I’ve never really thought writing was much about environment. While I wouldn’t say no to a writer’s garret in a castle or a villa in the South of France, I always maintained that all I really need to get my writing done is a laptop and a deadline.
This was all well and good when I had a deadline: when I had a manuscript to finish before the end of my MA, when I had edits to finish before moving overseas. But, in the three years since I moved to London, I haven’t had that sense of urgency. And as such, novel number two remained largely untouched, month after month, six months after six months, a year then another.
My friend Caitlin had been to an Arvon Foundation course in the past and recommended it. She’d even been inspired to set up a writing group with other course participants on her return, and invited me to join in.
So, this year, as a birthday present to myself, I booked onto a course entitled ‘Work in Progress’. It was going to be held at Totleigh Barton in Devon from October 26 – 31. This was at the end of January. By the 25th of October I’d written perhaps another chapter or two, but the word count remained at around 25,000 and I didn’t know how the novel was going to end.
One week later, I’ve survived train cancellations, giant cows, two nausea-inducing taxi rides and the trauma of reading unfinished work in public. I’ve learned to poach salmon, I’ve got my hiking boots dirty, found the small village Sheepwash. And most importantly, I’ve finished the first draft of my novel.
And some of that has to be down to the environment you find at Totleigh Barton – a pre-Domesday manor house, at the end of a long driveway and miles from anywhere.
There are a lot of places to write at Totleigh Barton: long wooden tables, window seats, libraries and lounges, a shed in the garden, a barn with its own bats, the desk in my room. Despite the fact that my work-in-progress is set in the city and online, being in the country without an internet connection provided the hours and quiet to get the words flowing.
There was also such a productive atmosphere at Totleigh: from the workshops in the morning with Paul Magrs and Stella Duffy which made me re-examine my characters and the choices I make when writing, to the long afternoons when I’d find a spot to write and know that all around the house, the other course participants were writing or cooking or attending individual tutorials as well. When you’re struggling to finish a difficult scene, there’s something immensely comforting – and also motivating – in hearing someone else typing away at the other side of the lounge, working on their own literary endeavours.
There’s also something comforting about a well-stocked kitchen, endless cups of tea and wine in the evenings, the opportunities to talk about writing as if it wasn’t a strange thing to do – but something that is part of a life, something which could even be enjoyed.
Tonight I’m back in London. There’s football on the radio and cars on the street outside. I’m putting words in a box which will become a blog entry. I still love the web, but I’m going to miss Totleigh Barton.
I’m going to have to create a writing environment here.
After having a Cornish Pasty in Cornwall, the next logical step was to have a Devonshire Cream Tea in Devon.
The only thing standing in our way was time. We’d already driven all the way from St Ives, I needed to be at Exeter Central train station by 4pm, and we still had all of the Dartmoor National Park to cross.
We stopped at Tavistock for some local advice on which roads a caravan shouldn’t attempt (having learnt through recent experience not just to rely on our TomTom). There wasn’t time for a cream tea there. In fact, it was the tourist information officer himself telling us to hurry or we wouldn’t make the train.
So we drove on through Dartmoor National Park. It’s a rather bleak place, kind of like Desert Road in New Zealand, but without the mountains. Just openness and scrub, and sheep with spray-painted markings who sometimes choose to lie in the middle of the road.
In Princetown, there was a prison but no obvious sign of cream teas on the the road through town. In Postbridge, we stopped and parked, but we could only find a place which sold ‘takeaway cream teas’, which we thought might detract from the experience somewhat.
We continued driving, and as we did, I saw a small sign advertising a castle where you could have cream tea on the ‘south-facing terrace’. Of course, by the time I told Dad, we’d already driven past. So he pulled into a small lane, turned around, and back we went. The path to the castle was through a golf course. Through stone gates, and we arrived at a large manor house. The carpark obviously wasn’t intended for caravans, and we were all feeling a bit scruffy after two days of travel – so it was back through the golf course, and back on the road.
We finally found our cream teas in the little village of Moretonhampstead. The epic struggle over many miles faded from our memories as we were presented with individual pots of tea, strawberry and raspberry jam and clotted cream. Yum.
My parents last visited the UK in the 1970s. They lived here for a year, got married, travelled around the country in a campervan. I grew up with their stories. And now, 32 years later, they’re back. The Tower of London is still where they left it, so’s St Paul’s. Mum could still drink in the pub where she once worked. We could still travel south to the fishing village of Clovelly in Devon, one of their must-visits from the past.
Only these days, it costs £5.50 to get in.
Don’t let that put you off though. Once you get past the car park and ticket office, the huge giftshop with endless boxes of fudge and pictures of soccer stars, once you get past the huge glass windows and the audio visual presentation, the actual village of Clovelly manages to retain a certain historic charm.
There are no cars in Clovelly. The steep, narrow stone streets are prohibitive of that. Instead, deliveries are made on wooden sleds that are dragged across the stones. This definitely isn’t a place for high heels – even in sneakers, my toes were squashed against the front of my shoes as we descended towards the harbour. We bought postcards from the village post office – once that may soon become a casualty of the government’s closures.
We visited the Methodist Chapel and the Chapel of St. Peters, and a fisherman’s cottage which was set up with it’s 1930s furnishing. I read about the village fisherman lost at sea, the ones who Charles Kingsley wrote about in his poem, The Three Fishers, then walked down to the sea myself, across the quay, across the pebbles. There was a sign there which said NO STONE THROWING.
Clovelly’s been a bit of a tourist town for over a century. The narrow streets and the sea will guarantee that. We left at 10 on a rainy morning, and even then, it was starting to fill up. I guess, in the scheme of things, those £5.50s make sense. If they weren’t charged up front, I’m sure the actual village would be a lot more commercialised. Though I’m still not sure they need the sport star portraits in the gift shop.