Saturday, April 23, 2016
A WRITER'S RETREAT by Victoria Chatham
All writers have their own processes, their own tried and true foibles which work for them. It may be having that particular cup for coffee or tea when they sit down to write, or having their favorite music playing in the background or their pets at their feet. My process is to have peace and quiet and I had that in abundance during my stay at Keystone, a two-hundred year old stone built cottage which nestles comfortably into the hillside at Blakeney in the Forest of Dean, west Gloucestershire.
The Forest covers a roughly triangular area between the Rivers Wye to the west and Severn and was famous for its timber and mineral resources. The Romans were the first to exploit the iron ore found in these ancient woodlands. Later the Forest became royal hunting grounds and was used exclusively for that purpose by the Tudors. Iron making and coal mining continued through the ages, those industries being at their peak in the 19th Century.
But it wasn’t for any of that history that I chose the Forest for my retreat. I wanted time to research and draft Shell Shocked, the third book in The Buxton Chronicles trilogy. I found Annie McKie’s retreat on line at http://www.anniemckie.co.uk/ and it made the perfect Easter break for me. My room had a view overlooking the valley and it was a pleasure to sit outside on the balcony to enjoy it. I had my own front door with beautiful stained glass window panels and could come and go as I pleased without disturbing anyone.
A comfortable bed ensured I slept like the proverbial log. Had the weather turned cool I could have made the room more cozy than it was with the aid of a wood-burning stove. A writing desk by the window gave me light and fresh air while I worked. Annie kept my room well stocked with tea, coffee, fruit and snacks. In the evenings I joined her and her husband Ian for the most marvelous vegetarian meals cooked in her solid fuel stove. Annie introduced me to the free-range chickens which produced our eggs and explained how she and her neighbors ran a self-sustaining gardening cooperative.
The more I talked with Annie the more I realized we had a connection. At least, I felt connected because hers was a familiar voice and face as she was a former newsreader and announcer for BBC Radio 4 and the BBC TV regional station Points West. Annie had also trained as an actor, speech and drama teacher and taught all aspects of voice and communication skills. She writes fiction and mentors writers and I had several brainstorming sessions with her.
I so appreciated that aspect of my time at Keystone. My first draft of Shell Shocked raised more questions in my mind as to which battle or battles to include in my story. It was Annie’s suggestion to not concentrate on that, but on the people who remained at home. Among the books available in my room was Winifred Foley’s A Child in the Forest, a book I had once owned and thoroughly enjoyed. Reading it again gave me ideas for my book and I quickly revised my first draft and made many more notes.
With access to the Forest only 30 seconds away from Keystone, I walked every day. It didn’t matter in which direction I went I got plenty of exercise as, if I walked downhill I had to come back up and vice versa, but wherever I went I enjoyed the views. This view is from Blakeney Hill looking across the River Severn to the Cotswold Hills. I don’t know any writer who does not use walking time as thinking time. The only thing I had to be concerned about while on these daily walks were the free-roaming sheep and pigs, especially the pigs which forage for acorns. Fortunately I only heard them squealing and grunting as they rooted up the forest floor but the freshly turned grass beside the pathways on which I walked were clear evidence of their existence. Free grazing rights, established in Norman times, applies to basically anyone who lives within the Forest purview.
During my time at Keystone the weather was gorgeous. The trees were greening and the pussy willows beside the streams along the valley bottom bursting into life. Primroses and celandines peeped beneath the hedgerows bordering the lanes and steep paths that connected one level of the hillside with another. The sweet smelling carpets of bluebells, for which the Forest is famous, were just beginning to bloom and I was sorry to miss this spring extravaganza. A writers retreat is at the very least a gift you can give yourself, whether you go alone or join a group. At most it is a magical period of time in which you may surprise yourself with heightened insights and productivity and, in my case, a completed book.