Katherine Dixson attended our Writing about Life: Memoir and Travel course in August with Katharine Norbury and Malachy Tallack. Here, she writes about her stay at Tŷ Newydd.
When a proper published author compliments your ability to capture staircases in print, it spurs you on to greater heights. Tŷ Newydd’s Travel and Memoir Writing course was no sooner underway than I was gaining helpful feedback on a previously-prepared piece that featured contrasting flights of stairs in my childhood library. An atmosphere of encouragement that simultaneously left room for constructive suggestions set the tone for an engaging, inspirational and highly enjoyable week. The journey through these complementary aspects of life writing was expertly navigated by a dream crew of tutors, Katharine Norbury and Malachy Tallack. My fellow participants were intelligent and amusing travelling companions, and cabin pressure was perfect.
For anyone with an interest in staircases or libraries, Tŷ Newydd has both in abundance. My own room in Hafoty, the old stable block annex, was at ground level with no steps involved, but once inside the main house it was a different picture. Entering by the imposing blue front door, I trod my way along subtle grey carpet that rose here and there up short flights to bring me onto a series of higgledy-piggledy levels. Along the narrow passageway, wooden name plates in Welsh add to the charm: Tŷ Bach for the – ahem – smallest room. Where the privacy of solid doors isn’t a must, glass panels are etched with artistic patterns and a mixture of English and Welsh literary quotes.
There’s an excess of access opportunities into the Main Hall, the grand room where we would spend the majority of our waking hours. If anybody had mobility issues they could come in via the lift that runs the height of the conservatory extension, the modern glass construction marrying sympathetically with the whitewashed stone of the solid old house. My route from the annex was down stone steps and cobbles at the side of the house, bringing me to kitchen level, then through a door that’s helpfully labelled with a graphic description of your fate should you be unaware of another short flight immediately beyond it. Or I could cross the terracotta tiles of the kitchen itself and enter the Hall via a couple of slate-grey steps and a final wooden one. Here, our Liverpudlian chef Tony would stand each evening to greet us and announce the dinner menu as our workshop room morphed into dining hall. The aromas and tastes, not to mention Tony’s endearing Welsh-language exploits, are crying out for another article, but I’ve got enough on my plate with the staircases…
The Hall gives directly onto the garden through a French window, which was frequently open while we workshopped our way through the warm August mornings. Pathways of shallow stone steps lead up through gentle foliage and late summer fuchsia to a collection of well-weathered garden furniture on a terrace overlooking Cardigan Bay. Halfway up, a little side gate takes you into the cobbled yard by the kitchen, where Jess the cat may be enjoying the shade of mature trees or even an adventurous climb.
Back inside, further flights of grey carpet can be seen heading heavenward, veering off at right angles or doubling back to climb higher beyond half-landings. Too late, it occurs to me that I didn’t venture up to those upper floors. I reckon I could have done so from around day two, with no-longer-strangers not minding me prowling the corridors outside their bedrooms. (I have seen them in their nightwear, actually, but that’s another story.) My writing, on the other hand, certainly made more than a step or two in the right direction, and as long as I cling onto the dual banisters of lessons learned and practical application, fingers crossed it continues ever upwards.