Archive | 26

Writer in Residence at Bloomsbury Festival 2019

I was excited and honoured to be a Writer in Residence for a day at this year’s Bloomsbury Festival in London. This annual celebration of arts, science, literature and creativity invited ten writers from 26 Characters to enjoy a varied collection of exhibitions and performances and to create a piece of writing in response.

The festival itself takes place in various locations around the Bloomsbury area – part of London that has a long association with writers, thinkers and scientists. It’s not an area that I know well, so I enjoyed the chance to walk the streets, spotting blue plaques on buildings commemorating famous people who had lived there in the past and stumbling across its green squares and community spaces.

The theme of this year’s festival is small steps and giant leaps, inspired by the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing, and the moon featured large in my inspiration and imagination on the day.

I was happy to wander and explore and leave things to chance, but also wanted to make sure that I saw something of the festival programme, so checked the programme and booked in for a couple of events.

The first was Bodies in Space, a contemporary dance performance at Goodenough College, with choreography from Helen Cox and sound design by Dougie Brown.

The piece involved three dancers moving to an abstract composition created by turning recordings of light waves from NASA’s Kepler space telescope into sounds. The dancers moved in changing orbits around each other, sometimes connecting, at other times moving as if pushed and pulled by invisible sources.

I marvelled at how the dancers remembered the choreography and responded to one another, and how they kept time and rhythm in a space created by abstract beeps and buzzes.

I love contemporary dance. To me it’s like poetry without words. When it’s done well, the movements tell a story and conjure emotions. And like poetry, the interpretation, the meaning, exists in the space between the performers and the audience. This performance and the short discussion afterwards gave me a real starting point inspiration for my final piece.

Refugee Astronaut III by Yinka Shonibare at the Wellcome Collection

Refugee Astronaut III by Yinka Shonibare at the Wellcome Collection

From there I went to visit the Wellcome Collection and its exhibition Being Human. There’s a mixture of science and art among varied exhibits that invite questions about medical knowledge, climate emergency and our changing relationships with our planet and beyond.

There were some really striking and simple ideas on show, such as the friendship bench which has helped reduce suicides and mental health in Zimbabwe. And how adding a photograph to a hazmat suit helped bring a human face to ebola care.

But the most striking piece for me, and the one that made it into that day’s writing was Refugee Astronaut III by artist Yinka Shonibare. This lone figure in a spacesuit and helmet carries a pack of possessions on their back including books, photographs, a lantern and a teapot.

From the colourful spacesuit, which reminded me of a costume worn by David Bowie in his starman phase to the pack of goods it carried on its back, this artwork invited many questions about where this figure was going, what were they leaving, how had they chosen what to take with them.

The Wellcome collection also provided a quiet space in its beautiful library, a respite from the drizzly rain where I started to assemble my thoughts and ideas in my notebook.

The last event of the day was an evening walk with writer and author Rob Self Pierson. He’s written a book called Moonwalking about a year of adventures walking on the night of the full moon.

Rob had previously kindly asked me to contribute a blog post about business purpose for his copywriting and tone of voice business The Table and I was fortunate enough to meet him on a Dark Angels creative writing for business course in France earlier this year, when he read the first chapter of his latest book.

Together with a small group we spent a magical couple of hours walking the streets, searching for the moon between the buildings and trees and hearing Rob read extracts from Moonwalking. From meeting paranormal investigators to gardening by moonlight, he gave us a insight into some of the characters and adventures he encountered in his own discoveries.

I had to scurry away to catch the last train north, and although it was late, my head was full of ideas, images and thoughts which I assembled into my Writer in Residence piece which you can read on the Bloomsbury Festival website.

In my daily work as a copywriter, much of what I write is business as usual and although I always try to bring a creative sensitivity to the words and phrases I offer, I don’t often have the freedom to really stretch myself in my writing. Membership of 26 Characters gives me the opportunity to work on creative projects, and the confidence to project my own thoughts, feelings and experiences in work that I hope will connect with others. It was a real treat to be invited to spend the day at the Bloomsbury Festival and enjoy the freedom to explore randomly, be inspired by art, science and the environment to create my first piece as a Writer in Residence.

100 words for 100 years since WW1

Black and white photograph of five young girls in 1918

This November marks 100 years since the end of the First World War. After four years of unprecedented violence and devastation, Armistice was declared. As part of writers’ group 26 Characters, in partnership with Imperial War Museums I am taking part in a project to mark this centenary through new creative work.

As one of 100 writers I was invited to choose a person alive between 1914 and 1918 and tell their story in poetry or prose in exactly 100 words. The piece should start and finish with the same three words, to create a new form, called a centena.

The first pieces, and the stories behind them have been published online at We have heard stories inspired by the Archduke’s chauffeur, Belgian refugees, a Guyanese soldier, a northern suffragette and a conscientious objector. They are thought provoking, imaginative, touching, moving and, like the people who inspire them, unique. I invite you to read them.

A new centena and story will be published every day leading up to the anniversary of the Armistice on November 11. They commemorate the famous and the unfamiliar, those who fought and those who didn’t and reflect different experiences from all over the world.

The piece I’ve written is inspired by a family photograph, showing my grandmother and her sisters, taken in 1918 to commemorate the return of my great grandfather from the war. It will appear on 27 October.

I had hoped to find out more about what he did during the war, but sadly it seems his was among many thousands of service records destroyed in a fire at the records office during the Second World War.

That’s one of the many reasons why this project is so important. Preserving memories, remembering people from the past and giving voice to their experiences.

There will also be a book. It’s being crowdfunded so that we can raise money to print copies, but now that those costs are covered profits will be donated to War Child, a charity that helps children all around the world trying to survive current conflicts. Find out more about the Armistice100Days book. 

26 Steps part 5 – exploring through different eyes

black and white photo of Manchester canal and railway

Manchester canal and railway – photo by Stephen Barnaby

The 26 Steps project began as an idea inspired by the 100th anniversary of the publication of John Buchan’s famous novel ‘The 39 Steps’.

What would 26 modern day writers make of a walk in a landscape? How would they interpret the language of the land, its natural form and elements? What sights would they choose to photograph? What significant markers would they signpost on their maps? And what words would they choose for their writing, to fit the 62 word limit?

The constraints of geography, artistic talent and word count have opened up a rich seam of creativity, which finds its form in these virtual postcards. Each one sent by a writer, to you, to invite you to join them on their journey and explore a place through different eyes.

We are immensely grateful to the writers who took on the challenge of 26 Steps. We hope that their postcards encourage you to explore your own landscapes both well known and unfamiliar and to use them to inspire your own creativity and well being.

The final stage of our 26 journey starts in Somerset, taking us through Holyhead to the urban streets of Manchester then south again to Devon and Cornwall. We step through the alphabet from U to Z, and then like all good journeys find ourselves home again, ready for a new adventure, starting with the letter A.

Step 21: Urgashay to Vagg Copse, Somerset by David Mathews

Step 22: Valley to Williams Street, Holyhead by Sharon Jones

Step 23: Wythenshawe to Xaverian College by Sandy Wilkie

Step 24: Xaverian College to Y Club, Manchester by Stephen Barnaby

Step 25: Yeo Lane to Zeal Monachorum, Devon by David Manderson

Step 26: Zennor to Alverton, Cornwall by Fiona Egglestone

Follow the journey on twitter #26Steps.

26 Steps part 4 – journeys through the physical and mental landscape

Black and white photo of a bay

Stoke Fleming to Torcross – photo by Caroline Lodge

One of the ideas of the 26 Steps project is to take you on a journey. It may not be same physical journey that our writers enjoyed (or endured) on the walks they undertook for this project, but I hope they will be an inspiration for your own wanderings and writing.

Using a combination of photographs, maps and writing in the form of a 62 word sestude, we created a series of virtual postcards. We invite you to read them, to see something of the places depicted and to trace the routes on the hand-drawn maps.

We hope you will be inspired to get out and explore your own landscapes, and to use them to create your own writing, art, photography or other creative opportunities.

Enjoy the photographs, maps and writing inspired by these walks which take us from Belfast to Northumberland and from Devon to a far off Scottish Isle. This section also includes the second of my two creative pieces.

Step 17: Pirrie Park to Queens University, Belfast by Therese Kieren

Step 18: Quaking Houses to Rowlands Gill, Tyne and Wear by Michelle Nicol

Step 19: Rock to Seahouses, Northumberland by Irene Lofthouse

Step 20: Stoke Fleming to Torcross, Devon by Caroline Lodge

Step 21: Tolmachan to Urgha, Isle of Harris by Clare Archibald

Follow the journey on twitter #26Steps.

North Shields to Old Hartley – the story of my 26 Steps journey

Harbour mouth at Seaton Sluice

The Cut at Seaton Sluice

My 26 Steps journey took me from North Shields to Old Hartley – two locations on the coast of North East England, close to Newcastle upon Tyne.

North Shields, at the mouth of the River Tyne, I knew well. A cheerful quayside of fish and chip shops, fishmongers and fishing boats, where characters walk in white coats and wellies, or queue outside the steaming windows for a salt and vinegar fix.

Old Hartley I had to look up on a map. It’s just a little further north, up the coast, close to and easily confused with its near neighbour Seaton Sluice.

Fishing boats at North Shields

I began my walk at the quayside, stepping into dozens of stories. A small fleet of brightly coloured boats nestling beneath the watchful white tower, suggesting fishing, and sea-shanties. A wooden figurehead stands outside the pub, waiting for sailors’ return.

Further back in time, the whaling crews set sail and the dreaded press gangs raided the town for skilled boatmen. And, like all coastal towns there are tales of shipwreck, lives lost and lives saved by the brave efforts of coastguard and lifeboat volunteers.

Along the coast at Tynemouth, a ruined priory looks out over the water. A scene of benediction and wreckage – a place that’s been a sanctuary for soldiers and the sick, but also served as a gun battery, protecting the shipyards along the river from bombing raids.

Keeping the sea to my right, soft golden sands give way to clear blue waters where surfers glide. Sandcastles, ice creams, rock pools, sunny days. At Cullercoats, an artists’ colony, drawn by the quality of the light.

Further north, the white dome of Spanish City, scene of former amusements, overlooks the seaside town of Whitley Bay. St Mary’s lighthouse perches over a sea-washed causeway and rocks where you can sometimes spot a seal or two.

But it was at New Hartley, a small collection of houses that’s easily mistaken for its near neighbour Seaton Sluice, that I began to find the inspiration for my piece. The green banks that rise along the shoreline were once home to heavy industry. The remnants of the cone shaped furnaces of the glass bottle works still visible if you look closely.

The <a href=””>Seaton Sluice and Old Hartley local history society website</a> provided a rich seam of information about a time when ships by the hundred visited the harbour to carry bottles produced at the Hartley glassworks around the world.

This industry, which helped create the wealth of the local Delaval family, was fuelled by 30 or more pits in the area near Hartley where the coal was mined. This lead me from New Hartley to Old Hartley, site of the former pit and a devastating mining disaster in 1862.

The Hartley mining disaster

I walked round the memorial garden at the Hester pit site. A series of slate stones bear the names of the 204 men and boys who died when the beam, which supported the pump to clear the mine of sea water, split and crashed down, blocking the mine’s shaft and their only way out.

Memorial garden at Old Hartley

While some were killed outright. Many more survived, only to be trapped, falling victim to mine gas or starvation over six days as rescuers sought to reach them. It’s a tragic tale, made all the more vivid when you walk the streets and realise the impact of the loss on this relatively small community.

The accident happened at shift change, so there were more workers in the mine than usual. The tally tokens they left when they went down the mine would never be collected. Queen Victoria sent a message of condolence and extra land was made available at Earsdon for the burials.

I didn’t want to write a cliche of North East mining disaster, but after walking round the memorial site and reading the words on the stones, the story wouldn’t leave me. A sunny day with spring flowers blooming provided stark counterpoint to the dark story that happened long ago and far below the green earth.

The coal hewn from Hester and other local pits fuelled the great furnaces that produced glass bottles at the nearby works. To ship those bottles around the world, a deep cut was made into the land to make it easier for ships to pass through. It’s still known locally as ‘The Cut’.

Connecting these two hidden stories together, as they were once connected in real life, provided the theme of my poem. Industry here, changed the land and hence the people forever.

You can read my poem and trace the map of my route at 26 Steps.

26 Steps part 3 – how constraints encourage creative thinking

Black and white photo of the sea and beach huts

Overstrand to Paston – photo by Merryn Henderson

The 26 walks that provide inspiration for 26 Steps start at a place name beginning with each letter of the alphabet and take the writer to a place starting with the next letter in the sequence.

Each writer took a black and white photograph and drew a map as a visual guide to their journey as well as recording their thoughts, feelings and observations in a sestude – a form that requires 62 words exactly.

26 Steps logoAs a writer, I enjoy a constraint. Despite their name, they actually open up creative processes and often give me a way of tackling the terror of a blank page. Having a reason to write and a framework to do it in helps me to focus in on ideas and encourages me to think in new ways as I seek to fit the brief.

Meeting the brief is what I do professionally for my copywriting clients too, meeting their requests for writing for different formats, audiences and purposes. Short copy, long copy, writing for video, writing for an advert, writing for a website – they all have their constraints.

For 26 Steps, the constraint of following the alphabet from place to place meant that writers took in a range of landscapes; rivers, woods, farmland, coastal fringes, urban areas and mountains. The writing has a similarly varied theme, from lyrical wanderings, to urban humour, from physical geography to the landscape of the mind via history and memory.

The third section of the journey takes us from Wales to the Scottish Borders, through the industrial history of North East England to a Norfolk pilgrim’s path, through the alphabet from K to P and includes the first of my contributions (more of that later).

Step 11: Knighton to Lower Harpton, Powys by Sandy Wilkie

Step 12: Llandegla to Moel Famau, Denbighshire by Ed Prichard

Step 13: Morebattle to Nisbet, Scottish Borders by Joan Lennon

Step 14: North Shields to Old Hartley, Tyne and Wear by Michelle Nicol

Step 16: Overstrand to Paston, Norfolk by Merryn Henderson

Follow the journey on twitter #26Steps.

26 Steps part 2 – walking in the landscape

Black and white photo of a stone wall

Lakes stone wall – Photo by Carol McKay

From the Brontes to Wordsworth, walking in the landscape has been a rich source of inspiration for writers. We used this as a theme for 26 Steps to encourage a sense of connection between the acts of walking and writing.

There is something mindful about taking the time to watch and listen as we walk along a route, observing the changing weather, hearing the birdsong or traffic noise, letting the motion of our footsteps relax our physical selves and open our minds.

As a runner, I often choose to get up early and enjoy the sights and sounds of the coast where I live. Even if I’m not conscious of my surroundings, they creep in as I feel the effects of air temperature and weather, or realise that the waves are booming and crashing in time to my rasping breaths.

When I slow down and walk, I inevitably, consciously take in a lot more of my surroundings, and can find new things even in places I’ve visited hundreds of times before – a piece of sea glass washed up on the shore, a pattern of footprints, or the colour of the sky.

For #26 steps we wanted to capture the essence of a journey by asking each writer to contribute a walk, together with a black and white photograph, a hand drawn map and a sestude – just 62 words to describe their experience, thoughts and inspirations.

The second stage takes a journey from the magical Giant’s Causeway, through Belfast, to the English Lake District and the tough Yorkshire Hills, to pause in the literary world of Oxford and through the alphabet from F to K.

Step 6: Feigh to Giant’s Causeway, Antrim by Aimee Chalmers

Step 7: Grey Point to Holywood, Belfast Lough by Gillian McKee

Step 8: Hawkshead to Ings, Lake Windermere by Carol McKay

Step 9: Ilkley to Jack Hill, Yorkshire by Emily Jeffrey-Barrett

Step 10: Jericho to Kennington, Oxford by Rebecca Dowman

Enjoy the photographs, maps and sestudes inspired by these walks.

Launching 26 Steps

Bridge over the Fife

Bridge over the Fife – photo by Laura Clay

This week saw the launch of 26 Steps the latest creative writing project from 26. It’s an idea inspired by writing in the landscape and uses the 100th anniversary of the publication of John Buchan’s famous novel ‘The 39 Steps’, as a starting point.

26 Steps logoTogether with co-creator and fellow writer and editor, Sandy Wilkie, I invited members of 26 to join us on a creative quest. We identified 26 short walks throughout the UK, going from a place name beginning with each letter of the alphabet to somewhere starting with the next letter in the sequence.

The challenge for each writer was:

  • Do the walk
  • Take a black and white photograph to represent the journey
  • Draw a sketch map of the route
  • Write a sestude (62 words exactly) inspired by the experience

The walks took place between March and May 2016. The journeys cover a wide range of landscapes from the Scottish Isles to the Cornish coast, from the Giant’s causeway to the hills of north Wales and draw a wonderfully rich and eclectic portrait of the landscape and its effect on us.

You can see the first five virtual postcards online now, with more steps being revealed each week until 17 October. The first steps take us from Herefordshire to Scotland and onto Surrey and through the alphabet from A to F.

Step 1: Aymestry to Byton, Herefordshire by Aidan Baker

Step 2: Boarhills to Crail, Fife by Linda Cracknell

Step 3: Carbasserie to Dunadd, Argyll by Keira Brown

Step 4: Dorking to Epsom Downs, Surrey by Sue Evans

Step 5: Edinburgh to Fife, Fife by Laura Clay

Enjoy dipping into the images, words and maps. I hope they inspire you to explore these walks or others in your own landscape, and to use them in your own creative way.

LA22 9SH a poetic postcode

LA22 9SH is  the postcode for Dove Cottage in Grasmere where Wordsworth and his family lived from 1799 to 1808 and the inspiration for my latest creative piece now published online.

Dove Cottage, GrasmereLast year I was selected as one of 26 writers to take part in a creative collaboration based on postcodes.This coded shorthand of letters and numbers identified a place which we were to use as inspiration to write a sestude – 62 words exactly.

This week, which marks the anniversary of Wordsworth’s birth, my sestude appears online as part of the 26 postcodes collection, together with it’s back story. You can read them on the 26 postcodes site.

I felt I got lucky with my postcode, with its obvious literary connections and its scenic beauty. But at the same time, I felt the pressure of trying to write something that would measure against one of England’s best known poets.

Despite having studied English literature, Wordsworth wasn’t really a writer who I had studied or was familiar with much beyond his most quoted poem, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud‘.

So I read more of his poems, did some research into his biography and discovered a writer far more challenging and interesting than the chocolate-box image of a Lakes poet would imply.

The exhibition in the museum at Dove Cottage also filled in many biographical and personal details. And shows how much Wordsworth relied on his sister Dorothy to record and recall the scenes of every day life that inspired his writing. In a page of her Grasmere journal on display, she writes of the daffodils brought to life in that oft-quoted poem.

It’s been so long since I wrote my sestude about Wordsworth and Dove Cottage that I enjoyed coming back to it, reading it afresh, almost as though it was written by someone else. I can trace every line back to an object, thought or sensation experienced in that place. It’s a location that continues to inspire.

Walking, wandering, writing

I’ve been reading a fair bit of Charles Dickens recently, and was reminded by this post of his habit of talking great long walks at night in the London streets.

Photo of an urban street at nightYou can hear those endless trampings in his novels. His knowledge of the city emerges in descriptions of streets filled with cobbles and alleyways, stairwells and courtyards; from the labyrinth of Coketown in Hard Times to the business of lodgings, stationers, writers’ garrets and legal chambers around the Chancery court in Bleak House.

“Doors were slamming violently, lamps were flickering or blown out, signs were rocking in their frames, the water of the kennels, wind-dispersed, flew about in drops like rain.” Dickens conjures up a grim night to be out in Our Mutual Friend.

Walking in the landscape is something we might more readily associate with the Romantic poets, or nature writers. Yet Dickens’ urban landscape is just as important as Wordsworth’s Lake District or the Bronte’s Yorkshire Moors.

For me, there’s something in that act of walking, a repeated action requiring little conscious thought that lends itself to writing, or at least thinking about writing.

In wandering, literally and mentally, the mind finds a freedom from everyday cares, and the subconscious surfaces. I’ve often found that a walk, or a run, will give me a new direction when I come back to a piece of writing, without me deliberately seeking it.

Photo of a path through some sand dunesSo I’m excited to be starting a new writing project that sets walking in the landscape at its heart. This spring, 26 writers will take a walk in the UK, going from a place name beginning with each letter of the alphabet to another place starting with the next letter in sequence (e.g. Boarhills to Crail).

We’ll be taking photographs, drawing maps and writing a sestude – 62 words exactly, inspired by our wanderings.

The walks cover parts of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and reach from Somerset and Cornwall in England to my beloved North East coast in Northumberland. They will take in a range of landscapes; rivers, woods, farmland, coastal fringes, urban areas and mountains.

As one of the writers, I’m looking forward to taking a fresh look around my own landscape. And as co-editor, along with Sandy Wilkie, I’m looking forward to hearing about distant places I’ve never visited. It will be a chance to travel in my imagination as far, or further than I travel in reality.

Watch out for more news of #The26Steps this spring.