Each year, for several years now, a group of baccalaureate students from a Swiss school comes over to work with me outdoors on Devon and Cornwall's moors and coasts. The idea is that such places will provide inspiration for writing, and as usual with the many of my courses in which land and sea feature as star players, inspiration is best provided, I believe, through immersion in the experience.
For me, creative inspiration is deeply intertwined with environmental awareness; and there is, though I don't mention it, a therapeutic benefit to simply being immersed in the natural world, on its terms. It changes the way we relate to the rest of nature.
We begin at Dartmoor's Merrivale, an early Bronze Age megalithic site on which I've blogged a number of times.
The good thing about this work is that it happens no matter what the weather. The bad thing about this work is similar.
Monday morning brought us the worst forecast in quite some time: serious southwesterly winds, gale force, and very heavy rain. Dartmoor can be dangerous in poor conditions. I feel a twinge of anxiety.
Leaving Totnes, there was some sun and just a drop or two of rain. I felt more optimistic; teenagers, especially coming from a town or city in a country in which this summer seriously high temperatures have been the norm, tend to come equipped with not much more than a T-shirt, despite my warnings, and the exposed site of Merrivale can be truly freezing, even in the summer, and especially when we're walking into a gale.
By the time I arrive at Princetown, though, any hopes I have of a more relenting weather system dissolve as all visibility goes and the shoulders of the granite tors are black under their blankets of fog. As the students pour out of the coach and into the little contained old school yard with its single one-time Christmas tree for my initial words I can see double disbelief: one at the content the sky is throwing at us, two at the notion that once, way back in the late Stone Age and early Bronze Age the climate here was drier, sunnier, and suitable for growing crops.
We make it as far as the stone circle (above, believe it or not), before the teachers' resistance gives out, and we decide to leg it to the pub for a hot chocolate before heading up the prehistoric drovers' track to a wooded tor for more writing.
This is the photo I took of the menhir near the circle just as we left:
Yes, I couldn't make it out afterwards, either. I think it must be my hair. It WAS a gale force wind.
However, the pub, despite the declaration on its website, is closed and remains closed.
We decide to go back to the hostel where the group is staying so that they can dry out and we can actually do some writing; completely impossible on the moor today.
I'm amused by a notice in the loo at Bellever Hostel: 'Please don't put sanitary towels, nappies, gum, unpaid bills, unwanted underwear, your ex's favourite T-shirt, or your hopes and dreams down this toilet. Bins are provided.'
In the relative warmth, utter dryness and with the comfort of a cup of something hot, we write for a couple of fruitful hours, and to my amazement almost all the students say that they loved the morning.
Just as I leave the heart of the moor, the sun comes out.
One of the wonderful things about the work I do is that I love it. It's also, I think, unique. One of the difficult things is the latter: there simply is no one who can replace me if I go sick, and I can't go sick anyway because there is no income if I do, and in this case anyway the week is immovable and has been fixed for a year. These students have come over specifically to work with me in this way.
But I'm ill. I had to have a tooth out last week, and my whole body went into shock, so that I'm working – outdoors, in the rain – with a temperature, badly swollen glands and tonsils, and a headache. I badly need to be in bed.
The weather gods relent a little – quite a lot, in fact – on Tuesday, when we go to Branscombe. Almost all day there is sun, with just a passing cloud, though the sea shows how much storminess has churned at the base of the sandstone cliffs to our west, here on the Jurassic coast.
And the students love it.
The writing flows.
Except when it doesn't.
The students, shy at first and unsure that they really wanted to be here, in the wet British countryside, have really engaged with the work, and are keen to read it out too. We hear their final pieces in a small courtyard out of the wind.
Usually, we head off to one of the little 'garden rooms', as above, where I tell them the story of Tristan and Isolde, long associated with this place and the court of King Mark of Cornwall. This time we stay in the stone courtyard; the students, however, are so immersed in the story that they don't notice the passing tourists and have forgotten they're cold, and we are at least out of the wind. What's more, I remember all the details of the version of the tale I tell (not always the case).
One of the students, the noisy one who seemed the least engaged and interested in the work, the places and the writing, holds back until everyone else has said their goodbyes. Then she comes up to me quietly and tells me that she had arrived 'full of prejudice' about these days, but was leaving delighted to have written, to have experienced the days we have, and to have seen the sea for the first time in her life. I will never forget this, she says, and asks if she might give me a hug. I think we might both be crying, just a little.
And the sun comes out again as I drive home.