Rural Writing Institute

The Lake District Retreat for Rural Writing 

19-23 July 2020 — Postponed due to COVID-19

“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


The Lake District is arguably the most literary landscape on Earth. Its lakes, mountains, woods, farms and villages have inspired great writing for centuries. It was 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 immersive and nurturing retreat gathering seasoned teachers, best-selling authors, and inspiring speakers for workshops, discussions, and fieldwork with the aim to encourage diverse perspectives of 21st-century rural life.  We provide the time, space, and support to take ideas to a new level and to build an important writing community.  There will be time for quiet reflection, strolling in the hills, making new friends, and learning about shepherding and hill farming.

We are excited by our 2020 RWI Distinguished Speakers’ Series:

  • Helen Macdonald — 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize and Costa Prize for H is for Hawk
  • Amy Liptrot — 2016 Wainwright Prize & 2017 PEN Ackerley Prize for The Outrun
  • Ed Caesar — Staff writer at The New Yorker & author of Two Hours (2015) and The Moth and the Mountain (2020)

Over four days, there will be:

  • Workshops, discussions, and outdoor learning
  • An outdoor poetry lecture with award-winning poet Jane Clarke (The River, When the Tree Falls)
  • A Skype  conversation with award-winning poet Jenny Johnson (In Full Velvet)
  • Three dinners, three barn lunches, tea and biscuit breaks
  • A supportive network of like-minded writers
  • Daily round-trip transportation from Glenridding to the Rebanks farm

One free bursary to an emerging writer age under age 25. Half bursary for a farmer or someone working the land.

Our four-day summer session is hosted by Cumbrian shepherd James Rebanks, internationally best-selling author of The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape (2015) and the forthcoming English Pastoral: An Inheritance (2020), and his wife Helen, on their Lake District farm.  The Rebanks’ beautiful flowering hay meadows, flocks of sheep, and ancient woodlands provide rich opportunities for seeing old ways anew and nurturing the spirit, mind, and pen.

RWI co-founder, Kathryn Aalto, is an American landscape historian, designer, speaker, and writer living in Devon. She is author of The New York Times best-seller, The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood (2015), Nature and Human Intervention (2011), and the forthcoming Writing Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers, and Mavericks Who Shape How We See the Natural World (April 14, 2020).  She contributes to Smithsonian Magazine, Outside, Sierra, and other publications. She has Masters degrees in Creative Nonfiction and Garden History and mentors writers in narrative nonfiction and establishing a writing practice. She is a member of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). She has taught writing at several American and British universities and colleges.

Whatever you aspire to write, this is a magical retreat unlike any other in the world. It will give you space, inspiration, and memorable and hands-on learning experiences. We walk to the top of a fell to look out on the Lake District for a talk on the history of nature writing in the area. We rebuild a dry stone wall as we listen to a poet discuss her craft.  There will be talks on narrative nonfiction, the power of the personal essay, and descriptive writing.  Our detailed itinerary is below.

Tuition is £1350 and includes all lectures, dinners, farm lunches prepared by the talented Helen Rebanks, and transportation to and from Glenridding. We base our Distinguished Speakers’ Series at Inn on the Lake and other venues in Glenridding, a village with an ample range of accommodation including camping, mid-range B&Bs, and higher-end accommodation. It is advised to book early.

RWI is committed to an inclusive and convivial atmosphere where diversity is welcomed in backgrounds, geographies, abilities, and outlooks.

A buffet lunch of locally-sourced food has vegan & vegetarian options available.  Please bring all-weather clothing, a rucksack, notebooks, water bottles, and working gloves. A level of fitness is required for hiking the gentle fells.  Due to the rocky nature of the farm, we regret to say we are not yet 100% wheelchair accessible. We are striving to create work-arounds for future retreats.

Limited to 22 participants. Contact for an application and information. Acceptance letters sent by 1 March.  Tuition due in full by 1 May.

There will be future retreats.

In addition, Kathryn’s three-day “Retreat into the English Countryside” will focus on narrative nonfiction, the personal essay, the path to publication and will also have an a guest speaker. Date is the third week in October at Devon’s beautiful Elizabethan manor The Pig Hotel at Combe. Limited to 10 people. Enquire with Kathryn.


“I was a new writer when I was accepted to RWI 2018: what I needed from the retreat was an insight into whether I had what it takes to be a writer, and, if so, what it would take for me to become a good writer. After a short, but thrillingly intense, retreat, I had a) the confidence to think of myself as a writer, b) the elements of an action-plan for my future writing development, and c) a network of talented and supportive friends in the tutors, and participants who had shared the experience. The consistent emphasis on authenticity of voice, together with the eclectic range of visiting speakers, gave me perhaps my most profound learning from RWI i.e. an informed vocabulary appropriate for describing my own work, and for considering the work of writers across the wider genre of nature and rural writing. If any developmental experience is to be described as life-changing, for me this was it.”— Geoff C., RWI 2018

“For me, the Rural Writing Institute was a dream opportunity: a perfect location, and the chance to learn craft from fabulous writers rooted in the land, as well as other accomplished and prominent practitioners of poetry and creative nonfiction. What I had not expected, but has proved equally powerful, was the immediate creation of a writing community characterised by profound mutual trust and fellowship. In those few days, we began friendships — across nation, gender, age, levels of experience, and multiple other differences — that will clearly endure. That such a group of colleagues and comrades was forged during the Institute is a tribute to the transformative generosity shown by Katy, James, and the Rebanks family. Their trust, openness, respect, and genuine joy in the work they do spread outward to all of us. The seeds planted and nourished there have already born rich crops of creative work and professional advancement.” Nicola P., RWI 2018

“Leaving the Rural Writers Institute, I felt connected to a long history of authors inspired by their relationship with the land. James, Kathryn, and the assembled guest speakers, helped navigate us through this history and consider where the form might grow. We learned in the hay barn, by the beck, and even whilst mending a dry stone wall. I can’t think of a more perfect way to engage with literature and the land. RWI gave me confidence to explore new avenues of my craft and, best of all, brought together a diverse community of passionate writers.” Lachlan, RWI 2018

“In spring 2018, a serendipitous click on a tweet led me to the RWI 2018 website and Wendell Berry’s words ‘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.’ Berry’s words encapsulate perfectly my memories of that gloriously sunny weekend spent on the Rebanks’ lake district farm, with Katy and Polly, Ed and Rob, plus through the magical ether, David, Tara and Jane. Oh, and the cohort of intimate strangers who, after that intense weekend, a Slack app group, a 2019 reunion and book anthology, a forthcoming 2020 gathering, I feel I can now call friends.” — Liz G., RWI 2018



6-7:00 PM       Drinks at The Royal Hotel at Dockray

7:00 PM           Introductions

7:30 PM           Dinner


10-11:00 AM    Farm and Retreat Overview (James)

11-11:15 AM     Tea and coffee

11:15-12:30      True Stories, Well-Told: The Art of Creative Nonfiction (Katy)

Creative or narrative nonfiction is the fastest-growing area in publishing today. It encompasses memoir, travel writing, nature writing, cultural critiques, and biography. It is expressed through books, long-form journalism, and essays. It braids research with compelling, character-driven storytelling that can read like a novel. True stories well-told, creative nonfiction is well-researched, fact-based storytelling that makes people want to keep reading. Learn how writers of CNF pivot between crafting narrative scenes and conveying information using key fictional techniques to the purpose of reportage: narrative presence of the author, dialogue, characterization, flashbacks and forwards, crafted language, and sense of place. Learn how creating effective parallel narratives can illuminate universal truths through a personal lens.

12:30-1:30 PM Lunch by Helen

1:30-4:30 PM   The Fell Walk: A Brief History of Rural Writing (James)

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.  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. You will have time to explore and reflect on your own place in the canon. To accommodate anyone people with concerns of accessibility, an alternative lecture time can be available between 4:30-6 PM.

4:30-5:00 PM   Afternoon drinks

7:00 PM           Drinks and dinner at The Leeming House Hotel and ‘In Conversation with Amy Liptrot,’ who grew up on a sheep farm on Orkney, and won the Wainwright Prize for her bestselling 2016 memoir The Outrun (Canongate)

Day 2: TUES 21 JULY

9:30-10:45 AM Writing Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers, and Mavericks Who Shape How We See the Natural World (Katy)

Women who write about nature cannot be easily labelled. They are conservationists, scientists, and explorers. They are historians, poets, and novelists. They are ramblers, scholars, and spiritual seekers. They are hard to pin down but for their willingness to be “unladylike,” to question and to seek. Beginning with Dorothy Wordsworth and ending with Elizabeth Rush, Katy discusses classic, overlooked, and new female writers who have contributed to the genre of nature writing. Katy explains how women’s writing has been historically overlooked, the valuable perspectives women bring to the genre, what women can teach us, and where women’s nature writing is going today.

10:45-11 AM    Tea & coffee

11:15- 12:30     By the Beck: The Art of Description (James)

Rivers, mountains, meadows: how do we take something wild by nature and put it into words?  Being adept at crafting well-honed descriptive language is a key characteristic of nature writing. 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 and capture its sense of place with descriptive language in tiny prose poems.

12:30-1:15 PM Lunch by Helen

1:15-4:30 PM   Mending Walls (Jane Clarke and James)

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 and practicing mindfulness to explore diverse narrative angles we can pursue in rural life subjects.

4-5:00 PM       In Conversation with Jenny Johnson—Poet, In Full Velvet (2017), assistant professor at West Virginia University, Whiting Award recipient, National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient (2019).

6:00 PM           Drinks and dinner at Inn on the Lake with Evening Speaker, Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk (2014) and Vesper Flights (2020).  RWI 2018 alumni will be joining us.

Day 3: WED 22 JULY 2020

A Day to Rest, Reflect, Write, and Unwind in Glenridding

6:00 PM           Drinks and Chat

7:00 PM           Dinner at The Horse and Farrier at Dacre with Evening Speaker, Ed Caesar, staff writer at The New Yorker, author of Two Hours and The Moth and The Mountain (to be published in November 2020), long-form journalist, 2014 Journalist of the Year (Foreign Press Awards). 2018 alumni will join us.

Day 4: THUR 22 JULY 2020

9:30-11 AM     Masterclass: Writing Simply (James)

How do you de-clutter your writing and remove distractions and unnecessary ornamentation? How do achieve more impact with fewer words? How do you give the reader just enough, and no more than they need, to make the desired pictures in their heads? In this masterclass, James focuses on the craft of writing simply. With reference to some of his favourite authors, James will take writing back to its basic building blocks of perfectly crafted sentences and paragraphs. He will speak about the basic technique of some of the great writers and how they alter pace, or build momentum, or match style to subject matter to maximise impact. This session will provide insights into how those great writers have influenced his work, and how he built his writing voice to sound authentic to his life and landscape.

11-11:15 AM    Tea & Coffee

11:15-12:30      Carving a Path to Publication

How do you go from no clips to published articles or a book deal? We aim to help you navigate the publishing world with practical advice: fighting your fears, starting small, tapping into the zeitgeist, finding an agent, writing proposals and establishing a writing community. We will help you define your writing goals and carve a practical path in the direction of your publication dreams.

12:30-1:30 PM Lunch by Helen

1:30-3 PM       The Hay Meadow: Plants, Poetry and Process (James with Rob Dixon)

This session takes place in a restored species-rich hay meadow. Traditional hay meadows are one of the rarest and quickly disappearing habitats in Britain, as most are lost or ruined. Grappling with one of the main challenges of our age for a rural writer, which is bridging the gap between science and popular understanding and knowledge, this immersion in a thriving flowering meadow with James and botanist Rob Dixon of Wild Lakeland helps to refine our thinking on several levels: raising awareness of ecosystems and natural processes, paying attention to botany and birds, and writing for particular audiences in mind. Our goal is shifting your attention to how we communicate ecology to someone else, in the most easily understood and loved words, and prompting thoughts about what good stewardship of the land looks like. We aim to raise your awareness about how to find the right tone and style to achieve the purpose of making other people understand, see and care about something natural (and partly man made). How do we build a better future in this kind of place and how do we all play a role in making that happen?

3:15-3:30          Picnic tea and Gratitude

3:30-5 PM        Leafing a Legacy

The farm is several years into an ambitious ecological restoration plan, and as part of this has created valuable wildlife corridors down edges of becks (streams). In those areas a range of native broad leaf species have been planted. To leave a lasting mark on the farm, we would like each participant to plant a tree in these areas. James will say a few words about what this means to him and will read from English Pastoral.