It is a home steeped in literary history, which now houses a charity inspiring the next generation of writers.
But after the doors to Lumb Bank, once the West Yorkshire home of former poet laureate Ted Hughes, closed during the coronavirus outbreak, a new opportunity arose for Arvon – to take its residential writing courses, masterclasses and author readings online for the first time.
In the words of the charity, which first hosted a writing course at Hebden Bridge’s Lumb Bank in 1975, now is a time when stories are needed more than ever “to engage, to distract, to entertain, to nourish, and to help us make sense of what we’re living through”.
The first week-long online course was held last week and according to Helen Meller, acting centre director at Lumb Bank, the Zoom-based sessions featured just as much “bonding, crying, laughing and inspiration” as those held in person.
“There were people on the course who couldn’t have afforded or wouldn’t have been able to attend in person for health reasons, for example, so it has opened up a whole new cohort of people to Arvon,” she said. “We have found a new inclusively, where people can be themselves, in their home environments, and get all the benefits of a residential course.”
Taking the writing weeks online had been in the pipeline for Arvon, which also has bases in Devon and Shropshire, for several years, which meant the team were quickly able to set up an alternative offering once lockdown began.
“We’ve been developing the idea of a fourth writing house – a virtual one – for many years, but running courses year-round at three centres was quite a machine to feed, in the loveliest sense, and that development wasn’t actually moving as fast as we’d liked,” Mrs Meller said.
“But when we were confronted with the scenario when all of our houses had to close, suddenly the elephant in the room was that the ‘fourth house’, that had been sitting there, was ready for its moment. And I think that’s why its captured people’s imagination, because it was so well thought out.
“There’s a lot of material out there now, for the locked-down public, but the I think because the Arvon brand is so strong, what’s available on Zoom is absolutely of the same quality as any of the real life experiences.”
The writers’ week featured everything a classic retreat would offer, from daily workshops with tutors and one-to-one tutorials to guest readings, home work challenges and even social events where participants gathered via Zoom with a glass of wine. Recipes for meals traditionally served at Arvon were even shared and cooked at home.
“It was such an inspiring week,” Mrs Meller said. “And I can say that genuinely, as I took part as well as hosted, and it provided me with an authentic insight into the experience.”
Going virtual has enabled Arvon to reach some of its charitable objectives more easily by charging a lower price, with tickets for guest readings just £5 and masterclasses at £35.
“We’ve been able to reach new writers and people who, for whatever reason, we haven’t been able to reach before,” Mrs Meller said. “It’s definitely going to be a part of the Arvon repertoire in future.”
The virtual sessions will feature readings from Brick Lane author Monica Ali to War Horse scribe Michael Morpurgo.
Over the coming weeks, other fiction and non-fiction authors taking part include Jo Brand, Rania Hershmann and A L Kennedy.
Ms Meller said: “Sometimes, they become less about a reading and more a micro-masterclass with tips and techniques, and a sneak preview of new work.
“It’s a lovely thing to do, whether you’re listening on your phone or in front of a computer. We’re very fortunate that so many writers have wanted to be part of Arvon at Home.”