Two weeks ago, I arrived at a five-day writer’s retreat in Devon, England. My writing coach Annalisa Parent of The Writing Gym and Date With the Muse, organised everything. Eight of us took part in total: Annalisa, her assistant, and six writers, including me.
I won’t go into too many details, but we were looked after by the owners of Knapp House, where we stayed, being fed and looked after in a way that made writing so much easier.
We spent the mornings in exercises designed to improve our creativity and teach us more about how we write. Afternoons were dedicated to private time for writing, and one-on-ones with Annalisa, where we could discuss our progress and future plans.
However, we also had a day trip to Agatha Christie’s holiday home, Greenway, where we learned a great deal about her private life and what drove her. I already knew much but hadn’t seen all the interconnections. And her house was a magpie’s dream.
After lunch, we drove to Kingswear on the River Dart and took a steam train to Paignton, my first ever trip on one! The next day, we had to write about some aspect of the day trip, emphasising all of our senses.
I chose the railway journey.
The train arrived.
For those, like me, who’d never been on a steam train before, it was an exciting event.
Earlier that day, we’d visited Agatha Christie’s holiday home, Greenway. At one time, a train like that might have stopped nearby, so I liked to think that she could have ridden this same train in her time.
Steam trains were a very different stimulation to the senses than a modern diesel-electric one.
For one thing, even at rest, they made noises. You can’t turn the boiler off, for instance, so steam kept building up, demanding release. It sighed and hissed, sounded for all the world like a runner panting at the end of a marathon. So copious was it, that it obscured the bumpers on the front of the train, hiding the track and the wheels.
Another aspect was the elegance of the locomotive. No functional lines that made it look like every other locomotive. Instead, the wheels were linked to the piston through a series of levers, all exposed proudly to the world, as if to say, “This is what I am and how I work.” A name ran along the side: Braveheart, evocative of history and effort.
Walking past the locomotive, the smell of burning coal and hot metal comforted, telling me I was in the hands of good, solid engineering. The train was built and restored by people who loved this mode of travel, and desired to be able to journey this way forever, if possible. The heat from the boiler was also heartening because it had been a cool day, and a chill wind blew into the railway station from the River Dart. A deep breath, and I could taste the smoke and metal, linking me, if only for a moment, to a bygone era.
Steam trains are slower when they start, moving off like a galleon drifting onto the sea. It took time to build up a head of steam, so to speak. Once up to speed, the beautiful sound of the engine, “chuffa-chuffa”, and the occasional “Wooooooh” of the whistle, accompanied me through the cuttings and valleys. A short section of tunnel, and the smell of the smoke and metal intensified as they drifted in through the open windows.
For a day, I lived in the past. It made me realise that the past is only dead if we deliberately set out to forget it. As long as there are people prepared to keep it alive, it will remain alive.
GNU Agatha Christie and the Dartmouth-Paignton Steam Railway.
Another task we had to do was record a video of a fellow member of the retreat speaking about the experiences of being there.
Mary Murry spoke to me about being on the Writing Gym's writer's retreat in Devon, England.
While Jeanne Covert talked about the experience of writing prompts.
That, plus the chance to reawaken my Muse, who's been on holiday recently because I spent so much time editing and revising, was well worth going.
Have you ever been on a writer's retreat?