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HISTORY,MYSTERY & MAGIC: My writing workshops

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

I have spent the last week in the beautiful Cotswolds in the UK, running my History, Mystery & Magic writing retreat.
I do feel blessed!

It is an unusual retreat, in that we do not go somewhere isolated from the world and spend all our time meditating and contemplating our navels. Instead, we stay at the Lygon Arms, a 17th century coaching inn on High Street in Broadway, one of the prettiest and most popular villages in the Cotswolds. There are dozens of fabulous shops and pubs and restaurants along the street, but walk for five minutes and you are in fields and meadows and forests. 

The Lygon Arms is itself rich with history and mystery. Our favourite room has a huge inglenook fireplace and a secret stair that leads up to the bedroom where Charles II used to stay. it is said the secret stair was built so he could smuggle his mistresses in and out. Cromwell was also said to have stayed at the inn many times (they have a portrait of him hanging in the Cromwell Room.) One room also has a grave underneath it!


But the main reason the History, Mystery & Magic retreat is so different is that it is aimed for writers at any stage of their creative journey. Some have never written a word, others have been writing for a while but have lost their way, and others have been published but are seeking to re-connect with their creativity. Its all about day-dreaming, playing, creating, and being inspired.

I hope to fling wide the doors of the' unconscious, and help my new writing friends find joy and a sense of wonder in their writing again. 


The mornings are spent in class, talking and laughing and sharing and learning. The afternoons are spent in private guided tours to Oxford, the beautiful secret treasures of the Cotswolds, to Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwick Castle, and Stonehenge. We have a lovely private tour guide who gets us in and out of everywhere without having to queue, but never sounds like a your guide - its just going somewhere with a really interesting and knowledgeable friend. 

On the final night we have a literary dinner with an amazing Mystery Guest at the most beautiful old manor house set in gardens and parklands (it has its own little church). It really is the most wondrous week - some participants describe it as life-changing - and I feel very blessed to be a part of it.

HISTORY, MYSTERY & MAGIC: Discovering the Cotswolds

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Every year, as I return to the Cotswolds, I stare out at the green rolling meadows, the hedgerows full of wild roses and foaming Queen Anne's lace, the gabled houses built of glowing golden stone, and the shadowy glades of trees, their roots velvet with moss   ... and I feel so happy, so blessed. We drive on roads that Romans once marched along, and pass ancient burial mounds built thousands of years ago, And every village has a history, a story ...

Our second tour for my History, Mystery & Magic retreat is an exploration of the Cotswolds - or, at least, the parts we can easily reach from Broadway, the village in which we are based. For anyone who loves gardens and flowers (like me), the Cotswolds villages are an absolute delight. Roses big enough to fill the palm of your hand, and heady with the sweetest scent. Foxgloves bending over a foam of seaside daisies. Rows of purple lavender so rich with scented oils, the air above shimmers. Elder trees hanging with creamy-white blossoms.


We had lunch in Stow-on-Wold, one of my favourite towns, not least because it has this wonderful church door, framed by ancient yew trees:

Then we visited the Rollright Stones, a small and very beautiful circle of stones nearby. It's one of my own personal favourite places in the Cotswolds. You can walk the circle (I took off my boots & stocking so I could do it barefoot), and pick a bunch of leaves and flowers to leave on the tallest of the stones. The Rollright Stones are surrounded by a circle of trees, including the seven trees scared to the Druids - ash, oak, birch, fir, rowan, hawthorn and elder. I added in wild roses and Queen Anne's lace for a pretty bouquet. There are similar offerings left on the stones, including a sheaf of wheat, plus coloured ribbons were tied to the stone which had holes worn through them. I saw white, red and black ribbons.

There is a beautiful story behind the formation of the stones, about a man who would be king and the witch ho tricked him:

The Rollright stone story is different and was first referred to in print by Camden in 1586, since when the tale has become considerably more elaborate.

A King with ambitions to conquer all of England had got as far as the Rollrights when up popped a witch. According to some accounts she was Mother Shipton of Shipton-under-Wychwood (c.1488-1551). She challenged the King with these words -

“Seven long strides shalt thou take And if Long Compton thou canst see, King of England thou shalt be.”

Off went the King, shouting -

“Stick, stock, stone As King of England I shall be known.”

On his seventh stride the ground rose up before him in a long mound sometimes known as the Arch-Druid’s barrow. The witch laughed and declared -

“As Long Compton thou canst not see King of England thou shalt not be. Rise up stick and stand still stone For King of England thou shalt be none; Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be And I myself an eldern tree.”

And so it was that the King became the King Stone, his men the King’s Men Stone Circle, and his treacherous and conniving knights the Whispering Knights, although some say that the knights were actually at prayer.

Tradition has it that one day the spell will be broken. The King and his men will return to life and continue with their conquest of England. (Unless they meet another witch).

HISTORY, MYSTERY & MAGIC: Exploring the dreaming spires of Oxford

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

This year we began our History, Mystery & Magic retreat in the Cotswolds with an afternoon spent exploring Oxford, the city of dreaming spires. That very phrase gives me a shiver of delight! 

We went to see an amazing exhibition of the Bodleian Library's greatest treasures, including hand-written letters by Jane Austen, the journal written in turn by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley after their elopement, a locket with small tendrils of their hair, the original hand-drawn cover of The Lord of the Rings with Tolkien's instructions to the printers in the margins, a copy of the Magna Carta ... too much to describe in a single blog post. My favourite exhibits were all the letters and manuscripts written in the author's own hand ... there is something so awe-inspiring and magical about seeing their unique idiosyncratic style and nothing that their hand had touched tat paper. 

We walked the streets and took in the sights ... 

T our very great delight, we were then showed a door in Oxford which may have inspired C.S. Lewis to invent Narnia. A wooden face is carved on the door - it is a Green Man (one of my own personal obsessions) but arguably can be see to look a little like the face of a lion. Just down the road is an old-fashioned iron lantern-posy, and - most exciting of all - two smiling gilded fauns hold up the lintel. 

Apparently ... the story goes ... he walked down this laneway one snowy winter's afternoon, and saw the faun and the lamppost and the carved lion's head, and his imagination sparked ....

(Thank you to the internet for this atmospheric snowy picture of St Mary's Passage - I couldn't find the original photographer so thank you to them as well!) 

We visited Blackwell's and bought books, then enjoyed high tea on the rooftop terrace of the Ashmolean ... (no cucumber sandwiches, to my disappointment) but utterly delicious lemon macaroons and scones with jam and clotted cream.

This is the view from the top of the Ashmolean - I love the glimpse of meadows and fields behind the church spire.

Then we made my annual pilgrimage to the iconic Eagle and Child pub where the Inklings (J.R.R Tolkien, C.S. Lewis &  friends) used to meet every Tuesday evening for a pint and a read-aloud of their stories. These are the authors who helped shaped my imagination, and who introduced me to worlds of shadowy enchantment. To sit where they once sat, to touch my hands where their hands once touched ... it never fails to move me. 




HISTORY, MYSTERY & MAGIC: The Story Museum in Oxford

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Every year I run a week-long writing retreat in Oxford & the Cotswolds, an opportunity for me to visit one of my all-time favourite places in the world and soak up as much magic and wonder as I can. I know, I know! I am blessed indeed. 

I've been to Oxford three times and each time I discover something new and extraordinary. This trip, I was determined to go to the Story Museum in Pembroke St, a place that always sounded so amazing. I had only an hour free, but it was absolutely worth taking the time to go. I now want to build a Story Museum in every city and town in the world!

The front door ...

A box to hold brochures ...

The Story Museum is primarily designed for young children, but is brimful of imagination, inspiration, whimsy and delight. Each room has a slightly different function, and is fitted out with real flair and charm. I loved the 'Time for Bed' room. Kids can put on a dressing-gown (arranged in size from very small to large), pretend to clean their teeth and brush their hair, then go into a room hung with curtains with an immense bed (I'm talking IMMENSE) where they can lie and read.


I absolutely adored the lullaby room ...

Another room was dominated by a Story Loom, an extraordinary contraption designed to suck out the imagination of children and turn it into stories ...

Another favourite room of mine held a story wheel in which children spin a giant wooden wheel and the pointer comes to rest on some aspect of storytelling which they can then use to create their own creatives tales.

The whole building is designed to be fun and adventurous and to stimulate children's imaginations while opening their eyes to the ways in which stories are constructed and told. Sadly no storyteller was performing the morning I was there, but apparently the museum has many different kinds of events - storytelling, creative writing workshops, illustrating workshops, and book talks by authors. 

I'd love to go again one day and hear a local storyteller, and watch kids play and imagine and create. Just wonderful, in all sense of the word!

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