Archive | 26

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.

A gift behind door number six

As I mentioned last week, I’m very proud to have a piece of my creative writing featured as part of the 26 Children’s Winters exhibition at Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood. Today’s the day it appears in the online advent calendar.

Picture of a nativity scene and poem at the 26 Children's Winters exhibition

Open up door number 6 and you can read my sestude inspired by a nativity scene. A sestude is simply a piece of writing, poetry or prose that’s 62 words exactly. It’s a condensed form, but I really enjoy the challenge of putting thoughts and themes into such a short piece. Making every word count makes each one the richer.

I was also asked to write the story behind the piece, how I was inspired by the object and what directions my thoughts took as I was writing. Even here I was restricted to just 100 words.

But constraints offer a freedom. Often with writing, the possibilities can become overwhelming. Prose or poem? Reality or fantasy? Voiced by a character or first person? Historical or contemporary? What kind of genre? Science fiction, murder mystery, fairy tale, gothic horror… The choices are endless, and that in itself can become a barrier to writing anything at all.

So constraints become a way in, offering a framework to start the writing process. The constraint may be to write about an object, as I did in my winter sestude, or to adopt a point of view. A constraint can be a word count, or a format, or starting with a specific letter of the alphabet. The key is to give the writer a starting point.

In my professional life, the constraints are to write for a specific audience, usually with a clear brief to share information or encourage them to consider a particular product or service. But even there I’ll have fun, trying out different forms of language.

If I’m looking for a headline I might try a heap of alliteration, putting word after word that starts with same letter together to find a pleasing combination.

Or if I think something is dull and cliched, something I’ve heard before, I might try writing it in the form of a poem, or a haiku.

The daft and demented drafts and the potty, pretentious poems will rarely bear any resemblance to the final polished piece, but they will contribute a thought, a phrase, a connection that leads me there.

My 26 Winters piece began when I overheard part of a conversation when I was visiting the exhibition. That put the thought in my head that it should be a dialogue. A real challenge for me, as it’s something I don’t write very often. But the constraint of 62 words gave me the confidence to try it.

The dialogue form gave me characters – who was talking and what is their relationship? What are they doing here, looking at a nativity scene? Suddenly there’s a whole back story and just 62 words to give a sense of it.

My piece changed as I was writing. The characters began as a mother and unspecified child. But as I settled on a title, and thoughts of special occasions and limited time, they became a father and son. A couple of nudges and suggestions from my editor, Neil Baker, helped make this clearer.

I loved having an editor on this project. It’s a privilege to have constructive feedback from someone I trust and admire.

I don’t want to explain exactly what I was thinking when I wrote, or what it means to me. A published piece of writing always has an audience, and I believe you, the unseen readers, contribute just as much to the creative process as the writer.

You bring your thoughts, experiences, memories and imaginations to the words I chose, and you may read them very differently. But I hope you will read them and consider them my small Christmas gift to you.

The 26 Children’s Winters calendar will display a new object and sestude every day until 26 December (that’s at least one day more than you get from your typical advent calendar. With the exhibition and online calendar, all 26 writers and the museum are helping to support It’s Good 2 Give, a charity  that supports young people and their families affected by cancer.

26 Children’s Winters

Seeking out scarves, gloves and boots to go and play in the snow. Writing cards under twinkling lights, and covering everything with glitter. Hunkering down indoors, lights against the dark shortening of the days, or heading out dressed as though for an arctic adventure. Winter brings new behaviours and old traditions together.

Christmas tree angels in the 26 Children's Winters exhibitionIt’s a season celebrated in 26 Children’s Winters, a new exhibition at Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood, which uses objects from the museum’s collection that reflect the experience of winter.

It includes a wide range of old and new – from jigsaws and board games, to crackers, chocolates, woollen jumpers to ice skates and a spectacular wooden sleigh.

Each object is accompanied by a sestude – a piece of writing that explores the emotions, memories and stories they’ve inspired in exactly 62 words. Exploring the exhibition, these invoke a rich depth of feelings, from wistful to laugh out loud funny and cover a range of themes drawn from personal family history to flights of fantasy.

As a member of the writer’s group 26 I was invited to contribute my own 62 words to accompany a traditional nativity scene. I was delighted to see them both together at the exhibition’s launch event this week and to hear three of the writers read their pieces. From marbles and spinning tops, Halloween decorations to a range of children’s medicines, their inspirations were as diverse as their responses.

Writers at 26 Winters ExhibitionMy eyes were drawn to the Christmas tree angels, so delicate yet beautifully preserved, their story brought to life by writer Sara Sheridan, who initiated the idea of the exhibition with the museum.

I also enjoyed the poem that accompanied the old leather skating boots, written in Scots vernacular, that captures the rush, the exhilaration, and the coming down to earth with a bump after gliding along a frozen surface.

The exhibition and the museum itself on the Royal Mile are well worth a visit if you’re in Edinburgh between now and January. And you can now see all the objects and sestudes in an online advent calendar.