English: Bede's Pupils Visit Charleston Short Story Festival


Don't tell Mrs Von Reibech, but there is another Charleston House, and last week's Small Wonder Short Story Festival offered Sixth Form English students the perfect opportunity to find out exactly what makes it so special…

Anyone who has ever noticed its understated beige sign on the A27 would do well to give in to their curiosity. Take the long farm track down to Charleston and, in a matter of minutes, you find yourself in one of the most artistically significant-and beautiful-historic houses in the south east; a place of inspiration for generations of writers and thinkers, from the famous Bloomsbury circle right up to the novelists, playwrights, poets and rappers of today.

That's right: rappers.

I told you the place was special.


Charleston is always inspiring, but especially so at festival time, when it attracts world renowned writers and the whole place fizzes with energy and lively debate. There is bunting everywhere, and often music; strangers spontaneously strike up conversations about plays or new writers and, whilst reading by the pond, you might suddenly find yourself being sketched by a watercolour artist. It's that sort of place.

Bede's students, many of whom were seeing Charleston for the first time, loved their tour of the house and its collection of artistic treasures. "The atmosphere was so inspiring", felt Jess Houston, "the personal stories of the past inhabitants almost echoed off the walls".


The festival line-up was nothing if not eclectic. We began with Letters to an Unknown Soldier, a collaborative arts project aimed at marking the centenary of WW1 with a memorial made up entirely of words.

The project took as its inspiration the enigmatic statue of a solider reading a letter which stands in London's Paddington Station. Project curator and novelist Neil Bartlett invited public responses, posing a simple question: what does the letter say?


Together with novelist Louisa Young, Bartlett read a selection from the 21,000 entries on the project website. Letters came from professional writers, primary school children, even a Prime Minister. Some were unbearably moving, others touchingly comical. "This was the best event", thought Aislinge Twist, "it was interesting how one single project could have been interpreted in so many different ways".

The final afternoon event, the BBC Short Story of the Year, was a masterclass in short fiction, given by award-winning novelists Tessa Hadley and Lionel Shriver, author of best-selling We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Both read from their entries for the BBC competition and took questions from the audience on crafting the perfect story.


"Hearing about the writing process from professionals was really helpful", said one student, "it really made me re-consider what is possible even in a short piece".

Given that Shriver went on to win the BBC award later in the week, we trust that English students will take her advice to heart and be inspired to write their own fictions.

Who knows what might happen? Maybe we will see a Bede's student on stage there soon.


The English Department will be returning to Charleston again this year for a writing event inspired by Virginia Woolf, and for the Charleston Literary Festival in May.