Six years at Totleigh

13 Feb 2015 / Totleigh Barton

Totleigh Barton house and garden in winter

by Oliver Meek, Centre Director at Totleigh Barton Arvon Centre for the last six years


I realised today, whilst preparing lunch for the group here on a retreat, that I must have made over a thousand lunches in the Totleigh kitchen and tomorrow will be my last. It felt like a suitable place to reflect on my six years here at Totleigh. Arvon courses are all about writing, but the food is a very important part of what we do and it has been in the kitchen, right at the heart of the house, where I have shared so many great conversations with the writers who come here.

As a Centre Director, you quickly learn to recognise the symptoms of frustration in writers. You can tell, often just by their tea and coffee (and alcohol) consumption, how their week is going and how close they are to the elusive breakthrough. Writing, whatever your genre, is hard work and requires many dedicated hours. Most writers realise the sheer magnitude of their undertaking at some point during an Arvon week but the kitchen offers salvation with the lure of the biscuit tin or a piece of Paradise Slice.

Whilst chopping vegetables or unloading the shopping I have witnessed moments of Arvon magic, those times when something clicks, and a writer realises they should stop giving themselves a hard time and just write more. I’ve seen writers speed through the kitchen after the morning workshop in a hurry to get back to their laptops as they can barely contain the words about to leap on to the page. Or there is the writer who emerges from their room with a glow of satisfaction, knowing that they’ve just written 200 words that are better than anything they’ve written before.  I’ve seen the smile replace the furrowed brow on the regularly spotted (at the kettle), overly self-critical writer. I’ve seen writers emerge jubilant from tutorials safe in the understanding that writing is a process and it’s ok to fail because with every draft it will get better.

A great privilege of working at Totleigh is seeing the seasons change and feeling nature’s influence all around. The snowdrops are out in force this year which means that the daffodils won’t be far behind and soon the orchard of apple trees that overlooks our office will be full of blossom. The seasons and weather have been wholly unpredictable so I have learnt to take my cues from what the garden is telling me. It has been my calendar for the past six years.

Every time of year brings its own edible treats to the vegetable garden. The rhubarb will be along shortly (albeit with the help of an upside down bucket to force it along). As we reach spring the wild garlic will appear around the pond and alas, I will not get to taste our first crop of asparagus that should make its debut this May. I’ll miss the mountain of strawberries that will be heaped on to our cream teas in early summer and the peril of picking gooseberries and my fingers being impaled by their thorny spines.

Our garden does not only provide lovely food but it also provides space for contemplation which is incredibly important for writers. The veg garden is my favourite spot at Totleigh and I’ve seen many a writer just sitting watching the garden grow finding the productivity of the soil somehow reassuring.

I leave to go back to the hurly burley of London, the place that I have so often provided refuge from for writers, and I hope that sometime soon in the future I will find the time to come back to Totleigh and unfurl. Totleigh will always be a home from home, not just for me but for everyone who gets the opportunity to come here and that is what makes it such a special place.

Oliver is leaving Arvon to be the Executive Director of the Rio Cinema in Dalston.


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