Tag Archives: writers

Walking with Laurie

John Lee reads out an extract of 'Cider with Rosie' by Rose Cottage, Slad, 22 June 2014

Anthea Lee reads out an extract of ‘Cider with Rosie’ by Rose Cottage, Slad, 22 June 2014

I rounded off a glorious solstice weekend (which began with watching the sunrise over Stonehenge with 37,000 people!) by taking a group of 17 walking in the footsteps of Laurie Lee – one of the series of ‘Walking with Words’ literary rambles I’ve organised for Hawkwood College.

The weather was glorious as we wended our way up the Slad valley to the start point, overlooking Rose Cottage (which Laurie Lee purchased with royalties from ‘Cider with Rosie’). We had a lovely group – including 3 cousins of the great man himself, which was very special. I encouraged them to chip in with any info, and to take turns (alongside the rest of the group) reading out extracts of the book.

Along the way we bumped into some of then newly-installed poetry posts, which we also recited from  – they’re beautifully-designed and a great initiative from the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, who have created a Wildlife Way around the poet’s beloved Slad Valley. You see the landscape through his words (literally, as they are printed on perspex) – and thus you gain an insight into his world and a deeper appreciation of the natural environment. Writing can change our perception of places – and it certainly does here, enriching it enormously. Psychogeography seems a fancy, urbanish word for such a bucolic idyll as we experienced that day – but there is an element of that in the way we interfaced with the many facets: ecology, local history, literature, social history, etc.

We paid our respects at the lovely gravestone ( the man himself said: ‘I want to be buried between the pub and the church, so that I can balance the secular and the spiritual’, from Valerie Grove’s biography, p510) and then I showed the group the memorial window inside. There is an art exhibition on – and invigilating it was James Witchall, who designed the windows, another moment of serendipity! He happily told us about the commission and design. The church was beautifully decorated with flowers – it was lovely to see it brimming with art and nature, and visitors. I finished the walk outside the Woolpack, with the final section of the book, and then some of us went back to Hawkwood for a delicious lunch.

A Slad Century - performed by Adam Horovitz and Becky Dellow outside Rosebank Cottage, Slad, 22 June 2014

A Slad Century – performed by Adam Horovitz and Becky Dellow outside Rosebank Cottage, Slad, 22 June 2014

That would have made a perfect day by itself, but then I went back to Slad to explore the exhibition a bit more, and then make my way to Rosebank Cottage (Laurie Lee’s childhood home) for a poetry and music perform – A Slad Century with Adam Horovitz and Becky Dallow. It was very special to be in the well-tended garden of this famous domicile, sitting on the lawn sipping Pimms in ‘poets corner’ along with other Stroud bards: Denis Gould, Rick Vick and Richard Austin. Listening to Adam and Becky I slipped into a blissful reverie. I felt I oozed into the soil and became one with the Slad Valley, curled up in its arms like an ammonite. After an epic weekend (overnight Stonehenge tour; one hour storytelling performance in Rockingham Village Hall; over 300 miles of travel – many on the motorbike) I was exhausted but content. Laurie Lee’s writing does (largely) evoke a nostalgic, bucolic idyll – but sitting in the sun in Rosebank Cottage, enjoying poetry, fiddle, a drink and good company, I do not think that is a bad thing. Such experiences feed the soul and make life on this beautiful, blighted world a lot more bearable.

Afterwards, we decamped to The Woolpack where we ensconced ourselves in Laurie Lee’s ‘corner’. Amongst the company of fellow poets, (who all carry the torch past on by Lee and other great Gloucestershire writers) I felt a warm sense of belonging to this precious corner of the Cotswolds.

To finish with the words of Cotswold Ballads poet, Frank Mansell, who was helped into print by his friend Laurie Lee. In thanking his fellow poet, Frank wrote:

‘What we are really doing is creating a legend, leaving a landmark, a sarsen stone to show we passed this way’.


The summer solstice sun rises over the Heel Stone, Stonehenge, 21 June 2014, by Kevan Manwaring

The summer solstice sun rises over the Heel Stone, Stonehenge, 21 June 2014, by Kevan Manwaring

(***on 22 July, I am running a 1-day writing workshop at Hawkwood College on Landscape, Memory and the Imagination***)

Many more events celebrating the Laurie Lee Centenary can be found here.

Wetting the Baby’s Head

A Feast of Words - Josie Felce

A Feast of Words – Josie Felce

Last night we officially wetted the baby’s head with the launch of the Cotswold Word Centre  at Hawkwood College on World Book Day.

Cotswold Word Centre launch

Cotswold Word Centre launch

We gathered in the Studios to schmooze and toast with Bucks Fizz, vino and biodynamic cordial before things got under way in earnest. I introduced the evening, then we had a word from Alicia Carey, the Principal of Hawkwood, followed by Katie Lloyd-Nunn who read out the lovely message from Jamila Gavin, our sponsor (see below).

Anthony Nanson performs 'The Painswick Elders'

Anthony Nanson performs ‘The Painswick Elders’


Jehanne and Rob Mehta round the evening off

We then had a scintillating line-up of local poets, storytellers, and singers: Jo Bousfield’s group, Playing with Words; Robin Collins; Angie Spencer; Josie Felce; Jo Woolley; Gabriel Millar; Anthony Nanson; and finishing off the proceedings with Jehanne and Rob Mehta. The atmosphere was lovely and warm-hearted, and there were lots of positive comments afterwards. Everybody seemed to have a good time, and many said how well-organised and held the event was. The performers were very professional, keeping it tight and on theme – with some pieces written especially for the event. We have such a wealth of talent in this area – we’re so blessed! It was satisfying to launch my ‘Writers of Gloucestershire’ map, after slaving away on it all winter – a signed limited edition of 100 was produced, and each contributor got to take one home. My hope is the Cotswold Word Centre will put Hawkwood and Stroud even more on the map – as the hub of wonderful word-based activity in the area. We have started a journey- and we hope you join us… A CWC ‘brain shower’ is planned for a month’s time – watch this space!

(from left) Alicia Carey, Principal of Hawkwood College; Kevan Manwaring (co-ordinator of the Cotswold Word Centre); Katie Lloyd-Nunn (education co-ordinator of Hawkwood College)

(from left) Alicia Carey, Principal of Hawkwood College; Kevan Manwaring (co-ordinator of the Cotswold Word Centre); Katie Lloyd-Nunn (education co-ordinator of Hawkwood College)

Message from Jamila Gavin

Jamila Gavin, author, patron of the Cotswold Word Centre

Jamila Gavin, author,
patron of the Cotswold Word Centre

As a somewhat hybrid creature: born in India, worked in London but having settled in Stroud in 1970, I feel very proud to have been asked by the Cotswold Word Centre to be a patron. It makes me feel I belong in a place where I want to belong. I think the first time I heard of the Cotswolds, was as a four year old, hearing my English mother’s somewhat dreamy hope, expressed in a Punjab village, that one day she would have a cottage in the Cotswolds – and indeed she did, albeit about thirty years later. And it’s what brought me to the Cotswolds.

It’s not just the beauty of the area, but something else which makes it such a hive of creativity. There are artists, poets, musicians, film-makers, craftspeople and writers up and down the valleys – and this is not recent. We know so much of the artistic expression that has come from the Cotswolds has embodied a very particular spirit: English, yet British, yet international. It strikes a chord of recognition with people who have never been here, and creates a kind of longing to experience a little bit of that spirit which expresses some kind of universal need.

So it is extremely appropriate that there should be a Cotswold Word Centre which, judging by what has already been achieved, will be, not just a haven, but also a hub, for vibrant creativity, exchange of ideas, safe criticism, and loads and loads of inspiration.  

I look forward to my association with you all.

Jamila Gavin, patron of the Cotswold Word Centre

Lacuna in El Gouna – final week

24-29 May

Zeytouna Jetty (460 m. long)

My last week in El Gouna, (I think of weeks running Mon-Sun; here the calendars are Fri-Thurs) it has been a busy, productive and enjoyable time.

My writing has really flowed – on the ‘home straight’ of my novel’s second draft, I found a new burst of inspiration and fresh ideas emerged, directly as a result of my experience in El Gouna. The combination of the heat, the howling wind, dust-storms and a full moon all contributed to an intensely elemental and emotional week: perfect for my book!

dust-storm in El Gouna

On Monday had an excellent night at the Smugglers – bumping into Emad and his gregarious friend from Cairo, the excellent Mr Asser, who was attending a course on hotel management at Steigenberger along with a bunch of other Egyptian hoteliers. He was an old school pal of Pierre, whom I had met earlier in the Spa, having a good chat about books. Kerry, a blonde bombshell from Yorkshire was behind the bar (the Smugglers has the loveliest barmaids in El Gouna – or even the only ones, as I’ve seen no other female waitresses/bar staff). There was a guy from London there; Bill; and a knowledgable Turkish chap called Ahmed, who I got onto the subject of Tuareg when the subject of my book came up. It was good to have a ‘right old chinwag’ and ‘set the world to rights’ in such a fine establishment – my favourite haunt in Gounie-town. Although its ostensibly a British bar, it is not only frequented by Brits, ex-pat or otherwise. It was an international mix – like a microcosm of El Gouna’s egalitarian blend – and because its so small, you are kind of forced to talk and conversations are often group discussions. I wish I had a pub like the Smugglers back home – where you feel you could talk to anyone without being considered some kind of nutter. It’s like being in an episode of ‘Cheers’ – the regulars have their place at the bar, all distinctive characters whose quirks are not only tolerated but appreciated.

Tuesday night began my Dine Around tour of the week at the Sheraton. Wednesday it was the Movenpick, with its lovely courtyard area, and Thursday, Sultan Bey – which I grabbed something at before going along the beach to the Club House, where the divers meet up. As I looked at the bonfire, where folk roasted kebabs and kids burnt marshmallows, I got chatting with a German lady – there was a party there celebrating a birthday (someone’s son) and I was handed a beer and offered food (once again, I was touched by the innate friendliness of Gounies international community). I caught up with Georgina, Dave and Sue and other members of the Tropical Gangsters, over a couple of beers, before getting a tuk tuk to Moods – where I was told it was ‘the place to be’ on Thursday. In a lovely location at the end of one end of Abu Tig marina, it was a bit subdued when I arrived – the dance floor was empty – but I discovered this was still early (10.30ish) and things didn’t warm up for a while yet. I was considering leaving when Asser turned up with his hoteliers – all in swanky suits looking like the cast of Reservoir Dogs or a gangster flick. Emad appeared as well – and suddenly the party was back on. By now folk were dancing and I had a little bop before walking along the beach to greet the full moon and savour the sea at night.

Friday was the big day – the final reading at the library. We met the panel at last at a lovely brunch in a billionaire’s villa, hosted by the lovely ‘Midge’. The hospitality was splendid – I discovered it is an Egyptian tradition to offer your guests the very best; host/esses pull out the stops when they have guests round to eat. We had lots of photo opportunities by the pool.

Then we were taken via the embassy back to the hotel, where I crashed for all too brief while before having to get ready for the evening event where the 5 Writers-in-Residence gave readings from their work. There was a good audience and the event seemed to be a success, going by the responses afterwards. It was great hearing all the different kinds of work – seeing the fruits of the residency. Everybody shone. We thanked Orascom, the Panel and various members of staff with a statement of gratitude read out by Elmaz. Tears flowed, perhaps not surprisingly – the event was the culmination of alot of hard work and good will.

With relief I went back to flop – before ‘resurrecting’ myself a couple of hours later to go to Papas to rock out with the Misfitz. The letting down of hair was essential – the culmination of a month’s work. I had a great night with my new mates (all thanks to Georgina’s gaze) – moshing along with the crowd.

When I made it back it was about 2am – and I fancied a moonlight dip, so I stripped off and jumped in the lagoon, swimming in the delicious silver-lined waves. Security guards called me back, but I ignored them.

snorkelling off Zeytouna jetty - a good way to 'test the waters'

The following day I made sure I took it easy. Bunking off from a brunch invite to try out some snorkelling – I was dying to swim in the sea properly after a month in the lagoon. I made my way to Zeytouna Island, which wasn’t easy – and after negotiating my entrance, I grabbed some flippers, mask and snorkel and headed along the fabulous wooden jetty, my feet making a regular beat like a 460m glockenspeil. I togged up and went in – and experienced a taste of the Red Sea’s ‘buried treasure’ – the spectacular coral. Even along the ridge it was still vibrant in places – bright orange and pink, with swarms of psychedelic fish just below me. Wonderful. Yet it was clearly dying in places. I had heard from both the Northampton divers, who had been coming for six years, and from Pierre, who is a coral/fish enthusiast that both the species and the habitat are in decline – taking a battering from the tourism. It is such a delicate ecosystem and needs protecting – and yet the tourism is essential for the local economy. Humans and the natural world both need to survive.

And after a hard week I really savoured being out there, at the end of the jetty – sitting on the dock of the bay, wasting time.

Stopped off at Samy’s  beach shop for a karkade – I had talked to him on my arrival on the tiny island and he had invited me in for one on the way back – a local beverage ideal for offsetting the effects of all that seawater inhalation! I bought a packet. I might need some tomorrow as I booked a full day out on Dive Trek.

Coptic Christian tattoo

Afterwards, took a river taxi Downtown and stocked up on some goodies. I liked Joseph at Ambiente, his no hassle policy – and the way everything priced (an exception in El Gouna – even the supermarket doesn’t price anything). Made by his family. He had a neat tattoo on his wrist, showing he was a Coptic Christian (as apparently are alot of El Gouna staff – although it is a supremely tolerant place and I saw a couple of staff today clearly doing their prayers discreetly, which was good to see. Wanting some Pharaonic bling, I visited a jewellery shop – where another great salesman, ‘Michael’, gave me an ‘offer I couldn’t refuse’! He was charismatic and confident and didn’t make it seem like life or death that you had to buy something from his shop. He clearly was pleased with his final sale of the day – apparently it brings the shopkeeper luck to end with a good one. No rocket science, but charming. M explained how the ankh meant not only the ‘key of life’ but also the key of the Nile, to see it in the glittering waters was a good sign, and as I sat by the lagoon, sipping a Sakara, I think I caught a glimpse.

spotting the key of life in the glittering waters of the Red Sea

Feeling a bit ‘crispy duck’ after my day in the sun (without suntan lotion, which I thought I had packed…) I went to the spa afterwards for some much needed cooling off. As I walked through the Dali-esque golf course I savoured the lovely early evening light – visually, my favourite time of day in El Gouna. It really brings the colours out. I thought how beautiful it is here. Bumped into my spa buddy Pierre. Worshipped in the ‘temple of the naiads’. As I left I watched the fading light over the lagoon, a nimbus of gold over the deepening blues.  What a place to live, work and rest!

Viva El Gouna!

Winter walking

The first day of the New Year. The land white like a clean sheet of paper. A heavy overnight frost had transformed my corner of England into Narnia. My friend, fellow writer and all round good egg, Anthony Nanson, was staying over – we went to a New Year’s Eve party together at Mairead’s the night before, watched fireworks exploded over the city while toasting in the new year with champagne (later we had both shared bardic efforts, along with Marko Gallaidhe). After a hearty hobbity breakfast we headed for the hills – ‘into the wild’ as Strider would say, or into the Mendips at least, which usually seem tame, but today felt like more like Dartmoor: slightly edgy. A wildernessed zone of white death.

We put on our boots, drank some edifying coffee from our flasks and set off – following a bridleway up to our first destination, the 375, of Beacon Hill. The hawfrost was half an inch thick on the branches and evergreen foliage. Nature’s attention to detail was, once again, astonishing. No film set could mimic this so completely. Coleridge called it ‘the secret ministry of frost’, and I mentioned the pleasing notion that we may be walking in the Romantic poet’s footsteps – as he and Southey (who became Poet Laureate) used to walk across the Mendips. Here they hatched their plans for a pantisocracy – a utopian society based upon the idea that two hours work a day is all man needs to survive, the rest of his day spent in creative or leisure pursuts, the ultimate idler’s paradise. Anthony and I are no slackers – indeed we are both close to certified workaholics (when it comes to our writing), but the idea of a lifestyle where our own creative endeavours took precedence over the treadmill of existence sounds tantalising. We both endure the grind of marking – it’s somewhat heartening to discover that Tolkien did to. My mind was saturated with Tolkienian arcana, having just finished my radio drama, The Rabbit Room. To anyone else, my harping on would have been a bore, but Anthony shares my enthusiasm, and indeed our whole walk had an Inklings-ish feel to it, as we discussed matters literary, philosophical and spiritual as we traversed the bewintered landscape.

From the trig point, where we were surprised to discover a cluster of other hard-core walkers, who’d had similar notions of New Years Day walks – we made our way down into the forest of Rowberrow – which had its own micro-climate, lacking the frost and being noticeably milder. We then ascended to Dolebury Warren – using a convenient break in the stone wall, like the gap in the border between this world and Faerie in Stardust. No threshold guardian appeared, although barbed wire halted our progress when, breathless, we got to the brow. Instead, we followed the ridge along to a proper gate and stopped for a chilly lunch on the lee of the hillfort; some honeydew mushrooms our ‘hearth’, cheering us with their bright orange colour in the bleak landscape. I found the wintry vista sublimely beautiful and for a while we just stood and stared at the muted tones, fading into visual oblivion. I observed how ‘grey’ can have so many nuances. All the vibrant shades of the natural world were softened by the pervading whiteness. Soothingly gentle after the often garish nonsense of Christmas and New Year – a true stillpoint. Blissful stasis. The wheel, it seemed, had mercifully stopped. Fellow Firesprings David Metcalfe described it as ‘a day outside time’ – having driven over the Mendips to Wells that day. It did us both good, Anthony and I, to have a day off – having both worked over Yuletide, either on teaching obligations or our own projects. It was salubrious to be forced to focus on the physical, on simple needs – food, warmth, shelter. This was hardly a survival situation, although it easily could have become so – if one of us had slipped and broken something. But we were both suitably equipped for such predicaments, although it fortunately didn’t come to that. It was only a hike in the hills – and plenty of other people were around: mountain-bikers, motor-trikers, families… It was hardly Antarctica! What I loved was the way the frozen landscape had its own acoustic: the brittle crunch of ice beneath one’s boot, the satisfying crack of an ice-pane in a puddle, the scittering of ice-shards, the dull thud of our progress on the iron hard ground. Our words were distinct as cold pebbles, forced from blood-sluggish mouths. The frost-world muted sound as well as colour, but at the same time made them stand out even more. At one point we followed a path of ruddy soil, strangely exposed and unfrozen, flanked by endless white heathland – like a trail of blood in the snow. It could have been a scene from Fargo. Yet this was a Mendips Nifleheim and our conversation was ‘the director’s commentary’ of a different DVD. Two writers in search of a pen in a world of endless paper – the land a tabula rasa of our imaginations and ambitions.  Swinging back east towards our starting point as the brief hours of daylight began to wane, we passed the magical dell of Rod’s Pot – where Old Man Willow himself seemed to guard a stream-crossing, his mighty limbs covered in moss – and further on, Goat-church Cavern, hidden amongst the downy folds of the hills. We arrived back at the car after a good three and a half hour yomp. Gratefully back inside its artificial warm cocoon we drove through Burrington Combe, passed Aveline’s Hole and the Rock of Ages, which inspired the famous hymn after a passing Reverend Augustus Montague Toplady took shelter there in 1763. Nature had similarly provided our sanctuary that day.

Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.