Old stone and vicious drops, cossetted by mist-clad hills. A robin’s song vibrating the trees and the moon peeking over the hill. Watching. Scarred wood and cosy crannies, walls seeping words. Blowsy blooms, secret doorways and the drift of seeds on the wind. This is Lumb Bank, an 18th Century mill owner’s house that once belonged to Ted Hughes. I’m here for a ‘work in progress’ Arvon writing course.
It is a house burrowed into the hillside, the valley plunging to the river beneath. There is a sense of isolation, because to get anywhere, there are steep hills to climb. At night, an orange glow suffuses the nick of the valley. In the mornings, mist cloaks the hills. The song of the river soars up the valley. Here, the trees are just beginning to turn, hinting at the gilding to come. Often, the days are balmy; rabbits, pheasants and deer gambol in the fields below. At times, the rain moves in, soaking the valley. Everywhere I go, I catch the sharp scent of coriander.
This is a place, if not made for writing, then tempered over nearly fifty years into a space for creativity to flourish. On every wall, there are words by and portraits of writers who have been here before us. There are alluring places to write or ponder, homely rooms and quirky, secluded spots: the bedraggled summerhouse tucked below the house, arched stone nooks and weathered benches. There is no internet, no television to distract us. And there is the sense that many stories have been written here, many ideas born.
Our tutors are Patrick Neate and Emylia Hall. They create an atmosphere of trust, inspiration, laughter and passion. Our morning workshops harvest the words and wisdom of writers, provoke discussion and stimulate new writing. Afternoons are free for writing, pondering and procrastinating. And in the evenings, readings from Patrick and Emylia, from guest author Tash Aw, letting off steam at the White Lion pub quiz and the nerve-wracking finale of reading something of our own at the Friday evening celebration.
We came here as 15 individuals, to live, learn and write together. One of the great pleasures of this experience is to hear other peoples’ stories, not only those they are writing but also those they are living. One night a week, we cook with a small group of fellow writers. That few hours in the kitchen pulling together food for everyone is a bonding experience in itself. But there is something special about sharing meals that everyone has taken a turn to cook, around the huge old dining table that has hosted so many writers before us. It seems appropriate that my turn comes on the day of the harvest, the autumn equinox.
This may be a writing retreat, but I find that I don’t write much. Those spare hours are filled with forest walks, watching wildlife, thinking, listening to music. This is not an easy week. The equinox is a time to seek balance and my week cycles rapidly between self-doubt, optimism, inspiration and back again. I’m left not with a body of work, but with questions and a sense that I need to return to the essence of my writing. The last exercises we complete are concerned with just this and take us back to the nub of it all. This is my final harvest.
Coming back, it is hard to disengage. They call the effect of this experience the ‘Arvon Magic’ but I suspect that it is only once it ends that you realise how magical the process is. Part of me is still standing there, looking over the valley in the dark with the moon peeping over the hills. My journey home was only a few hours, but the real journey will be much longer.