Many years ago, in my previous-previous life, there was a book exhibition in Moscow organized by the British Council, an exhibition of children's books. Since English books at large and especially children's books were hard to find, I spent day after day there, not just browsing through books but actually reading them. That's how I first read Tom's Midnight Garden - crouched by the exhibit case, with my winter coat on, oblivious of the noise around. Tom's Midnight Garden is one of the best books in the world. One of the central scenes takes place in Ely (when I read the book in Moscow, I had no idea where Ely was and still less that I would one day see it). The two characters come to Ely skating on the river, the year of the Big Frost. And that's how it goes:
"From the river... Ely's tower plays a game with the traveller. Hatty and Tom skated and skated, and for a long time the tower seemed to let them come no nearer, but performed a mysterious movement instead, now to one side, now to the other, now ahead, according to the windings of the river."
We do not come to Ely by the river, but the road winds too, and the tower plays its game just as Philippa Pearce describes it.
We come to Ely to write poetry and draw. It's part of the collaboration between our children's literature masters and the students at Anglia Ruskin University doing children's books illustration. I can neither draw nor write poetry, but I think it is a marvelous idea. Just let myself be engulfed by the colossal building, take time to look at details, read the inscriptions, touch, listen, smell... Yes, smell the strong smell of lilies, the only flower I am violently allergic to. Brought abruptly back to earth by the smell. My poem is inspired by the flower arrangement instead of the 900-year-old walls.
The art students say thay cannot write, and the literature students say they cannot draw. In the end, everyone has done both, and after a genuine English tea with scones we share our work. I can't remember when I had an inspirational day like this.