The Arvon Foundation’s study centre at The Hurst in Shropshire has had a makeover. Last week 100 members of the literary community – and one pretender – found their way there to see what a marvellous job they’ve made of it.
Most people have no idea where Shropshire is. It’s sufficiently tucked away that you don’t pass through it on the way to anywhere, except perhaps a scattering of hamlets in mid-Wales.
To get to Shropshire, make your way to the left (ahem… west) of Birmingham, then wiggle along for an hour or so down meandering roads and through a dozen small towns and villages. When the undulations in the landscape become proper hills dotted with sheep; when a blanket of misty drizzle descends, diffusing the skyline to a grey-green froth – you’re in Shropshire.
I’ve always known where Shropshire is; it holds a special place in my heart despite the questionable climate. As a child I spent many happy half-term holidays there, in Church Stretton, perpetually soggy whatever the time of year, wrapped in anorak and scarf, clumping around a dank and earthy Carding Mill Valley in ill-fitting wellies. As the great-niece of a wonderful woman whom everyone in the town seemed to know, it always felt as if I belonged there.
Three years ago I was back in Shropshire on a writing course at The Arvon Foundation’s study centre at the former home of playwright John Osborne, The Hurst, near Clun. I was excited by the idea of flexing my creative muscles in an area that held so many memories. The course was excellent but The Hurst, whilst nestled in stunning surroundings, had several shortcomings. Activities were carried out across three buildings and the most striking of these – the main house – was largely boarded up and unused, due to its perilous state of repair. I had a study bedroom at the top of this house, accessed by a shabby rear staircase. I shared a bathroom with three or four other rooms. We all co-operated sensitively with one another, but it wasn’t an ideal arrangement for grown-ups.
But Arvon has been busy, and with a substantial grant from Arts Council England and donations from many other organisations and private individuals, the impressive renovation of The Hurst was officially unveiled last week.
It was a well-attended event; I confess I was surprised at how many people had come, given the remoteness of the location. No doubt a testimony to the esteem in which Arvon is held in the literary world. After having a good look at the newly refurbished main rooms and a snoop around one or two of the 19 en-suite (yes!!) study bedrooms, all I can say is that I’m looking for an excuse to return to The Hurst for another study week. All those shortcomings… have been addressed in a stylish and sympathetic updating of the big house. It’s lovely, without being overdone at all. It still bears all the Arvon hallmarks; a natural, organic style; simple, almost sparse furnishing; an emphasis on community and an atmosphere which respects and honours its heritage. Top marks, Arvon.
I was at this launch event under false pretences. I wasn’t a donor, or a published writer, just a former student with an unpublished manuscript in her back pocket and a dwindling reserve of self-belief. I was the plus one of an invited guest who, in the event, was unable to attend. I went anyway, glad of a reason to head to Shropshire and anticipating an opportunity to meet a few writers and… maybe… maybe… maybe… run across an agent or two.
I enjoyed the day – a good lunch, a poke around the old place, a few warmly received speeches and a short but exquisite poetry reading. I refused a slice of cake. A photographer took so many pictures of me that I began to wonder if he thought I was someone else – someone famous, a real writer maybe. I chatted to another former Arvon student, the partner of one half of a celebrated TV writing duo, a couple of National Trust stalwarts and several lovely Arvon team members; but if there were any authors or agents there, I didn’t stumble across them. If I had, I realise it would have been crass beyond words to attempt to interest them in my book, so it’s probably just as well.
As a freelance marketer, I’ve done business networking for years; I’m used to walking into rooms filled with strangers and starting conversations. I’m quite comfortable presenting my business proposition in 60 seconds and I know what’s expected. But in a literary context, it’s different – I don’t find it at all easy. It’s because I don’t (yet) belong in this world. I’m outside the window, tapping gently but persistently on the glass, hoping someone will notice me and invite me in. I’m just one of thousands of people who have written books, but not (yet) seen them published through the mainstream media.
One day, maybe, I’ll be able to show up at an event like this one, lay confident claim to a glass of champagne and when asked, say, ‘I’m a writer’ without feeling quite such an imposter.