Final thoughts from our 2023 poet-in-residence Rachel Piercey
My residency in Cyprus Well finished on Sunday. I was about to type that it has already gained the rich burnish of a cherished memory but, actually, the experiences shone in that unique, yellow-lit way even while I was having them. There’s something magical about the place. I strongly encourage anyone – especially someone with an interest in Charles Causley – to book a stay now. I thought I would pick a few standout memories, looking back on my residency, to share with you.
Launceston Castle and Launceston Library
Launceston Castle looms over the town; it feels like wherever you are in Launceston, you can see that brooding icon, on its improbably high motte. When my partner visited me, we spent a morning writing in the friendly and welcoming Launceston library. We were on the top floor of the library, which is itself on a hill, and we were almost at eye level with the castle. But not quite – the castle will always triumph! My poem from that day is different to my usual work, infused, I think, with the atmosphere of the castle.
Charles the Muse
I ran two Zoom workshops during my stay, using three of Charles’s poems as inspiration for new work. We read ‘Morwenstow’, ‘Night Before a Journey’ and ‘Rocco’ and the poems in response were incredible, things of great depth and beauty. It was such a pleasure to ‘be’ (in the digital sense!) in Cyprus Well with all these excellent poets, and to be there right at the moment the poems were created. I look forward to encountering them in journals and collections; you can read Sue Wallace-Shaddad’s beautiful response to ‘Morwenstow’ in her March Diary on the Trust website.
Altarnun and St Clether
Charles has a bittersweet poem about Neville Northey Burnard, a 19th century stone carver of extraordinary skill, but with a terribly sad story. A font, headstones, and sculpture of John Wesley, carved by a ridiculously young Burnard, may be found in the village of Altarnun. One sunny afternoon, my partner and I went hunting for these carvings. St Nonna Church, which houses the font, is a gem, nestled among daffodils and overlooking lively Penpont Water.
The font is amazing; you would swear it was early twentieth century, the figures are so modern-looking. It has a distinct and delightful folky feel – the naïve style feels like a deliberate choice, especially when you see the meticulously accurate carving of John Wesley on the old Methodist chapel.
Sadly, we couldn’t find the headstones, but next door to the Methodist chapel is the house where Burnard was born. We got chatting to the owner and he recommended a trip to St Clether Holy Well Chapel. A muddy path across the moor brought us to a small stone chapel, a place of tangible spiritual power, with a spring flowing through the chapel, behind the altar, to emerge at the side and tumble down the hill. I had never heard of the place before, and it felt like a piece of pure serendipity to discover it, guided by Charles’s poem.
Open Mic at the Byre
One of my last activities was an open mic night at The Byre, a beautifully stocked (and beautiful-smelling!) eco gift and lifestyle shop in Launceston, run by lovely Sarah Bradley. Fifteen or so people congregated one rainy Wednesday evening, some to read and some to listen. It was a truly joyful event – one of those evenings where everything just works. The poems were wonderful and so were the people: as the rain beat on the windowpanes, we read and listened, whooped and laughed, got chills and ate cheese and crackers. There were some memories of Charles, and several poems about the local area, which have given me a to-see list for my next visit. Alchemy occurred that night.
In another instance of serendipity, I had a great conversation with someone at the open mic. I told her that I was very keen to see the three stone circles known as The Hurlers, and she recommended adding on a trip to the Cheesewring. It was, she said, was just nearby – a stack of boulders, the largest at the top and the smallest at the bottom. I told Malcolm Wright about my visit; Malcolm knows a huge amount about Charles, and he pointed me towards the poem ‘Christ at the Cheesewring’ – a piece that passionately resists easy interpretation. Charles is often described as ‘accessible’, and indeed many of his poems are warmly welcoming and their surface meaning is immediately graspable. (Of course, there are always layers of meaning to tumble through.) But many of the poems are sinuously strange. I read ‘Christ at the Cheesewring’ before I set out and found it mysterious yet affecting. I wondered if my visit would shed any light.
Making my way past the Hurlers – an atmospheric trio, which I knew of through singer-songwriter Seth Lakeman – I fought the wind to make it to the Cheesewring. The wind was not easily beaten – and indeed, once I’d (foolishly?) climbed the hill towards the tor, it asserted itself with casual might. I was nearly blown off the side of the hill and had to crouch down on a rock to wait for a brief reprieve from its fierceness. I staggered back down, losing my footing a couple of times, and felt very relieved when I reached the bottom. I was buffeted back to my car, the wind howling through my ears and into my brain. I had to sit in my car for half an hour to stop feeling dizzy. The experience, I realised, had a comparable disorienting intensity to Charles’s poem; it was similarly elemental and full of wild drama. I was not much closer to grasping the meaning of the poem, but I felt I could inhabit some of its emotional, sensory power. I will be spending more time puzzling over ‘Christ at the Cheesewring’.
Closing the door on Cyprus Well was sad, but I know I’ll be back. I am grateful to Charles – and his mother Laura – for their hospitality. You definitely feel like your visit is in their gift. And I am grateful to the Charles Causley Trust for giving me this rare and precious experience.