Sunday, 26 May 2013



Ten people came to yesterday’s creative writing workshop at the new venue, Jane's farm in the Dales nestling between Cumbria and North Yorkshire. After a long, hard winter and spring the day opened its blue and the sun shone.

It was a settling in as people made their way to her farm, which sits atop a slight rise among a maze of lanes with old drovers’ roads leading off the main road into the dales and the old Scotch Road – a bridleway now – keeps its history sealed beneath becks and turf.

Ten people graced the farmhouse kitchen laden with homemade lemon sponge cake, brownies and flapjacks and a warm welcome from Jane, a parcel of swallows click clicking their chat among eaves and porch swooping low the whole while we were at the table writing and sharing poems.

“Keep the outside door closed, so the swallows don’t come in!” One did, so we hurriedly closed the door! The day was warm so we agreed to go outside and walk as soon as we’d shared some feedback on writing the group had brought with them. Writing and news! I. told us she’d had her poem longlisted for the Fish prize. A poem she’d written on a previous “Walking Stories” workshop. B. told us of three poems accepted for Dawn Treader magazine and we agreed to share magazines we’d recommend.

We went round the table introducing ourselves, there were four new attendees and three apologies. This sharing of work, reading their poem or prose piece out loud, receiving feedback is an important part of the writing group. It gives confidence in reading work out loud; builds trust in sharing work from the heart with others and gives the rest of us a feel of a person’s writing style, subject matters, concerns of importance to them and also what motivates and influences them. 

If a person has no work to share, I suggest that s/he might like to bring with them a poem or short piece of prose by a writer who has influenced and inspired them and to say briefly why. This introduces us to new work, new writers; discussions of people’s work open our eyes to different ways of writing and also new information! For example, did you know that puffins are a delicacy in Iceland? No? Me neither! Until yesterday…

After group feedback we were eager to get outside and taste the sun. Jane led the way across the farmyard, pausing now and then to regale us with some story, familiar to her new to us – that’s the turkey that pretended it was ill and missed Christmas. He’s six now. The turkey stared down its blue nose at us, its massive scarlet dewlaps wattling, its face, to me, a Noh mask, not as handsome as a pheasant whose faces always remind me of Japanese Noh actors, but I could imagine a Noh mask like that ol’ turkey!

“Each day we went to it, prepared to take it away to be butched for Christmas. It was the first time we’d kept a turkey, someone asked us for a free range, organic one, so we thought we’d give it a try. Well, next day we went again. That turkey hung its head, lower and lower. Wouldn’t move. Next day the same. Come Boxing Day it came flying out of its pen, into the hen run!” We turned and looked at it. It stared back. Was it grinning, or was that a wink it gave us?

We walked across the track, often clarty but sun and strong winds had pretty much dried it. Past a small beck with a clump of marsh marigolds, and a smattering of Mayflowers, Ladies’ Smocks or Cuckoo Flowers, called because Cuckoos return in May when this delicate mauve flower blooms.

We walked, stopped, took photos, made jottings, all the while Jane pointing out something of interest to us. I took a photo of stone gate posts. Jane mused: “Look at the width between those two posts. Imagine you’d never get a tractor through them now. They were made for horse and carts, or horse and plough. That cottage down there, they kept six horses!” I take the photo, we walk on. “Kendal Roughs, those sheep with long noses, indigenous sheep, you don’t see many nowadays. They’re very placid sheep, very calm. Not like those! Swaledales up the fellside there. They’re barmy!”

It was a day of small groups talking quietly, stopping to lean on  drystone walls, pause, jot notes down or just stand and stare as W H Davies said in his poem, ‘Leisure’

WHAT is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?—

No time to stand beneath the boughs,

And stare as long as sheep and cows:

No time to see, when woods we pass,

Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

No time to see, in broad daylight,

Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

No time to turn at Beauty's glance,

And watch her feet, how they can dance:

No time to wait till her mouth can

Enrich that smile her eyes began?

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

I had never heard of ‘hare holes’ before until Jane pointed them out, although they could barely be seen as the walls had dropped and the holes became closed over. They were made so that hares could run from one field to another when they were hunted. They’re not hunted now, in the fields and fells round Jane’s and “Do you have hares here?” was asked “Oh yes! We have a lot!” Collective sighs! P. told us later that the moon at present was a ‘super moon’, explaining that it was so many degrees closer to the earth and appeared larger than usual. There would be a super moon for three months. Super moons and lots of hares make me itch to be on the fells with hares and moon.

Bedazzled by sun and wind, tales and rich history and stories we picnic-lunched on one of the lawns, cushions, blankets, garden chairs, food, cakes, drinks… a panting dogs and chat.

“I read something somewhere lately that a flock of lapwings was called a deceit.” “A deceit of lapwings?!” “Yes, and a murder of crows, a leap of hares.” We pondered. At the time I commented it seemed unfair of the lapwings, (pee-wits, plovers) to be referred to as a deceit. But, sitting typing this, ping! I realised! Of course, it made sense! Lapwings (as their name suggests) drop their wing, pretending that it’s broken, as they lead a perceived threat to their nests and chicks away by feigning injury. Yes. A ‘deceit’ of lapwings.

We idly mused between munched mouthfuls of what else we could name, making playful suggestions, juxtaposing sometimes inappropriate words: a recommendation of rabbits, a tumult of turkeys, a playground of lambs… We discussed the rookery, listening to them call and caw, chuckle and mutter. “If there’s twa it’s a rook, if there’s yan it’s a crow” – two ‘o’s’ in rook, one in crow. Simple!

Lunch over, we went to visit ‘Geraldine’ the Jacob ewe and her lamb, ‘Banjo.’ Jane first had to go into the field adjacent to the picnic lawn on her own, pick up Banjo and lead mum and lamb to a small enclosure, with another sheep and two lambs ‘Jenny Wren’ and twins. I held Banjo, others stoked him, his short tight woolly chocolate brown and white body, mum looked on but son was content and put his face close to mine and sniffed!

We went indoors for a couple of writing exercises. The first one was asking them to think of a pair of hands and describe them. This exercise is in Peter Sansom’s excellent book “Writing Poetry” (Bloodaxe Books). First, simple describe the hands in detail, then imagine them doing a task, lighting a fire, knitting, diggings spuds, changing oil in the car… each person read out what they’d written, or said ‘pass.’ It’s the variety of responses that never fails to amaze and delight me – some responding by describing a pair of hands, some their own hands being  and doing or taking it off into realms of the surreal; using refrains, repetition, a list poem or dividing it into two sections to convey a couple’s relationship…

I used a poem by Michael Laskey for the next exercise, titled ‘A Tray of Eggs’, asking the group to write a four stanza poem, seven lines to each stanza, as in Laskey’s poem, starting each line with the words from his poem and substituting a different word for ‘hens’

I invited one of the group to read it out, one person commenting on the fact that even saying ‘their daft, deft pecking’ makes you feel you ARE a hen, the words mimic a hen's movements as they nod their heads and peck at food:

‘It’s not the (blank) that matter/s’
‘Nor is it the’
‘Not even the’
‘But what counts more’

A Tray of Eggs

It's not the hens that matter,
scratching among the nettle
roots at the orchard's edge,
though much might be made of their red
foppish cockscombs, their speckled
feathers overlapping and the stutter
of their daft, deft pecking.

Nor is it the road pedalled 
by heart to the farm, the known 
fields never the same,
turning from a greenness to grain,
revolving, resolving into rows
of straight seedlings, stubble
burnt or interred under furrows.

Not even the ride shared
with my two-year-old child, astride
the crossbar, breathing the blown
scents he's making his own
unknowingly, being alive
to vibrations of place this admired
Ford tractor amplifies.

But what counts more than these small
pleasures are the eggs we bring home
in boxes and softly transpose
into the bevelled holes
in the cardboard tray, the domes
of these thirty shells
that will break like the days to come.

Michael Laskey
from Being Alive (ed. Neil Astley, Bloodaxe)

The sun still shone and we were pulled outside again – couldn’t stay in to long in this weather! Replenished by drinks and cakes I gave the group a ‘kicker’ line from three poems and a prose piece, inviting four people to read out each piece, which were ‘Book Ends’ by Tony Harrison, ‘May’ by Aldo Leopold from his book “A Sand County Almanac”, ‘Lies’ by Jo Shapcott and ‘Hurt Hawks’ by Robinson Jeffers.

Two people read ‘Hurt Hawks’ in a duet:

During this writing session Jane said, the cows will be let out in a moment, there’ll be much kicking of heels and excitement!” “Is this the first time they’ll have been out?” “Yes, they’ve been in all winter, they’re in calf – watch!”

Her sister and brother-in-law opened the gate and sure enough out came the cows into the brilliance of daylight and greenery… heels kicked, tails flicking, before coming dow to earth, to graze sweet, new grass. “The hills are alive!” I yodeled. “With the sound of moooo-sic!” answered B.

“There’s only a strand of barbed wire between us and Siberia!”

Yes, it was an enchanting day of sunshine , writing and laughing - but how different these fells and dales can be in winter, or spring as it was this year, snowed-in facing severe weather, heading out to check the stock, a sheep caught in barbed wire, torn and bloody; a difficult calving; repairing walls and fences in Arctic conditions as the Jet Stream lowers and blasts from the Arctic become more common, come hurtling into your face, stinging skin, eyes watering, head bent you struggle in the snow even to cross the yard to get to hens to feed them, in-lambs yows in sheds and barns, at all hours you check their condition.

A livelihood that turns on you, could bite and beat you, but you love it so continue the struggle amid all the joy and beauty, pain and bleeding. Because you’re part of this land, it song, its fabric. Its story is your story and in turn you share this story with us, guests alighting on your farm like swallows, for one brief moment.

Four thirty and finishing time.

A wander round the farm, introduction to Albert, Sam-lamb and Boris watching them feed; into the hen house to collect eggs and feed the hens, Reginald the glossy Wellsomer cockerel following us… and off we went to our various destinations.

‘Til next time, when we meet again at Jane’s farm on August 17th for another creative writing workshop, with guest tutor New York poet George Wallace, writer-in-residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, Long Island and editor of Poetry Bay

Date for your diary:

August 17th
“Walking Stories, Leaving Footprints”
Jane’s farm near Kirkby Lonsdale with guest poet George Wallace
£30 incl. refreshments.

Please bring your own lunch and suitable footwear and clothing



The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat,
No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons.
He stands under the oak-bush and waits
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it.
He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him   
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,
The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.
You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.


I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk; but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bones too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved.
We had fed him for six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
Implacable arrogance. I gave him the lead gift in the twilight. What fell was relaxed,
Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.

Robinson Jeffers, "Hurt Hawks" from The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Tim Hunt.  Copyright © 1938 by Robinson Jeffers, renewed 1966 and ©  Jeffers Literary Properties.  With the permission of Stanford University Press,

Source: The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (Stanford University Press, 1988)


  1. Thank you. A lovely account of your workshops. I wish I could have been there too.

    Karen H

  2. Karen H. thank you, I love writing up after a workshop, sharing it with those of the group who can't be with us, and also sharing with a wider audience.