Virginia Astley has been writer-in-residence at Hardy’s Cottage in Dorchester throughout September and October. As the residency draws to a close, we asked her to share some of her writer’s journal with us.
Virginia and her workshop attendees (who have become as familiar to us in words here at Writing Places HQ as the faces from Hardy’s Wessex) have been seeking and finding amazing writing inspiration and it was so difficult to choose just one extract of Virginia’s journal to share but we think that this one, from Apple Day (7th October) perfectly encapsulates the work that she has been doing at Hardy’s birthplace.
Lose yourself in the perfectly evoked autumnal orchard of Apple Day at the cottage and keep your eyes open for a familiar brooding hero who paid a surprise visit to the Shepherd’s hut. We’ll let Virginia tell you more…
7th October 2017, Apple Day at Hardy’s Cottage…
“The shepherd’s hut has arrived from the lovely Plankbridge people and instantly comes into its own. I’m also very pleased about a large branch retrieved from an unlit bonfire in Maiden Newton churchyard. All covered in moss. It’s now in the Writers’ Hut, draped with our harvest of apple poems.
I have high expectations of Apple Day. The enthusiasm and anticipation of two of the children who’ve attended writing sessions has been catching. Their apple poems tell the story: the excitement of knocking the apples from the trees, the thrill of chopping and pressing. The Cider. Clearly Apple Day is an annual delight. Their parents play in the band Tatterdamalion who’ll be performing out on the grassy slope later.
First thing this morning I came downstairs to find my daughter baking me a Dorset apple cake. I know there’ll be apple cake in the cottage but feel writers may well need their own cake too. It’s not long before Carolyn (a regular workshop attendee) arrives, tin-in-hand. Carolyn, thinking on similar lines, has been baking too. Hers: Apple and Marmalade Apple Cake, made to a NT recipe. Can’t have too much apple cake. It’s delicious. Carolyn has some great suggestions for apple activities too. It’s not long before the whole cottage, garden and orchard are filled with families. The sun comes out while the apple-pressing, grinding, crushing equipment waits on the courtyard outside the cottage. A team of young men, women and kids march off into the orchard. Windfalls must be kicked aside before, with instruments of homespun variety, the team starts to shake the apples from the trees. The apples are carried by wheelbarrow and sack back up to the cottage.
I realize how magical it is for children to approach the cottage through the woods, how noteworthy there are no cars up this lane, that the cottage is at the very end.
In the shepherd’s hut I nurse the woodburner with bark and thin cherry twigs. But soon find my own ‘Gabriel Oak’, and, with the promise of apple cake and mulled apple juice, he’s sat by the stove, feeding it wood. He tells me he’s a pizza chef – just the man for the job. While looking after the fire he writes a poem.
Outside the children are making lists of their own apple names. Some rather derogatory, but I like Mossy Bottom.
Older children try to peel large cookers in one go, throwing the peel over their left shoulder and reciting the rhyme:
St Simon and St Jude, on you I intrude,
By this paring I hold to discover,
Without any delay, to tell me this day,
The first letter of my own true lover.
There are lots of s’s and g’s
The adults have their own task of turning a recipe into a love poem. There are some rather steamy poems! Janet (another workshop attendee) returns but she’s chilled from sitting writing in the garden. Gabriel Oak has left us a blazing fire and I persuade Janet to sit by the stove with some apple cake. Soon she’s writing another poem.
Another team make a foray to the orchard where the apples keep coming down. We feel they need a tree-shaking song. Up at the cottage the whole courtyard is now filled with the sweet juice of crushed apples. Every surface is sticky. The band strikes up with Hardy’s favourite tune, Enrico. The sun still shines and I’ve eaten far too much apple cake.”
You hear them deep in the woods
haring through undergrowth
leaping fallen boughs, shelves of bracket fungus
stretching above them, resting to catch their breath
against shag-pile moss,
as like the leaves they descend through the woods,
breaking from the understory
to a track that stops in the orchard –
over-furnished now with its year’s freight
like a cluttered flat waiting
to be stripped after its owner has died.
Photos: Virginia Astley and National Trust.