Rural Writing Institute

The Lake District Summer School of Nature Writing 

28 June – 1 July 2018

“Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.”

— Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow


Landscapes and literature define The Lake District, a region in England famous for its mountains, lakes and forests. It was also inspiration for 19th-century writers such as William Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter and John Ruskin. Now a World Heritage Site, the Lake District has been shaped by farmers and people working the land for millennia.

Taking inspiration from these surroundings, the Rural Writing Institute is an international retreat bringing together seasoned teachers and bestselling authors in a series of workshops, discussions and fieldwork to inspire and encourage diverse perspectives of 21st-century rural life.

Our three-day summer session is hosted by shepherd James Rebanks, international bestselling author of The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, on his farm in the heart of the iconic Lake District.  Flowering hay meadows, flocks of sheep and ancient woodlands provide rich opportunities for seeing old ways anew and nurturing emerging and established authors.

Rebanks is joined by American landscape historian, designer and lecturer Kathryn Aalto.  She is author of The New York Times bestseller, The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood and Nature and Human Intervention, a collection of lyrical essays.  She has taught creative nonfiction, feature writing and literature of nature and place, lectures at Plymouth University, and speaks internationally. She is a member of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

Guest speakers, group discussions, and quiet reflection will enhance learning.  Our discussions will include the history of rural writing and the genre of creative nonfiction combined with talks on craft including narrative angles, the circular nature of the personal essay, the power of poetic scenes, and developing empathy with our subjects. Tutorials are occasionally paired with seasonal tasks such as dry stone wall building, sheep shearing and fell walking to deepen perceptions.

We will also discuss myriad routes to publication.

The Rural Writing Institute is committed to an inclusive and convivial atmosphere where diversity is welcomed in backgrounds, geographies, abilities and outlooks.

Limited to 18 participants by brief application. A free bursary/scholarship is extended for one promising writer under the age of 25 years. Contact for additional information.


An Introduction: The Field of Creative Nonfiction

 ‘True stories, told well.’ Creative nonfiction employs techniques like scene, dialogue, and  description along with voice and personal point of view. It is the fastest-growing area of publishing and expressed as essays, memoir, travel writing, nature writing and more.  Learn the hallmarks of this craft — creating scenes and conveying information in memorable and meaningful ways — as a fresh vehicle for your writing.

A Brief History: Rural Writing in England and America

What does it mean to write about rural life in the 21st century? What angles does modern rural writing take that Wordsworth and others concerned with nature, outdoors, and wilderness have not pursued? Where does this come from, who does it, and where can we now take it?  Modern and historical perspectives from the United States and England will ground this tradition and help us expand our voices in poetry and prose.

The Dry Stone Wall: Writing Angles and Observation

The traditional work of building and mending dry stone walls is a craft that has long shaped the Lake District.  In this exercise led by James and Irish poet Jane Clarke, we watch, we write, and we build, turning a practical task on its head while drawing out observational skills to explore diverse narrative angles we can pursue in rural life subjects.

The Fell Walk: Perspective and The Essay

Atop Great Mellfell, we will see why the landscape of the Lake District has long inspired romantics and walkers like Wainwright and Wordsworth. James discusses how farm life shapes his writing, prompting reflection on ways we are shaped by places we call home or write about.  This fell walk is also a metaphor for the circular nature of the personal essay, an informal and approachable category of creative nonfiction ideal for rural writers, a talk led by Kathryn.

By the Beck: Writing Simply, Writing Lyrically

Rivers, mountains, meadows: how do we take something wild by nature and put it into words?  Taking cues from the Norse history of this area while gathering on the bank of a beck, we explore ways to listen closer to our surroundings, learn to capture the spirit of our subject in the rhythms of writing, and find our authentic voices and writing styles whether lyric, gothic, or more simply crafted.

The Hay Meadow: Sowing Poetry, Seeing Plants

An afternoon immersion in a flowering June hay meadow offers lessons in crafted language, powerful scenes, and biodiversity.  We will discuss how to craft poetic language and scenes — the heart of good nature writing — even when we come at our subjects from more scientific or detached perspectives.  A visit from a Wild Lakeland botanist  and birder will also enhance ways of seeing the meadow from a bio-diverse perspective. We will also disperse and write in quiet reflection, coming back together to share our writing.

The Wildlife Corridor: Leaving a Legacy

Our last workshop will include a a discussion about routes to publication and an opportunity for participants to plant a native seedling — oak, hazel, rowan — in a wildlife corridor on the farm. Long after you’ve left the Rural Writing Institute and are a published writer, a part of you will always be growing here in the Lake District.

After-Dinner Speakers

Friday 29 June — Rob Cowen author of Common Ground, shortlisted for the 2016 Wainwright Prize.

Dates & Fees

Tuition is £495 per person. Contact for a brief application. A free bursary/scholarship is offered for one promising young writer under age 25. Indicate this on your application if applying please.

Applications Open: 07 April 2018

Acceptance Letters Sent: 21 April 2018

Program Payment Due:  07 May 2018

No Refunds After: 30 May 2018


Transportation and accommodation arranged by participants.

We recommend accommodation in Penrith, Keswick and the villages of Glenridding/Pooley bridge.

The North Lakes Hotel in Penrith is accessible.  More information will be available in acceptance letter with our itinerary.

A buffet lunch of locally-sourced food (vegan & vegetarian options available) and afternoon coffee/tea are included in tuition for Friday-Saturday-Sunday. Meals with after-dinner speakers are separate from tuition but will be arranged in advance.

Please bring all-weather clothing, a rucksack, a low-folding chair for the field, notebooks, and working gloves.

A level of fitness is required for hiking the gentle fells.  Due to the rocky nature of the farm, in 2018 we regret to say we are not 100% wheelchair accessible yet. We are striving to create work arounds for future retreats.