I’m sitting on a wet stone bench, outside in the damp March air. Across the valley I can hear the roar of Colden Water as it falls down towards the town. My note pad is covered in words—some held for later, some discounted. Around me other writers wander thoughtful, through the spring flowers. The sunshine is that hard spring light that bleaches the land… and then comes the hail. We all run for the house and the kettles, talking of nothing more than the words we have made that morning, sharing ideas, poems and the biscuits.
I have been studying for a BA in Creative Writing with the Open College of the Arts (OCA) for the last year and half. In March 2012 the college arranged a week-long residential writing retreat at the Arvon Foundation’s Lumb Bank in Yorkshire.
Lumb Bank is an 18th century mill owner’s house set opposite Colden Clough, a couple of miles outside the village of Heptonstall. The house once belonged to Ted Hughes. Sylvia Plath is buried in the local churchyard. The location is extraordinary, the views are beautiful and apart from the roar of the water, it is incredibly peaceful. It has that peace that is so rare in these days, the peace to think without distraction.
The opportunity to spend a week writing and learning with like-minded people was irresistible. I’m sure that every writer wishes for some quiet time or maybe ‘me time’ occasionally. The idea of a week away from the internet was equally irresistible to me, despite the flight and three trains it took me to get there from Donegal.
It’s Thursday evening and we’re walking in to Heptonstall. There are no readings scheduled tonight and it’s pub quiz night in the village. There are six of us, friends now after three days. The street is cobbled and shiny in the orange street light glare and when we get to The Cross Inn, I discover that the pub is owned by a man from Ennis, County Clare. When we arrive the place is empty, but by nine o’clock every seat is taken—this is serious business. Our team comes third and we even win a spot prize but we can’t get any of the literature questions right. We walk back to Lumb Bank in the moonlight. I point out stars and planets as the fall of Colden Water flows through the conversation.
So what happens during the week? The Arvon courses run from Monday afternoon until Saturday morning and are generally themed towards a specific aspect of writing. The OCA course was slightly different in that we were there as students—past, present and future—and therefore we had similar experiences of the course we were studying. The OCA themed our week as Stretching the Boundaries and it proved to apposite.
Lumb Bank has accommodation for up to sixteen students, two tutors and a visiting guest speaker. The bedrooms are stretched across three buildings. The students are divided into groups and each group has washing up and cooking duties, something which really helps to create a community. There are generally two tutors assigned to the group for the week. We were blessed with two brilliant individuals: the poet Joanna Ezekiel, who is an OCA tutor, and the novelist Ross Raisin, who is an Arvon regular.
We had two, one-on-one tutorials with each of the tutors and the rest of the days were taken up with group workshops and personal work time. The workshops and the communal meals took place around the huge refectory table in the dining room. In between times I would find people discussing ideas in the dining room, sharing stories in the lounge or reading in the library.
Next to the main house is a barn that has a number of computers for the use of the students. There is also a selection of deep, comfortable chairs and sofas and on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays this is the place where the evening activities take place.
The tutors read their own works on Tuesday night, followed by a Q&A. On Wednesday a guest writer is invited to read and for us it was Jane Rogers. Jane was the Creative writing course leader at the time and her novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb was long-listed for the Booker and won the Arthur C. Clarke Prize. On Friday it is the turn of the students to stand-up and read from something they are working on or have written during their stay.
The poem comes from nowhere and everywhere. The words pour from the walls and the stones, the creaking roof and the falling waters. The howl of wind in the night, ruptured dreams, rushing water and words that peel from the whitewash and surround myself. The poem is written. I call it ‘Howl’…
Wind: hawked down from blasted heaths,
lifts blue slates and slams. Sharp cracks
the needle-spiked rain off single panes.
Birds silenced, cowed on Colden Clough.
The pig’s back: grey-spiced, shrouded.
Shearing water, rushing sinewed beeches,
striding down valleys in laid-stone gullies,
bearing last year’s leaves and this year’s snow.
Sometime later a friend remarks unprompted, that the poem reminds her of Ted Hughes… I can’t help but laugh.
So that is the diary of my week—what happens when and where and what we did for those few days. I could leave this piece at that and you would be none the wiser to the real things that happened during those bright March days. These retreats, like the weeks the Arvon offer, are more than a simple itinerary though. What happens in those few days alters you in ways that may take you months to notice.
I can only speak from personal experience, but my week in Lumb Bank changed me and changed my writing. The week gave me a focus I had never experienced, it was an affirmation of my abilities and ideas and it lent my writing a new confidence. We all grew as writers and we grew as people. If I had the opportunity again I wouldn’t hesitate to go back to hear the whispers of the poets, seep through the walls.
It’s Friday night and after dinner and some fortifying wine, we are all sitting around the reading room listening to each other speak—there is not one of us who feels too terrified to read, not one who stumbles and stops.
It’s my turn and I stand and speak to my friends and fellow writers…
(For those considering visiting Lumb Bank and who enjoy a glass of wine in the evening, the local wine merchant takes an order on Monday and delivers Tuesday afternoon—Monday’s glassful is provided by the lovely ladies of Lumb.)
Open College of the Arts – http://www.oca-uk.com/
Arvon Foundation – http://www.arvonfoundation.org/
Lumb Bank Twitter – @Ladies_of_Lumb
Guy Le Jeune – http://www.guylejeune.com