Until recently, ceramic artist Babs Belshaw's work commute involved a 30-minute journey across Dublin city centre, from her rented one-bed apartment in the IFSC to a studio in Harold's Cross.
“I’d be leaving on my scooter, in my colourful potter clothes and clay-covered shoes, with my little dog Harry sitting in my rucksack, passing all these office people in suits,” she recalls with a smile.
Today, Belshaw (and seven-year-old terrier Harry) can set off from her family home, a Georgian former rectory in rural Co Derry, and reach her new business venture, The Blackheath Pottery, in a matter of seconds.
The night before we meet, she made a bedtime dash across the gravelled courtyard “in my jammies” to switch on the kiln in the 200-year-old converted outbuildings; “which maybe isn’t great work-life balance, but it doesn’t really feel like work to me”.
I thought, 'No one has jobs, no one has money, so I don't want to be like, 'here, buy my lovely pottery'. But once I got over that, people still want nice things and some have money and can't go anywhere
Belshaw left Dublin last year with her husband, Thomas, to fulfil a long-held ambition of setting up her own pottery, turning the dark, disused outhouses on the grounds of her parents’ home near Coleraine into a light-filled workspace, cafe and shop.
The family had moved from the Isle of Man when Belshaw was 14 to Blackheath House, an elegant country home built in 1791 by Lord Bristol, the same earl bishop who built the nearby Mussenden Temple, perched above Downhill beach.
Plans to renovate the empty outbuildings were drawn up by Maghera-based architect Patrick Bradley, and planning permission eventually granted (a process which took about two years due to the building’s Grade II Listed historic status).
With construction work about to start, Belshaw and her English-born, Welsh-raised husband gave up their jobs in Dublin – Belshaw at the ceramic studio karoArt, “where I learnt so much”, and Thomas from his role with the retailer Iceland – to embark on their new life in the countryside.
They first moved into Belshaw’s teenage bedroom (“which still had all the old Blu-tack marks on the walls and lots of little Buddhas and prayer flags”) while redecorating their own cottagey living space in three rooms adjoining the main house.
Builders began work on the outbuildings the same month the couple arrived – January 2020.
“Little did I know...” Belshaw says of the lockdown which soon struck, stalling building work for three months.
The pandemic also made Belshaw question whether there would still be a market for her products.
“I thought, ‘No one has jobs, no one has money, so I don’t want to be like, ‘here, buy my lovely pottery’. But once I got over that, I thought, people still want nice things and there are people who have money and can’t go anywhere.”
Belshaw used the lockdown months productively, enrolling in “any free business course going”, building Blackheath’s website and social media presence, and preparing for future lessons and courses for customers.
By summer 2020, she was posting her products around the globe, and last November, the doors of Blackheath Pottery finally opened. Belshaw’s brother Stephen, whose background is in catering, relocated from the Isle of Man shortly after to run the cafe, and his Canadian-born graphic designer fiancee, Sarah, is behind the brand’s logo and graphics.
Once a gloomy space scattered with birds’ nests, boarded-up windows and an old lawnmower, the building is now illuminated with skylight windows, its original thick stone walls brightly whitewashed.
Belshaw’s studio has a large glass-fronted window so visitors can watch her at work at the wheel from the café and shop, which sells her handmade ceramic tableware in forest green, powder pink, and duck-egg blue tones.
It was really just Thomas and me and Harry in Dublin... so sometimes I do need to walk on the beach on my own, and get a little bit of headspace
Belshaw is clearly enjoying being surrounded by family after years spent studying, working and living in Cardiff, Wicklow, Dublin and Graiguenamanagh (Belshaw completed the Design & Crafts Council Ireland’s Ceramic Skills and Design course in nearby Thomastown).
Her parents, Ken and Iris, have helped with everything from business advice to putting ribbons on ceramic Christmas decorations. Thomas, meanwhile, now works in Magherafelt but is on hand once he gets home to offer retail insights and spreadsheet skills.
As Belshaw takes a break from the wheel to chat over a coffee (served in one of her high-fired porcelain creations), her brother is putting a fresh batch of brownies in the oven, while Iris and the potter’s 96-year-old grandmother, Mary – who also lives at Blackheath – converse at a nearby table.
Before long, an aunt and cousins have popped into the pottery for a visit, with Harry padding around observing the comings and goings.
If that sounds like close quarters (particularly after all the enforced togetherness families have had during the pandemic), Belshaw reveals that Thomas’s mum and stepdad, his sister and her partner, and their baby, have just moved over from England to Ballymoney, 15 minutes down the road.
“They’d been here on holiday to see us, and they decided they wanted to do something different. I’m just like, ‘The more the merrier, keep coming,’” Belshaw says, laughing.
“It’s like a commune, and it’s growing,” she adds, patting her clay-splattered apron. With the couple’s first child, a girl, due to be born in October, Belshaw’s living and working arrangements will provide great perks: a steady supply of free babysitters, and “2am flat whites” if required. (Granny Mary has also been knitting up a storm for the new arrival.)
But with three, soon-to-be four generations living under one roof, Belshaw – who also has two sisters living in Australia – occasionally takes herself off to Castlerock or Benone beach for some alone time.
“It was really just Thomas and me and Harry in Dublin... so sometimes I do need to walk on the beach on my own, and get a little bit of headspace,” she admits.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously [as a family]. But then also if there is a problem, we’re quite happy to say ‘you need to pull your weight’ or whatever.”
The couple do miss the capital – the museums, the buzz, the friends they made there.
“Dublin was great, we loved it there. So once everything’s opened up, whatever normal looks like, we will definitely be up and down for holidays.”
There are parts of city life that are amazing, says Belshaw, “but then there’s lack of space and cost of rent and all that other side that goes with it that is really hard.
“In the countryside, you’ve got more room, it’s definitely cheaper, but then you do have to jump in a car to go anywhere. I think it depends on your lifestyle and what you’re looking for. I love it, but I’m maybe at the point now where I do want a lot of space and to be near family. I’m ready for this chapter now.”
With Harry barking excitedly at some new customers (or perhaps at the smell of those brownies baking), Belshaw adds: “I don’t think I’d have said when I was 14 that I would come back. I was like, ‘No, I want to go, I want to do stuff.’
“It’s funny, the more you grow up the more you realise this is one of the most beautiful places in the world. As much as I hated it when I was dragged here. Now I love it, I really do.”