Reflections on a Writing Fellowship.
What do you call six total strangers immured together in a 17th century castle for a month, with minimal mobile phone reception, no internet and a rule of silence for nine hours per day? Answer – ‘Hawthornden Fellows.’
From mid-February – mid-March this year I was privileged to be one of those ‘Fellows’.
The castle is not remote, but so well concealed that most of the locals don’t know of its existence. I arrived on a drizzly Sunday afternoon, as the light was beginning to fail. Automatic gates opened in response to the code I’d been sent, the long drive curving downwards through woodland carpeted with snowdrops, to an imposing red sandstone building perched on a triangle of rock above a gorge.
I passed through the main entrance to a grassed courtyard, bounded on two sides by the remains of an ancient keep and on the third by a low parapet, providing the only protection from the sheer drop to the river below. The inner door leading to a flagged stone hallway with a welcoming fire.
Later there would be time to examine the coat of arms and commemorative carved plaque on the castle wall and walk up to the walled garden to explore the library, but for now the priority was to find my room and settle in.
The writers’ rooms are on the second and garret floors, the latter reached via a steep spiral staircase, so narrow that several Fellows have to open their cases in the hall and ferry up their belongings. Each room is different, varying from tiny to very large, but all are comfortable, and have everything we need. I quickly feel at home in mine.
Our first meal, and the opportunity to meet the other ‘Fellows’ was in the formal dining room, with linen napkins and elaborate place settings, including huge pewter water goblets. We all have very different backgrounds, coming variously from Denmark, America, Ulster and England, which makes for lively and interesting discussion.
Breakfasts and dinners (other than Sundays) are served in the ‘hearth room’ at an elm table scarred by centuries of use, the porridge served in pewter bowls.
Lunch is delivered to our rooms in Fortnum and Mason baskets, and at night our conversations in the drawing room are presided over by near life-size portraits of Aldous Huxley, Jean Cocteau and Truman Capote.
The food is wonderful, the staff very helpful, and there is a sense that work can and must be done here. The rule of silence between the hours of 9.00am and 6.00pm definitely helps! And work was done, each of us finding our own rhythm, but all I think achieving our self-imposed targets; in between forays into the woods and along the river: ‘thinking’ time in which to process ideas, returning re-invigorated.
I came hoping to start the third novel in my 16th century Scottish trilogy, but with no idea of a plot. I left with a storyboard covered in post-it notes and 23,500+ words of the first draft.
For almost 2 weeks there is no central heating, courtesy of a boiler failure, the castle atmospherically chilly, despite the administrator’s best efforts, so I turn my room into a ‘cave’ covering over the windows with double layers of heavy card, and the fireplace with card and a heavy quilt; the lack of natural light far out-weighed by the increased comfort. Sitting with a sheepskin rug behind my back helped too.
Not to mention the two electric heaters! Between them I only had to wear 2 layers of jumpers and a scarf… The cardboard I used to cover the windows became my storyboard – I brought it home with me when my time at Hawthornden was finished.
When the sun shone I worked in the greenhouse by the library. That way I got a view + heat, and the little table I used was small enough to move around with the sun.
It’s impossible to adequately describe the experience, suffice to say it was one of the most productive months of my writing life.
On the last evening someone asked what we each might change when we go home? Imposing a 9-hour rule of silence in my house would be impossible (sadly), but my hope is to maintain a daytime embargo* on internet use.
*Editor’s note – Not so good at that I’m afraid, my next post will be Isolation Part 3 – what I’m trying out now to recreate at least part of the Hawthornden experience.