Life writing is simply what it suggests – writing that is rooted in the experiences of real life, whether biography or memoir, or something akin to that. One of the best things I discovered through my week-long residential course at Lumb Bank was the clarity and authenticity that life writing afforded me in the story-telling process.
Lumb Bank was originally built by a mill owner in the C18th. Eventually Ted Hughes bought it, and his wife, Sylvia Plath, is buried in Heptonstall, the hilltop village less than a mile away.
This area of West Yorkshire is full of hills and dales, tight lanes, moors and forests, sheep farms, abandoned mills and steep villages.
During an Arvon residence course, which takes in about 17 writers per course, you take part in morning writing workshops, cook one meal (in team), attend evening readings, have one-on-one tutorials with the two published authors leading the course, and still have free time in the afternoons to write, gaze at the abandoned mill, chat in the garden, concoct plum-based mulled wine, and, in my case, hop up and down over every bunny spotted on the lawn and then go get lost on the moors.
We were an eclectic bunch, ranging in age from 20 to 84, coming from England, Ireland, Norway, Bulgaria and South Africa, and presenting a mix of personalities and perspectives. As a group, I imagine it could easily not have worked, and yet it did. It really did. The success of it had something to do with all the hours spent around the diningroom-cum-workshop table where we got to know each other through conversations as well as through each other’s writing. We laughed hugely (sometimes we downright crowed), occasionally we gasped, and also occasionally we cried, because, well, this was a life writing course, and life isn’t always neat or pretty.
Here are the lovely and talented writers that now make up the group Subtext:
That is why I love England. It is so little, and so full, and so old.
– Robert Speaight
Dunstanburgh Castle is a massive ruin on a headland of the Northumberland coast and is the biggest castle in the county.
Unusually, it wasn’t built near to a village or town, so the only way to reach the castle is by walking across a lovely stretch of about a mile of coastal grassland …
The remains of the massive gatehouse:
This field of gorgeous grasses, of which you’re only seeing part, and which houses a small community of sheep, all lies within the walls of the castle.
Dunstanburgh Castle was commissioned by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster in 1313. Lancaster was the richest and most powerful baron of the day. It was intended that Dunstanburgh outdo the castles of his uncle, Edward I, and cousin, Edward II – a bold move!
This is the Lilburn Tower to the north:
From the Lilburn Tower you can see Bamburgh Castle to the north. Bamburgh Castle was Edward II’s key stronghold in Northumberland. Lancaster’s increasing power and ambitions eventually led to his execution.
John of Gaunt took possession of the castle in the late C14th and did some revamping. In the C15th it was twice besieged during the War of the Roses. Thereafter it fell into disrepair and eventually ruin, but during its heyday it was one of the biggest, grandest and most imposing castles in the land.
Grasses growing on top of the eastern wall …
A poor woman from Manchester, on being taken to the seaside, is said to have expressed her delight on seeing for the first time something of which there was enough for everybody.
(Sir John Lubbock)
These are some photos from my visit to Newton-by-the-Sea in Northumberland.
View from up on the dunes:
You know how folks in the West, when seeing an image of African children playing with a primitive ball on a dirt field or smiling over a slice of watermelon, are prone to say something like, ‘Ah, bless – see how happy they are with so little!’? I must say that travelling around the UK I find myself thinking things like, ‘Ah, look at them little British kiddies making the best of their cold, blustering summers to visit the beach!’
A simple shot:
I like the pattern of the water and the sand in this photo …
In the photo below, it is as though someone thoughtfully placed this lifebuoy up on the hill expressly for the sake of photographers. It’s probably a clichéd pic in the opinion of experts, as it’s reminiscent of an emotional film finale where the fallen knight’s sword is stuck in the ground and the camera gives us a low-angle, sky-backdrop view, so that our hearts might soar to transcendent heights … , but I lapped it up with the freedom of the novice:
Here we have a sparrow. I asked him to show me his right side …
… and then I asked him to show me his left side. (He said he looks good from both sides.)
This puts me in mind of these verses from Matthew 10:29-31:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
Ah, how romantic …
… unless that’s his mother. I really can’t tell.
A view of Dunstanburgh Castle:
More about Dunstanburgh in a future post.
For a history and photography post, go to Haddon Hall (the perfect mediaeval castle & location for Jane Eyre).
Two Englishmen, having climbed the Matterhorn, were regarding the wonderful view that stretched before them.
‘Not half bad!’ commented one of them.
‘No,’ replied the other, ‘but you needn’t rave about it like a love-struck poet!’
I thought on this quote, having come across it only that morning, as I strolled around Haddon Hall. You see, Haddon Hall is WONDERFUL, and my thoughts were thus in the territory of superlatives and exclamation marks.
A mediaeval castle in the Peak District, Haddon Hall is a quintessentially Norman building, square and solid, believed to have been built in the C12th. It is a romantic castle, containing everything from the Middle Ages that delights us in today’s world: battlements, very low doorways, a chapel decorated to the hilt, wildly uneven flagstone floors, and I could go on, but you are getting the picture, aren’t you, clever reader?
Moreover, the family who own the Hall, the Manners (it has been in their family since the C16th), has thankfully not gone the common route of restoring it to within an inch of its life. There still isn’t a perpendicular anything, anywhere. Some of the stone steps are curved into almost non-existence in the middle as a result of centuries of footfalls, and the decaying wooden chests and ill-fitted windows have been left alone.
I wish I had the capabilities of the love-struck poet ridiculed by the Englishman above, because the only words that presented themselves to me to describe Haddon Hall were words like lovely, outstanding, amazing, and truly wonderful. Bleugh! The frustration of living in a society where such words are regularly used to describe getting the parking spot you wanted or a tasty sandwich, meaning that when I want to really express that something is special, I can either go with one of them, and sound bland, thereby failing to capture the imagination of a hyperbole-drenched readership, or I can go all Italian and really do risk sounding like an overwrought poet whose been sniffing heavily on deadly nightshade. Not great options either of them.
I will have to satisfy myself with something very simple. I will say that, to the C21st tourist, the castle is perfection.
The garden was bursting with summer flowers, and as such was delightful in the special way that only English gardens can be. During my visit there were English roses, day lilies, thistles, agapanthus lilies, nasturtiums, yellow daisies, deeply purple clematis, red-and-white fuschia, and too many others to list. It was a garden of every colour.
One of the most striking things when you stepped out into the garden was the abundance of white butterflies (also called cabbage whites). They were everywhere, as were the bumble bees and wasps. I’ve perhaps never seen such a ‘busy’ garden.
I also rather enjoyed discovering the Jane Eyre connection with Haddon Hall. The 2011 Jane Eyre film adaptation with Mia Wasikowski and Michael Fassbender (how fussed are we really if Mr Rochester is decidedly good-looking this time round?) had Haddon Hall as Thornfield Hall.
I recognised the little pavilion where Rochester and Blanche Ingram play at keeping a feather in the air, the courtyard where Rochester drags Jane off to the church so they can marry, and the narrow stone bridge that leads to Thornfield Hall. The romance of the castle and its grounds are so well suited to the romance of Jane Eyre – a gold sticker for the film’s location manager, please!
For more posts on castles and stately homes, go to:
Edinburgh is beautiful. I visited it for just 24 hours a while back, but was sufficiently captivated (not a word I use lightly) that I have always maintained I will return. Now I am here for the Edinburgh Festival – lucky sausage that I am – and I am seeing it at its best; the streets are overflowing with all sorts of interesting people, the sun is shining (not warmly, but at least it is there), and the late evening hours are about pink, streaky clouds and expansive parks filled out with lounging, relaxed people.
This is the view from the university residence where I am staying. The photo was taken at about 9pm. I love the romantic architecture, the warmth of the brick face as lit by the last, low rays of the sun, and the pretty, broad leaves of the trees, which were swaying in a bracing, night-is-coming breeze.
I have something of a love affair with Chatsworth House, but you’d have to know me very well to know that. So when I met up with an old friend today, and she suggested several things we might do, I stopped her after the mention of Chatsworth with an understated, “Oh, that would be nice – let’s do that.” So off we went.
Driving through the Peak District has to be one of the most pleasant experiences a person can have. Purple heather was everywhere, pinky-purple rhododendrons were everywhere else, and the sun kept breaking through the clouds as though to say: I know you’ve travelled far to be here, so I won’t let them nasty clouds ruin your day.
We reached the car park and decided to walk through the grounds instead of going inside, all the more to embrace the perfection that is an English country estate in summertime. We thought we would walk to the folly on the top of the hill, but the dirt road we followed never quite wound its way there, and so we enjoyed green lawns and grouped deer instead. By the end of our walk, my friend and I agreed that we’d not only caught up on the past 3 years, but had, in the chatty manner of girlfriends, set much of the world to rights 🙂
Here are some photos from our stroll:
I’m in the UK for 6 weeks, and have decided I’ll write some “Megan’s UK Diary” posts. I’m in Sheffield at present, heading to the Edinburgh Festival tomorrow, and then many places besides. I’ll keep you posted with anything interesting I see or learn. 🙂