The papers this week have been full of obituaries of Drue Heinz, the lovely lady who gave so generously to support writers in both the US and the UK. I was fortunate enough to be awarded two Hawthornden Fellowships (in 2011 and 2016). It’s impossible to adequately describe the experience, suffice to say they have been two of the most productive writing months of my life and I am immensely grateful for the generosity that made them possible.
Here is a flavour of the Hawthornden experience
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 2016 I was privileged to be one of those ‘Fellows’.
I arrived on a drizzly Sunday afternoon in February, just as the light was beginning to fail. As I keyed in the code I’d been sent, tall gates swung back allowing me entrance to a long drive curving downwards through woodland carpeted with snowdrops. Beyond the main entrance to the castle is 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 of 100 feet or more to the river below. The inner door opened onto a flagged stone hallway with a welcoming open fire. Later there would be time to examine the coat of arms above the entrance, the commemorative stone plaque on the castle wall and the library, but for now the priority is 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 folk have to open their cases in the entrance hall and ferry their belongings up by the armload. 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 was in the formal dining room with linen napkins and elaborate place settings, including pewter water goblets. It was also the opportunity to meet the other ‘Fellows’ with whom I would spend the next month. Aside from me (from Ulster, living in Scotland) there was one American, one Dane and three English, all with very different backgrounds, which made for lively and interesting discussions and unexpected insights.
Breakfasts and dinners (other than Sundays) are served in the ‘hearth room’, the 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 chat in the drawing room is presided over by near life-size portraits of Aldous Huxley, Jean Cocteau and Truman Capote.
There is a sense that work can and must be done here. 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, and to return re-invigorated. My target was 20,000 words of a new novel, for which I had no idea of plot. I came home with a storyboard covered in post-it notes and 23,500+ words of a first draft.
For almost 2 weeks there was no central heating, courtesy of a boiler failure, which in February in a 17th century castle is atmospherically chilly, despite the administrator’s best efforts. So I turned my room into a ‘cave’ covering over the windows with double layers of heavy card, the lack of natural light far out-weighed by the increased comfort. And when the sun shone, I worked in the greenhouse in the walled garden.
On the last evening someone asked what we each might change when we went home? Imposing a 9-hour rule of silence would be impossible (sadly), but I hope to maintain a daytime embargo on internet use.
Would I go back? Like a shot.
Here’s the link to the Herald obituary (in which I get a mention).