Writing, Wine & Wild Swimming
Muddy scribbles a sentence or two at Tŷ Newydd, Wales' national centre for literature.
There’s a point, generally in our mid-to-late twenties, when we put our heads down and press accelerate; a super-speed, chipmunk-voiced race past life with some or all of careers, relationships, mortgages, babies, teenagers, and ageing parents.
It takes energy and bravery to push our heads above all this, to inhale me-time oxygen, press pause on familiar rhythms—the commute, the school-run, the social feeds — and focus on what truly puts fire in our bellies.
Sounds impossible? Muddy Hampshire’s Mary Malyon did it this summer, heading to Tŷ Newydd: the National Writing Centre of Wales, for a course lead by award-winning authors: Katharine Norbury and Malachy Tallack.
Here she shares what happened.
We are in Llanystumdwy, North Wales, home to travel writer Jan Morris and former Archdruid, WRP George, where 77% of the population speaks Cymraeg, that’s Welsh for, er, Welsh. Keep up.
You couldn’t be further from England’s Home Counties if you jumped on a time-travelling space ship: the language is different, the landscape is different, the outlook is different.
Here is a tradition and culture marinaded in poetry and song, where the written and spoken word is respected, nay venerated, and ‘content’ is still a state of being. In the land of Dylan Thomas, it’s normal to spend an evening reciting poetry and song with your dearest, as we did on our final night.
It’s not performing, it’s sharing—to paraphrase fellow student Robyn, who also helps organise the National Eisteddfod, an annual celebration of Welsh culture and language.
So you see, there is no better place for budding writers to hone their work, wherever they are from.
Safe, womb-like, surrounded by trees, silence and creativity. Standing guard is Tŷ Newydd’s Georgian frontage, all white-washed symmetry and rain-beaten stone; kind-worn like the back of an old man’s hand.
Talking of ageing gentlemen, David Lloyd George PM was a former resident. His was a ‘life lived to the full,’ as the centre’s website puts it delicately, and the last chapter was played out here, literally. Looking out to Cardigan Bay, surrounded by his books and his memories, the elder statesman died peacefully in the library.
Don’t let this put you off though, no really don’t; the elegant, airy room is ground central when it comes to socialising. We were there most evenings, slouched in the sofas, stretched-out comfy, drinking wine, talking books and making owl sounds in the echoing bow window.
At least, I think the hoots came from us, or was a fun-loving, former PM feeling left out? A glass of Pinot Mr Lloyd George, or perhaps you’d prefer a Shiraz?
Past Tŷ Newydd tutors include Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy, and upcoming courses will cover popular fiction, historical fiction, writing for children and a poetry masterclass.
On my visit though, the focus was travel, memoir and nature with tutors Katharine Norbury, author of Wainwright Prize shortlisted memoir: The Fish Ladder (2015), and Malachy Tallack whose debut, Sixty Degrees North (also 2015), was BBC Radio Four’s Book of the Week.
Running from Monday until Saturday, there were group workshops in the morning followed by afternoons free for one-to-one sessions with the tutors, or writing, or drinking pink gin in Criccieth or, best of all, wild swimming at Whistling Sands. Katharine took a group of us across the Lleyn Peninsula to this special beach where we bobbed across Caernarfon Bay like a pod of female beluga, those gregarious and strangely graceful whales who mimic the tone and rhythm of human language.
In the evenings, Katharine and Malachy read from their work, as did visiting author Dan Boothby whose book, Island of Dreams, was published recently.
Us students shared writing and life-stories too: fruit-picking in sixties Motueka with Rosemary; rodeo barrel-racing in Iowa with MacKenzie; kayaking in Hong Kong’s shipping channel with Cory; running up 42 peaks in the Lake District with Alex—and travelling around Wales on a free bus pass with Steffan and Robyn.
SCOFF & QUAFF
My oldest daughter is nine-years-old, my youngest: four, and in their little lives they have eaten around 10,000 meals at home (breakfasts and suppers only, thank all that is good for school lunches). Now, although I do strong-arm coax my husband into an apron now and then, most of these meals come courtesy of mum.
So, call me lazy, but it was a wonderful thing this home-cooked food appearing on the table twice a day, every day, and while we’re at it let’s talk Tŷ Newydd teatime—more specifically yeasty-warm ciabatta, gooey brownies and flapjacks, newly baked and gloriously sticky. Such a big, diolch yn fawr to resident cook, Tony. He’ll understand, you can look it up.
* Tony climbed Ben Nevis recently to fundraise for Marie Curie, you can donate here.
Accommodation is warm, clean and either single or shared with another student. Spick, new bathrooms are sometimes shared but only with those of the same sex. Some rooms are in the house itself, others are in the newer annex which also has a small, cosy children’s library. The house is secure and fully alarmed.
OUT & ABOUT
A footpath takes you directly from Tŷ Newydd downhill, through fields of sheep and seagulls, to the Afon Dwyfor estuary. Here you can follow a wooden causeway into the seaside town of Criccieth with its medieval castle; its terraced houses painted mint, ochre and sand; its shops selling crystals, edible dragons and mini milk-chocolate rugby players and, of course, the legend that is Cadwalader’s Ice Cream Parlour serving the good people of Criccieth since 1927.
Drag yourself from your banana split, and you’ll see Mount Snowdon on the horizon. Actually, there are three mountains on the horizon, possibly four. You’ll have to ask a local exactly which one is the highest mountain in England and Wales, my recall is hazy. *cough* Pink gin. In the afternoon.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
GOOD FOR: Discovering Dylan Thomas, finding time to think, finding time to write; finding yourself again.
NOT FOR: Erm, well if you can’t string a written sentence together, nor have any desire to learn, I’d say not for you. Also, not one for the family—this is strictly me-time.
££: £ A very reasonable £495 – £625 per person which includes workshops, tutorials, full accommodation and home-cooked meals.
Thank you to Katharine Norbury, Malachy Tallack and all the incredible team at Tŷ Newydd. Women on Nature, Katharine’s anthology of female writing, is out soon and The Valley at the Centre of the World, Malachy’s debut novel set in a rural community on the rugged west coast of Shetland, is out now.
Tŷ Newydd, Llanystumdwy, Criccieth, Gwynedd, Wales. LL52 0LW. 01766 522 811. tynewydd@
Words: Mary Malyon