Combating the enemy of creativity, William Cash has established a writers retreat at his Elizabethan gatehouse, as the winners of the Spears Book Awards will discover
Combating the enemy of creativity, William Cash has established a writers’ retreat at his Elizabethan gatehouse, as the winners of the Spear’s Book Awards will discover
WHEN THE PLAYWRIGHT John Osborne died on Christmas Eve in 1994, he left his 18th-century Shropshire house, The Hurst, with spectacular hilltop views looking towards Offa’s Dyke, to the Arvon Foundation. Osborne lived close to the village of Clunton about 45 minutes’ drive from my family house, Upton Cressett, near the market town of Bridgnorth, and he used to come over for a Sunday roast lunch wearing a home knitted pullover with a giant British Union Jack emblazoned on the front like a walking flag.
The day of his funeral, on a freezing and snowing January morning, with Edward Fox doing a reading in the village church of St George’s, was the only time I visited The Hurst. From the moment you made it up the steep, icy and remote drive (many parked their cars at the bottom and walked up) you could immediately see why the Arvon Foundation — probably Britain’s best known writers’ retreat organisation — had no hesitation in accepting the bequest of The Hurst. It is now called The John Osborne Arvon Centre.
Yet while such literary residential retreats are commonplace in America and Europe, with perhaps the most famous being the Santa Maddalena Foundation of Baronessa Beatrice Monti della Corte in Tuscany, whose 15th-century ‘invitation only’ Tower is regarded as the literary holy grail, attracting such writers as Bruce Chatwin, Zadie Smith and Michael Ondaatje — it even has a glossy article by Edmund White in Vanity Fair as a ‘testimonial’ for invited authors — there are very few serious writers’ retreats in England.
Scotland has Hawthornden Castle, set on a craggy ridge overlooking the North Esk River south of Edinburgh, but there is no internet in the castle and writers are only allowed to re-apply once every five years. And while the Arvon Foundation is perhaps Britain’s most successful retreat, much of its extensive programme — ranging from ‘starting fiction’ to food writing — is run as four and a half day (ie holiday time) creative writing workshops for would-be writers wanting to unleash their ‘inner creativity’. In short, Arvon seems run on a semi-charitable commercial basis — with ‘collective’ team cooking — and is not geared up to be a serious retreat for established authors.
Which is why, after moving into my family country home in January, I decided to start the Upton Cressett Foundation. Britain clearly needs a serious retreat similar in spirit and ambition to the Santa Maddalena Foundation. The foundation will be a working retreat for novelists, playwrights, screenwriters, biographers, historians and academics to shut themselves away for up to six weeks to make progress with a project, undistracted. It could be 100 pages of a novel, a rewrite on a script, or a monograph for a think-tank.
In his 1938 novel Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly famously asserted that ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.’ Other enemies of progress on a novel, biography, play or non-fiction book might include: literary burn-out, mid-list or mid-life angst, review work, journalism, the festival circuit, media and TV work, family, teaching, speaking engagements, another career, financial or domestic pressure, divorce, death, creative block, or simply the drawl and choke of urban or city life.
Being lucky enough to have a rare and unique Elizabethan gatehouse which stands empty most of the time, means I have the perfect literary environment. Compared by architectural historians to the Tower at Sissinghurst, where Vita Sackville-West built her library and wrote her many books, and described by Simon Jenkins as an ‘Elizabethan gem’, the gatehouse has a unique working atmosphere. I know this as I wrote my book on Graham Greene in six weeks there, and a play on the philosopher AJ Ayer in a month.
Featuring two octagonal turrets, thick Tudor brick walls, original oak spiral staircase, and rare sixteenth century ornamental plasterwork, as well as a huge writing study with mullion stone windows overlooking the local landscape, the gatehouse offers complete creative refuge from the world.
Winners of the major categories of the forthcoming Spear’s Book Awards will have the chance to be guest fellows for up to three weeks. The foundation is not ‘invitation only’: it welcomes unsolicited applications by any established or talented new writer (or their publisher or agent) detailing what their literary project is and why they (or their nominee) would benefit from an intensive creative work period. An editorial advisory board and board of trustees will make all decisions, and invitations will also be sent out to writers whose talents the board especially admire.
I first got the idea about a year ago when I had the Jerwood Prize-winning artist Adam Dant (who does the Spear’s covers) living in the Upton Cressett gatehouse for several months while executing a commission, much of it on his back, to restore the Great Hall dining room to its former Tudor glory with a new hand-painted ceiling as well as decorate the main newel staircase with a series of cartouches based on the designs at Knole and 16th-century Dutch cartouche work.
As he worked, and came over for dinner most nights (I was living in a cottage as builders were working at the house), Adam began describing living in the Gatehouse as his ‘creative rehab’. The uniquely remote location of Upton Cressett, he said, was the ideal place for writers and artists to create new work in an inspirational environment. There is also a sister property, a 19th-century converted coach-house which will also be part of the foundation.
The Upton Cressett Foundation makes no formal demands on guest fellows other than they are seriously committed to their work. All cleaning, laundry, cooking and meals are taken care of. Guest fellows are encouraged to join other resident fellows to enjoy an evening meal in the Gatehouse dining room (ceiling again by Adam Dant) prepared by the house cook.
In the Elizabethan age, when the Gatehouse was built, the country house was seen as a retreat from the world. Andrew Marvell wrote his great country house poem ‘Upon Appleton House’ in 1651 while living at Nun Appleton House in Yorkshire (the seat of Lord Fairfax).
From Goethe, who described himself as a ‘child of solitude’, to Virginia Woolf, who said that only when she was alone could she give ‘passionate attention’ to her life, writers have always benefited from time to themselves in order to hear and order the voices in their head. ‘Rien ne peut être fait sans la solitude’ said Picasso (‘Without solitude nothing is possible’). Einstein wrote that ‘I lived in solitude in the country and noticed how the monotony of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.’
Above all, I want to make The Upton Cressett Foundation different from other international writers’ retreats by not limiting guest fellows to just writers. I will be converting a stable block to create an artist’s studio, as well as — later — installing a recording studio for musicians, singers and bands to come and record an album. Above all, I don’t want it to feel like some precious literary house party where writers are practically living on top of each other. At Santa Maddalena, writers have fled after finding themselves caught up in the social drama of the house.
The Gatehouse at Upton Cressett. Photography by Mike Wooton
A good example is the following report card (not exactly a thank-you note) written by Verlyn Klinkenborg, who is on the editorial board of the New York Times: ‘The fact is, that very soon after my arrival, the ordinary domestic circumstances of the household became a distraction.’
Klinkenborg is not the only writer to have bolted. I want to make it clear that Upton Cressett is different, and that writers know they will be very much left alone during the day. Because both properties are separate and self-contained, there is very much a distinction between the private life of Upton Cressett and the work of the invited writers.
I don’t subscribe to the view that literary environment is irrelevant. Many writers I know have to fight pretty hard to get any private space and time in their lives. John Updike said he wanted to write books that ‘unlock the traffic jam in everybody’s head’. I can’t think of a better place to do that than Upton Cressett. It’s unique and my hope is that everybody who comes here leaves with a suitcase full of pages. As Ernest Hemingway put it in A Moveable Feast: ‘The only thing that can spoil a day is people and if you can keep from making engagements, every day has no limits.’