Places of Inspiration Part 6: The Saxon Mill, a Writer’s Delight by the Mill-Race on the River Avon Near Warwick

In each one of my places of inspiration I have found spirit of place : in India, at Ayers Rock/Uluru in Australia, in London, in the White Garden at Sissinghurst in Kent, and in Sydney Opera House.  But today, I return to a place very close to home – it’s the Saxon Mill on the River Avon, just outside Warwick – and five minutes walk from where I live.

The Saxon Mill, Warwick
The Saxon Mill, Warwick

The Saxon Mill is a romantic building, which feeds a writer’s imagination – especially for those who write historical fiction. And just down the river is the gaunt, atmospheric ruin of Guy’s Cliffe House. I cannot walk along the river bank here, and stand opposite and gaze at it without imagining all sorts of stories – tales of romance, tragedy, ill deeds, ghosts…

Nearby, on Blacklow Hill, in 1312 King Edward II’s favourite Piers Gaveston was dragged by the Earl of Warwick’s heavy-gang, to a spot now known as Gaveston’s Cross, where he was savagely murdered. He was Edward II’s lover, and exerting much too much power over the kingdom for the Earl of Warwick’s liking. Even a grim tale like this can add to the romance of a place – separated as those events are from us by 700 years.

But what completes the delight of the Saxon Mill for me is its location on the River Avon. Tables and benches are set out overlooking the mill-pond; the old water-wheel may be viewed here too. I love the smell of it; dank, moist timber, full of darkness and age and mystery…

Further along is the footbridge over the weir.  White water gushes down, foaming the river. The terrace overlooking the mill-race is filled daily with people eating and drinking and chatting and laughing; it’s a popular gathering place for locals and those who come from a greater distance.

Saxon Mill weir and footbridge
Saxon Mill weir and footbridge

We went there in the heavy snow of December 2010 to photograph the river and trees, looking like Wonderland.

The Weir at the Saxon Mill 26 Dec 2010
The Weir at the Saxon Mill 26 Dec 2010

Beyond the footbridge you may find a track which traverses the fields to Old Milverton Church – another path much enjoyed by walkers and dogs alike.

I associate the Saxon Mill with happy social gatherings, with a writer’s inspiration, with romantic wonderings… Very close to home, it has that unmistakeable spirit of place.

Do you have a favourite place, near to home, that inspires your imagination? I’d love to hear your stories and comments!

Places of Inspiration Part 4: The White Garden at Sissinghurst and the Flambuoyant Spirit of Vita Sackville-West

The White Garden at Sissinghurst, Kent
The White Garden at Sissinghurst, Kent

 Near Sevenoaks in Kent we find the house formerly owned and occupied by writer Vita Sackville West and her husband Harold Nicolson. Now handed over to the safekeeping and care of the National Trust (something Vita once swore she would never do!) this house and its much beloved White Garden is a place which has inspired many. And I am among them.

Vita as depicted on the cover of "Portrait of a Marriage" by Nigel Nicolson
Vita as depicted on the cover of “Portrait of a Marriage” by Nigel Nicolson

I learned much of what I know about Vita from two books: “Portrait of a Marriage” written by her son Nigel Nicolson, and “Orlando” by Virginia Woolf, in which the central character is based upon Vita, and which has been called “the longest love letter in literary history”.

Though Vita was herself a prolific writer, she is not considered among the great novelists or poets. Instead she is known for the profound influence she had on many who encountered her and became entranced by her bold and flambuoyant personality. The idea behind Orlando serves as a metaphor for Vita’s character: “an English nobleman who lives for hundreds of years before falling asleep and waking up as a woman”. 

Vita was a member of the early 20th century Bloomsbury Set, and courted controversy through her lesbian love affairs with Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf. When my parents were young, Vita would have been well-established as a scandalous figure in the media – though I never took the opportunity to ask them what their views had been of her behaviour.

In many ways Vita’s character shines out to me through all that I have read of her. Snippets I remember are that her mother was a Spanish dancer (immortalised, by the way, in a Tussauds wax figure at the Edwardian Weekend House Party at Warwick Castle – she occupies the lace-festooned lady’s boudoir).

Vita's mother Pepita
Vita’s mother Pepita

Vita’s father was Lord Sackville West. Of her siblings, Vita was the one who most deeply loved and appreciated Knole House, her childhood home; yet she was prevented from inheriting it by the law of inheritance which demanded that it should go to the first son. This was the reason of course why she eventually bought the house at Sissinghurst.

Vita for me is an exhuberant, emotional, colourful character whose abundant imagination eventually found expression in the White Garden at Sissinghurst.

Harold and Vita were a perfect garden creation team. Harold was concerned with the overall design whereas Vita’s wild imagination led her to insist on planting in huge clusters. She hated regimented rows. She believed in great mass of each kind of plant, thus creating the life-enhancing White Garden.

Vita’s original idea was for pure white but she was eventually persuaded to include greys and light blues and light greens as well. This garden stands for her eccentric and individual character; one of the greatest memorials to her romantic spirit. 

Places of Inspiration Part 3: Ayers Rock/Uluru, Evidence of Spirit Ancestors

Here is an image of a famous landmark:

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How do you think of Ayers Rock (aboriginal name Uluru)? Do you think of it as that rock in the middle of Australia, which presents a climbing challenge to all tourists? Or do you think of it as a place sacred to the aborigines, a jewel at the heart of this great continent?

Two and a half years ago, I visited Uluru for the second time. As we stepped out onto the tarmac at Ayers Rock Airport at midday local time, the first thing that struck me was intense colour and light.  Glowing ochre earth, blue sky, pearl white ghost gums – and Uluru itself in the distance, dusky pink

Uluru, an iron-rich sandstone monolith arising from the heart of Australia, is sacred to the indigenous traditional owners, the Anangu.  It tells their stories, it shows the actions of the Spirit Ancestors in their violent conflicts during the Dreamtime, displaying evidence of their falls, their spear-thrusts, their lost shields.  Uluru itself has a strong, brooding presence, which you begin to feel as soon as you see it, and which grows as you approach and gaze. 

It speaks with its changing colours, amber, fiery red, deep brown, depending how the light falls upon it at different times of day, and its knife-edge shadows and fissures, flaking surfaces, indentations, pockmarks, wave-like effects, and most outstanding of all, the skull formation.

Skull Formation
Skull Formation

  On another level, it almost seems like a giant plasticine model which a giant has pressed his fingers into or dragged a comb down, or stippled and stabbed with a palette knife. 

For many visitors, this central icon of Australia is inextricably linked with the idea of climbing to the top.  “Go to Australia: climb Ayers Rock”. But, warn the signs at the Aboriginal Cultural Centre, “The Anangu ask that you respect our traditions and customs, and choose not to climb it.”

We caught the shuttle from the Yulara resort, planning to do the base walk.  On the 9.2 kilometre trail around the Rock, it was evident that the number of fenced-off sacred areas had been increased since my last visit, pushing the path further out.  And yet despite this, a walk around Uluru is full of marvels.  The trees and shrubs are all much greener than you might imagine – the wattles, the fig trees, the desert bottlebrush.  The aboriginal cave-paintings fill you with wonder, every experience defeats your expectations – none more so than the Mutitjulu Waterhole.  We came upon it unexpectedly, tranquil and mysterious, the Rock’s multi-dimensional character reflected in its quiet waters.

Uluru glowing at sunrise
Uluru glowing at sunrise

The feeling I brought away with me after walking round the Rock was almost that of walking round a great and beautiful cathedral, imprinted with the devotion of many centuries. I can well understand how the Anangu revere the Rock, which has taken on an awesome spiritual power from the thousands of years of sacred ceremonies and teaching and story-telling centred upon it. 

For me it is another of my places of inspiration: a vist here allowed me a deeper insight into the meaning of the aboriginal culture, enriching my own understanding. Have you ever visited Uluru? How did you find the experience? And if it has only ever been a picture in a brochure, or a news report, what has been your impression of the famous “Ayers Rock”?

Places of Inspiration Part 1: Exotic Marigolds, Mystical Mountains and Memories of India

I recently watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and found it a movie full of insight, humour and hope.  I vividly recalled my own arrival at Delhi Airport several years ago for a visit to Northern India, and the noise, the brilliant jewel-like saris, the garlands of marigolds placed around our necks. The images flooded in on me:  colour, chaos, begging children, families camping and cooking in the middle of the central reservation in major roads in Delhi. I relived the shock of seeing leprous beggars, the pity I felt on meeting girls who appeared to be only about 10 years old, carrying tiny babies on their backs, holding out their hands for free offerings of food or money; the disease and poverty, and also the spirituality, the beauty and the profound joy of India.

In ‘the Land of the Gods’ the Garhwal Himalayas – I journeyed in a minibus up a perilous mountain road, our final destination being Badrinath, place of Hindu pilgrimage, just before the Tibetan border. The road was lined with signs saying things like “Yours Hurry is Another’s Worry”.  We reached the mountain village of Joshimath late in the afternoon. As I inhaled the fragrance of a syringa bush there, I realised a local resident stood beside me. He remarked: “the might of God is all around” in a very casual way, reflecting what I was thinking and feeling at the time. And I thought: This wouldn’t happen in England. And if it did it would have a very different cultural context!

Our journey ultimately led to Badrinath. We arrived as dusk fell and there before us was the peak of Neel Kanth, luminous in the full moon. It was a sight I would never forget.  Since then I’ve seen a number of images on Google of Neel Kanth, and yet none comes near capturing the impact this mystical mountain had on me that night as I arrived in Badrinath.

There too, on the mountain path above Badrinath, I met a Sadhu – India holy man who lived in a cave. See my recent post for a photo of this holy man, whose tranquil expression made a lasting impression on me.

So to sum up my reflections on India: there may be squalor, social injustice, and dysfunctional public services, but this is a country of extremes, and I felt a visit here should also have a profound spiritual impact, as it did for the characters in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, transforming the lives of each one of them, bringing all of them clarity and moments of radical decision.

This is a personal reflection on India, and I know there will be many visitors who feel differently about it. Have you visited India? And what are your thoughts on this country of extremes?

The Psyche of a Cat and Emily Bronte’s School Essay

Hattie in the garden - photo taken by Abigail Robinson
Hattie in the garden – photo taken by Abigail Robinson

Cats both domestic and wild have been worshipped, adored, feared, coveted, persecuted, psychoanalysed, parodied,  wondered over, painted, written about, sculpted, photographed… and there is no sign of this fascination ever abating.

Some of us find cats enchanting; others greatly prefer dogs. Personally, I love both; but admit that I’ve probably spent longer pondering the psyche of a cat, than that of a dog.

When considering the appeal of our own cat, Hattie, I believe that few come closer than Emily Bronte to explaining humankind’s long enthrallment by cats. 

Emily Bronte wrote a French essay called “The Cat” in 1842 – often one of the examples cited in demonstrating her unsentimental attitude towards nature. The cat, she wrote, although it differs in some physical points, is extremely like us in disposition. Then she considers the three charges of hypocrisy, cruelty and ingratitude levelled against the cat by its detractors : detestable vices in our race and equally odious in that of cats… a cat in its own interest sometimes hides its misanthropy under the guise of amiable gentleness… the ingratitude of cats is another name for penetration. They know how to value our favours at their true price, because they guess the motives that prompt us to grant them. 

Emily understood that we see something of ourselves in cats. We recognise their psyches. And of course we are free to interpret that as we like!

For instance, Hattie, among her many intriguing characteristics, never fails to miaow for her biscuits approximately one hour before they are due. And the miaows continue until we cannot possibly resist any longer.  The danger of course is that the biscuits come slightly earlier each day… Her persistence is admirable, and I have often compared it to the way I handle frustration in life. I have even thought that if Hattie had written a novel, and wished to find a literary agent to represent her, she would achieve success much quicker than many thousands of despairing authors of slushpile manuscripts. 

Our cat Hattie - photo by Abigail Robinson
Our cat Hattie – photo by Abigail Robinson

Emily Bronte wrote her cat essay under the tutelage of her French master in Brussels in 1842. Five years later she published Wuthering Heights. In this novel she created the kind of home, occupied as it is by a deeply dysfunctional family, where any cat would lead a high-risk existence –  escaping from the boot of sadistic Hindley when he’s in one of his rages, or the heartbroken revenge of a demented Heathcliffe a generation later. Emily’s perception of human nature is fierce, penetrating and unsentimental; and therein lies her reliability  in discerning the psyche of a cat.

What do you think? Is this a true picture of the cat? Or perhaps you disagree with Emily Bronte? I’d love to have your comments!

The Archetypal Appeal of the Vista

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These are two images of the Syon Vista – one of the three great vistas in Kew Gardens which together form a triangle between Pagoda, Palm House and riverside viewpoint. And as I stood there a few days ago, I was reminded of why we love a long, straight vista. The vista, or avenue, draws the spectator forwards along it, to the central vanishing point. It represents our dearest wish: that life may be like that. And perhaps it may be – in our dreams. Instead, in reality, our lives twist and turn and diverge and backtrack. The path has many confusing cul-de-sacs. We fall down potholes. The path leads through marshy ground, and we nearly sink beneath the surface. The path may be a perilous mountain track, or it may be piled with jagged boulders.

But a grand vista is none of these things. Instead, it progresses smoothly into a secure, warm, welcoming future.  We find it comforting, reassuring, uplifiting. Avenues represent human control over the landscape, imposing order on a chaotic world. And since imposing control on the landscape is a major, expensive task, the grand avenue is the province of the wealthy and the powerful. Capability Brown  demonstrated his ability to create dreams from landscape – at a cost. His clients found the grand vista a perfect way to reassure themselves of their status.

Windsor Great Park boasts a vista – the Long Walk, first set out by Charles II. And as it was developed in time, it became an ideal route for ceremonial rides. George IV reaped the benefit of the vista, however, not merely by public display although he was indeed very fond of that. No – in addition he had between 20 and 30 miles of neatly planted avenues to ride along, from which the public was wholly excluded.

I suggest that a vista means many things to us – and foremost among them, hope, dreams, clarity, destiny, goals, the future, focus, direction, drive, ambition, vision. All those things we either long for, or are told we must have, or we aspire to.

On the straight vista through life there are no snakes, no ladders, no forks, no bogs, no potholes, no detours. The goal, our destiny, is always in sight; and we are always progressing smoothly towards it. Nevertheless, alongside our love of grand avenues and vistas, we also respond to great stories full of twists and turns. And the reason, I suspect, is that  both play their part in our understanding of life. Dreams and reality intermingle; the ideal and the real guide each other.

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Wisdom from Hermitage, Cave and Monastery

a sadhu (Hindu holy man) in the Himalayas
a sadhu (Hindu holy man) in the Himalayas

Sometimes you hear people say “What’s the use of being a solitary contemplative?” How can any of humanity’s problems be resolved by those who withdraw from the world, to live the life of a hermit or a monk? The vital role of the sadhu or holy man is long established in Indian tradition; and renewed interest in monasticism in our society in recent years has focused our attention on The Monastery TV programmes exploring the work of Abbot Christopher Jamison at Worth Abbey in Sussex. His book Finding Sanctuary is one of the finest spiritual books I’ve ever read.

Abbot Christopher Jamison
Abbot Christopher Jamison

 Gifts from the hermitage or monastery or cave may not necessarily come through words. Years ago, I met a sadhu, a Hindu holy man, in the Himalayas. He lived in a cave above Badrinath (the last Indian town of importance before the Tibetan border, and place of Hindu pilgrimage).  He was happy to pose for a photo. Thereby he gave me something of great value:  the serene, tranquil look in his eyes was one of the most powerful memories I brought back from India; an image which would endure for years.

Imagine receiving wisdom and prophetic insight from a solitary contemplative, whether this be sadhu or monk or sage.  Thomas Merton, Trappist Monk (1915-1968) was one of the twentieth century’s greatest spiritual writers, and a prolific correspondent for thousands who wrote to him. Now, reading his  Precious Thoughts I feel as if I’m viewing daily posts from his blog. As I read each one I can see clearly the question his correspondent asked him, the problem that person was troubled by.

Precious Thoughts by Thomas Merton
Precious Thoughts by Thomas Merton

For example someone had evidently written to him concerned about the suffering that animals experience, and whether God cares, or has anything to do with it (a subject of interest to all animal rights activists). Merton replies: Who is to say that He does not in some way Himself suffer in the animals what they suffer? God cannot simply look on ‘objectively’ while His creatures suffer. To imagine Him doing so is to imagine something quite other than God.

Then there was his reply to a writer who had shared her impatient anxiety (something I know well) about the way things were working out in her life; and Merton wrote: Do not attach too much importance to any individual happening or reaction … you cannot scheme, you cannot figure, you cannot worm your way out of it. Only God can unlock the whole business from the inside, and when He does, then everything will be simple and plain.

Treasure the wise contemplatives of this world. They are indeed precious to humanity.

Water, Rock, Moon and Ancient Stone

Morton Bagot Church, Warwickshire
Morton Bagot Church, Warwickshire

Imagine the Warwickshire countryside in silence and darkness. A rabbit running from the headlights. Imagine a radiant moon and bright stars. The fresh rich smell of silage in the night. A tiny ancient church on a hill, lit only by candles within. Imagine rocks, water, Celtic prayers and songs – and you’ll know what I was doing last night.

Within the church with its rough stone walls are tall candlesticks and centuries-old choir stalls and pews. And a small group of people  with torches.

We were there with our leader, Annie Heppenstall , to commemorate the life of St Non, Celtic saint – the mother of St David, patron saint of Wales. St David’s Day is 1st March, and St Non’s Day is 3rd March. To celebrate the highlights of the Celtic calendar in a special place like the church at Morton Bagot recalls the Celtic idea of “a thin place” – a place where the veil between heaven and earth is thin. I’ve written of this before in my blog post about Sacred Spaces. Many of us can name special places throughout the British Isles which we have felt to be “a thin place.” And this tiny church on the hill is one of them.

St Non of Wales presents, in common with many saints, an example of a life which encountered trauma yet overcame. She was an educated woman who chose to devote herself to life as a nun; raped by a prince of the region, she gave birth alone  on a clifftop in a raging storm. When the child she bore grew old enough she entrusted him to the church for his upbringing as many did in those days and resumed her life as a nun. Her son grew to become a holy man himself, and we know him as St David.

For us today, the example of St Non is one of a woman who suffered, lived through trauma and crisis, and triumphed over a bad situation,  coming out the other side, working faithfully with her changed circumstances and then courageously taking up her path again. On the site in Pembrokeshire where Non gave birth, to this day, a pure spring of water flows out from the bedrock where many have come to pray for healing.

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Learning From David Hockney

On a recent visit to David Hockney’s exhibition “A Bigger Picture” at the Royal Academy, not only was I uplifted and enthralled by his art, but also I took away with me several insights for creative writers. Here are five highlights that apply to novelists as well as artists:

1) Working From Memory Frees the Imagination

Hockney does a charcoal sketch in situ, then paints in studio; or he observes landscape, then paints it from memory; or he paints wholly from his imagination. Working from memory sets the imagination free. I can see close parallels here to the work of a novelist; over-reliance on research may produce an interesting novel, but not one which touches the spirit of the age or haunts the imagination for years.

2) Notice the Changes in One Subject Over Time

Hockney went back again and again to exactly the same fixed position in Woldgate Wood, East Yorkshire. He painted the wood in May, July, October and November – each time capturing a different spirit. The same place – transformed over time. This is an essential task of the creative writer; to show the changes in one protagonist made by varying pressures of time and plot and circumstance.

3) Be Alert to Seize the Opportunity That Will Quickly Vanish

Hawthorn blossom appears overnight and can disappear in one downpour of rain. Hockney was alert to the  moment the blossom would appear. He called it Action Week. He would instantly be out to paint with urgency. So must we as story-writers capture the opportunity that the creative imagination presents – whether that be a thought that comes during the night or on a long train journey, or in any other solitary moment. It must be captured with urgency or it will vanish.

4)  Focus Intense Concentration on One Well-Defined Area

Hockney filmed the landscape through 9 cameras mounted on a grid on the front of his jeep as it moved slowly along. Each frame makes the viewer see the whole differently, by focusing intensely on the details within that frame – helping us to see as an artist sees. This is what a great novelist does in exploring the psyche of one character who touches the spirit of the age.

5)  Harness the Power of Rediscovery

Hockney came back to the environment of his childhood, having spent many years away from it, living in California.  Separation from a loved landscape only serves to feed the mind as it imagines and reflects. During the four year period spent living in Australia (notwithstanding the inspiration I found in the Australian landscape, the Red Centre, mountains, coast, islands and rainforest), I often dreamed of the English landscape, particularly my childhood county of Kent, or of the familiar streets and locales of my childhood. This is so in creative writing too. If you spend much time apart from something you can now only apprehend through memories, dreams, reflections, your expression of this in any art form will have much greater depth and intensity.

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