Monday, August 22

Coleridge Cottage

I've known Derrick Woolf and Tilla Brading for I don't know how many years. Quite a few. They have published my reviews and my poetry in Poetry Quarterly Review. On more than one occasion they have been hospitality personified and welcomed me and whoever was with me at the time to be their guests at Coleridge's Cottage in Nether Stowey, where they live and which they look after on behalf of The National Trust. A few years ago, I read there with Paul Violi to a magical audience on a magical evening. If ever there were two people perfect to live in Coleridge's Somerset home and carry on his philosophy of enlightenment, of sharing, and of spreading the only thing that matters at all about poetry -- "No sound is dissonant which tells of life" -- it is Tilla and Derrick.

And suddenly The National Trust are kicking them out.

Below I am reprinting an e-mail from Keith Jebb, which explains itself, and makes the case for petitioning The Trust much better than I can. If you feel able to lend your support, please do.

Dear friend of Derrick/Tilla/PQR/Odyssey,

The National Trust has asked Tilla and Derrick to vacate Coleridge Cottage by the end of October. This decision was come to with no consultation, and they were given only three months to make atlernative arrangements for accommodation. Needless to say, this sudden turn of events has come has something of a shock to them.

The rationale given by the National Trust for doing this is that they have a different vision for the property. They claim they wish to install a student in Coleridge Cottage, by all accounts a student of Romantic Literature, who would oversee the museum, whilst studying at the cottage. For a number of reasons this claim does not ring true. Most obviously, there are no facilities for the study of Coleridge’s poetry at Coleridge Cottage. The museum has no library (apart from a few gifted volumes): there are only those books on Coleridge and the Romantics owned by Derrick himself, which of course will move on when he does. There are also no arrangements with an accredited university with regard to Coleridge Cottage, which means that it is difficult to see the student being able to claim any grant/fees or other funding for the duration of their study. Even if this could be arranged, how would this be done within say, one or two years? The Trust has said nothing about what it sees as happening next season, or even who will look after the property over the winter, when it will apparently be uninhabited for 5 months. One can only presume that they expect that the volunteers (many of whom are organised by the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies) will not only run the museum next year, but look after the upkeep and contents of the property. This of course is the cheapest possible solution, but also the most irresponsible.

Regarding the long term vision for Coleridge Cottage, the Trust claims to want it to be more about ‘the man’ than ‘the place’. Exactly what that means remains to be seen, but the potential of the Cottage to become a centre for Coleridge and Romantic studies, in the face of the vastly superior resources of Dove Cottage, is virtually zero. There is however, one thing that Coleridge Cottage can do better than Dove Cottage, and as you all know, it is already doing it. I’m writing to you because you are people who have all had contact with Derrick and Tilla in a continuing poetic context. Either you have been published by Odyssey, reviewed for or been featured in Poetry Quarterly Review, have read your work at Coleridge Cottage or the Poetry Picnics organised by Tilla, or have experienced the hospitality of Tilla and Derrick at the Cottage itself. Maybe several of the above, as I have.

If the National Trust wants Coleridge Cottage to be about ‘the man’, then it would be good for them to remember that the man in question was a practising poet, and that his fame is based upon that fact. He allowed what has since become one of his most famous and popular poems, ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ to appear first in a collaborative project; he is renowned for his friendships with other writers. And this spirit of friendship and collaboration has been revived and built upon by two people who are now being threatened with—let’s be blunt about it—eviction. They have never been paid for this work, have received no arts grants or funding for it, apart from occasional grants for readings from Sedgemoor District Council. Their sole benefit received from the trust is a reduced rent on the property itself as a condition of being custodians.

If Coleridge Cottage is to develop as both a cultural and tourist resource, it needs to build upon this work of the last fifteen years, not throw it away as if it had never happened (after all, Coleridge’s stay there was a mere three years). A viable short-term strategy would be for the National Trust to continue and support the work that Tilla and Derrick are already doing. The current premises could support an extended program of readings by published poets, plus participatory events, speaker meetings and creative writing workshops run by established poets and creative writing teachers. There would be scope for a writer-in-residency, who as well as working on their own creative projects could participate in and support these activities. Tilla has already offered to her sevices in both administrating and teaching on such projects. Over the medium to long term this could be extended into writing summer schools (or even out-of-season ‘winter’ schools) and perhaps a poetry festival with significant tie-ins to Coleridge. A dedicated poetry bookshop could be set up on-site.

From an educational point of view, creative writing courses could be set up at school, community education and university levels. As course leader in creative writing at Luton University , I for one would be keen to investigate the possibilities for setting up summer school courses at the cottage for Luton students, local writers and visitors. These could be university accredited. These are just some ideas for trying to further the work that all of us have to some degree participated in. As a museum, Coleridge Cottage will never be financially self-supporting; as a centre for creative writing it could be.

But right now I am writing to you to ask that you support Tilla and Derrick by contacting the the National Trust Officers at the email addresses below, giving them your own experiences/ideas with respect to Coleridge Cottage, or even cutting and pasting parts of this message which you feel are relevant into an email. Things are moving fast, so I would ask you to do this asap. Those of you who hold National Trust membership may have further things to say. It would be a great help if you could cc both Tilla (at st.col) and the Chair of the Friends of Coleridge (Tom Mayberry) at the addresses below. Those of you who may know other interested parties, please do distribute this message on as widely as feel fit.

Thank you for your time

Keith Jebb, Course Leader in Creative Writing, Luton University

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[Update Monday evening: Some of us who have sent off e-mails to the National Trust today have had the mails bounce back as undelivered. I'm trying to find out why. M.S.]

[Update Tuesday: by all accounts, the e-mails for the bods at the National Trust should be of the variety. However, one of them still bounces back. But one gets through, which is better than nothing.]

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