Arvon is 50 this year and to celebrate we have collected the stories of writers far and wide who have a tale to tell about Arvon. The collection will be published in our anniversary booklet and featured on our blog throughout the year. The following piece is by Sally Harrop.
The Hurst revealed itself gradually as I rounded the final bend of the approach. Snugged within its gardens, it sat beneath a heavily wooded hillside, spruce spires puncturing the blue sky. Immediately I was in love.
After a warm early Spring, the extensive grounds of this imposing building were bursting with vibrant new leaves, heavy with spring blossoms, the fragrance deep, thick and shocking. My spartan room had views down the valley, and during the week I would sit at my desk beneath the deeply revered window, with its slubby, pitted glass, and gaze at it, trying to draw in the vitality of the place.
Being early to arrive, I had the pleasure of being able to sit people-watching at my window as the writers appeared, trying to guess who they were, being wrong on every count. And they all looked like proper writers to me, I felt like a fraud. Before the end of the week, these strangers would become friends, but at this early stage, my anxiety jangled. I had been trying to come to Arvon for a few years, was writing, but had no direction or discipline; was I even on the right course? The others seemed to exude a subtle confidence which increased my apprehension.
Slowly, through talking, workshops and tutorials, these feelings dissipated, my own confidence built, I started to relax. Walking the trail behind the house with fellow novices, the land seeped into us, loosening our nerves, our tongues, our ideas. Through the woodland, past the pool, the decaying greenhouse and crumbling outbuildings, thick with moss and inspiration. Even out in a fine drizzle it felt romantic and uplifting.
The Hurst was an enigma which intrigued me, and kept me busy all week trying to unravel its secrets. Late Georgian, built from unforgiving grey limestone, the building had been added to by Victorians, made more elaborate, as was the fashion. Stages of restoration confused the original layout: hidden staircases, closed off doorways, mismatched floor levels, rooms divided. The solution to the necessity of having to add several new en-suite bedrooms was to splice a contemporary new build onto the old one, a solution that worked very well, and added some of its own quirks.
And much of the old elegance remained. The entrance was graceful and welcoming; the mahogany stairway, rising out of the original oak floor, swept up and round, and was topped with a tented lantern, spilling light into the foyer. Respectfully restored rooms welcomed the writers, held us securely, coaxed our creativity. It felt peaceful and safe. It was easy to see why John Osborne loved it.
The serenity and the space provided a sanctuary for a few precious days. Writers wandered the rooms and corridors, hushed by day, politely avoiding each other, or chatting quietly in corners. Then, released, joined together in the evening to cook, eat and discuss the day’s progress, joyous and carefree.
The programme we had, the tutors, the staff, the food, the writing and the camaraderie all provided, as is often said about Arvon, a life-changing experience. For me the Hurst added to that experience in a way I would never have anticipated. I felt John and Helen’s presence behind the blind doorways, within the books and in each glass of wine. I felt goaded by them, sometimes mocked, and certainly awed; in contrast I felt inspired and nurtured by the house and gardens. How lucky for us that Osborne entreated his wife not to leave, despite colossal debts, and that she had the guts to stay put. How lucky for us that she agreed to Arvon’s acquiring this formidable ruin, starting it’s journey back to health, and allowing us to experience its remarkable spirit. For a few days it felt like our home; I would be reluctant to leave, certain to return.