Choosing to spend my first week of freedom away from my full-time writing job by booking a week-long writing course might seem a strange idea, but a week at the Arvon Foundation’s writers’ retreat in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire seemed just the thing to kickstart my creativity.
A week on an Arvon writing course with the Arvon Foundation
Not only would it be a welcome change from working from home which I’d been doing throughout lockdown, but would provide a much-needed change of scenery. I’d walked every route in my local area dozens of times and was desperate to get out of my postcode. Plus, being surrounded by beautiful countryside with nothing else on the schedule other than to write seemed like the perfect antidote to my day job – even if it still involved typing away at my laptop.
I’d heard of Arvon Foundation many times over the years – most recently when Maggie O’Farrell credited it on Desert Island Discs with starting her literary career – but this was my first hands-on experience. Founded by poets John Moat and John Fairfax in 1968 with the aim of giving young writers the chance to develop their skills, the organisation which would later become the Arvon Foundation held its first residential course at a Devon community centre and expanded over the years to various locations in Devon, West Yorkshire and Shropshire.
Arvon Foundation now offers a whole range of writing courses, workshops, tutored courses and writing retreats as well as Arvon Online. Due to Covid, Arvon is re-opening gradually with tutored courses online for now rather than in person, but for those who just want to get away and soak up some creative atmosphere with other writers, Arvon are running their popular writers’ retreats at Totleigh Barton in Devon and at Ted Hughes’s former property, Lumb Bank in Hebden Bridge, which is the one I opted for. Numbers are restricted to just six per week (there were just five on my week as someone had to pull out at the last minute) but this didn’t seem to be a downside. Peace, quiet, great views and a perfect writing atmosphere was all I wanted and it was with a light heart and feeling of release from captivity when I left my Hertfordshire home on May 17th and drove up to Hebden Bridge.
Arriving at Lumb Bank, West Yorkshire – my Arvon writing course home for the next six days
Arvon had provided detailed instructions and Lumb Bank was easy to locate, tucked into Colden Clough valley above Hebden Bridge, a place which looked so interesting that I vowed to come back and explore if I could. Lumb Bank itself is quite some way down a steep single-track lane and Arvon says to park at the top on the main road and walk down. This is presumably to avoid congestion but it is quite a hike with luggage, so I instantly decided to leave my suitcase in the car and only bring the bare essentials – others made several exhausting trips back and forth and then drove down on the final day to load up the car. It is a narrow lane but with limited numbers it shouldn’t be a problem for people to unload luggage at the property and then park at the top of the lane for the week. Or you can just enjoy the aerobic exercise!
I was greeted by the friendly members of staff who work but don’t live on site and shown to my room, Lumb Chimneys, named after one of Ted Hughes’s poems. It had a stunning view of the steep valley, the bank on the other side and of course, the Lumb chimneys which still remain. After torrential rain on the motorway, the bright sunshine which flooded the valley was a delightful change and showed off West Yorkshire’s spectacular countryside at its best.
The room was large, light and airy, with a double bed, wardrobe, large chest of drawers, desk, comfy chair and window seat (which was rather too narrow to sit on). As we were having breakfast on our own (possibly due to Covid) we had been given a fridge with fresh milk and yoghurt and there was also a kettle, cafetiere, tea, coffee, cereal, croissants for the next morning, fruit and a welcome chocolate brownie which I instantly polished off. The bed linen and towels all seemed to be of good quality and it all seemed well thought out.
The room wasn’t en-suite but the loo, sink and shower room just across the hall was for my own personal use, so it was almost as good – everyone had their own bathroom on the course – when there are more guests I assume you have to share, another good thing about a small group. It felt like a good room to write in – although after the first morning I moved my rather heavy desk to face the window as it seemed a shame to come all the way to Yorkshire and then look at a blank wall – but you could choose to write anywhere in the property.
Rather than hike back up the hill to retrieve more of my belongings, I explored the rest of Lumb Bank. There were several rooms downstairs: a library with an old-fashioned writing desk, a larger table and hundreds of books; a lounge with yet more books and comfy sofas, and the dining room where we would have lunch and dinner everyday, prepared by the staff in the kitchen next door.
With all the books and art work including many of Hughes’ poems, it felt like a very calm, inspiring place to be. Even better was the terrace outside which had amazing views for miles and there were various little spots and benches if you wanted to soak up the sunshine along with the creative vibes.
Welcome talk and first night at Arvon Foundation
The weather was so good that we moved our welcome chat outside. Rosie and Helen were the course directors and explained the general set-up of the week, the meal times (1pm and 7pm) and how we were to bring our breakfast boxes downstairs by 10.30am so our cutlery and crockery could be washed and returned, along with any other requests for more fruit, cereal etc. After running through the various fire safety and Covid rules we went round the group saying a bit about why we were there and what we hoped to get out of week: there were five of us in total, four woman and one man, most of us in our 40s or 50s, and most from the south of England (two found they were near-neighbours in North London and that their children even went to the same school). We all had different writing needs which was interesting: two had almost finished their books (a memoir and a children’s book) and were at the editing process, while one wanted to start her non-fiction self-help project and another was more interested in poetry and physically creating a book with pictures and binding. I was there to wake up the very dormant creative part of my brain and as one of our group put it: ‘I’m fed up of saying I’m writing a book without actually writing a book.’ I could totally relate to that.
Settling into a routine of writing at Lumb Bank
I quickly got into a really relaxing routine of a quick blast of early morning yoga followed by a shower and then breakfast of granola and coffee in my room at 8.30ish. This would be followed by some reading or staring out of the window for a good while while I soaked up the view and then I’d start writing down ideas on my laptop or a notepad. The ‘I’ve got no idea what to write about’ panic on the first morning thankfully gave way to ‘let’s run through a few ideas’ and then by the end of the week I was well on the way to planning an entire outline for a book which I’m really excited about writing. At 1pm I’d join the others for lunch and afterwards would get my walking boots on and go out for an epic ‘walk and think’ for several hours while the ideas I’d come up with that morning percolated in my brain.
The location of Lumb Bank couldn’t be bettered – just a 20 minute-walk through the woods and you’d be in Hebden Bridge (it was downhill all the way, so it was a little longer coming back) and there were many other routes into the town so you could spend two or three hours trekking along footpaths up hills or along rivers and then end up in Hebden Bridge which was full of interesting shops and some lovely pubs.
I took particular pleasure in finishing my afternoon walks with a trip to a local pub: there were two friendly pubs in Heptonstall which meant Lumb Bank was just a gentle downhill walk away afterwards, or some lovely pubs in Hebden Bridge itself, such as the Vocation Brewery’s Vocation & Co or the highly-recommended Fox and Goose community pub.
The village of Heptonstall
Heptonstall was a real treat. Less than ten minute’s walk from Lumb Bank, this beautiful village with cobbled streets, two pleasant pubs and two churches – the ruined Thomas a Becket church and the current parish church, St Thomas the Apostle. Just wandering round the streets and churchyard is a lovely and relaxing way to spend the morning and literary fans can visit the grave of author and poet Sylvia Plath, who was married to Ted Hughes who came from nearby Mytholmroyd. The grave itself is in the separate graveyard extension which is across Back Lane and is often visited by fans.
Meals at Lumb Bank
The mainly vegetarian food was excellent all week and was fresh, healthy and extremely tasty, using salad leaves from the garden and local ingredients where possible. The chef and friendly staff would bring in the food and then leave us to it and with just five of us socially-distanced around a vast farmhouse table which usually seats a dozen it was a lovely, relaxing way to catch up with everyone at the end of the writing day (or to inspire more writing into the evening). Or the first night we were given wine with our meal and could order more wine or beer throughout the week if we wanted. We mainly stuck to water until the last night when we shared several bottles of red wine, and the relaxed nature of the week meant that you didn’t have to worry about looking smart or even when it was OK to leave the table after you’d eaten: some nights the after-dinner chat went on for a while but there was no obligation to stay if you wanted to have time to yourself.
Some recommendations from me…
There was very little to complain about at Lumb Bank: the food was delicious and always on time, and we were left to ourselves to work as much or as little as we liked, which was perfect. My only minor complaints would be: the writing set up in the room wasn’t great, as the chair was a basic, non-adjustable chair and the writing desk was one of those which gives very little chance of sitting in any position but sitting straight up with your feet flat on the floor. If you like to write in any other position (I tend to write cross-legged, for example, or one foot on the other leg) then this desk is not for you. All the others had the same problem, so an investment in some adjustable chairs would be a good start. My only other gripe which sounds trivial but which would prevent me from staying in the main building again, was the front door which would slam shut as staff went in and out. This created a massive crash which shook my room and was like a gunshot going off every few minutes throughout the day, which was catastrophic for concentration. When they send the feedback form this will be top of the list!
Leaving Lumb Bank
Leaving on the Saturday morning was a real wrench, not just because of the pleasure of a week’s writing, but because West Yorkshire had proved to be far more beautiful than I’d imagined. We were blessed with the weather for much of the week to be fair – it was T-shirt weather for the first half of the week, and one afternoon I’d walked up from town to join the others having an impromptu bottle of wine sitting on the grass on the terrace overlooking the hillside in the glorious sunshine – and having a routine of writing and walking was ideal for me (others walked in the morning and wrote in the afternoon, while some powered on through all day). I really enjoyed exploring the local countryside and would come back in a heartbeat (especially now I know to pack light or at least be able to negotiate the steep lane to Lumb Bank to drop off my luggage). A week since Lumb Bank and I’ve been trying – and mostly succeeding – in writing every day and I hope to keep in touch with the various courses and advice offered by Arvon Online to keep my creative writing part of my daily life, rather than letting it slide under the pile of more pressing, routine work. Knowing my fellow course attendees are doing exactly the same certainly helps too.
Details of Arvon Foundation Writer’s Retreats
Arvon runs creative writing courses and retreats for schools, groups and individuals. Its courses, tutored by leading authors, are held at three rural centres and are a mix of workshops and individual tutorials, with time and space to write, free from distractions of everyday life. Currently Arvon is just running its non-tutored writer’s retreats at Lumb Bank, West Yorkshire and Totleigh Barton, Devon. Up to six writers spend five nights (Monday to Saturday) at the fully-catered retreats, giving time for writing or walking in the beautiful landscape.
Lumb Bank is an 18th-century millowner’s house in West Yorkshire which once belonged to Ted Hughes. It’s set in 20 acres of steep woodland, with breathtaking views to the valley below – a Pennine landscape of woods and rivers, weavers’ cottages, packhorse trails and ruins of old mills. It is half a mile from the historic village of Heptonstall and two miles from Hebden Bridge.
Totleigh Barton is a 16th-century manor house with ancient origins (it is listed in the Domesday Book) in one of the most peaceful and idyllic parts of Devon. It’s around an hour from Exeter by car and the nearest village, Sheepwash, is half an hour’s walk away.
Cost: Each writer’s retreat costs £725 for a single room, £765 for a double room. Wi-fi and 4G local signal is excellent at Lumb Bank while Totleigh Barton is less well-connected – so you can choose how much of a digital detox you want!
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