The Upton Cressett Foundation is a working country retreat for novelists, playwrights, screenwriters, biographers, historians and academics to shut themselves away for up to six weeks to make progress with a serious project away from all distractions.
A number of guest fellowships are awarded each year, with the foundation inviting writers on the basis of referrals and recommendations from international literary agents, publishers and critics known to the board members. There is no bias towards British, American or foreign writers: all are welcome, writing in whatever language. In addition, the foundation also welcomes applications by any established or talented new writer (or their publisher or agent) detailing what their literary project is and why they (or their nominee) would benefit from an intensive creative work period away from their current environment.
The foundation is a serious retreat – ‘creative rehab’ as the Jerwood Prize winning artist Adam Dant describes Upton Cressett – for writers and artists who relish the chance to create new work in a fresh and inspirational environment. No family members, spouses, or ‘significant others’ are normally permitted during the guest fellowships. The fellowships usually run from three to six weeks, although they can – at the board’s discretion – be extended for up to eight weeks.
In his 1938 novel Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly (below) famously asserted that ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. Other enemies of progress on a novel, biography, play or non-fiction book might include: literary burn out, mid-list or mid-life angst, review work, journalism, the festival circuit, media and TV work, family, teaching, speaking engagements, another career, financial or domestic pressure, divorce, death, creative block, or simply the drawl and choke of urban or city life. Alternatively, for any writers not afflicted by any of the above, Upton Cressett simply offers a secluded and stimulating environment in which to just get on with the next book.
The name Cressett itself means ‘a great light or torch set on a beacon’ (from the French). It is the aim of the Upton Cressett Foundation to create a productive environment in which the creative lights are turned on full beam during a self-disciplined and sustained work period. Here writers are left alone to work undisturbed and to turn scrawled notes and proposals into printed or written pages.
The Upton Cressett Foundation makes no formal demands on guest fellows other than they are seriously committed to their work. All cleaning, laundry, cooking and meals are taken care of during the stay. Whilst lunch is provided but optional, guest fellows are encouraged to join other resident fellows to enjoy an evening meal in the gatehouse dining room prepared by the house cook. Although the property has high-speed broadband, Wi Fi and laser printing facilities, mobile phones have intermittent reception only.
There are currently two fellowship residence properties available, the historic Elizabethan gatehouse and the nineteenth century brick coach-house. Compared by architectural historians to the Tower at Sissinghurst, where Vita Sackville-West built her library and wrote her many books, the gatehouse has a unique working atmosphere. Featuring two octagonal turrets, thick Tudor brick walls, original oak spiral staircase, and rare sixteenth century ornamental plasterwork, as well as all modern comforts and a huge writing study with mullion stone windows overlooking the local landscape, the Gatehouse is one of England’s most private retreats. Prince Rupert hid in the gatehouse whilst escaping the Parliamentary army; others who have stayed include prime ministers.
Described as an ‘Elizabethan gem’ by Sir Simon Jenkins, the gatehouse offers complete creative refuge from the world. The first floor suite is known as The Thatcher Suite (see Blog of June 2013) after Baroness and Sir Denis Thatcher who stayed in the Gatehouse for two nights in the 1990s as a guest of Bill Cash MP. When Sir John Betjeman came to The Gatehouse in 1939, with the artist John Piper, to write an entry for The Shell Guide To Shropshire, the poet laureate described Upton Cressett as a ‘remote and beautiful place’ – albeit reached across ‘the loneliest of valleys’.
The old coach-house is also a property alive with creative energy: an all-lateral conversion of a former carriage house with wooden floors, a spacious high-ceilinged timber beam sitting room with a large desk, French windows and a private garden terrace, large master bedroom, library/study room and a loft reached via a spiral staircase.
In the Elizabethan age, when the Gatehouse was built, the country house was seen as a retreat from the world. Andrew Marvell wrote his great country house poem Upon Appleton House – a stanza of which is featured on the main newel staircase at Upton Cressett – in 1650-52 whilst living at Nun Appleton House in Yorkshire (the seat of Lord Fairfax). From Goethe, who described himself as a ‘child of solitude’, to Virginia Woolf, who said that only when she was alone could she give ‘passionate attention’ to her life, writer have always benefited from time to themselves in order to hear and order the voices in their head. ‘Rien ne peut être fait dans la solitude’ said Picasso (‘Without great solitude no serious work is possible’). Even the scientist Albert Einstein wrote that ‘I lived in solitude in the country and noticed how the monotony of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind’.
Upton Cressett is a remote hamlet, hidden away at the end of a winding, single track lane that has existed since Domesday. The house is two miles from the main Bridgnorth-Shrewsbury (A458) road in the middle of the Shropshire Hills which inspired the poet AE Housman to write A Shropshire Lad and Vaughan Williams to compose Songs of Travel. The nearest pub, the Acton Arms in Morville, is a three and a half mile walk away. Evelyn Waugh was a visitor to nearby Aldenham Park, the family seat of Waugh’s friend Harold Acton, where Ronald Knox lived during the war, and used the old chapel at Aldenham in Brideshead Revisited. Upton Cressett has long had a tradition of having notable writers to stay or visit, including the late playwright John Osborne (Look Back in Anger), who lived in Shropshire, novelist Sebastian Faulks and historian Andrew Roberts.
Recent Fellows in The Gatehouse include the literary critic and biograoher Lara Feigel, who wrote part of her acclaimed book, The Love-Charm of Bombs, about the lives of five writers living in London during the Blitz; also Jukliet Gardiner, bestselling author of The Thirties, and co-presenter of Nightwaves; and archaeologist and English Heritage board member Dr Roger White, writing his definitive history of the Roman Settlement of Wroxeter.
When not working, guests can clear their heads in the beautiful surrounding countryside. From the grounds, you can see Clee Hill, the highest hill in Shropshire. Local walks cross some of the finest and most dramatic landscapes in the country, including the pretty town of Much Wenlock and the famous Corvedale, the broadest valley in the Shropshire Hills which runs along the River Corve – past three castles – to nearby Ludlow. For more information on local walks, click here and here.
The Upton Cressett Foundation is different from other international writers’ retreats, such as the Santa Maddalena writers’ retreat in Tuscany, run by Beatrice Monti, or the Arvon Foundation, which also has a house in Shropshire (the former home of John Osborne) in that guest fellows are not limited to just writers. In the course of 2011, two additional cottage properties will become available as well as a new artist’s studio so that artists and painters can be given space and time to work towards a new show or new style. In addition, the foundation plans to add a recording studio and music room so that musicians, composers, bands and singer/songwriters can also find inspiration for their work in the unique environment of Upton Cressett.
Upton Cressett is also quite different from other well known writers’ retreats where guests can sometimes feel that they are living on top of each other as part of a household. Because of the separate, self-contained properties there is very much a distinction between the private life of Upton Cressett and the working lives of the invited writers. In addition, guest fellowships can run from as little as two weeks up to two months. The project could be 100 pages of a new novel, a major re-write after an editor’s marks, a new draft of a screenplay or a policy think-tank monograph.
The foundation was founded by author and award winning magazine publisher William Cash who has written several books, a play and countless essays and articles in the uniquely removed and isolated atmosphere of Upton Cressett. It will be run by an editorial advisory board as well as a board of trustees. ‘I’m delighted to give others the chance to get on with some serious work away from it all’ says Cash. ‘I don’t subscribe to the view that environment is irrelevant. Many writers I know have to fight pretty hard to get any private space and time in their lives. John Updike said he wanted to write books that ‘unlock the traffic jam in everybody’s head’; and I can’t think of a better place to do that than Upton Cressett. It’s quite unique and my hope is that everybody who comes here leaves with a suitcase full of pages’.
The foundation is privately funded, along with philanthropic gifts from individuals and companies who wish to support the arts. Anybody wishing to learn more, or who wishes to make a tax deductible donation to support the programme, should email email@example.com.
In Praise of Solitude:
‘For the artist [marriage] may prove dangerous; he is one of those who must look alone out of the window, and for him to enter into the duologue, the non-stop performance of a lifetime, is a kind of exquisite dissipation which, despite the pleasure of a joint understanding of the human comedy, with its high level of intuition and never-cloying flavour, is likely to deprive him of those much rarer moments which are particularly his own.‘- The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly (1945)
‘The only thing that can spoil a day is people and if you can keep from making engagements, every day has no limits.‘ – A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway (1964)