where it began: two

Tretower Castle in Powys. A spectacular monument in a ravishing setting. The job was ‘uniformed’, though I wore it only on the rare occasions anyone from management came to call. I looked after the Court and Castle, sold tickets and was ready with answers for any enquiries about the history of the buildings. It wasn’t part of the job description but I also took care of waifs and strays. (Bats that had become too cold to be able to get back to their roosts and young swallows fallen from their nests.)

It was bitterly cold in the winters in my wind-rattled hut, though faint-inducingly stifling in the summers. (The hut was very like the hermitages in the paintings of the Desert Fathers at Christ Church… the same single door and small window… and so when later I came to reinterpret those images for The Temptations of Solitude, I knew whereof I painted!). Sometimes the cold was such that I sat with my feet in newspaper-stuffed cardboard boxes to stop my toes from freezing. So there was rigour and hardship of a kind, which is what I wanted. I think perhaps over-idealising solitude might be a failing of creative people. I was trying to construct a life less frenetic and driven, though my method of doing so was considered extreme by  the very few friends who knew what I was up to.

I was at Tretower for seven years. (What is it with seven? For me it’s always the cycle. Seven days, weeks, months or years.) The hut had enough space to sit in, just about. In the photograph you can see sheets of poetry taped to the ceiling because there wasn’t any room on walls covered in shelves for guide book and postcard stock.

When I’d arrived it had been absolutely the right place to be. In the interim much had changed at Tretower and I knew I should go. I wavered, uncertain about whether I could make my way as a painter, but then the decision was taken from me. I was given a tiny redundancy package and told that henceforth the monument would be closed in the winters. My days in the wilderness were over.

24 thoughts on “where it began: two

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  9. You forgot the periods when we had FLOODS OF BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS. I do agree, the winters could be very trying. When I started in that hut all I had was a paraffin stove, but the winter peace was so calming, you could almost imagine you were the only person alive. And what a wonderful feeling to stand in the courtyard on a warm spring morning with just the sound of wildlife drifting through the air.

    • Derek, how lovely to see you here on the Artlog. Please give my love to my one-time rescuing angel, Pat.

      Yes, I recall a few floods during my time at the Court. But your comment on the ‘winter peace’ sent me hurtling back to that sense of Tretower as a place to take stock and heal. And you my friend were always wonderful company, brimming with knowledge about the history of Tretower and so generous in your sharing of your research. I count myself truly privileged to have spent time there with you and Pat. A turning point in my life.

  10. I remember your days in Tretower very well indeed. In those days I was allowed to walk back home through the court and castle and my dog and I used to sit in the sun (it was sunny there too!) with you while you made those incredible masks. I knew then you weren’t the normal run of people. I was really intrigued. I felt the same about the court and castle too. Having known it literally all my life it is a very real part of me. I hate that I can’t wander as I want anymore. As children it was our playground. What a playground.

    • I myself preferred the site when it was less promoted as a tourist destination. I was lucky in having a few years there before Tretower started to become less of a secret known to only a few. I too had known the Court as a child, taken by my father who was a wayleaves officer with the South Wales Electricity Board. Back then it was as you would have known it, a bit of a ramshackle farmyard.

      I recall your gun-dog Willow. Black as night and soft as velvet. She was a beauty.

  11. Glad I scrolled back this far–you surprised me by writing about the Tretower days in these two posts. Think you must have sent that picture because I remembered the poems on the ceiling. It would be interesting to see what poems they were, good enough to last the cold and the years.

    • When I last called there that hut was still being used by the custodial staff, though I think there are plans afoot to remove it and have something within the building. What I liked about the hut was that it didn’t impact in any permanent way on the monument. It stood within the courtyard and was constructed of wood with a creosote painted roof. There was a ‘split’ door and a small sliding window from which to sell tickets, postcards and guidebooks. It was simple and honest. There was electricity and a phone line. Water was available from an outside tap in the garden. However the loos were some distance off, tucked away at the side of the Court, and at busy times I could wait all day and yet not be able to lock up and get away. Yet during the off-season I could be at the site all week and see only two or three visitors.

      I grew to know Tretower inside out. All these years on I dream of it and in those dreams I recognise every stone in its walls. I found a great sense of peace there, though I knew too that I was waiting for something that would take me away. Like being in a waiting room and not knowing what time your appointment would be nor with who. The oddest feeling.

  12. Though it certainly sounds like you endured some rather unpleasant conditions whilst there, Clive, it also seems to me that it served a purpose for you. I’m of the mind that discomfort can help separate us from that which blinds us and that “roughing it” can be a great path to discovery–whether that be of self or other. I for one am glad those sometimes sufferable years helped you get to where you are today.

    • I make no complaints about my time there. The conditions were on occasion extreme, but in between it was nothing less than a privilege to be in such a wonderful place. Roughing it never harmed anyone. Good for the soul. And of course I was there by choice. Back then the monument was quiet in the early springs and throughout the winters, and so there was much time in which to read and think. Later I drew there and painted too. It was the perfect place for that time in my life. I both lost myself there, and found a new and stronger self.

  13. Thoreau was a wimp! I don’t think there are too many people outside of the Himalayas who can challenge your record, Clive — and probably nobody who isn’t some sort of religious fanatic.

    • Well I shan’t challenge you about Thoreau, Dave, though there may be some out there in blogger world who’ll stand his corner and come back at you!

      Yes, looking back I can see that seven years was quite a long time to stay at Tretower. I certainly nested quite thoroughly in that hut, and thereafter I’m sure successive staff found any number of scraps of drawings and painted studies crammed into the nooks and crannies to keep out the winter draughts!!!

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  15. Seven years!!! I had no idea your residency at Tretower had been that long. Even our Thoreau only managed two and a half years at his tiny cabin on Walden Pond. But, at least, you weren’t living at Tretower full time. Still, seven years of full, alternately freezing and blistering days? I’m in awe, once again.

    • Ah, Anita, it’s not very often that I can spring any surprises on you about my history, given that you’ve winkled out most of my secrets over the years we’ve known each other. Glad that I can sometimes fit in an unexpected piece of the jig-saw puzzle!

  16. it’s interesting how this period of “exile” seems to be not only personally necessary but somehow forced by circumstances on people of a creative bent. and the end of it, too, seems to come about the same way: not by choice. painting and writing and dancing, etc, hardly seem to be acts of choice either–sometimes i wonder how people who aren’t driven (internally forced? externally forced?) to do something even make it through the day.

    • Yes Zoe, I take it on board that when I’m ‘driven’, it can be a very strong force indeed. And I can see that perhaps not everyone is moved by such forces. My parents used to bemoan the fact that I was always a bit extreme, though in a quiet rather than extrovert way. Determined I suppose. I could certainly be left alone to get on with the things that interested me. In this blog the word ‘obsession’ has been used to describe some aspects of what drives a painter to return to the same subject over and over, and I dare say there’s something of the obsessive in me whatever I do. I think dance training can have that effect. All that relentless discipline driving the body through pain and beyond, has to be fuelled by something!

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