Shock of the new: when life is turned upside down
When Eleanor Hickson's life turned upside down, she decided to relocate to Wicklow. The move resulted not only in a new home, but new friends and a new business. Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
'They have been so helpful, I couldn't have done it without them," are not words you often hear in connection with the HSE, but Eleanor Hickson believes in giving credit where it's due. She's full of praise for the way the HSE helped her to set up her artisan business - Killiskey Bakery - in Ashford, Co Wicklow, where she hand-makes gluten-free bread.
"They helped me with the design of the bakery - the strip lighting, the fly screen and exterminator, everything," she continues to enthuse. And in fairness to them, and her, the results have been fantastic; she's only been in business since early last year and, already she numbers among her regular clients, Oliver Mc Cabe of Select Stores in Dalkey, Ashford Lodge, and - a real feather in her cap - Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud in the Merrion Hotel.
"Guilbaud's make all their own breads except the gluten-free, and I supply them with my Yoga Loaf," Eleanor explains. "Guillaume, the head chef in Guilbaud's, who has an 800-year tradition of baking in his family, says he's been looking for bread like mine for a year - it's gluten-free, sugar-free and wheat-free, so all the girls with the food intolerances love it."
She was also chosen as the only Leinster finalist to go through to the semi-finals of the TV show, The Taste of Success, and made a big impact on the judges. "It's a very romantic story; all my Wicklow friends encouraged me to enter, I made a hilarious video with me cracking on about my loaves killing ducks, with my dog Minnie barking in the background, and I got a call back about an interview. Paul Flynn [of the Tannery restaurant] adored my bread. It's gluten-free bread that tastes like real bread," she explains proudly.
Dark-eyed beauty Eleanor is a Nigella Lawson lookalike, with a comparable curvy figure, and the same sort of drop-dead charm. The similarities don't end there - like Nigella, she fell into cookery, and her first career was that of a writer. She even has a similar cut-glass accent, the result of being sent from sleepy Mulranny in Co Mayo to a rather posh boarding school in Britain - Bedales, alma mater of several royals.
"It was a famously progressive school, and I was packed off. The teachers were lovely, but I wanted to go to the convent in Westport, and I was terribly lonely," she recalls. "There was such a cultural difference between the little girl from Mayo and all these celebrities' children."
One such celebrity's child was actor Daniel Day-Lewis, son of the then British Poet Laureate, Cecil Day-Lewis. Daniel used to help her with her woodwork. "I was so scared I couldn't do it," Eleanor recalls. "Daniel was very kind to me. I remember interviewing him later for My Left Foot and he told me he didn't like the school either."
In hindsight, she believes going to Bedales was a good thing. She did rather well there academically and instead of pursuing, as she had planned, her passion for eventing - "I was going to rebel and ride horses" - she did classical civilisation and medieval English at Trinity at her father's insistence.
"I'm glad he insisted," Eleanor concedes. She clearly adores her late father - and, indeed, her mother - and is proud of the fact that she's a Stoney from Mayo and her mother is one of the Joyces from Galway. "She's from one of the 12 tribes from Galway; she considers herself Irish royalty," Eleanor notes.
After graduation, she worked in film for a while, then in advertising in London, before getting a scholarship to the Academie Carat Espace, a Parisian TV academy for aspiring film-makers. "It was wonderful - a year of gadding around Paris, writing a film script about Grace O'Malley," she explains.
The following year she came back to Dublin with a view to finishing her script; instead, she met her husband, a top international tax lawyer, and they got married in 1992. "I never had a boyfriend before him - I married my first boyfriend," she says.
Eleanor had two daughters in quick succession - Anna (21) and Benita (19). She decided to train as a Montessori teacher, as she adored children and it was the kind of career she could combine with rearing her girls. After seven years working in Montessori, she opened her own school and ran it for six years before selling it on.
Sadly, the marriage lasted only "the bones of the decade" as Eleanor puts it, but the couple remained firm friends, with Johnny living in Garville Avenue in Rathgar and Eleanor around the corner in Brighton Square. However, he re-married in 2013 and Eleanor realised she needed to get a new life for herself. "I was heartbroken at the finality of my husband getting married again. I was so heartbroken, I couldn't think straight," she recalls. "And I remember walking down by the sea in Morrough, thinking, 'something has got to happen'."
What happened was she discovered bread-making. First, she did a weekend cookery course with Catherine Fulvio, which got her interested in cooking. Then it was narrowed down to baking bread. "Alan from the Fishman in Wicklow asked me to bake bread, then Rhona, my gluten-free friend, asked me to bake a gluten-free loaf for her. And I started to perfect my gluten-free loaf. I found baking very cathartic, I was baking round-the-clock, and suddenly I found I had no time to be grief-stricken," she remarks with a note of amazement.
Of course, it helped that she was also renovating the house she had found for herself, her girls Anna and Benita, her miniature dachshunds, Minnie and Rory, and her horse Sting, in Ashford. Set in a hollow, the house was structurally sound, but dark and dreary. "It was a typical 1980s house in bad repair," Eleanor says. Eleanor drafted in her friend, interior designer Dee Wilson, and gave her carte blanche. Eleanor totally trusted her, as Dee had decorated her previous house in Rathgar, and has a clear idea about Eleanor's style.
"Eleanor is not a straight-line, clinical person; she's not into contemporary, she loves a mix of classical and country style, so I worked on that basis," says Dee.
Dee had some structural changes implemented in order to create light- filled, airy spaces: she added more windows in the hall, she changed the orientation of the kitchen and extended the living room, installing a wall of glass to allow light into what was a dark space.
She also advised Eleanor on the softly curved furnishings, the wallpapers and printed fabrics throughout the house. Much of the furniture was made by Dee's company Wilson & Co, and the colour palette is subtle, soft and sensual - lots of duck egg, pale powder and soft greys, with flashes of purple for contrast.
It's a wonderful oasis deep in the Wicklow countryside, but not so deep that Eleanor hasn't made tons of friends and created a new life for herself in less than a year. "I love Wicklow," she says. "There are so many great foodies here - Wicklow is going to be the new Kinsale."
With more people like Eleanor herself who are talented as well as hugely entertaining, it certainly has the potential.
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