Totleigh Barton – Arvon Writing Course. Part 1

The front of Totleigh Barton Manor, Devon, one...

The front of Totleigh Barton Manor, Devon, one of the writing centres of the Arvon Foundation, a charitable organisation promoting creative writing. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the 7th May 2012 I went to Devon to stay at Totleigh Barton. One of the Arvon Foundation‘s centres which holds writing retreats. This is the first part of my post’s about my stay. Hope you enjoy reading about it! 🙂


I arrive at around quarter to four and park on the gravel driveway. Two ladies getting out of the car next to me introduce themselves as we are greeted by Eliza, one of the centre staff. Eliza shows me to my room in a cosy little accommodation block off the main house called The Pigsties. I drop off my bags, return to the car for my suitcase and quickly unpack.

I plug-in my laptop and camera battery, so I can document my stay. I take five minutes to lie down on the bed (which is very comfortable) before joining the other arrivals in the kitchen for a traditional Devon Cream Tea. The smell of dinner cooking is enticing, if the onion is a bit overpowering. I look forward to tasting it later.

The kitchen is low ceiling and looks every inch an old farmhouse kitchen, despite the modern equipment.

We sit in the gorgeous dining room, with an old open fireplace; it looks like a museum piece. The introductions and chatting continue as more guests join us. We meet the first of out tutors, William Fiennes and quickly discover that a number of us could have car pooled for the journey had we been aware how closely located are starting points were. Others would not have been able to do this as we have students from Japan, Holland and Thailand as well as the UK.

Getting too warm i head back to my room to drop it off and have a cigarette, only to discover I am the first guest to lock myself out f my room – oops! Centre manager Claire shows me where the master-key is so I can get back in my room. Once in I notice the welcome sheet next to the door warns against dropping the catch, maybe I should have looked at that earlier!

Absently I check my phone even though there is no signal here, I’m sure I will continue doing this during my stay automatically. With no phone, internet, TV or radio this week is more than just a writing retreat, it is a digital detox too.

After another brief rest in my room I head back to rejoin the others in the dining room (not dropping the catch this time!)

We chat about the Olympics, medicine and blogging and more. We are 15 women and one man. Everyone seems very keen and excited to get on with our learning experience.

At 6pm we move over to the lounge (or as I call it the ‘snug’) a beautiful converted barn with walls like glaciers and 6 cosy sofas, it is light and airy, but warm with under-floor heating. A computer bank, reference library and piano fill the other end of the room. The centre directors Claire and Oli give us an introduction to the course and week ahead. During the day it is a help yourself environment in the kitchen, lunch will be set out buffet style while we are in our morning workshops and for the evening meal we will take it in turns to cook for each other in groups of four – we must put our names on the rota for the day we wish to cook, those cooking the following evening must wash up the night before and meet in the kitchen at 4.30pm on the day to start preparing the meal.

In the morning we will have workshops with our two authors Mark Haddon and William Fiennes from 9.30am till 1pm with a tea break at 11am. The afternoons will be free for us to write and explore, with a 30 minute 1-1 tutorial with each of the authors we must book in for on a rota. Dinner is at 7pm then at 8.30pm our authors will read to us, but on Friday it is our turn to read.

After some general housekeeping and joking about this being a drinking course the wine order list is passed to our self-elected wine monitor who will collect the orders of what people want from the local supplier (none for me, I’m not a fan of wine).

Oli is funny recounting tales of guests (and authors) staying up late, drunken behaviour and reminding us not to set fire to our manuscripts or laptops in our rooms. Both Oli and Claire have been on Arvon courses themselves and Oli is writing a book. It seems we were lucky to get on this course as the waiting list was massive.

We are told there are maps for the half hour walk to the local village of Sheepwash and the river – which we should avoid swimming in because it is high and fast, unless we are mad like Mark who wants to do just that.

The centre managers dog Huxley, who will pinch your socks, guards the office, requiring a tickle on his tummy if you wish to enter.

Today dinner is Pasta Bolognese, which was lovely and very filling, I was so stuffed I barely managed to eat my Brownie pudding and didn’t dare add the locally made vanilla or pistachio ice-cream.

Everyone is already getting along really well, like old friends. I was worried about that bit most as I am very shy and nervous when meeting new people, but once they get me talking I relax a little even if I still struggle with small talk and I’m no good at starting up conversations (I’m not the confident person people think I am).

A quick rest after dinner, the drive has exhausted me and its back to the snug at 8.30pm for our first session with the tutors. They talk about the structure of the week and then we do a round of proper introductions, who we are, why we are on the course and our favourite book.  I struggle with the last one as do several others, there are just s many great books, and I could choose at least one in every genre!  Of course there were a few obligatory nods to our authors as the favourites, I have only read Mark’s ‘A curious incident of the dog in the night-time’ which was great so I wasn’t really in a position to pander like that.

There has been a fair amount of interest in my blog, it’s lucky I bought my business cards to hand out!

Introduction’s over it’s time for bed.