Summer workshops coming up! But I’m still coming back, or down, from an amazing week in what felt like the Garden of Eden. In reality it was the Upper Slad Valley, in Laurie Lee country, in the Cotswolds; specifically in a 400-year-old farmhouse in an idyllic little dell, complete with a gazebo, bats, and a weeping willow.
It was a working holiday. I spent the week listening to the daily drama and cross-valley dialogues of birdsong, watering the house’s little herb garden (while Mlle B watered the Baroque balcony here), and running daily writing workshops with GCSE and A Level pupils from St Peter’s High School in Gloucester. Yes, that’s it – five different groups of teenagers, over five days! A highly enlightened project, taking them out of their institutional surroundings and normal school routine (and uniform), plunging them into a new place, with different criteria, and seeing what we could do to open up the right side of their brains. So it was an adventure for all of us. We were even.
On their side, they had to get out of their mini-van in Laurie Lee’s home village of Slad and hike a mile through the woods to the house: – and then hike back again, at the end of it. The paths are lined with nettles, too. One ‘just thought there’d be, like, a shop or something’, and one said, ‘I know it’s stupid but I kind of imagined a sort of classroom, standing in a field’ – until you’d seen it you just couldn’t really be prepared for the insane, flamboyant beauty of the place. Their adventure of course included strange writer lady telling them there were no rules, no wrong answers, saying they were the writers, asking them to swivel their heads around.
On my side, I had to sleep all on my own in a remote, 400-year-old house down a mile or so of steep, winding, wooded track off the lane, with no mobile signal or wifi and a spiral staircase between me and the landline. Being fair, I did have company for three nights, before the significant other had to get back to London. (Even he was amazed, and he has massive exposure to the most pictureskew bits of West Sussex.) But it was very dark and quiet in that place. And I was plucky.
So all was was fine – right up until the last evening, when I was on my own for the final few hours of the magnificent week. As the sun went down I decided to lounge in the gazebo, sipping my rosé in the rosy summer light, to the buzzing of the wasps, while reading a local history book called A Turbulent History of a Cotswold Valley. After our running joke about the complete lack of turbulence – even when King Charles’ men marched through, they went to the north, through Gloucester – my mistake was looking up the house in the index. Hm. Three pages of information.
Apparently the last farmer who lived in the house was a bad farmer: he made moved in from the outside, the stranger in the midst, and just didn’t get it. He was parsimonious and greedy. He decided to make his own butter and tried to sell it wrapped in squares of cut-up old shirts; but no one was buying. He had a long feud with a neighbour who called him on it. But more to the point, he also over a long time beat and tormented his wife, who went a bit mad with it. One thing she did was go to another farmer’s house and expose her ‘breasts covered in bruises and weals’. Things happened that were not good, not good at all, but nobody in the valley knew them well or liked them, so nobody really knew what. When she died (how??), her body lay unattended in the house for several days. And two people have since been witness to ghostly manifestations, both identical. One of them twice.
So there I am. The sun is going down and everyone has left until the morning and the birds are coo-cooing and swooping as they prepare for the night, the bats are coming out… There’s a chill in the air…
Suffice to say this graphic news did put a slight damper on my dinner. I stayed up too late, watching a documentary about pop songs. When I went up to bed my body went cold all over and I had to trick myself by reading for half an hour, even though it was 1am and my book was Bring Up the Bodies. But no ghost appeared, as none had appeared the rest of the week (staying out of the areas where it was sighted however). The next morning I had a confidential chat with the gardener, who is local and seems to know everybody concerned; she was very relaxed and just went – ‘we-ell – but nobody ever saw it except those two, and it was all such a long time ago… I don’t know… and I think the place has been exorcised…’
The week was mostly characterised by the lovely summery family atmosphere in the place (it’s been owned by really good people, Quaker activists, for the past forty years), food and coffee and bottles of very chilled white wine, vermouth, and so on; garden-watering, walking, reading, crocheting flowers, and animals. I saw my first ever badger: he was HUGE! There were many bunnies scampering and hopping and eating among the grass and nettles. There was a buzzard. A glimpse of a dragonfly darting near the apple tree, and a deer in the woods. There were lots of butterflies of several different kinds, and the wasps’ nest in the gazebo roof. Bumblebees buzzed all day among the honeysuckle growing up the side of the house, right over where we ate, wrote and read. And on the last morning the gardener showed me into the shed, where the little bats move about the rooftop all day , chasing the coolness. We saw about a dozen lesser horseshoe bats hanging upside down, like little tiny mice, vibrating madly to our unwitting sonar signals.
The teenagers were wonderful. Some were already serious writers, and talented. I would say that each group engaged with the day, the place, each other, and the workshops in a different way, and every one of them produced serious work. Lots of the poems and stories they wrote were incredibly developed, hilariously funny, genuinely moving – all in the half an hour they got! I got lots of food for thought and ideas for future workshops.
Just enough phone signal to occasionally get emails in, and to delete them, but not enough to answer any (handy). So I am still catching up.
But the POETRY DOESN’T STOP: Here are details of my summer poetry workshops – one of which is four Thursday nights, starting NEXT THURSDAY 25th! Drop me a line or leave a comment if interested.