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Notes on a poetry residential at Garsdale

I’m back from an inspirational week at the Garsdale Retreat, on a poetry residential course that deserved to be full but wasn’t – if you’ve ever done an Arvon week then I recommend you go to Garsdale for a change. Although the selfish part of me doesn’t want anyone else to discover it, I of course want it to be wildly successful. It’s run by partners Hamish and Rebecca, who realised a dream by relocating to the Yorkshire Dales (although strictly speaking they are just into Cumbria) from Hertfordshire. The Retreat has only been open a year but I predict its courses will very soon be oversubscribed. Kim Moore has been a tutor there and has blogged about it too.

On our week, just four of us had Ian Duhig to ourselves, plus a very absorbing  evening reading from Hannah Lowe, food to die for, very comfortable accommodation and a gorgeous location. Lambs baaa-ed me to sleep each night and I witnessed the joy of Jackpot the bull being introduced to a field of cows. I saw my first-ever red squirrel. And one day we were even treated to the sight of a steam train passing. We were guests at a cello & piano recital and one evening did a lot of shouting and laughing over a ‘literary game’ that Hamish has clearly got very good at. Plus – oh yes! I wrote, read, thought about, listened to and discussed a lot of poetry.

Ian Duhig has an encyclopedic knowledge of literature, history, myth & legend, politics, the environment and much more. (He’s also hilariously down-to-earth.) Tapping into him was rather like releasing a fireman’s hose (nothing lewd intended in this simile!) and many times I found myself giving up trying to write down references or understand everything and just let his talk flow over me. It felt like the way you pick up bits of a foreign language by going to a country and sitting in a cafe where you overhear conversations and the background talk of a TV or radio. The tutorials with him were intense. I was already somewhat in awe. ‘The Lammas Hireling’ made a huge impression on me when I first read it, and, dear God, he’s won the National twice. Now, in one-to-ones I’m aware I can be a bit difficult at times, so I was very grateful for his forbearance & generosity. I came away challenged and felt suitably kicked up the arse.

The fragmentary way of absorbing ideas and sounds ties in pretty well with the key theme of the week, which was how ‘nothing is wasted’ – digging up fragments, interrogating them, piecing things together, enjoying the connections but also the gaps. In this spirit of this, and since so much of what happens on a course stays between those who were there, in this blog post the narrative ends here.

In what follows I share a few of the phrases and ideas that stayed with me, along with some photos I took there which I hope give a feel of the experience.

“We live in descriptions of places not places” – Wallace Stevens –  I tracked this down to a letter written to Henry Church in April 1945.

Untranslateable words, eg Dustsceawung (Old English) – meaning ‘viewing or contemplating dust in the spirit of all things turning to dust. Such contemplation may loosen the grip of worldly desires.’ Ha!

Walls, windows, doors. Idea of ‘the wall which is a door’ in Theology.

‘The ear drieth words as the mouth tastes the meat’ – Book of Job

The disappearing East Coast of England.

Does complex form make you think the poem is less sincere?

“A poem is a bridge that leads to itself” – Paul Muldoon

You don’t want the reader to think “this part of your work is based on an assumption that I don’t think you’ve challenged.”

“Taking the line for a walk” – Paul Klee.

Published inBlogCoursesInspirationPlacesRetreatsWriting


  1. Your Garsdale experience sounds (and looks) inspirational, Robin!
    *adds to ‘Life’s for Living’ list* 🙂

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Definitely worth it, Jayne, yes 🙂

  2. It’s a strange and remarkable place. I went there in the snow in March….KIm Moore’s course. Came out of it with a shedload of poems I am now happy with. I did dream of bacon sandwiches a lot.

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Aha! Yes, forgot to mention it’s mainly veggie, but some lovely fish dishes too…

  3. Jinny Fisher Jinny Fisher

    Oooh that looks wonderful! Great photos.

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Thanks Jinny!

  4. Judith Shaw Judith Shaw

    Delighted you got so much put of it, Robin.

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Hi Judith, yes, it’s certainly given me lots to think about. x

  5. Aaaaah, sounds and looks so lovely! I can but dream… someday…

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      I hope you do get there one day Marina! x

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Robin Houghton 2021