Writing course on Skyros: Two weeks on the island of poets

Having written about my writing course at The Grange on the Isle of Wight last week, I couldn’t help but think back to my course on the Greek island of Skyros in 2010, with The Grange’s sister organisation.

Skyros is a fabulous setting for a writing holiday. The characters from its story include Achilles, who spent time there before the Trojan war; Theseus, who fell to his death there years after his encounter with Ariadne and the Minotaur; King Lycomedes, whose palace was later rebuilt by the Byzantines and the Venetians; all the way through to Rupert Brooke, who is buried in an olive grove in that “corner of a foreign field that is forever England”.

My own journey to Skyros began in Athens, where I shared a room with Sofia, a multilingual girl of Russian/German origins, about to start her undergraduate studies at Cambridge.

We had just one day in Athens, before continuing on by bus and ferry to Skyros, which lies about 60km off the mainland.

Acropolis, Athens, Greece

It’s so hard to imagine those pillars in the gaudy colours that would have covered them at the height of ancient Greek power…

In front of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Athens

Behind me, you can see the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, built in 161 AD and still used as a venue today for events like the Athens festival

Acropolis, 1988

I was glad the weather was better than it had been back in 1988…

The course itself was at The Writers’ Lab, and I had found it thanks to its having been named as number one in The Guardian’s list of the five best writing holidays. Our teacher was Allegra Taylor, whose approach was incredibly open and encouraging, so that the focus was on writing freely and sharing with the group rather than on technique and critique. The group, as ever on a writing course, was very diverse. I’m still in contact with Sarah-Helena, a Swedish guitar-playing yogini, and Denise, who’s currently working on her first novel.

View across Skyros village

Skyros Centre is located in Skyros village, built high up on the island as a defence against marauding pirates

Skyros village

We stayed in little houses and apartments, mine with a rooftop balcony where I spent the afternoons sunbathing between course sessions

Blackboard with programme

The daily programme included course sessions in the morning and afternoon, interspersed with a visit to a local museum, music and jewellery workshops, and excursions to other parts of the island

Yoga mats

For the first time in my life, I stuck to the regular schedule of yoga every morning before breakfast

Restaurant terrace on Skyros

One of our course locations, a restaurant on the beach. Not too shabby…

Skyrian horses

We visited a project for the Skyrian horse, a rare and ancient breed of small-bodied horses that are otherwise facing extinction

Atsitsa Bay

We had a particularly memorable evening over at Atsitsa Bay, the other course location on the island, where we danced late into the night

Skyros harbour

Our last view of Skyros as we left by boat on our final morning. Hard to say goodbye…

When I left, I had a notebook full of short stories. Here’s one of them, taking a photograph as inspiration:

A photograph

Two little girls, in identical little dresses. The older, taller, stands up straight and proud, her feet in her shiny new shoes pointing forward in first position. Her chin is raised up, her eyes gaze confidently into the camera. Her right hand rests prettily against her skirt, her left holds on firmly to the hand of the other girl.

The smaller of the two girls does not look into the camera. Her eyes look up at the older girl beside her, her face glowing with admiration as she tries to recreate the same pose. Her feet are not quite in first position, her left hand clutches onto her skirt, and her tongue is protruding slightly from her mouth in concentration.

Behind them is the silky backdrop of the photographer’s set. How artificial, and yet this simple backdrop makes the scene in front that much clearer. Behind the camera, the photographer looks through the lens as he snaps the shot that will eventually be chosen to be framed and placed on the mantelpiece at home.

Off to one side stands a woman. She looks on as the photographer tries to get the two girls to stand still. Smiling at her pretty little daughters posing in their new clothes, a little sad as she thinks about how quickly they are growing up, and tired as she remembers all the chores that still need to be done when they get home.

Is there a figure missing from the picture? The father perhaps?

A moment in the two little girls’ lives. What happened before? What happened later? No one remembers. But that moment, that snapshot, is captured forever.

Fearless Fridays: Out of your comfort zone

View across Thorpe Park, Chertsey, Surrey

Today we joined millions of other people in visiting Thorpe Park, a theme park in Surrey, on a beautifully sunny Good Friday. It’s fun to scream, to be a little scared, to set your heart racing. Of course this kind of screaming, this kind of fear, is completely artificial and controlled: it’s all within certain […]

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Writing retreat at The Grange: A weekend on the Isle of Wight

The Grange

So from Central America and Disney princes all the way back to Europe and onto an island off the southern coast of England: my first time on the Isle of Wight. It’s funny how you tend not to explore your own country very much and instead fly to far-off destinations to see the wonders of […]

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Fearless Fridays: 6 things I’ve learned in 6 months of independence

Jumping in the air on the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Can it really be true that it’s been six months since I left my job? It’s gone so quickly on the one hand, but on the other, so much has happened and it feels like an age… So here are 6 things I’ve learned in those 6 months: 1. There is a learning curve My […]

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Pirates and princes and mice, oh my

Disney princes

As promised, I’m now rewinding back to the start of the trip to Central America, to a little weekend adventure before the big journey began: this is the story of when I ran round Disney World dressed as a pirate. Once upon a time, I was reading a magazine when I saw an advert for […]

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Fearless Fridays: The wind beneath my wings

Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent as portrayed in the 2014 film

Last week, I went to see Yves Saint Laurent, a French film that tells the designer’s story from when he first started working at Dior through to establishing his own fashion house and achieving international renown. It’s a tale of extravagance and decadence but the most poignant message for me was the important role of […]

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Two Weeks in Central America: Finishing in style in Costa Rica

Hanging bridge in La Fortuna

And so we’ve arrived at the final chapter of our trip across Central America. Having travelled from Guatemala City and Antigua to the Lake Atitlán, up to the Tikal ruins, down again and up the river to Lívingston, across the border and across Honduras, to Granada and over to the Isla de Ometepe, and down […]

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Fearless Fridays: From consumer goods to humanitarian relief

Meggi in Cameroon with UNICEF

For the third interview in this series, in which I talk to people who’ve left their corporate job for a new career, I’m telling the story of Meggi Rombach, who is just about to celebrate her one-year anniversary in her job at the International Committee of the Red Cross. Meggi is another colleague from Procter […]

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Two Weeks in Central America: The island of two mountains

Bicycle Ometepe

After our volcano adventure in Masaya, outside Granada, we headed down to Rivas and took the boat across Lake Nicaragua to the Isla de Ometepe. Formed by two volcanoes, Volcán Concepción and Volcán Maderas, Ometepe is the world’s largest volcanic island within a freshwater lake. While Maderas is considered dormant, Concepción is active, its most […]

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Fearless Fridays: Follow-up on follow-through


We’re now well into 2014 – where did the last three months go?! – and it’s a good time to check on whether or not we’re doing what we said we’d do. You may remember that I decided this year to go for one theme, one word, instead of a long list of resolutions. That […]

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