Gordon Fisher blogs about his experience of bringing a school group to Arvon.
On Monday, 13th of January of this year, Lochend Community High School from Easterhouse in Glasgow set off on their fifth – or was it sixth? – Arvon creative writing residential trip, this time to Ted Hughes’ old gaff, Lumb Bank, which nestles beautifully above Hebden Bridge in the gloriously beautiful Yorkshire Pennines. Of course after organising so many trips I knew what to expect from Arvon: bright and cheery accommodation, stunning countryside, great home-made food concocted by our young people (some of whom were keener than others to put Gordon Ramsay to shame!), and of course the wonderful opportunity to get creative under the tutelage of two experienced professional writers. Having been to the Hurst, Lumb Bank and Totleigh Barton (look out Moniack Mhor, I’ve got you in my sights!) I can safely say that no matter which centre the trip is made to, it seems that the same superb standards apply.
These are not the only things that are the same though. The actual format of the week for schools is a constant too. Some might think that a change would be good to shake things up, but I am with the old Georgia farmer on this one: “If it aint broke, don’t fix it!” After arrival at the centre about four o’clock, we had a short time to freshen up and get a bite to eat before meeting our tutors for the week. Alan Durant had worked with us two years ago at the Hurst and when I asked the team at the London office if he was available for this trip, I was delighted when they got back to me a short time later saying that he was and would be up for joining us. On that previous adventure, Alan had been accompanied on his literary mission to inspire and improve my young writers by the wonderful Catherine Fox. Sadly, Catherine was unavailable due to other commitments but the London office, knowing of our requirements as a school, advised me of Helen’s availability and I must say we weren’t disappointed.
Alan Durant and Helen Cross were both, in short, absolutely fantastic! They captivated the young people through some very stimulating writing exercises: Alan used music as a stimulus to engage the pupils in free writing to get the creative juices flowing; Helen used a selection of seashells to explore metaphor; Alan led a session on using favourite pieces of literature to inspire new writing (considering the surroundings it was very apt that he chose Ted Hughes’s poem “The Thought-Fox” to show how it inspired his own piece entitled “The Thought-Football”); Helen used photographs as a way into developing plots. These are only a small selection from the writers’ toolbox that they wielded as my pupils hammered their own prose and poetry into shape.
Reading this it might be tempting to think, “Wow! So much in the space of five days?” Well, believe it or not, that is just the morning sessions taken care of! Each afternoon gives the young people a chance to work on their own writing in the comfort of their own room, the well-stocked library, the barn, the dining room or the cosy living room, whilst the tutors embark on a series of half hour long one-on-one tutorials with the budding writers in a bid to help them polish up their prose or varnish their verse.
After dinner in the evenings (Lochend’s very own version of Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook ably assisted by Jack, the centre assistant) there was an opportunity for everyone to sit around and discuss their work so far and seek further guidance from the tutors or from each other. Wednesday nights on the school week offers a departure from the norm, however, with a visit from a guest reader. This time around we were fortunate enough to be visited by award-winning poet and Professor of poetry at Newcastle University, Bill Herbert. Bill read from his own body of work and was at once entertaining and thought-provoking, not to mention great company and conversation beside the roaring log fire after his session had finished. Friday night is performance night and each young writer gets up in front of their peers to present the piece of which they are most proud. This is a fantastic opportunity for pupils to bathe in the applause of an appreciative audience and is an excellent confidence builder too.
Saturday morning and it’s time to dry teary eyes, board the bus and head for home.
If you are thinking about undertaking a school’s week at an Arvon centre, then in the words of the famous slogan, “Just do it!” Every time I take young people on one of these trips the impact upon them is obvious: each pupil has two or three very good pieces of writing that they have created and of which they are justly proud and just as importantly, they have had the opportunity to indulge in an enriching cultural experience that will live with them for the rest of their lives.
Now where’s my map? I’m off to Moniack. “Wait for me, kids!”