A Blank Page: Being Writer-in-Residence at Seaton Delaval Hall


Poet John Challis reflects on his time as writer-in-residence at Seaton Delaval Hall, a National Lottery Heritage-funded project which saw the creation of original work inspired by the site and it’s history, as well as workshops with aspiring writers and local communities at the hall.

John Challis and Seaton Delaval Hall

I’m sitting in the Central Hall at Seaton Delaval Hall and waiting for the filmmaker, Christo Wallers, who’s stuck in traffic on the A1, when it occurs to me: I have never been alone in this magnificent room. Gutted by the infamous fire of 1822, today, the Central Hall is a shell containing the fire-ruined statues of muses and little else. Gone are the fantastic paintings and tapestries, and the lion pier table. Cold radiates from the stone, from where, surprisingly, the Hall’s latest residents will soon take flight. A long and windy winter has been the backdrop to my time as writer-in-residence at Seaton Delaval Hall. A series of named storms have taken down some fifty trees in the inner landscape, along the Sea Walk Walls and The Avenue. But today inside the Hall, you wouldn’t know any of that. It’s a calm March morning. Sunlight is streaming through the south-facing windows. And soon the pipistrelles who live inside the walls will wake from their long hibernation and begin their feast. This time to reflect is a gift.

Writing residencies provide time to be inside a subject other than your own. The dream is that the new subject and the old become one and you produce something you hadn’t expected, baring resemblance to what you would usually create but marbled with the new. My time at Seaton Delaval Hall has done just that. But it has also forced me to think about my practice as a writer, to ask what this practice actually consists of: the actions, materials, mental and physical spaces needed to make writing happen and possible. Basically, I’ve been asking myself, how do I write poems?

I sit on a stone bench beneath the muses and look up towards the ceiling. The joist holes and level markings on the walls tell the story of what once would have blocked my view of the rafters. Imagine what it would have been like after the fire, sitting here in this stone shell on a January evening, crowned with starlight. Looking upwards, I can almost convince myself that I’m sitting inside a northern Colosseum.

During their heydays, roughly a one-hundred-year period of booming industry and riotous parties, the Delaval’s provided patronage for several writers including the poet Christopher Smart. In return Smart wrote poems celebrating members of the family. This model of patronage flourished in the 19th century, when poets were invited to pen odes celebrating grand estates. Had the Delaval’s survived their madcap century, they too may have commissioned such a poem. I thought about correcting this. But instead of writing about the property, I thought to write about the people, the workers past and present.

Over the last few months I’ve met so many inspiring figures: ecologists, archaeologists, gardeners and historians. Without realising it, I found I had transcribed odd bits of speech and used these phrases to help start the writing in my notebook. In a way, I riffed off these phrases and jumbled them into the rhythms of my own language, partly as an attempt to inhabit those voices and to speak momentarily from within their working days, like asides to an audience, the things we might say to the mirror or think or mutter under our breath. In doing this, I found a new way to write, a method that relied upon tuning into repetition and the natural patterns of speech. I started with a spoken phrase and worked off this by repeating or reordering the words until I found a way out of its locked room. In doing this, I was able to absorb its style and anticipate similar words that that person might use. Often, I did this by listening to the words that had come before, to spark from or inform the sounds that followed. Other times, I relied on a use of single syllable words to act like bricks building a structure. In both cases, I followed this line of thought until I broke free. But every time I added another line to the page, somehow it echoed that which had come before.

Once, I’m told, they screened the early film noir masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, here inside the Central Hall. The bats also made an appearance, fluttering in the projector’s arc of silver light. There’s so much more to write about and much I haven’t been able to cram into the six glorious months. I wanted to spend the night camping in the grounds. I imagined waking up with the first light, boiling water for coffee and watching for owls or foxes. Or staying up late and muttering would-be poems to myself beneath the stars. But the confluence of storms and cold weather kyboshed my plans, and I never got my night alone with the pipistrelles.

Christo calls to say he’s here. Soon we’ll walk around the grounds looking for locations to film myself reading some of the poems I’ve written. I feel excited to be doing this, but nervous. I recite a poem under my breath and realise that I’ve learnt an earlier version. My mind contains all my earlier drafts and needs to turn the soil over to get back to the new one, buried in my head. Tomorrow, we’ll film some of the people who inspired these poems. I take a last look at the empty hall and a blank page looks back at me.

John Challis’ residency at Seaton Delaval Hall was produced by the National Trust and New Writing North within Rising Stars, a partnership with Northumbria University which formed part of Seaton Delaval Hall’s National Lottery Heritage Fund-supported Curtain Rises project.