I had a bit of a puzzle to solve. I’d got a writing commission to start dreaming up the outlines of a new medium-scale play inspired by an historical glassworks, with music, involving both professionals and community performers. I’ve never written anything like that before. Our annual autumn “DIY” writer’s retreat wasn’t happening because we didn’t quite have a full house to cover our rental. DIY is a cost-price writer’s retreat that’s been running on a shoestring for the past 15 years, and Nikki, David and I are three of DIY’s biggest fans. (Nikki would live at DIY if she could.) Like the new play, DIY offers writing time to both amateur and professional writers and is a wonderful, affordable thing. I organise it each time in exchange for a free place. On top of this, I’m having some work done on my tiny house, so there’s a thick layer of plaster dust everywhere, my writer’s brain and books are packed up in boxes and there are big, loud, friendly workmen crashing about the place all day long. I’ve lost most of my work and income as a theatre translator and playwright the past two years thanks to Rona Virus, and so can’t afford to send myself on any other retreat. Nikki and David are in the same sort of boat and so all three of us are desperate for some writing space to get on with our new projects.
We start hunting for writing residencies: as rare as hen’s teeth in the UK, it turns out, but plentiful in the USA. A bit too far to go. Then one of us has a brainwave, it might have been me. HAWKWOOD!! They do residencies I think, I say, having rehearsed there in the past on shows by Stroud’s brilliant female clowning duo, Spitz & Co. Oh yeah, says David, I’m doing The Cult of Water at Hawkwood next year, it would be great to scope the place out! The Cult of Water is David’s mystical storytelling show (and book, and radio piece) in praise of the River Don. Let’s apply NOW! shrieks Nikki. So we do apply, individually but together, as members of a phantom writing group, and we get accepted.
The rest is this: home-made biscuits and cakes served throughout the day (Biskwit O’Clock, as Nikki calls it, an addition to her usual shout of Wine O’Clock! at 6pm sharp); a housekeeper and her young apprentice laying the fire for us in the library each evening – more Downton than DIY; grounds full of crows, ancient trees, a spring, and a panorama of rolling hills wreathed in mist; three hearty meals a day served, cleared and washed-up for us; single rooms with antique wiring systems and vaulted windows; shelves of esoteric books with strange titles like The Journey of the Folk Soul… Cooking with Spirits… The Mystery of the Abdomen… The English: Are They Human?… ; it’s all subsidised by the Reckitt Trust and free to artists, a wonder; and best of all, peaceful uninterrupted writing time for four whole days. I procrastinate at first because I’m daunted by the blank page, the other two get up early and go for walks and write like demons all day. Really annoying. Eventually I get going too.
We get to hang out with four other artists from other spheres: Fiona is a storyteller who’s exploring myth, Davey is a shy young Welsh pop musician/composer, after he’s gone we discover that he has a squillion followers on social media and is famous, Lauren is an illustrator playing with dreamy cartoon-like images of eco characters, and Timothy an American painter-in-oils of abstracted landscapes. He’s very good. Timothy has bagged a long residency at Hawkwood, has seen various other weirdos like us come and go, but doesn’t seem to have put on an extra pound in the process. That’s because he zips around like Puck, hangs out with cows and trudges the hills for hours painting England. For all I know, Timothy might still be there.
The icing on the cake for me is that my director, Emma Callander, is allowed to come as a day visitor (Lunch! Cake! Coffee!) to kick-start my playwriting process. She does what I call Focus-Pocus, an inspired combination of idea, felt-tips and flip chart. Just before she leaves she says to me: This is going to be your phoenix project, Reen, you’re going to rise from the ashes… When she’s gone I walk into the drawing room and hanging on the wall in front of me is huge painting of a phoenix in a gilt frame. Unreal.
Hawkwood is a magical place. My friend, storyteller Jane Flood, says it’s a liminal place, that it’s ‘between the worlds’. It has inspiration coming out of the walls, along with cake. Thank you Hawkwood for having me and my fellow writers to stay, all for free. We can’t believe our luck. We’re really missing you. Please can we come back?