An Archipelago is Like a Fold in Time

A formal garden

by Phil Owen

What are you responding to in this piece of writing?

An exhibition that will take place at Hestercombe, an historic country house and estate near Taunton, Somerset, in the autumn/winter of 2017. It is an exhibition of the work of a group of artists who undertook simultaneous residencies on the Scottish islands of Orkney in 2015, each of them staying on (or trying to get to) a different island. I wanted to write about what they told me, and to contextualise this against reflections on a potential relationship between Hestercombe and Orkney: I ended up thinking specifically about the historic formal gardens at Hestercombe, and of Orkney as an archipelago, and how these different terrains dictate very particular sorts of physical exploration, ways of getting around or through.

What drew you to Hestercombe, and how have you been spending your time there?

I remember visiting Hestercombe as a teenager. The gardens had recently been opened to the public, having gone through a process of restoration, while the house was still being used as a call centre by the local emergency services. Today the house hosts a developing centre for contemporary art and the landscape, under the direction of curator Tim Martin. It’s an incredibly beautiful place, but the people running it seem to be committed to using it as a place for new ideas (there is a plan for a large-scale 21st century garden, with a focus on environmental sustainability) rather than a romanticising of the past.

I have persuaded them to let me be writer-in-residence there for about 6 months. There isn’t much money available, but I wanted a long period to have the chance to properly form responses. I visit about once a month, often meeting with other artists who are working there on upcoming exhibition projects. Sadly, I haven’t been given a wing or a turret to occupy.

How do you want the reader to feel, when she reads this text? 

I hope the piece is a bit like a map. I spend a lot of time looking at maps. A selection of interconnected possibilities, rather than a linear explication.

How is writing like (or unlike) travelling?

 I’ve been trying to think of an equivalent to the experience of being lost when writing, which is as liberating as being lost when travelling can be. I don’t think I ever sit down to write with no idea of where I am going to go. Instead, my writing process is usually one of spending a long time allowing ideas to coalesce and develop, away from the page and then, once the first draft is down, of a similarly long process of editing. Maybe this is a bit like a process of finding, finding something you feel you can share with a reader?

Can the writer and the reader get lost together in a way that’s not just irritating?

I’d like to just mention here too my relationship to reading about places unfamiliar to me. I find it difficult to find writers whose sensibility doesn’t get in the way of my being able to enjoy thinking about the place they’re describing. But glorious exceptions to this would include Tim Robinson on the west of Ireland, and Andrzej Stasiuk on central Europe.

Where do you write, and what is the view?

Much as I would have liked to have been given use of a wing at Hestercombe, I mostly write sat at a work surface in my kitchen, facing a tiled wall (pale minty green, with pink and grey flowers on some of them, inherited from the previous occupant). That said, I do tend to write notes when I visit the place, mostly in the garden. I like being outdoors, though I’m not sure whether it makes much difference to my writing, really. I also like working in the upstairs reference section of Bristol’s Central Library. Its pure 19th century civic architecture: gothic arches and galleries with wrought iron spiral staircases – and no plug sockets to recharge a laptop.

What is the difference between a fold and a line?

A fold is more resilient.

An archipelago is like a fold in time



Phil Owen is a singer and writer based in Bristol. In 2010, with Megan Wakefield, he co-founded the experimental writing forum Tertulia.

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