Being creative at National Trust Berrington Hall

Film and Photography, Spoken word

In January we started the first of 10 sessions at Berrington Hall which culminated with a live event and exhibition in April. Participants had “access all areas” guided exploration of the Hall and its grounds and had the opportunity to respond creatively to it through writing with Toni Cook and also through photography and digital media with mediaSHYPP.   This was a repeat of the successful Space to Engage project that took place in Herefordshire Libraries last year.  Check the end of the blog for links to the films that were made as part of this project.

Also see what Berrington Hall have written about the project

Volunteer Jamie Hutton wrote about the project in these updates.

Session 1

Despite its Capability Brown designed landscapes and its National Trust heritage, Berrington Hall remains subject to the elements and a brief spell of rain threatened to disrupt a day of planned exploration of the Hall’s grounds and an attempt at den building

 

We congregated below ground in the servant’s quarters, the grandeur of the house itself tantalisingly above our heads, to be creatively mined another day. For now, the large table below proved a perfect place for attendees and the Berrington Hall team to come together and soon enough introductions were well underway.

During this, the rain outside miraculously stopped and, although a few did take some persuading, we decided that it was time to roam out into the gardens and down towards the lake. The ground was slightly muddy underfoot and the wind bitterly cold but those of us who were well wrapped were able to descend from the house towards the lake in relative warmth. As we approached the lake there was talk of the nesting birds that called it home, a discussion that fed well into one of the themes of today’s workshop: nests and natural houses.

There was great anticipation of the den building area that we were heading towards, some of the National Trust employees having never seen it before. We were greeted by an impressive looking den leftover from the previous den-builders, one that worked as a benchmark for the design and assembly that was to come.

Splitting up into teams it didn’t take long for the competitive spirit to come out. There were varying approaches to logistics, some seeing the biggest sticks possible as crucial, others opting for more consistency. Debates ensued as to the conceptual idea of den building and what, in the great outdoors, could even be feasibly called a den at all (perhaps we should have asked the nesting birds as we rounded the lake?). Ultimately, what could have been an exercise in manual labour became a much more creative endeavour, allowing us to think outside the box and create our own natural homes.

 

 

This creativity was pushed further when tasked to design some artwork inspired by the artist Andy Goldsworthy (or Neil Buchanan’s Art Attack, depending on your cultural reference points). What were created were pieces that used a multitude of natural materials from logs to leaves to sticks and stones, to create a dragon, a maze and even a National Trust logo. The competitive edge to the den building fell away and we were all delighted with each other’s efforts and the imagination that had gone into them.

 

After a very slippery walk back up to the house that provided fantastic views of the surroundings there was only enough time for a brief bit of writing whilst warming up over a cup of tea. Tasked with writing down couplings of words that summed up our building experience many wonderful pieces of writing were created, many from those who had not written much before. Others who opted for more poetic writing were able to conjure up vivid imagery and unique takes on the den building experience, all in such a short space of time. It may have been brief but our first creative exploration provided a great glimpse of what would be to come we explore the site further.

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Walking back to Berrington Hall

 

Session 2

Week two sees a few new faces around the servant’s table beneath Berrington, meaning that more introductions need to be made. Luckily, the task of designing our own islands provides the perfect distillation of character, meaning a quick tour of each persons own personal paradise tells us a lot of what we need to know about them and it isn’t long before certain themes begin to emerge. It seems as though SHYPP young people and National Trust workers alike prefer a bit of solitude, most of the islands focusing on natural setting and sense of isolation, in a positive sense. These similarities mean that any tension is instantly lifted the group integrates quickly as we set our sights on this week’s focus point: The lake.

 

After the success of last week’s den building there is another attempt at construction with the aim of building either a bridge or a lake. The circumference of the lake didn’t quite provide the building materials that the den building are did however, so certain compromises had to be made, one of which saw two teams coming together to create their own human bridge, a tableau that, with the sun reflecting off the lake behind it, made for a glorious photo.

Wandering around the lake we hunted for creative stimulus to write down once we returned to the warmth of the hall. The sights around the lake provided much of the inspiration, the view of the hall especially giving us a fresh perspective on the building we had been working in. it was great to a National Trust volunteer with us that was so knowledgeable on the area, able to provide an historical context for what we were surrounded by, that influenced the creative ideas.

Once we had gathered around the table, cups of tea in hand, we began writing. To some it came more naturally than others but it wasn’t long until the room was abuzz with the scratch of pen against paper. The freedom to write either prose or poems (and anything in between) meant that the writing produced was perhaps more personal than last week. As we made our way around the table, allowing everyone to read what they had written, there seemed to be genuine delight at the sheer quality of the writing shared, some even garnering a round of applause. This was perhaps the moment where any superficial boundaries between attendees melted away for good, where we saw how the creative process had brought us all to the same artistic conclusions, each with our own personal spin.

We capped things off this week with a go at some haikus. After the freedom of the previous writing exercise it was nice to finish on a bit of structure and it demonstrated once again that, set towards the same goal, every workshop attendee was able to produce something unique and insightful. After our first real pieces of writing it was clear that the standard is high and set to get even higher.

 

 

Session 3

This week we were slowly making our way towards the house itself from the lake and grounds we had explored in the first two weeks, today bringing our attention to the Ha-ha just beyond the driveway and the walled garden not a stone’s throw from the courtyard. For those unfamiliar, a Ha-ha is a small ditch that surrounds the property that is designed to both keep sheep away from the building and be invisible to the naked eye, and this especially was a focal point this week, our first real taste of the physicality of the setting we were attempting to creatively exploit. Some needed little encouragement to get into the ha-ha itself, as we interacted with the environment, becoming fully immersed in it, in a way that would inform the creative responses that followed.

 

These creative responses took on a myriad of forms this week. With a slightly smaller group, we split up into small teams to battle with limericks, scripts and (very) short film making. Initially, limericks proved harder than first thought, though everyone managed to capture their humorous spirit and comic timing with, again, the slapstick potential of the Ha-ha providing much inspiration. Despite the deceptively tricky structure, the limericks presented more personality than another form of writing we may have done so far, which provided a good introduction for new members and a chance to express a lighter side for others.

As a break from writing we took a trip outside to make a boomerang (a burst of photos stiched together and played forward and backward.). We found more ways of interacting with the surroundings, especially the walled garden and the Ha-ha. Leaps were made, benches used as diving boards and ice was smashed. It was another chance to have fun and also investigate areas of the landscape we hadn’t seen before. At the centre of the walled garden is another creative response to Berrington Hall, the giant pink pineapple which, although of not much interest to our own endeavours, worked as a constant reminder of just how much artistic potential lay in the soil, grass and brickwork that we continued to explore.

‘Secrets’ was a theme that we began to develop this week, inspired by the tucked away benches and concealing hedgerows of the walled garden. This was mainly explored through dialogues and monologues that were written, often detailing secret meetings for all sorts of nefarious activities. This element of drama gave us an opportunity to develop characters and voices as well as be directly inspired by the gardens, imagining where these dastardly meet-ups would be taking place and why they would be taking there at all. Although there was only the chance to write a few pages, it was clear that what lay in those lines everyone had written had the potential to become much more.

Although the third week saw us take on more creative tasks than previously, they were all held together by a unifying sense of humour that ran through all the work that was produced. After detailing the natural beauty of the grounds in previous weeks it was now becoming clear just how funny a big old house on a hill can be.

 

 

Session 4

Back underground in the servant’s hall this week, we began by catching up with the National Trust staff, who had sorely missed out on the chance to create limericks and boomerangs the week before. One thing was notable from the start of this session: whereas in previous weeks there had been a clear, if somewhat coincidental, divide around the table, with SHYPP young people at one end and the National Trust at the other, this week where was clear integration, as both groups sat amongst each other around the dining table. This breaking down of any boundaries was evident throughout the whole session, and the divide between the two groups seems to have melted away already.

 

We were given more time to expand ideas this week, writing as a foursome, a mix of myself, two SHYPP young people and a National Trust volunteer. It was amazing the amount of innovative creativity that presented itself so quickly, and how fully formed these ideas came out, with both SHYPP and National Trust keenly observing the gap between rich and poor that Berrington Hall had shown us and how it had mutated, but was still relevant, today. The idea of writing across different characters through time was kicked back and forth and will hopefully produce some interesting writing in the future, but was ultimately left to one side in order to focus on a task that we could all get behind immediately, a character based comedy that came effortlessly to both SHYPP and National Trust writers. Our original idea may have been more focused on the topics that were presented in our travels around Berrington, but certainly wouldn’t have produced the large swathes of laughter that went around the table as did our courtroom drama of lies, deception (and the odd innuendo).

Following on from this, we finally made our way inside the house this week, and as the doors swung open to present the great entrance hall, it may not have had the immediate impact that was intended. Refurbishments being made to the house mean that the marble floor is covered in plastic sheeting and some of the ornaments have been put into storage, dulling what would have once been, in its prime, a striking introduction to the house. Still, as we stand in the entrance hall a hush gradually descends as we soak in the feel of the building we have been observing from a distance for weeks. Someone mentions the size of the room, that this ‘glorified porch’ as one National Trust worker puts it, is bigger than most rooms in our houses. From here on, the participants seem to view the house with a curious fascination, interrogating it at every opportunity.

As we further explore each room, there’s a lot of talk of ‘vibes’ and ‘impressions’; how each room is making us feel. This clear distinction between the character of each room is a welcome observation from the SHYPP young people and will, I’m sure, provide some interesting writing in the future. As the National Trust explain the history of each room, how it would have been used by the people who lived there, where doors lead and what secrets the architecture holds, SHYPP young people are quick to point out the difference between the men’s and the women’s rooms and the societal divide between the two sexes that seems reflected in the very foundations of the house itself, with bigger, brighter rooms for the men.

The more we explore the clearer it becomes that the restoration work being completed around the house won’t affect our creative responses greatly, if at all: there is simply too much to work on from the general feeling of the house itself.

 

Session 5

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In week five, we were finally able to indulge in something that had been on our minds for a while now. For many weeks it had been teased and dangled like a carrot on a stick in order to motivate our creative minds but, with much fanfare, the time had come – we were dressing up.

Dressing up (and dresses in particular) was the key theme of this week’s session, as we climbed the steps to the house’s second story completing our five week long journey to tour the house. This theme of appearances was established with a writing exercise at the top of the session, everyone writing under the heading ‘appearances can be deceiving’, an exercise that produced maybe some of the most personal writing yet created in these sessions. As the weeks have gone on its clearer than ever that confidence is growing not just in people’s writing abilities but also what they feel they can write about.

Once emerging from our submerged writing quarters and ascending the stairs, our primary focus on the first floor was the room housing the dress of Anne Bangham. Anne Bangham’s story of a modest upbringing in Leominster to marrying the wealthy Thomas Harley brought with it ideas around classism and the culture surrounding women in the eighteenth century, inspiring some fantastic writing as a result. As we continued to tour the upstairs however, we saw that we weren’t the first to be inspired by Anne Bangham’s story. Lorna Brown’s striking art installation in Anne Bangham’s bedroom, ‘Eye Am She’, drew us in and, although it was a creative response to the building and its history that we didn’t wish to inform our own responses, it did inform our own perception of the room and of Anne’s story. It was hard not to look at the explosion of flowers bursting from the bedspread and not feel a deeper understanding of the house and its story.

Now that our tour of the house and its grounds was complete, it was time to start thinking of where it was all leading. We had assembled so much quality material over the last few weeks it was difficult to know where to start. We landed on a central collaborative poem, with everyone contributing lines on their favourite rooms and areas of the house and the grounds. What began to emerge was an artistic tour through Berrington, a sprawling piece of writing that took us through the grounds and the building, offering different voices from young people to volunteers to workers. The multiple perspectives that emerged when viewing these individual lines as one created a collage of artistic ideas and interpretations of a building that meant so many different things to different people, yet they were all linked by a creative drive that, at the exact midpoint of our sessions, was showing no sign of losing momentum.

 

 

Session 6

 

Now that we have the focus of the final poem to aim at, there was no time wasted this week in moulding the poem into one coherent piece. We already had the bedrock of it there, mined from writings of the previous few weeks, now all that was needed was to chip away with hammer and pick and sculpt it to perfection. To fill these gaps we broke off into pairs that were tasked with providing certain lines. After a few minutes of brainstorming and scribbling down poetic descriptions of the rooms and the grounds, we fed back our offerings and discussed where they might fit into the overall piece. It seemed that there was no combination of participants that couldn’t produce quality writing when paired up together. The collaborative nature of our endeavour was now more evident than ever, not just in the writing process, but the editing as well. Phrases were rejigged, or certain words substituted for others, as we worked to few our own work within the context of other’s, making sure the poem flowed and scanned as if it was produced from one unique creative mind.

Leaving the poem on the back-burner for a moment, we turned our attention again to Ann Bangham’s dress. Last week the dress had been more of an idea, a symbol of this women’s journey from humble beginnings just down the road in Leominster to the gentry of London but now we would be able to see it for ourselves. After a brief history of the dress from the National Trust staff, in which we learnt how it was dismantled into fragments for many years, a fact which sparked a few imaginations, we climbed the staircase from our part-submerged servant quarters to the very top of the house, where the dress was housed. Admittedly, we didn’t spend too long admiring the stitching and embroidery. Our inspiration came more from Ann and her story, but being able to see the dress for ourselves did inform our writing later on. We were tasked with writing as either Ann herself wearing the dress, an onlooker observing or, writing on fragments or pieces inspired by the history of the dress’s dismantling.

 

Returning downstairs we each set to work writing individually, with each of the proposed topics being covered. All throughout the last few weeks monologues and writing in the first person has produced some of the very best writing and this tasked was no exception. Not only was each piece a marvel in its own right, it was how they all linked together that satisfied and excited the most. Monologues from the perspective of Ann responded beautifully to the opinions of those watching her, with all the writing together being able to make one complete scene if we wanted. Including the writing on the dress in terms of fragments and dismantling, we were able to create a rich portrait of Ann and her relationship to the outfit in question, touching on history, class and sexism. The only question was how could we possibly include everything?

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Session 9 – The Rehearsal

With one week to go until the day of the performance we had no choice but to begin rehearsing. Rehearsals had purposefully been left to a minimum, the spontaneity that had produced some of the best work not wanting to be lost when it became time to perform. Rather than a rigorous going over of the details of the performance, we decided to choose and explore the areas around the house that we felt suitable for performance and choose what writing would be best suited to each location.

After weeks and weeks of wandering the halls and gardens we had creatively tuned our minds to such an extent that we could see potential performance spaces just about anywhere. A bench became a platform for poetry and verse, an archway played host to couplets and prose. It seemed there wasn’t a single nook nor cranny of the house that couldn’t be transformed into a stage for everybody’s work.

The grand Georgian steps had always seemed the most obvious stage substitute, their lofty ascent towards the main doors, as well as the view that they lent the performers of the manmade lake and panoramic views and the magnificent backdrop of the house itself, gave more heft to the performance than any stage we could have hoped for. It wasn’t until we all took our places on the steps and began speaking the words that we realised just how well suited it was for the work we were going to be sharing. The centrepiece of the performance would be the story of Anne Bangham, told through monologues and theatrical exchanges to tell her story in connection with Berrington Hall. It was quickly agreed this would be the perfect setting.

With the quality of the writing so strong and the setting for the performance so striking, the quality of the performance itself was left nearly as an afterthought. But standing on the steps of the house overlooking the landscaped grounds it was clear that we would all have to bring our A-game. Volume was the only major issue, the worry that with a slight lack in confidence our voices would be lost in the rolling expanse of the hills. Perhaps we felt slightly unnatural booming out pieces of writing that we had shared in quite tones around our little servants table for ten weeks (I know I certainly did) but there was some reluctance in some cases to perform with the volume that was needed. Little encouragement was needed however, and with support from each other and being able to learn from everyone’s performance it wasn’t long before we were all projecting our voices far and wide.

But after weeks of editing and homing our pieces, how would it feel having just one shot to perform? And how would an audience react?

 

Session 10 – The Performance

Of course, there was nothing to worry about.

The weather was on our side, which helped. We couldn’t have hoped for a more glorious day to show off the house and gardens. Knowing that our setting and subject matter was going to be looking its best certainly made us more relaxed about the performance and the day of preparations bore on, our excitement grew and grew.

Before the performance however we were able to check out what would be our lasting legacy of the project; an exhibition in the stables consisting of photography to accompany written versions of the poems performed and two short films, one of a behind the scenes look at the project and one of the epic poem we had begun work on a few weeks ago. No one likes watching themselves on video, or hearing themselves recording, and there was squirming and nervous laughter as we were forced to endure both of these. But once that initial discomfort was out the of the way we appreciated the videos for what they were, fantastic documents of our experience on the project. And for everyone to see themselves on the screen as part of that, and hear their voices speak the words of the poem, certainly informed the confidence that would be brought to the performance.

People began arriving about an hour before the performance, friends and family, as well as local dignitaries there to support the event. Nerves were slightly dissipated with the introduction of a few familiar faces and as everyone gathered round the entrance to the courtyard as we began the first collaborative poem to start the evening, we could see that the whole experience was not going to be as daunting as we initially feared. Although the size and scale of Berrington Hall, especially inside the house itself, was something we had found slightly alienating during the first few weeks, the performance achieved an intimacy that I don’t think anyone was expecting. Perhaps it was personality of each individuals poems, both from the young people from SHYPP and National Trust workers, but the audience were engaged and involved throughout even when, on the steps of the house, our writing threatened to be lost among the Georgian grandeur.

We had planned clear performance spaces for the evening but by the time we had almost circled the house and reached the walled gardens the barrier between performers and audience was almost non-existent, as we all walked together through the outskirts of the hall. Collaboration and breaking down of any boundaries was one of the overarching objectives of the project, so it was fitting that our performance reflected this in the inclusion and engagement of our audience.

The performance cumulated with the epic poem and accompanying film, taking us across the grounds and inside the house. It was difficult not to be moved by the film, not only because it evoked such a strong sense of the house and its history, but also because it was a sort of time capsule of our time at Berrington Hall. Hearing someone wax poetical on the staircase for instance took us back to our first day inside the house, or a description of the lake, back to those cold January afternoons exploring the grounds. It was a reminder of just how far we’d come from those first weeks, when what we would be performing three months down the line had not even been thought about (unless we’d just focused on den building, which I don’t think anyone would have minded).

There was always going to be a great sense of ending as we came to the final performance. Our Wednesday afternoons would never be the same and seeing the house swathed in the orange sunset it was sad to think we wouldn’t have an excuse to return back to it every week. But when the performance was over we saw people drifting into the exhibition, stopping to watch the films detailing our experiences at Berrington, and pouring over printed versions of the poems they have just heard. Seeing that, it was easy to see how the project would live on in the months to follow.

Here are the 3 films that were created as part of New Perspectives.  Thanks you to all the particiaints invovled in this project.  Its been amazing.

 

 

 

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