Over the last week I’ve been fortunate enough to work with local young people at two National Trust properties: Tredegar House in Newport and Chirk Castle, on the north Wales border. Organised and facilitated by Literature Wales as part of the Young People’s Laureateship, each residency lasted two days and a lot of fun was had with participants creating some insightful work. Both projects drew on various techniques that children and young people might use to interact with their surroundings and draw inspiration from the history, artefacts and characters of the buildings.
This project aims to highlight how producing a creative response can encourage participants to have a deeper engagement with the history, language, culture and space of these stunning historical places. For both residencies I didn’t go in with too strict a plan about what we should create as I hoped this would emerge organically from the building and participants – which is exactly what happened.
Tredegar House saw me working with year 6s from the local estate as well as Sgwad Sgwennu (gifted writers squad). We began day one with a tour of the house then spent the rest of the time in the gorgeous gardens creating ecopoetry in the sunshine responding to the beautiful green space and ancient trees.
For day two we used surrealist ideas and techniques to imagine the house coming to life. This was inspired by the gargoyles around the house, as well as curiosities such as the Charles I face as a mouse, and the following quote about the very flamboyant Last Lord of Tredegar, Evan Morgan:
Dramatises himself and his surroundings and prefers fiction to fact.
Our group of writers created two poems each. We performed them to parents on the Sunday afternoon before going home. I was truly delighted with their words.
The Chirk Castle group were all from year 9 at Ysgol Dinas Bran and I was impressed with their high levels of energy and engagement, especially as poetry was not an artform the group were used to working with. Jamie said at the end, “Actually before today I wasn’t that into poetry but now I can enjoy poetry and can see that it’s a very interesting field.” In all honesty I couldn’t ask for a better response.
Day one saw us mainly having an in depth tour of the castle and we gathered a wealth of information before engaging with some fun poetry games and writing exercises in the sunshine. We discovered Chirk Castle was built in 1295 by Roger Mortimer De Chirk as part of King Edward I’s chain of fortresses across north Wales. This was probably to keep the indigenous Welsh people in check, and a bit of digging at home uncovered the fact that Mortimer was an arch rival of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (or Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf / Llywelyn the Last) the last sovereign prince of Wales who died less than a decade earlier.
Our colourful tour guide Huw explained how Sir Thomas Myddelton bought the castle in 1593 and we learned that the hand prints found around the castle denote Myddelton bought his baronship. We discovered that on top of being an MP and Lord Mayor of London he was a founder member of the East India Company. This company was renown for making its fortune trading across the globe, then slowly took over India and governed it on behalf of the British government.
I visited India earlier this year as part of a British Council/Parthian Books/Literature Wales/Wales Arts Review project called the Valley, City, Village, so had read a number of articles that unpicked the commonly held belief that colonialism was a benevolent power. This got us questioning where Myddelton amassed his enormous wealth from. As amateur historians we had to wonder how much of the Myddelton’s prosperity was derived from the colonisation of India as well as maybe the slave trade that was rife from the 15th century onward.
Armed with all of this knowledge participants were then asked to focus on one specific part of the house and they chose: the gate, the dungeon, the flowers, the servants’ quarters, a suit of arms etc… and from there we wrote a poem using the Welsh bard Taliesin’s ‘I am’ list form (as well as seeing performances of Process (in memory) and Paper News from Rebel Sun). Students were asked to take on the perspective and persona of that room/object/person, and create a poem, including facts they had learned about it. A few redrafts and group sessions got the poems into shape before being performed in the gardens at the end of the second day.
This was a wonderful project to be a part of that increased my understanding of the history of our National Trust buildings as much as the participants and I hope we will be expanding this project over the coming months.
The gallery below includes photos and poems from Tredegar House (scroll down for Chirk Castle).
Photos and poems from Chirk Castle: