My month as a Hawthornden Fellow

Early one morning at the start of January 2019, nursing the end of a fearsome, feverish cold, I hoisted a rather large suitcase aboard a bus at Brighton station. Travelling on a Sunday meant that my journey to Scotland started with the delights of a rail replacement bus to Three Bridges. Once north of London there was a slow detour via Cambridge and it was well into the afternoon before I arrived at Edinburgh Waverley station.

I’ve only been to Edinburgh a couple of times, on both occasions it was a family trip. This time I wasn’t shepherding excited kids though, this time I was headed for Hawthornden Castle to take up a month long fellowship. I was picked up at the station and, from that moment, I entered a strange parallel existence.

Now I’m home, I want to reflect a little on the weeks I spent at Hawthornden and what I hope to keep from that astonishing time.

So, what is a Hawthornden Fellowship? Well, it’s full board and lodging, with five other writers, for one month at historic Hawthornden Castle, eight miles outside Edinburgh. Everything is provided that you might need and all that is asked of you is that you engage with your writing in whatever way suits you best.

The scheme was set up more than thirty years ago by literary patron, Drue Heinz. She numbered many famous writers and artists among her friends and died just last year, at the impressive age of 103. Now the fellowships continue without her, though you may well stumble on a handwritten dedication to her in a book in the library.

Because the fellowships have been in existence for so long, everything runs rather like clockwork. On arrival, writers are collected by the director, Hamish, who is also on-hand throughout your stay. As well as Hamish, there is a cook and two housekeeping staff who provide meals, do laundry and keep the place clean. At the end of your stay you’re deposited back at the station or airport. What happens in the middle, within that managed and tranquil space, is very much up to you.

During my month as Jonson Fellow (each bedroom is named after a literary giant, which is good for the ego!) I was resident with a friendly, varied group of writers. Three of those writers were UK based and three from abroad. People were working on a variety of projects and everyone found their own way of using the space and time available.

It really is a castle. Parts of the building date back to the fourteenth century. There is a dungeon and caves in the rock on which it stands. My room was in the attic (the writers’ floor), reached via a stone, spiral staircase. At first it felt rather like moving in to a museum, but it was surprising how quickly it stopped being a surprise to wake in my beautiful bedroom and head down to breakfast in the mediaeval hearth room, with its huge fireplace and low ceiling.

My primary delight at Hawthornden was the steady, easy structure of the days. At breakfast I filled in my lunch request form. Then, after a bit of chat over coffee, I usually set out on a short walk around the castle grounds. From 9.30am to 6.30pm there is silence at Hawthornden and, though it’s fine to go into the city if you choose, I spent nearly every day in the castle and grounds and enjoyed the peace to the full.

Walking each day in the same piece of woodland was not something I have ever done before. It quickly became part of a morning ritual of welcoming the next writing day and I became familiar with the trees and rocks along the way. There are deer in the wood, a peregrine that passes overhead, as well as herons and ducks on the river. The valley feels ancient (it has signs of human habitation reaching back to prehistory) and the sense of time slowing is palpable.

Most mornings I worked in the beautiful library in the walled garden. There is an excellent collection of poetry, as well as fiction and non-fiction (including a huge biography section) and the winter sun floods the hexagonal central room. There is no Wi-Fi at the castle and so, once my document was open, it was easy to settle to a few hours of solid work without being distracted by the internet. Most days I was entirely alone in the library, which was rather like being in a waking dream.

At lunch time, your choice of sandwich is delivered in a basket to your bedroom, along with a flask of hot soup (welcome in January) and fruit. I would eat that at my desk and usually settle down there to write again for the afternoon. Sometimes I would read in bed for a couple of hours or have a nap.

I often did the same woodland walk in the later afternoon and sometimes sat outside (well wrapped up!) to watch the sun go down behind the trees.

By 7pm, and dinnertime, I was ready for some company. The fellows and Hamish would chat about our days, how our work was going, and any adventures people had enjoyed in Edinburgh or the surrounding area. After dinner we played games (including a fiendish card game taught by one of my US comrades) but usually went up to our rooms by about ten. Some fellows worked into the night but I tended to read and sleep and kept most of my writing to the daytime.

Did I get a lot done? Oh, blimey, yes. I met my target of a complete draft of a current project and also had time to write whatever came to mind. Time and solitude (especially in the woods) was like a scouring of my senses. And the luxury of being able to just stop and stare, to jot things down, to pick up a book and get lost for an hour, seemed to feed my productivity.

The structure of each day was complemented by a light structure in the week (the day to strip your bed or leave out your personal laundry, Sunday dinners in the dining room) and that gave a sense of the gradual ebbing of the month.

I am immensely grateful, both to the organisation for the opportunity to experience the fellowship and to Hamish and the other Hawthornden staff who make, and re-make, this magical environment each month. Being relieved of all the daily tasks of life was an astonishing luxury and every day I appreciated the coffee at breakfast, the clean bathroom, the hot dinner and, always, the welcome little lunch basket offered without a word.

To have those things provided felt like a sign that my work, the writing that I was there to do, was valued. Sometimes it’s hard to hold on to that feeling in the maelstrom of life.

I did go in to Edinburgh on a couple of occasions when the writing was getting a little too absorbing and intense, and one Sunday we all went to church at Roslin Chapel. But, for nearly every day of the month, I was held in this magical space.

Of course, an experience like this isn’t wholly translatable into everyday life and this is part of what made it so special. But I do hope to take some lessons home from my time at Hawthornden. Less screen time, more books. Less sitting indoors, more walking outdoors. And, I hope, if I can, to keep taking regular walks in familiar woodland. It’s just a shame that won’t be the private grounds of the castle where I live.

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