The taxi crunched over the gravel and deposited me in grandeur. I was welcomed and shown to my room. This involved passing snarling lions’ heads in cases, a giraffe’s head high on the wall, red carpeted stairs, glass cases full of stuffed birds – eagles, gulls – more stairs, a corridor, more stairs, another corridor, more stairs. I followed lugging my suitcase, wondering if I’d ever find my way out again.
A whole week to write is an unimaginable luxury. No other work, no need to think about feeding anyone, no dog to walk, nobody else’s needs to take into consideration, nothing at all except writing. A week isn’t long, but those empty days stretched ahead of me like something vast and unfillable. I was excited, but also a bit scared. How would I manage to live with only myself and my own work for a whole week?
Of course, I couldn’t just write. Normally my writing gets stuffed into the tiny nooks and crannies of time that are left over when I’ve finished doing the things which keep a roof over our heads. I’m used to tiny bursts of intensity – it’s the way I write, whether through necessity or not. I couldn’t just unpack those pockets and open them up to fill a whole week, working non-stop in the same way. I’d be a heap on the floor by the first afternoon.
Luckily, West Dean College has grounds to explore. I’d brought my walking boots and a map and was excited about the arboretum, the parkland, and a few miles away, Kingly Vale Nature Reserve with its ancient yew trees. When I reached my limit with writing, I could head outside and explore, reinvigorating myself ready for the next session at the coalface/macbook.
The map showed various pathways through the grounds, and also a public bridleway running along the boundary. On the first afternoon, having accrued a satisfyingly large wordcount, I set off intending a circular walk, across the parkland, then back along the bridleway and through the village.
This is where I encountered my first problem. The arboretum is surrounded by a high wall. When I reached the point where the wall is interrupted by a gate, there were signs forbidding the wanderer to approach – and if the wanderer disobeyed and got near enough to examine the gate, it was found to be padlocked, covered with wire, too high and spiked to climb over. If you did want to disobey and make the attempt, and then got caught, there was no way you could pretend you hadn’t realised. You couldn’t just swing nonchalantly over the gate into the lane and pretend you’d barely realised it was there.
I continued. There were other places where the path reached the boundary – I would join the bridleway there. It would be a longer walk, but I needed to walk off all the food I was being given. But the other gates were the same. Signs directed me firmly back towards the park. I could walk through the park, admiring the aboreal trophies, living counterparts to the stuffed animals in the house, but I could not cross the boundary to the outside. I did a circuit, accompanied by pheasants who startled at my approach, flapping into low branches and running across the grass calling out in alarm. It was a nice walk, but not what I’d planned.
The next day I asked how to get to the village without walking along the main road and was given a code to the student gate through the boundary wall. Soon I was on the public bridleway which ran along the other side of the wall. I passed the same gates, with their No Entry signs, which I had seen from the other side the day before. It felt like concentric circles of ownership, even though the land on both sides of the wall is owned by West Dean, there was a definite feel of an inner and outer sanctum.
From the moment you arrive at West Dean you can’t help thinking about privilege. There is the huge size of what used to be one family’s house – now able to accommodate hundreds of students; there’s the size of the rooms – I can’t begin to imagine the cost of the curtain fabric for the church-high floor to ceiling windows in the lounge; there’s the evidence of international travel - the mounted trophies and exotic trees, examples of man’s attempts to dominate and own nature.
Of course, these days things have changed. The house is a college, not a home, and anyone can visit the arboretum if they enter through the proper entrance and pay a fee. The fees are needed for the upkeep of the gardens, and they can’t just have people leaping over the wall, coming and going as they please. It makes sense. But it did make me think about land ownership and trespass laws, and I definitely felt like my rightful place was outside of the wall.
The best weather of the week was on Thursday. By then I had done a lot of writing. Writing was coming out of my ears. I decided to walk to Kingly Vale. I planned my route using the OS map, all along public footpaths, bridleways and small roads. The day was beautiful, and the walk was lovely. I’m used to walking in West Yorkshire where you can’t get very far at all without encountering a steep hill, and I completed the nine-mile round trip much more quickly than I expected.
I’ve visited the ancient yews before, and it was lovely to check in with them – to make the journey to them by foot rather than in a car. However, I was struck by the fact that the land, right up to the edge of the nature reserve, was still owned by West Dean, and that along the permitted path which I was following, there were numerous gateways into forbidden, private land. It might have been a nine mile walk, but I hadn’t really left West Dean Gardens. I was tempted to climb over the gates, which weren’t all such formidable barricades as those around the arboretum. It would have been easy to hop over and have a bit of an explore. The main things that stopped me were 1. Daylight – at that time of year, darkness arrives early and I didn’t want to be caught out in the middle of nowhere; 2. Shooting – I’d heard a few pops as I was walking, and I’ve never in my life seen so many pheasants. I’m guessing there are rules about shooting near the footpath, but if I left the permitted path, then I would lose that protection. 3. Being a woman alone – which is always a consideration when walking in the countryside, but one I have decided not to stop me from walking. If I had been with a friend, and it had been summer, I might have hopped over the gate and had a look, but I decided to behave myself. I arrived back ‘home’ well before dusk and got back to the writing.
I got so much work done that week, and I am very aware of the privilege of being able to spend a week in beautiful surroundings, fed and cared for, and able to please myself. It was a delight to chat with the creative writing students, as well as encountering others making tapestry or embroidery, painters, sculptors and gardeners. The atmosphere was conducive to creativity, and it was a huge boost as a writer to receive this mark of encouragement. West Dean College gifted me an amazing opportunity and I am exceedingly grateful.