In January 2018 a pilot residential HGRG writing retreat (three days and two nights) was held at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, Flintshire, North Wales from Sunday 14th January until Tuesday 16th January 2018. This was organised to facilitate time to begin new writing projects, progress with working through ideas, or finish off / edit pieces of work while being in company with other HGRG folks in a supportive and conducive space. Keep an eye out for information about further writing retreats in the near future.
2018, 1st HGRG writing retreat
Report by Sarah Evans
The inaugural HGRG Writing Retreat took place in the suitably atmospheric surroundings of the Gladstone Library, North Wales from Sunday 14 to Tuesday 16 January 2018. Over 48 packed hours, our group of six historical geographers powered through a series of eight writing sessions together, with an incredible 35,000 new words written by the last session on Tuesday morning. The retreat had been ably organised by Dr JoNorcup after discussion at the last HGRG AGM, and drew on similar recent activities undertaken by some of the other RGS-IBG Research Groups (particularly the Higher Education Research Group and the Gender and Feminist Geographies Research Group). Given that HGRG already provides extensive support for the postgraduate community of historical geographers (most notably through the annual Practising Historical Geographies conference in November each year), the retreat aimed to provide support to early-career, mid-career, and more established, historical geographers, looking to ‘facilitate time to begin new writing projects, progress with working through ideas, or finish off/edit pieces of work while being in company with other HGRG folks in a supportive and conducive space’.
Keen to make progress on some planned publications from my PhD thesis on which I’ve
successfully been procrastinating for the last three years (the day job helps), I was delighted to be offered a place, if faintly terrified by the extensive preparation materials that Jo sent through in early December. These proved however to be immensely useful both in terms of thinking through what I hoped to achieve over the three days of writing sessions, and in terms of what I needed to prepare in advance and bring with me. The retreat was non-directed, in that we all selected the projects we would work on, rather than working on a shared project together.
Arriving on Sunday afternoon after a straightforward journey from London (if a
depressingly early start for a Sunday morning in January), I was welcomed by the ever-helpful and pleasant staff at the Gladstone Library and shown to the Anwyl Room, where we’d spend much of the next day and a half. Our first session started with introductions, with each of us outlining what we were currently working on, and what we hoped to achieve while on the retreat, before starting our first block of ‘writing time’.
The premise of these writing sessions is simple, if somewhat full-on. You gather together in a space, laptops and notes at the ready, and agree that for the next hour, or hour and a half, you will all sit together and write. Given how easily distracted and fidgety I normally get when faced with having to sit and think and write—oh, but I must make a cup of tea, oh but I must see what emails have come in, oh but I must sort the laundry first—I was amazed at how productive this set-up made me, with similar results reported by the others. At first, I thought it was simply the implicit pressure of having the others around the same table, tapping away on their laptops, and not wanting to be the first one to cave in and give up, but it was more that in the quiet space created, it was possible to focus and really dig into what I was trying to write. This was helped by the instruction not to spend time fact-checking or referencing—these could be tidied up later, outside of the sessions—but instead to concentrate on getting words onto the page (hence why it had been so helpful to prepare outlines ahead of time). At the end of the first session, we tallied up word counts, impressed by what it had been possible to achieve in such a
The productivity continued over the following sessions, interspersed with a rather muddy walk to the ‘old’ Hawarden castle (benefitting from Dr Briony McDonagh’s expertise in medieval Gladstone Library, Flintshire castles and landscape) on Monday afternoon, and some truly excellent cakes from the ‘Food for Thought’ café. Progress was undoubtedly helped by the carefully cultivated atmosphere of peaceful serenity throughout the building—mint green DAB radios in the bedrooms rather than televisions, the convivial Gladstone Room for evening socialising, complete with fireplace (giving off faintly disappointing levels of heat), board games and jigsaw puzzles. Some of us also ventured into the library itself between sessions, a similarly peaceful working space which houses a leading collection of theological, literary and historical works. On Tuesday morning, we moved to the Robinson Room to work, where Dr Cheryl McGeachan rigged up an appropriately Heath Robinson style contraption to keep the overhead light working properly.
The retreat was over all too quickly, but we all left on Tuesday with words under our belts and a sense of accomplishment and renewed purpose. The support of HGRG, in organising the retreat and covering the costs of our meals and of the hire of the conference rooms, was very much appreciated, and it is to be hoped that future HGRG retreats continue to be as immensely productive and rewarding—I understand that the 2019 retreat is already in the works!