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

skyros writing courses

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.

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