Gandalf spotted in the distance — photo and idea courtesy of Paddy Finn
I was lucky enough to be awarded an Arts Council of Northern Ireland grant last year, a Support for the Individual Artist Programme award. Part of the money was budgeted for some time to escape the ties of home so I could concentrate on getting this novel beaten into shape, ready to publish.
I had heard of Downhill Beach House, run by McCall and William Gilfillan, and had promised myself a stay there. This year was the right time to honour that promise.
Downhill Beach House from the beach
For ten days every late January/early February, McCall and William turn over their nine-bedroom hostel to poverty-stricken writers for a nominal fee. The hostel is self-catering, but the facilities are great, with plenty of places for the hard-working writer to hide away with pen and paper, laptop or tablet.
Getting away can be like a military operation for me. As a full-time carer for my father, who is ninety-two and suffers from dementia, it can be very hard to escape. I arranged leave of absence from my husband and family, organised a carer to come in and help out, filled the fridge and freezer with yummy food, cleaned the house, wrote out extensive instructions for care of the menagerie (two horses, two dogs, five cats, thirty-six fish and a snail at the last count) as well as for Grandad. By the time I was driving down the farm track that Friday, my eyes were crossed with exhaustion!
On the way to Downhill, I stopped off in Coleraine to buy supplies for me (I’d forgotten that when shopping for the family!) and to have lunch with a wonderful friend (and member of Otherworlds NI) who lives in that part of the world. A long chat with Anne McMaster about all things literary was just the thing to put me in a creative frame of mind.
The house at Downhill is set at the base of towering cliffs with a glorious sandy beach immediately in front of it. Accessed via a wooden footbridge, the beach is the perfect place to clear your head and communicate with your muse. Waves crash in, seething and surging around the rocks, gulls wheel overhead with their mournful bean sí cries and high above, so you have to tip your head back to see it, stands Mussenden Temple, built as a cliff-top summer library in the eighteenth century by the Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol, Frederick Augustus Hervey.
Emptied now of books, it stands as a landmark from sea and land alike, a reminder of the profligacy of years gone by.
From the hour I arrived, I felt the stories of this beautiful place fluttering at the edges of my mind like moths to a flame. As soon as I opened my laptop and began to type, the stories flooded in, carrying my own story forward and breathing life into my characters.
There were ten of us there for most of the time I was in Downhill. Nine lucky writers, poets, and novelists as well as an extra guest of the owners who was staying in their house but shared our spaces in the daytime and ate with us. Sioban is a wonderfully talented musician who plays and writes music. After much persuasion from the rest of us, she treated us to some incredibly moving guitar music. It was magical, curled up on a sofa and listening to the notes rippling out as her fingers flew across the strings.
Trish Bennet, a truly talented poet and great friend, dragged me out for regular walks on the beach and around the National Trust Downhill Demesne, for which I’m grateful – I tend to lose track of time when I’m writing and wonder why I can’t straighten my neck when I stand up after several hours bent over a laptop!
In the evenings, we ate together and chatted while the winter gales flung themselves at the windows, laden with salt spray, but on my last night McCall organised a Pot Luck Dinner to which we each contributed food and drink. Seán (poet from Wexford) wins the prize with the note he sellotaped to the oven:
The (almost) dead seagull in this oven should be cooked by 8 pm.
His roast chicken was very popular and didn’t taste at all fishy, even though he refused to be drawn on its origins.
Paddy Flynn, another Otherworld NI’er was there, too, still writing a frightening number of words per day, but we also had a young adult novelist, a romance novelist, five poets and a musician. For such a mixed bunch, we became great friends. We plan to stay in touch, and I am certain we will. The depth and breadth of talent collected inside the walls of that old Victorian house was enough to blow the roof, if it hadn’t been so securely attached.
If you’re a writer in any form, at any level, and feel you need some space to write, I strongly advise you to watch out for the next time McCall runs this retreat. At £22.50 a night (minimum 3 nights), it is so well worth it!