Splendid isolation in Yorkshire: A creative writing course in the shadow of Sylvia Plath


Last June when I arrived at Lumb Bank, a forbidding granite farmhouse above Hebden Bridge, the house manager Becky didn't take my luggage, but she did take a weight off my shoulders: "There's no television, radio or internet connection here," she mentioned breezily as she showed me to a small, sparse bedroom. It struck me then that a holiday might be as simple as removing the white noise of everyday life for a while. And that, I thought guiltily, includes my two small children whom I had left with my wife. But guilt passes. And in my case, quickly.

To some, the prospect of a week-long residential creative-writing class for beginners on a soggy Yorkshire hillside might be purgatory. To me, it was giddy heaven. So much so that when I arrived with 15 other students on a bright Monday afternoon, I was a bag of nerves. This was more than just a 40th birthday present to myself (with my wife's help); it was the moment when, after years of pretending I never had the time and space to write properly, I finally had both, right in front of me. Gulp.

Arvon, a charitable organisation, has been running writing courses since the late 1960s, and it shows. Much thought has gone into clearing away excuses for visitors to avoid putting pen to paper. Breakfast and lunch are provided, and although evening meals are cooked by students by rota, the menu and its ingredients are ready and waiting. You just chop, sauté, bake, serve, clear up and natter with fellow students.

What a bunch we were: from a 17-year-old girl clutching 200,000 words of Harry Potter fan fiction, to the lady of a certain age reminiscing about embassy cocktail parties in Belgium, via a Liverpudlian property developer and an Indian lawyer. Sixteen in all, who gathered each morning for a group workshop, 32 apprehensive eyes falling on our tutors, the novelists Andrew Miller and Jenn Ashworth. Authorial royalty! Miller had recently won the Costa Book of the Year for Pure, and Ashworth had recently finished her third novel, The Friday Gospels. If our expectation weighed them down, it didn't show. Miller is a veteran of Arvon courses, having been a student on one himself in the early 1980s, Ashworth a newbie, but each was sympathetic and encouraging.

The venue for the morning workshops was the top floor of a converted barn next to the main house. Clear and helpful exercises focused on beginnings, endings, milieu, but mostly on character, and its development. The mood was more conversation than lecture, though, with questions freely answered. And the atmosphere was what you might call permissive – though all were invited to write various exercises, only those who wanted to read out the results did so, to determinedly upbeat reaction from the tutors. Workshop? Exercises? Positive feedback? I know, dread words – but my own cynical reservations were quickly forgotten. Each workshop was as fun as it was instructive.

Otherwise, our time was our own, to noodle about the comfortable house (once Ted Hughes'), maunder over Sylvia Plath's grave in nearby Heptonstall, stroll down to Hebden Bridge or wander along the wooded valley past disused textile mills and on up to the Pennine Way. Or write! Which, God help me, I did. Quite a lot.

Come Friday, there I was with the rough draft of a story which had been born in a Wednesday writing exercise, staggered to its feet in one of the rickety writing sheds, and rapidly outgrew me at the computer in the barn. Never mind: I was inspired. That evening, when students were invited to read out their work to the group, up I got, and splurged out my 2,300 words. Then I hit the white wine, someone gave me an acoustic guitar, and… well, that's another story.

Arvon's 2013 creative-writing courses can be booked now: arvonfoundation.org

More cultural breaks

1. Spend a weekend learning about opera in Florence, with tours of the Medici palaces, professional singing lessons and lively history classes (hotelsavoy.it)

2. Take a wildlifephotography course in some of the planet’s most inspirational places, from capturing birds of prey in the Czech Republic to bears in the Carpathians (tatraphotographyworkshop.com)

3. The National Trust recently teamed up with some of the UK’s leading cruise lines to offer history and culture tours that circumnavigate our isles, making port calls that offer exclusive entry into landmark NT properties (voyagesofdiscovery.co.uk)

4. Take a trip to Norway for the 150th anniversary of the birth of Edvard Munch, with a guided tour exploring the life, work and special exhibitions of the popular painter (11 to 14 July, specialtours.co.uk)

5. Explore Nigeria, one of the last gaps on the African travel map, with a new tour that takes in the tribal cultures and landscapes of this vast, often-overlooked nation (undiscovereddestinations.com)

6. Take a writing workshop in Hampshire at the last home of Jane Austen, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (2 March, jane-austenshouse-museum.org.uk)

7. Want to learn how to take travel photos on a professional level? Then go on a creative holiday to Marrakech or Istanbul, with classes covering technical skills and tips on how to get published(travellerstales.org)

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