Thursday 2 June 2011

The Arvon Experience

By Maureen Lynas

It is possible that my experience of going on a Writing for Children, course at the Lumb Bank Arvon Centre, in 2010, was unusual. It is possible that I am prone to exaggeration.

It is also possible that I live a very sheltered writerly life in my loft with only my keyboard for company, and I succumbed to ‘Writer’s Euphoria’ in the presence of seventeen other children’s authors. But I don’t think so. Because I wasn’t the only author who had tears in her eyes as we said our farewells on the last morning. Some authors even threatened a ‘sit in’, but were encouraged by the lovely staff to, ‘Go home!’
So why didn’t we want to leave?
Could it have been the accommodation and setting? 
Lumb Bank is a wonderful old building perched on the side of a hill near Hebden Bridge
The isolation and fantastic scenery make you think you are in another world, completely cut off from your normal life.
 The room we worked, and ate in, had a huge table, big enough for eighteen to sit around comfortably and had fantastic views out over the valley. There were lots of comfy sofas in the sitting room, and the barn conversion, and we were encouraged to treat the place as our own for the week. Which we did.

The bedrooms are deliberately furnished sparsely. 

This is not the Hilton, or even a Premier Inn, in fact one student referred to her room on first viewing as ‘a pokey hole’ but had to be dragged kicking and screaming out of her‘pokey hole’ on the last morning. It can be cold up there and they recommend warm clothing – they even provide hot water bottles. But I would recommend taking your own, just in case.
All in all I would describe the centre as homely, and very relaxing. But I’m not sure that’s why we didn’t want to leave.
So maybe it was the tutors?
I don’t know if we were just lucky but our tutors were extremely supportive, non-judgemental and generous with their time. And as well as running (and participating in) the workshops they both held a one to one session with each author to discuss work we’d brought with us. They are prolific authors: Malachy Doyle writes a range of books from picture books (The Dancing Tiger, When a Zeeder met a Xyder), to teen fiction, (Georgie and Who is Jessie Flood); Julia Golding writes for older children Cat Royal, Companion Quartet, and Darcy Lock. You can see the full range at their websites,,
Then we had the fabulous David Almond as guest speaker who oozed calmness and confidence and treated everyone as if they had already reached their goal of becoming authors of children’s fiction. I was shocked to hear it had taken him twenty years to get his first book published but reassured too - for me, it meant that I didn’t have to feel despondent for at least another ten years! He was inspirational.
But I’m not sure that was it either.
So, was it the structure of the day?
Slaving over a hot workshop from 9.30 until 12.30. Lunch, then time out to write, walk, talk, think, doze, talk, read, doze, write, talk, chill until 7pm. Sit around the huge table and eat the tasty concoction created by today’s group of volunteer chefs (more about cooking later), drink wine, then an evening activity of readings by the tutors or guest speaker. There was the possibility of a night out at the pub but we changed this to an evening of ‘Interview the Author’ that I was delighted to host. I would like to thank the tutors for their openness in answering such in depth questions as ‘Reliant Robin or Bicycle?’ and ‘What is your favourite six syllable word?’ (Thank you to Clare for those two suggestions!) Very enlightening.
Or was it the food?
The food was delicious. Help yourself to breakfast of cereal, toast, or fruit. Lunch was laid out by the staff – lots of cheeses, meats, breads, salad, etc. Plus cake. Then we had a rota for cooking the evening meal. We signed up into groups of four; each group washed up one night and cooked the next. All of the ingredients were provided, along with very clear instructions, and a member of staff was on hand to advise and rectify any disasters. Not that we had any!
So was it the workshops?
Julia and Malachy’s brief seemed to be to help us become writers in general, not just writers of children’s fiction. To help us to find our voice and to challenge us to think in different ways. 
To say I was nervous of producing work on demand would be an understatement, and to say I was alone in my stammering and heart racing would be a lie. But watching the confidence of the group growing, watching the trust developing, listening to seventeen other voices producing seventeen different responses to identical tasks was amazing. It sent out a clear message – your best writing will be written in your own voice. So let it out.
Speaking of confidence – we were told at the initial, ‘Hello, Welcome to Lumb Bank, Have a Large Piece of Cake, meeting, that on the last night we would all perform one piece of work from the week. There were big gasps of horror and much blood draining from many faces. Then, by the time Friday came, we were moaning and complaining – Only one! Are you sure? I have at least three! I was not the only one to release my inner exhibitionist, and that was before the wine!
And also speaking of confidence – people laughed at my work. Which was brilliant! As an author of funny fiction it was a relief to know that I was hitting some giggling bones. Excellent.
Maybe that was it then. Or maybe it was the students.
It started out well. Lots of smiles. Lots of, ‘Where have you come from? Really? All that way? And what about you? Really? All that way. Gosh.’ And then it just got better and better. I can honestly say I have never laughed so much in one week in my entire life. It was a girls only group, apart from Malachy, and people bonded over writing, bonded over walking, bonded over books, bonded over wine, bonded over their personal histories, their children, their goals, their future. We were so bonded there was no need for glue. And we have kept in touch through an email group and friends are meeting up all over the place, Paris, York, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Newcastle. And lots of us have become members of SCBWI and are meeting up at the Winchester Conference.
Was it worth the money?
Definitively. I would have paid again to stay another week. Arvon has just received extra funding so for the first time you can apply for a full grant and they encourage people to apply.
Would I go on another – just let me pack my bag!
So, I think it was the whole package, the whole Lumb Bank Experience that took a group of wannabe’s and sent them back out into the world with the following message -  Find out why you want to write. Find out what you want to write. Find out who you are writing for. And write!


  1. I'm so glad you had a great experience, Maureen - I went to one at Lumb Bank with Malorie Blackman and Melvin Burgess and came away with a real sense of purpose ... and hope. My only teeny tiny criticism is I can't bear washing dishes!

  2. Great post - I haven't tried an Arvon course yet so it's interesting to hear about what's involved. Sounds v.inspirational!

  3. We only had to wash up once! There was lots of bonding over soap suds. And yes it was very inspirational. And a bit life/attitude changing too. I made some wonderful friends.

  4. That brought back so many memories of my time at Totleigh Barton in Devon last year with Melvyn Burgess and Gillian Cross, who were inspirational. It was wonderful. And I recruited a few new SCBWIs!

    I can highly recommend these courses.

  5. Ooh... very exciting! I've got one lined up for September with Valerie Bloom and Julia Golding (and Meg Rosoff visiting) - I think I might spontaneously combust before I even get there. Great post Mo!

  6. Sorry, massive apologies - just realised I typed Mo by accident...! What I meant to say was great post Maureen! Time for bed...

  7. That's Ok Jo. I'll answer to anything but usually get Maureen. I've always wanted a nickname though :)
    Your Arvon line up sounds impressive! I wanted to go on the picture book one this year but left it far too late to book.

  8. Hello Maureen...what a wonderful summing up of the Arvon experience. I took part in the Food Writing course at Totleigh Barton last July..although very different to writing for children (I imagine!) so many of our experiences are the same. I would tell anyone not to hesitate to sign up for a course...the experience has proved invaluable. Our group bonded so closely, that we are (in 10 days) having a long weekend reunion...most of the participants from last year plus both tutors!! Can't wait. thanks for a great post xo Rachel

  9. We've been meeting up too and would love to have a proper get together, a sort of mini Arvon with us pretending to be the tutors. One day.

  10. Great post Maureen. I'm even more excited now about the Arvon Course I've book onto in November with Angela Newberry and Celia Rees. Anyone else going?

  11. Thanks Astrid. But what a long time to wait!

  12. I loved it too, Maureen! And I've just agreed to run a picture book course with the wonderful Polly Dunbar at Totleigh Barton in June next year. Anyone fancy it?

  13. What a team! And how lovely to hear from you, Malachy. You'll be very pleased to know that your students are still keeping in touch, sharing work over the internet and meeting face to face too. Thank you so much for a wonderful experience, I couldn't have released my inner exhibitionist without you!


Comments are the heart and soul of the Slushpile community, thank you! We may periodically turn on comments approval when trolls appear.

Share buttons bottom