The Writer, Land & the Spirit of Place: an essay by Greenway writer-in-residence, Roselle Angwin

To celebrate the work she has done over the course of her three month residency at Greenway house in Brixham, we asked Roselle Angwin to write an essay on the relationship between writer and place.

Stories of place

You could, of course, arrive at Greenway by steam train, or by boat. If you drive, however, the suburbs of Paignton don’t prepare you for the first tantalising glimpses of the River Dart, long inspiring to me, through the trees lining the narrow lane into which you emerge.

Once you’re through the bungalows on the outskirts of Galmpton and into the older village, the lane climbs a little before dropping down towards the river. It might be hard to see it now, but Galmpton’s manor house featured in the Domesday book, and Galmpton was previously known as Galmetona, apparently derived from ‘gafolsman’ – the Old English term for a tenant peasant.

As you turn off past the lodge house into Greenway drive (I think the lodge figured in the film of Agatha Christie’s novel, Dead Man’s Folly, set and partly filmed here, though the name of the place was changed), you can see why Christie, whose summer home this was, said that it was the loveliest place in the world.

When you arrive at Greenway, it becomes obvious why the place, its woodland garden and its location remained continuingly inspiring to Ms Christie. The woodland itself of course has so many possibilities for hiddenness, surprise, the ‘what if?’ that is a key question for a fiction writer. (And there’s the fact that so many of our stories have come out of woodland: the original Wildwood and its resonance down centuries or even millennia has inspired so many archetypal themes, stories and quests, and is the perfect setting for mystery, itself de rigueur for suspense and creative tension, two important aspects of fiction.)

Like her contemporary in Cornwall, Daphne du Maurier, the site of the house she bought was immensely seductive to Christie. Both writers had known their dream house for a long while before buying it. Both women were attracted by large secluded houses in woodland that tumbled towards water (du Maurier’s was Menabilly, in East Cornwall’s creekland near Fowey, and not so far, as the seagull flies). Both houses have an entrance through rhododendron-lined drives; at Greenway, they are cut back and managed with no attempt to eliminate them, as generally happens in so many properties where rhododendron has taken over.

For Christie at 48, the house at £6000 (this was 1938) was affordable – and significantly cheaper than it had sold for in the previous century, as some of the land had been sold off by then.

Greenway claims the whole area, in its spirit, somehow. Although the current house is predominantly Georgian, built in the 1790s, there was a Tudor house there before built for the mother of explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, and I think this sense of the land having been lived on and managed for centuries contributes to that.

This area has, thanks to its proximity to the coast, a history of great voyages of discovery as well as maritime warfare, and Richard Grenville, related to Raleigh and also explorer and seafarer, sailed from here in the Elizabethan era. (Walter Raleigh who also lived at Greenway at one stage and who of course brought tobacco to England supposedly lit his first pipe of it here at Greenway, causing a servant to throw ale over him thinking he’d caught fire.)

All this mixes a heady cocktail.

There’s also the sense, despite the river traffic and train, and the glimpses of the boatyard down at Noss, of seclusion and tranquillity that everyone experiences here.

Walking in the gardens you can feel the presence of stories waiting to be written; and indeed during my outdoor workshop with Galmpton school pupils the storylines rose up like springs, effortlessly and ready to spill. Adult participants on other workshops here seem to have found that a combination of a well-known writer’s dwelling, the house and grounds, and permission to be free with their imagination has prompted ideas.

For the casual visitor, strolling the grounds and exploring the house is an uplifting and interesting experience, I imagine.

For an Agatha Christie aficionado, there’s the added intrigue of spotting places for murder motifs in her work, such as the boathouse (where Greenway House visitors would take the waters in the salty influx to the plunge pool from the Dart at high tide). They might also imagine for themselves storylines, as did one of my group participants on what was for most of us a poetry workshop at Greenway, but for C a source of a murder-mystery plotline that involved the writing tutor not being at all who she’d said she was… watch this space…

And there are, of course, many inspiring historic motifs in the house and grounds and also along the river, from the cave of a prehistoric sabre-toothed tiger upriver near Tuckenhay, to the ‘tucking’ textile mill that gives that place its name, to the ancient yew tree, over a thousand years old, in the churchyard at Stoke Gabriel. Close by, Galmpton Creek was the birthplace of the classic Brixham sailing trawler.

Nearer the boathouse, in the Dart is the Anchor Stone, picked out in red. Sir Walter Raleigh was said to ‘take his ease’, according to Churston Ferrers and Galmpton’s Local Studies Education Series, here at the Anchor Stone mid-river from time to time. (Sometimes known as the Scold Stone, the story goes that unfaithful or complaining wives from nearby Dittisham were tied to the post on top of the Anchor Stone. That must have been terrifying at high tide, when the women’s heads would have been barely above water.)

Indoors, it’s easy to imagine from the various artefacts from Agatha Christie’s and her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan’s journeys, as well as from the rooms and their other contents, how plots might develop (The Body in the Library), and how some objects associated with a person or place, or courtesy of their own history, might acquire significant or talismanic properties or qualities for a work of fiction.

Place, imagination and belonging

Place and a sense of belonging are of course intricately intertwined. While some people can find a sense of home wherever they are, or go, most of us need a specific landscape, or landscape feature; or at least, like homing pigeons, need somewhere familiar as a refuge.

Writers can go either way. Inspiration, for me, arrives mostly via my relationship with the natural world, but in two very different ways. There’s the inspiration that comes from newness and surprise – the juxtaposition of the unfamiliar and the recognised, because of previous experiences and associations, of a different place, or the same place visited infrequently. Then there’s the inspiration that arises from deep knowing deepened by familiarity and daily immersion.

For me, they often lead to two different outcomes: the latter experience is good for prose, the former for poetry; but I suspect that’s an individual thing.

As the new writer-in-residence, I had the pressing feeling that I ‘ought’ to base my own work and my workshops on the house, hub of All Things Christie. But I’m primarily an outdoor writer, and it’s the poetry of place, of land, of other species, and our human relationship to those that is my passion. Soon, I discovered I had, more or less, carte blanche to follow the muse into the woodland garden, helped by a tour given by one of the knowledgeable gardeners.

When I arrived for interview in July, the first thing I noticed, after the beckoning river-glimpses, was the size of some of the trees (the majority of Devon’s trees, except in parkland which is not as common here as in other parts of England, are quite small). I fell in love with a huge old sweet chestnut by the car park – I’m always intrigued by the way the bark of older chestnuts, like this, is deeply grooved and corkscrews down the trunk.

This is despite the slight sense of incongruity that I so often experience in large, established and managed woodland gardens that consist of very many exotic trees, planted probably in the eighteenth and mainly nineteenth centuries: beautiful, but non-native.

However, they too inspire curiosity and imagination: the twin-trunked North American paper birch (betula papyrifera) that has skin so white that it rivals the moon, so smooth that you want to caress it; the ginger shrubs with the heady fragrance of their flowers; the unidentified buddleia-like purple blossoms hanging over my favourite spot, the green-coated pool in which Kwan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion, serenely balances forever on her stone plinth.

And then there is the sense of belonging to a place, however briefly, so that its stories may spill through you in a kind of mutual accord. A place can never truly belong to us; but we can belong to a place, long to be in a particular place, and that longing opens a kind of receptivity in us. Writer Albert Camus said: ‘We travel for years without much idea of what we are seeking. We wander in the tumult, entangled in desires and fears. Then suddenly we arrive at one of those two or three places that are waiting for us patiently in the world. We arrive there and the heart is at last at peace – we discover that we have arrived.’

I said earlier that writers find inspiration in different modes, and I mentioned two: the transience of travelling, and the delight in embedding oneself in a land or place. For me, the journey to one of the several places, mostly within the Celtic areas of Britain and France but also my native Westcountry, that act on me like a magnet, like a homing pigeon, is a build-up, a delicious build-up, to the destination. Both modes, travelling and being still, enthuse and inspire me, and the creative dynamic involved in the former means that my well is brimming on arrival; place is then my midwife.

Certain places hold the ability to soothe, to uplift, to reorder a state of confusion: to bring us back to ourselves. As writers rather than tourists, if we choose to travel attentively, our journey to such places is not only a richness creatively, but becomes a journey also to a place where we might bring ourselves home, gather together the scattered fragments of ourselves, find a resting place out of the whirlwind of our habitual accelerated lives.

This can help us deepen our writing practice.

Writer as witness and voice for place and its inhabitants
We could argue that without place there could be no experience – well, we wouldn’t be here at all in physical form without somewhere to be, clearly.

Rebecca Solnit says that we think place is about space but it’s actually about time; or at least, I’d add, human conceptions of time. The passages I wrote above about the history of Greenway exemplify this: we measure the specific place partly by what has happened here.

I think it’s important to remember that human and land not only co-exist but have a mutual effect on each other.

It is not easy to speak of the way place seems to store up history, human history. It’s as if we soak certain places not only with our actions but also our thoughts, our attitudes and intent. Many if not most people, religious or not, admit that a cathedral transmits something to them; in my mind this is more than simply the architecture, or a knowledge of the purpose of the building. Similarly with a stone circle or stone row from the Bronze Age, or a Neolithic tumulus. Again, I believe this is more than simply our awe at the age of such a structure, and the endeavours of our ancestors.

Places can reflect back to us past suffering and harm, too – think of battlefields and places like Culloden. A sensitive person can pick up an atmosphere that seems to be saturating a particular spot (just as animals can) – threatening, sad, dark, troubled, even murderous. (Such saturation may be, for animals anyway, a precognition of natural phenomena, like earthquakes or avalanches, but what I’m speaking of here is the interrelationship between human states of being, or deeds, and the land where it occurs.) We could argue that a writer, by increasing their sensitivity to place and the human experience and emotions that might saturate a spot, might write both more imaginatively and truly.

We live within a web of interconnections, though many of them are imperceptible to the physical senses and the conscious mind.

Perhaps it’s the writer’s job to make them more visible.

When we’re in a landscape, no matter how embedded we feel within its ecosystem, our ego still tends to make us the locus around which all the other-than-human lives revolve, rather in the way the ancients saw the sun and the other planets in our solar system as being in attendance on the earth.

But maybe in a more positive sense this point of consciousness from which we write can also act as a channel.

A writer is, or can be, at the very least a conduit for impressions, imaginings, intuitions from both the individual and collective.

We can also be conduits for those beings that have no voice, or language at least in a human sense – whether rock, lightning, river, or tree, raven, mouse. Becoming elements, becoming animal, we recreate them orally or on the page in what, in its ideal form, can almost seem a shamanic transmission.

This is one way of truly embedding ourselves on this planet along with all the other beings with whom we share it.

We can record our concerns for the other-than-human in this time of destruction and loss, when we’ve lost fifty percent of species in forty years. It’s arguably urgent that writers and artists find ways of being receptive, of letting land and other species speak through us.

It’s also one way of embodying the kind of consciousness that will allow us to remember our origins, and the ancient bond with everything else that is sentient – not according to our more recent ‘scientific’ deductions of limited sentience, but according to the old First Nations notion that everything, even rocks, are sentient – have consciousness – in their own way.

Writing then can be a way of celebrating place and its many inhabitants, and a way of keeping this flame of awareness alive.

Roselle Angwin, Greenway Writing Places residency, November 2017

Images: Roselle Angwin and Greenway House


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