Lighting the Fires: A week on an Arvon Course

Posted by Madelaine Smith, 16th June 2011

We arrived later than expected at Hebden Bridge station. On our cross country journey the train hit a cow.  As we walked out of the station, it started to rain. And it was getting dark, and there were no taxis. Feeling rather like a couple of townies my colleague Catherine and I asked the Stationmaster if he knew of a taxi firm. He duly gave us a card but when we rang the number we were told it would be an hour before they could get to us. This was not a good start to our Arvon Week.


We briefly – very briefly – thought about walking. It didn’t look very far on the map, but the road out of town did look rather steep.


Eventually a taxi from another firm turned up and we were whisked up the hills to Lumb Bank, the Arvon House which once belonged to Ted Hughes, and where we were to spend the next four and a half days.


I first heard of the Arvon Foundation many years ago but having enough time and enough money never quite coincided to make it possible to attend one of the writing courses.  My opportunity to attend a course arose as a part of the British Library Literature in Context Project. This project has been running for the last two years and our group was not the usual gathering of aspiring writers who arrive at an Arvon house on a Monday evening, but rather staff members of a number of Literary Houses from around the country including Jane Austen’s House Museum, The Bronte Parsonage, the Dickens’ House Museum and Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage. The rest of our group consisted of two published poets who work in Museum/Writing education and a storyteller who works in museums and historic settings.


With our backgrounds in mind a special Arvon week had been devised.  The Arvon formula of a writing week was combined with a requirement for us all as museum staff to be able to take what we learned back to our places of work.  We needed to use the lessons of our Arvon experience in furthering our work with schools and adult learners. What better place, after all, for literary education than writers’ houses?


An Arvon week has a particular pattern to it which was developed on the very first course back in 1977. Having hit on a successful formula the Foundation has stuck to this ever since.


After introductions and a warm up exercise on Monday evening (half a sentence and fifteen minutes of free writing) we were all set for work on Tuesday morning. At 9.30am we sat down around the massive dining room table, pencils and notebooks at the ready. Three hours later I had produced three nearly-poems and a good deal of other writing as well.  Our two tutors, poet Ann Samson and author, Steve Voake had started us on our writing journey.


The afternoon was free for us to go for a walk (we wandered as a group up to the village of Heptonstall to find the grave of Sylvia Plath). We also had the chance to work on our own writing or do whatever we wanted. At 4 o’clock I had a tutorial with Steve who highlighted in a few moments a problem I had been wrestling with in the story I have been working on (bother – now I have to get rid of a character I really love!) while several of the others put on their aprons as cooks for the evening. Everyone at Arvon helps with the cooking and washing up, and the house is very much your home for the week.


After dinner we all gathered to hear our tutors read from their work and to ask questions about their writing lives and methods.


Over the next days this was the pattern of our lives. The mornings were spent in workshops around the table - I have never known three hours disappear so quickly - and the afternoons were spent improving our work. Evenings were for readings.


Apart from the house there is a large barn at Lumb Bank which has the upstairs room converted into a writing studio with computers and a printer. The room also contains several comfy chairs and the largest, longest sofa I have ever seen. Most groups use this room for the evening readings, but as we were a slightly smaller group than usual we managed to fit ourselves into the living room each evening and Catherine would make up a fire.


During the afternoons I worked in my little garret bedroom which was reached by its own tiny staircase. One cannot help but wonder who had used my room before me? Which poets have slept upon my pillow, what novels were dreamt up at my work table?


All around the house hang poems, some by Ted Hughes himself in frames along the dining room wall; others typed up by course attenders and stuck on the fridge, on a shelf above the chopping boards, on the library door or by a window looking out over the valley.


The highlight of the week for me was the visit of the guest reader. Patience Agbabi read us her corona (a sequence of seven sonnets) Chains written during her time as poet-in-residence at the Historic Chatham dockyards. I was blown away by her work and there are several lines which still run like ribbons through my mind.


The afternoon of our final day was taken up with the creation of our ‘anthology’. Every Arvon group creates an anthology of work produced during the week (Just photocopied and stapled, but a brilliant memento). Our effort, Lighting the Fires, contained a tiny percentage of the week’s output, but was aptly named as the week really did set us all on fire with enthusiasm for creative writing and the opportunity to share it with others back at our museums. We rounded off the week with a session exploring how writing can be used as an activity with both adults and children in literary house settings. We were all brimming with ideas.


I would highly recommend an Arvon week for anyone who wants to write. Courses are available for beginners and more experienced writers in many different genres. There are four permanent Arvon writing houses and the foundation also uses Ty Newydd the National Writing Centre of Wales. If you can’t manage a week away look out for future writing workshops and activities at a Literary Museum near you as we all develop our future writing education programmes.


For further information see

The Founding of Arvon: A Memoir of the Early Years of the Arvon Foundation by John Moat (Frances Lincoln)


nita said...

Hi Madelaine
Love the pic of the writing table. Very Jane Austen. I hope some day someone will say......hey did you know....Madelaine Smith wrote here at this very table. Fancy that?.......


Posted on Thu 23 Jun 2011 @ 11:50

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