A garden and a library….

That’s all you need, according to Cicero, and I’ve just had a joyful residency in both! The Women’s Library at Compton Verney to be precise, looking out at grounds laid out by Capability Brown.

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The project was part of Spreadsheets and Moxie, a year of research and development into professionalism in the arts for women writers which I’m carrying out with fellow writer, Viccy Adams, and which is supported by Arts Council England. We first went to Compton Verney for this back in January, but this month I went back alone for a very good reason – the arrival of Viccy’s beautiful baby, Archer.

I wasn’t really alone though, because of the number of wonderful visitors to the Women’s Library who I cornered to ask for the one book they might recommend – written by a woman. From top left, working clockwise we have – I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, One Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler and The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. And then there were the recommendations left in our #100Women100Books visitors book.

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The residency was part of the overall year of research and development into professionalism in the arts, Spreadsheets and Moxie, Viccy and I have been working on, and which is supported by Arts Council England. For this, we devised a model project – #100Women100Books – specially for Compton Verney’s Women’s Library. We asked 100 women in our lives, from toddlers to the over-eighties, what book they would recommend to other women now, and why. The resulting list – A Women’s Library for the 21st Century – can be found and downloaded from our website here. It’s fascinating reading, and we’re so pleased how many people are already downloading it. Do let us know if you do, and also leave us YOUR recommendation. You can follow us on Facebook too, or on Twitter using the #100Women100Books hashtag.

The project fitted in well with the Compton Verney Women’s Library too, which has just undergone a splendid restoration, as part of the Unsilencing the Library project. It’s really worth a visit, virtually via their website or in real life! When Viccy and I visited back in January it was a strange experience not least because there were no books. There were bookspines however (above) – a ‘false library’ of what books would have been recommended for women in the 19th century when Georgiana Verney, wife of the reclusive 17th Lord Willoughby de Broke was thought to have created it. She was an enthusiastic champion of women’s education, reading and suffrage, so it was lovely to sit writing in the library and feel her presence. And also to be with other readers, as the Unsilencing the Library team asked different individuals and groups what books they would like to see in the library. There was Emma Watson’s shelf:

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Margo Jefferson’s shelf:IMG_6309

And The Prison Reading Groups selection (I loved the wide range here):IMG_6305 2

Amongst others. And of course, outside the library there were the grounds. Can you imagine the bliss of sitting in this chair, looking up from a book and seeing this view?

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So a last shout out to Gary Webb, who is in charge of Capability Brown’s vision now at Compton Verney. Here he is standing on Capability Brown’s bridge, with the house behind.IMG_6296

And here’s the poem I wrote for #100Women100Books with lines taken from the reasons people gave for picking their own book, and collaging it into just one book!

This book

Chelsea Fringe – London Garden No 2

Five Minutes Peace: a garden to sit in, a poem to read, and a prompt to write to … No 2. (Find out more about what this is all about here.)

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You may have passed this garden several times already. And perhaps like me, you’ve never noticed it, let alone ventured inside … but St Anne’s Churchyard in Wardour Street is a gem of a green public space, right in the middle of the city.

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Perhaps given the location, it’s not surprising it has a rich literary heritage as the burial ground of the essayist William Hazlitt

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And I was also excited to see the memorial plaque for David Williams, founder of the Royal Literary Fund (my lovely employers as an RLF Fellow at the LSE for three years).

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Dorothy L Sayers was even Churchwarden at St Anne’s Church from 1952 to 1987. I like to imagine her writing in the churchyard sometimes.

The churchyard however has been a public garden since 1892, and to get to St Anne’s Church you have to go round the corner to Dean Street. Please do, though, if only to see the passersby wonder where you’re off to as you head off down the little passage to get there!

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The original Wren Church was destroyed in the war, but there’s a separate Church garden you can see from the Churchyard. I loved these stones in particular.

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They are embedded in the walls of a secluded circular amphitheatre as if the people themselves are still present:

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BUT… back to the Churchyard. I sat there and thumbed through some of Hazlitt’s essays I’d taken with me. He is a beautiful writer, so I was finding myself underlining sentences and then mumbling them out loud just for the joy of hearing the words in my mouth:

If from the top of a long cold barren hill I hear the distant whistle of a thrush which seems to come up from some warm woody shelter beyond the edge of the hill, this sound coming faint over the rocks with a mingled feeling of strangeness and joy, the idea of the place about me, and the imaginary one beyond will all be combined together in such a manner in my mind as to become inseparable.

And here’s an extract from On Poetry:

Let the naturalist, if he will, catch the glow-worm, carry it home with him in a box, and find it next morning nothing but a little grey worm; let the poet or the lover of poetry visit it at evening, when beneath the scented hawthorn and the crescent moon it has built itself a palace of emerald light.

Oh yes.

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One of the nicest things about the Churchyard, in my opinion, is that as well as the individual benches, there are seats waiting to be filled with friends, hospitality and you imagine, lots of laughter.

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And how about a writing group here?

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So… if you would like to write in St Anne’s Churchyard, or anywhere else for that matter, and Hazlitt’s invitation to visit the glow-worm’s emerald palace in the evening isn’t enough, I offer this prompt today. To write about an ideal picnic. Maybe it’s one you’ve been on already, or have planned, or maybe – given the rain – you’ll take your inspiration from one of my favourite watery  picnics, from Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows, of course:

The two animals made friends at once. Ratty was very surprised to hear that Mole had never been in a boat before.

“There is nothing half so much worth doing,” he told Mole, “as simply messing about in boats.”

Then he had an idea. “Look here, if you’ve really nothing else to do this morning, why don’t we go down the river together and make a long day of it?”

“Let’s start at once!” said Mole, settling back happily into the soft cushions.

The rat fetched a wicker picnic basket. “Shove that under your feet!”

“What’s inside?”

“There’s cold chicken inside,” said Rat, “cold-tongue-cold-ham-cold-beef-pickled-onions-salad-french-bread-cress-and-widge-spotted-meat-ginger-beer-lemonade — ”

“Oh stop!” cried Mole in ecstasy. “This is too much!”

“Do you think so?” said Rat, seriously. “It’s only what I always take on these little outings.”