It was somehow fitting that Coleridge Cottage’s first ever Writer-in-Residency programme should conclude on the very last weekend of its busy season, amidst the autumnal Halloween/Samhain atmosphere ─ while incongruously most of the UK bathed in the warmest late October/early November weekend on record.
On the Friday afternoon, I hosted a creative writing workshop which encouraged participants to unleash their imagination on some of the more mundane and everyday artefacts and places in Coleridge Cottage, and give them their own ‘voices’ and stories. This prompted some highly evocative writings on a varying range of objects, including a tiny laudanum bottle.
For the Saturday evening, events took a distinctly Gothic turn, with our event Twilight Tales. For this, I had abridged extracts from works directly influenced by the Coleridge and the other Romantic writers, including Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein; Byron’s Fragment of a Novel and The Vampyre by their friend John Polidori. This was the first published modern vampire story and it is said the titular character was based on Byron himself. There was also a sample of some of Coleridge’s own darker moments, with an abridged version of his lengthy poem Christabel. Costumed volunteers read the Shelley and Byron extracts, and the Cottage’s own Conservation Assistant, Tina Mitchell, added to the ghostly atmosphere with some true tales of experiences of the spectral kind experienced by staff and volunteers in the building. Visitors very much enjoyed experiencing the Cottage’s candlelight atmosphere, as they were taken into different rooms for each reaching – and I ask their forgiveness for my mischievous, surprise ending added at the last minute to the Polidori story…
Finally, myself and four volunteers in splendid period costume gathered on the Sunday afternoon for the programme’s last event, Domestic Dramas – a specially devised, narrated dramatic reading, based on some of the domestic and personal tensions involving Samuel and Sara Coleridge, Dorothy Wordsworth, Thomas Poole and others in their social circle. My source materials for this included using from biographies, letters and and other texts by and about the central characters, plus a charming but highly romanticised fictionalised work, A Day With Coleridge by the prolific writer, May Byron (related to Lord George by marriage). An appreciative audience took part in a spontaneous Q&A session after the reading, and the collective verdict on the domestic dramas was: ‘Poor Sara Coleridge!’
And so, Coleridge Cottage has closed its doors for the winter, and will re-open in April, as usual – and we have brought the curtain down on its first ever Writer-in-Residence programme. It has been a hugely enjoyable – if occasionally challenging! – experience for me: it’s been a great pleasure to meet and work with Tina Mitchell and her dedicated team of National Trust volunteers who have embraced the residency with warmth, humour and enthusiasm, and I hope it’s been a good and stimulating experience for them, and for all the participants.
If you didn’t get a chance to join us for the events, fear not: you’ll almost certainly get a chance to experience some of them again in future visits to Coleridge Cottage. When I accepted the offer from the National Trust and Literature Works to become the first Writer-in-Residence for the ‘Writing Places’ programme, it seemed obvious to me – given our time limitations − that it would be of greater benefit to visitors and volunteers alike if I could produce works that could be repeated without my physical presence actually being required, and hope that they would become part of the Cottage’s literary legacy.
So, in the future, visitors will get a chance to go on a free mini-tour, Coleridge’s Adventures in Arcadia, an informal stroll around the garden with stories about Coleridge’s idyllic plans for self-sufficiency and the role the garden played in his work life, and there will also be more events featuring extracts and elements of Domestic Dramas and Twilight Tales.
Coleridge’s humble home and garden in Nether Stowey were where he wrote some of his most famous and greatest works, and I was delighted to discover that in turn they, as well as him, his friends and family, inspired me to produce writings that, I hope, will add to the future enjoyment of the Cottage and its rich literary heritage. I have certainly enjoyed the opportunity to do so.