to a masterclass with the world-famous straw work master, Lettice Sandford, who in turn introduced her to a couple who were running a summer school for strawcraft in Herefordshire.
‘We used to meet up every year at straw work summer camp,’ she reminisces. ‘There were 20 of us, there were three five-day courses and it was just lovely. Homecooked food, wine and strawmaking from dawn til dusk. I’d drive 150 miles and I was the only one to do all five.’
It began from there. In 1989 the group founded the Guild of Straw Craftsmen, of which Carstairs is a member. She is the first to admit that the Straw Museum would be nothing without the kind generosity of Freda Rudman, a retired school teacher, and a prolific member of the Guild. When Freda’s husband died and she moved to a chalet park, she endowed the museum with thousands of hours worth of her straw work for safe-keeping. ‘And you’ll not see better,’ Carstairs says, definitively. ‘It’s Freda who should get all the attention.’
Outside in the garden, there’s a semi-circle of sheds, and all
of them are full of the artefacts of the museum.
There is so much to see here. The rice straw from the Far
East. Wild oats, which are her favourite ‘because the colour is
so soft – and it’s long.’ A dolls’ house entirely made of straw.
A Tutankhamun. Everyone’s seen a corn dolly but have they seen a bodice made of crocheted straw thread? ‘Everybody thinks all you do with straw is make corn dollies. It’s the most peculiar thing!’
In the second hut are at least 150 straw hats. ‘You can see the variety,’ says Carstairs, who has collected them from charity shops and car boot sales. This is the cherishing of something that the rest of us are used to buying machine-made and cheap.
‘You can’t make something like this on a machine,’ she announces, as if this could hardly be more obvious. ‘Two pieces of straw are hardly ever the same length. Look at the workmanship in that. A lady in a village in the middle of somewhere did that, and it’s probably keeping people alive.’
There’s a large framed picture of Princess Margaret wearing
a dress embroidered with straw. One piece, a piece of abstract straw art, is so precisely cut, it must be machine-made, I suggest. But Carstairs is nonplussed. ‘I don’t care how anybody does it. It’s not for me to judge.’
‘Everything I’ve bought cost practically nothing. People bought them to sell and they don’t know what they’ve got.’
The next building is her Women’s Institute room. Sometimes she hosts 20 people in here, drinking tea, enjoying a corn dolly demonstration and a natter.
‘But have you seen the paintings?’ she asks.
She’s talking about her own. A few years ago, she accidentally invented a straw-dyeing technique involving the dye running off as the straw dries, revealing the variation in the grain, and she uses these to make beautiful, framed pictures.
‘Faults are half the charm, but it’s whatever’s needed. It doesn’t worry me,’ she says. The pictures are mostly of nature. ‘And I’m not afraid to cheat,’ she says, meaning that she often takes a picture and lays the straw over it.
It’s difficult not to ask her questions about the provenance of the straw. ‘Oh, I’m not in the least bit curious,’ she says. ‘I don’t have a research mind at all. It’s sheer pleasure.’
Perhaps it’s because her main interest isn’t straw or quilling at all, it’s healing – which she discovered she could do in her early 20s (‘it’s an amazing thing, I am very blessed and privileged’) and music. She has over 70 recordings of herself, and when she plays them on her music system, the house feels like a cocktail party in Chelsea in the 1940s.
Once, a man who did the music for Come Dancing came to visit. He came up her drive with a suitcase and they made a plan to start a music company together. There was going to be a concert, with Patrick Moore, and Carstairs in an evening dress, but it was cancelled at the last minute. ‘I never heard from him again.’ She hopes that one day someone will want to publish her music, but it’s straw that has her heart.
‘I never knew that I was going to have a museum. It’s bizarre,
it really is,’ she says. She worries about who she’ll leave it to. She’d love someone to take it over and look after it. ‘I have a great friend who’s a curator but I know what would happen, it would go into a basement, except for a small amount, and I want people to see it, for their eyes to be opened.’
Recently the media has been showing quite a bit of interest. She’s had visits from Una Stubbs (‘lovely woman, but her corn dolly was indescribable’) and Adrian Edmondson (‘he made a jolly good corn dolly, he really did, and he was dancing with joy at what he’d just made’).
She thinks about her curator friend a little more, and what a big museum would mean for her collection. ‘Since she got the job, she’s changed completely and utterly,’ says Carstairs. ‘The precision and knowledge you need, she’s as far removed from me as it’s possible to be. This is a museum but I’m not answerable to anyone. Aren’t I the lucky one?’
The Straw Museum is now closed. Sadly, Ella Carstairs passed away in June 2017, our condolences to her family.
Photographs Chris Brooks, Words Jessica Brinton