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Poetic splendour: festival tour around Northumberland's Seaton Delaval Hall

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Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland is a ruined mansion with a rich history. The Delavals came over with the Normans, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that the current mansion was erected, designed by Vanbrugh.

The Delaval family were notorious for their theatricals, wild parties and practical jokes, putting up guests in upside-down bedrooms, and organising contests for the locals that included a competition to bite the heads off sparrows. The joke was on them almost exactly 200 years ago when fire destroyed the central block. (A disaster that affected far more people occurred nearby 40 years later, when more than 200 men and boys died in an accident at New Hartley colliery). Meanwhile the hall has remained a ghost of a building, magnificent from the outside, and still awesome within.

Plenty of material there for a writer in residence, you might think. But poet John Challis chose a different path. As he says in the foreword to Hallsong, the booklet of poems that he produced, “Originally, I set out to write from the perspective of the muses who stand as silent witnesses inside the Central Hall. [Six statues on the upper arcades of the entrance hall represent the muses for architecture, painting, music, sculpture, geography, and astronomy]. But after meeting many inspiring people – ecologists, archeaologists, gardeners and volunteers – who were kind enough to share their knowledge, I found another way to go.

“Suddenly, Seaton Delaval Hall came alive with the voices of those who work here now, as well as those throughout the ages … I could hear the many generations of men and women whose lives depended upon its existence speaking at once.”

embedded image from entry 134276 Accordingly his booklet of poems, produced by the National Trust and New Writing North within Rising Stars, a partnership with Northumbria University, contains poems about groundskeepers, gardeners, quarrymen, and miners; farmers (“I only ask/ to be acknowledged. Like stone masons/ and labourers, I made your world possible”); an ecologist sharing knowledge about pipistrelle bats (‘What we know’); while not forgetting the muses, the Ha-Ha, and the sad history of ‘The Mausoleum’ at this “theatre of the north”.

John Challis also read from The Resurrectionists, his debut collection from Bloodaxe, at Morpeth Book Festival on Saturday. In a Q&A after his reading, he said that putting together Hallsong had “transformed” his poetry, which now contained much more about nature and landscape. His residency at Seaton Delaval Hall had included workshops with other poets who had produced their own anthology, and were due to read afterwards. Unfortunately I was unable to stay because of emergency grandchild-minding duties.

However, I was present for an earlier reading by poets Noreen Rees, Eileen Sutherland, Pamela Gormally, Ali Rowland, and Gene Groves about the animal that is seen as very much responsible for the current rural Northumberland landscape. These poems were produced at online Northumberland Libraries workshops which took as their starting point an artwork titled Illuminated Sheep by Deepa Mann-Kler, which was a flock of life-sized sheep lit up in bright colours that toured the region and visited sites such as Bamburgh castle, Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall, and Woodhorn mining museum. It was to celebrate the temporary loan of the Lindisfarne Gospels from the British Museum in London to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle.

The poetry readings were held at the Chantry, current home of the Northern Poetry Library, and introduced by the book festival’s poetry programmer Jean Laurie. There were also separate readings both morning and afternoon by members of Carte Blanche, a group of women writers based in the north-east.


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