I got the train to Hawkwood the day after England lost in the Euros. The vibe in London was grim; it was rainy and grey outside and everyone seemed to have a slouch in their shoulders and a drag in their step. I probably did too. I felt burdened and upset by the racist backlash that there had been against the black players who’d so bravely put themselves on the line for their team during penalties. But in a way, it was the perfect day to embark on my journey – not only did it make Hawkwood’s peaceful idyll seem all the more precious, but the atmosphere of that day resonated deeply with the themes of the project I was travelling there to work on.
Last year I produced and presented a BBC Radio 4 documentary series called ‘My Albion’, which explored British national identity, folklore, myth, empire, and our connection to the land; I’d applied for a Hawkwood residency so that I could continue my research and work on some writing based on the series. Travelling to the idyllic green vales of Stroud from the grey, dirty city of London the day after our collective nationalistic fantasies of victory had been crushed seemed to encapsulate some of the contradictions I wanted to explore in my writing, and which perforate my own relationship to this country: the beauty of the British landscape vs its harsh, industrial urban centres; the intoxicating legends of British exceptionalism vs the dark histories of colonialism and the slave trade; the desire to love the place you’re from vs the racism and xenophobia common to so many strains of nationalism… How can we resolve these conflicts? And could we forge a new vision of Britishness that can account for it all – the dark as well as the light?
Hawkwood was the perfect place to ruminate on these tricky questions. In between writing sessions, I visited the spring, listening to the sounds of trickling water under the ancient Sycamore. I walked barefoot in the woods, feeling the earth beneath my feet and hearing the rustles of the leaves in the canopy above. I sat and talked with fellow visitors and pilgrims, learning about the forces that had brought them to this oasis, and sharing details my own quest. Most importantly, it gave me time… Time to be, time to breathe – unmarked, open fields of time, free of the schedules and gridded systems that carve up my working life in the city. My residency at Hawkwood gave me the time and space to listen to the earth and the trees and the running water, so that I might try and hear what story they want me to tell about old Albion. You can call me a hippy, but you really do hear them once you start to listen.
I sowed seeds for my project at Hawkwood which remain underground for now, but which, I hope, will bloom in the not too distant future. I’m very grateful for the experience and hope to return and share the fruits of my labour some time soon!
Full credit to Zakia Sewell, and with thanks to the DCMS & Arts Council England for their funding.