The End of an Era: Completing the PhD at Gregynog Hall

Gregynog in the sunIn December 2019 I visited Gregynog Hall for the first time – a gorgeous, rambling old mansion in mid Wales, where the annual Cardiff University Creative Writing retreat takes place. I was still working out what the plan would be for my PhD over the coming years, with no concept of what 2020 would bring.   

I remember sitting in my bedroom, snuggled under the duvet, listening to a storm raging outside, imagining what it might have been like to live there, years ago, with candles, and a real fire. I was trying to write my first PhD poem. I felt that, in such an atmospheric place, I really ought to be able to write something incredible.

The Library at GregynogSince then, I have been lucky enough to visit Gregynog again, twice, and last week was my final visit as a PhD student. The old house was as atmospheric as ever, and I managed to finish the final proofread, submitting my thesis the following day. I’m waiting for the Viva exam now, and can’t quite believe that it’s all over.

It felt somewhat symbolic to complete the PhD in that old house, full of history and art and creativity and memories. That poem I started wrestling with in December 2019 became quite different, in the end. It’s now a part of my debut poetry collection – Octopus Mind, with the title ‘I am trying not to write a poem about you’, and it reminds me of that first stormy Gregynog night. But that poem didn’t quite fit into the thesis itself, in the end.

The new collection, written as part of the PhD, is called Craquelure (working title). It has grown into something quite unexpected, and I hope to share more of the poems soon. It includes poems inspired by works of art on display at National Museum Cardiff, including paintings that were donated by the Davies sisters, back in the 1950s and 1960s. The Davies sisters were the owners of Gregynog Hall at the time, which became a centre for art and creativity in Wales. There are still a few famous artworks on display in the hall itself.

I recently wrote a post for the Seren blog about one of my poems, ‘Unremarkable’, which features in both my thesis and Octopus Mind. ‘Unremarkable’ was inspired, initially, by two of Gwen John’s paintings. The Davies sisters did not collect Gwen John’s work, but they did collect works by her brother Augustus John, who was more highly regarded at the time.

'A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris' by Gwen John (c) Amgueddfa Cymru - Museum Wales

‘A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris’ by Gwen John (c) Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales

Although ‘Unremarkable’ was written almost a year after that first Gregynog visit (inspired partly by online creative writing workshop discussions, and by those two Gwen John paintings) I realise now, as I write this, that it also came out of that first attempt to write a meta-ekphrastic poem at Gregynog in December 2019.

‘Unremarkable’ explores the process of writing itself: how it can often feel immense and impossible, but essential too, just like it felt on that first night at Gregynog. It also explores the way in which we try to connect with people from the past, through art.

You can read my poem ‘Unremarkable’ and my thoughts on the writing process here.

You can read the edited version of that first PhD poem ‘I am trying not to write a poem about you’ here, where it was initially published in One Hand Clapping in 2021.

Both of these poems are included in my collection Octopus Mind.

Read about my second trip to Gregynog (in 2022) here.

I am extremely grateful to the South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership for funding my PhD.

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2 thoughts on “The End of an Era: Completing the PhD at Gregynog Hall

  1. Congratulations on completing and submitting your PhD, Rachel. What a wonderful setting to initiate it and round it off, and you’ve enjoyed a brilliant period of creativity. Enjoy the viva, too. It’ll be a wonderful experience.
    It’s our anniversary today and, as it happens, we’re going to Bath, from Bristol where we live, to see the Gwen John exhibition. I love her work – far more than her brother’s – and will have your poem in my mind as I wander round.
    Have a lovely celebratory Christmas.

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