Story tellers gathered at Bradwell on Wednesday for a Writing Retreat. The wild coast around St Peter’s Chapel was the finale to the Essex Book Festival 2017. Will the events return next year? Organisers spoke exclusively to Wild Essex about the stress of running the UK’s fastest growing literary festival… and how the feral Dengie Peninsula put ‘the wild’ back into the work of 30 ‘pioneers’.
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“In a small group like this, people are confident to read out their work and talk about their work. And it’s really important to share your writing. Otherwise you may as well just go write a diary! If you want to get your writing out there you’ve got to share it. You have to be brave,” – Ros Green, Essex Book Festival director, Othona Community writers retreat, Bradwell, April 7, 2017.
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James Canton runs the Wild Writing MA at the University of Essex. He’s hosting an Essex Book Festival class on the Bradwell sea wall.
James is doing something interesting. He’s not asking students to write. He’s asking them to listen. “Recognise five sounds, and think about how they can influence your story telling,” he says.
The first noise we’re aware of is silence. No one is speaking or moving. But then we hear something else. Birds. Wood pigeons. Their repetitive, wheezy coos like an old man, half asleep. Someone said they could hear a chaffinch. Sparrows. And a crow. Then the sound of a fat bee growling. “Like an electric razor,” someone says. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a place where nature sounded so loud. Perhaps because there was nothing else to hear.
About 30 writers are here for three days. It’s the end of the line. No roads, cars or routine urban noises. They sleep and eat in the three acre Christian retreat that’s hidden behind the trees next to St Peter’s Chapel. I’ve walked this coastline before, but had no idea the retreat was here. Or that is was open to the public.
“It’s an incredibly beautiful part of Essex,” says Essex Book Festival director, Ros Green. “I don’t think many people here today knew about it. It’s a little piece of magic. We’ve never done a writing retreat before, so it was perfect.”
Ros took the festival over three years ago. Since then, the event has become one of the biggest in the literary calendar. Last year, 2016, was the most successful in the festival’s history. Visitor numbers were up by 30 per cent in 2017.
“Hosting a writing retreat fits in because the festival is pushing the boundaries. We’re trying to take risks,” says Ros.
“Some of the writing classes people are doing here are quite experimental. Quite different. We’re pioneers. They’re not off-the-peg creative writing courses. The Essex Book Festival is branding itself as the festival that reaches the parts other festivals don’t reach.”
“When I took over the average age was 65, and it was attracting mostly women. And that’s a wonderful audience, but it was leaving behind younger people. I’ve got kids in their 20s and I was trying to work out why they were going to book and poetry events at festivals like Latitude, but not to ‘book festivals’.”
“So events like this are why we’re now getting a greater variety of people in. And that’s exciting for us, and that’s exciting to the authors.
“Book festivals are very safe places. Quite closed off. We’re changing that.
“Everyone is getting excited by that.”
More of the same next year? There’s a huge amount of pressure to putting on a festival, let alone events like this, says Ros.
“A few days earlier I was thinking, ‘That’s it, I just can’t do this any more.’ But the retreat has been such a fantastic thing to do. My pre-festival-self was quite wise in knowing that Bradwell was what I needed. I think mid-festival if I could have cancelled it, I would have. I was thinking, ‘I’ve just bitten off more than I can chew.’
“But you know. People have been so generous with everything. And the sun has helped. I’m doing it again next year, for sure. Perhaps two writers’ retreats. And I only want to do it here.”
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The Othona community was set up by Norman Motley, an RAF chaplain, in 1946.
The founding fathers considered themselves pioneers of a movement promoting reconciliation and understanding between people of all faiths, cultures and nationalities.
Motley considered Glastonbury and Lindisfarne for the retreat, but decided the Dengie marsh and its shell beach was the perfect location.
Motley’s vision was to create a place that people could meet to talk, reflect and enjoy ‘spiritual renewal’. It remains open to the public. The community wardens look after St Peter’s Chapel next door.
St Peter’s dates back to the 7th Century, making it one of the UK’s oldest churches.
The Othona Community hosts events and workshops all year, including The Bradwell Festival, the Festival of Song, and sketching, writing and photography workshops.
For more visit Events at Othona