The place that inspires me: artist reveal their secret getaways

Whether it’s the roots of home or a wild escape from the rat race, most creative types have a place that unlocks their imaginative flow. We asked writers, musicians, artists and directors to tell us about theirs

The north-east: Rachel and Becky Unthank, musicians

We grew up on the banks of the Tyne in a little village called Ryton. Our parents are from Teesside but moved to Tyneside, and with Northumberland a stone’s throw away and Newcastle just along the road, we feel very connected to the whole of the north-east. Our parents have always been really into folk music and we were brought up with lots of north-eastern traditions: we both still go clog-dancing every week and our dad did rapper dancing – a type of sword dancing that came out of the pit villages.

We draw on a lot on the traditional songs and stories of the north-east in our music – songs about border battles and the mining industry, about the river and the sea. This area feels inexhaustible as a source of inspiration. We’re noted for singing in our accents, and why wouldn’t we? There’s such a strong sense of identity here, and so much history and culture to draw from.

It’s only recently that we’ve started to write songs of our own. Usually we look for songs in old songbooks or talk to knowledgeable people in the area. But sometimes going out for a walk is the best inspiration. One of our favourite walks begins in Ryton: you go down the hill into an area called the Willows, where we used to play as kids, then past the ponds, along by the river, through the forest, through the graveyard and back into the village. It’s really beautiful down there.

Another walk we both love is up along the Northumberland coast – you get great big, beautiful beaches up there that are usually quite empty, even in the summer. So you start in the village of Craster, which is famous for its kippers, and walk up the coast past Dunstanburgh castle and along Embleton Bay, where the sand is a lovely orange-golden colour. If you keep going around the corner, the sand becomes silvery and you get to Low-Newton-by-the-Sea, which is one of our favourite places in the world. There’s a square of houses open to the sea and in the corner is a wonderful pub called the Ship Inn, which does fabulous crab sandwiches and has its own microbrewery. It’s a good place to be.

On the subject of favourite pubs, there’s a really good one in Newcastle called the Cumberland Arms. It’s in the Ouseburn Valley, an industrial area of the city that’s becoming a hangout for artists and musicians. The Cumberland Arms has always been a hub of music – our dad used to take us to Irish sessions there when we were kids. Lots of bands play there and we practise clog-dancing in the top room every Wednesday. It’s changed hands over the years, but if anything it’s got more wonderful – maybe that’s because we’re allowed to drink the beer now.

Our studio is in a little hamlet called Aydon, where Rachel lives. We used to record at home, and we’re pretty certain that if you listen closely to our albums you can hear the cows from the next-door farm. The studio is in a lovely old granary that belongs to the neighbours. It’s definitely an inspiring place to rehearse. There were times when we ended up practising in sticky indie-rock studios and we were like, “Ugh, get me out of this boy environment.” Here you can step out the door and be in the fresh countryside air. We’ve got our bunting up. It’s brilliant.

The folk scene in the north-east has a very cohesive identity. It’s not buried: it’s very much alive. The tunes and traditions are in everyone’s vocabulary. There are lots of sad tales but we sing silly songs too – our dad certainly does. It definitely feels like we’ve got our own thing going on up here.KF

Cumbria: Sarah Hall, novelist

Sarah Hall
Sarah Hall by Haweswater, Cumbria. Photograph: Mark Pinder/Observer

I left Cumbria when I was 18, and apart from five years in Carlisle I’ve lived outside the county since then: in Aberystwyth and then St Andrews for university, in America for a while, and now in Norwich. One reason I return to Cumbria in my writing has to do with intimacy. You want people to be convinced of the place they’re reading about, and with Cumbria there’s a shorthand I can use to do that.

I grew up in a little hamlet near Haweswater, on the east side of the Lake District. It was quite a wild place to be a kid – lots of moorland to explore and rivers to swim in. My parents moved up from the south before I was born, so I’m first-generation Cumbrian. I think being local but not entirely local gives you an interesting perspective – you can look at your community from a bit of a distance and appreciate the characteristics that might not be part of your own makeup.

I’ve always been away from Cumbria whenever I’ve written about it. I wrote my first two novels in America and The Carhullan Army in Cambridge; The Wolf Border was written in Norwich. Having that geographical distance gives you a different lens on a place and more imaginative freedom. My first novel, Haweswater, was more or less a map of the territory, whereas many of the places in The Wolf Border are made up. I like the idea that the Lake District, which has very strong associations with the Romantic tradition, is a mutable place that you can reshape in your imagination.

I go back to visit quite a lot. My parents still live in the same village. There’s a little hill right by their house which I walk up every day I’m there – it’s almost a ritualistic thing at this point – and when I look down over the valley I feel reassured. The village is only a couple of miles from Haweswater, and I go walking up around the crags where the golden eagle nests, or used to nest (nobody’s quite sure what’s going on with the golden eagle anymore). I still go swimming in waterfalls nearby and I still have my favourite pubs in the area – I used to really like the Punchbowl in Askham but now I tend go to the Crown and Mitre in Bamford Grange because it’s close to my parents’ house.

The county is full of interesting and unusual buildings. I really like St Mary’s Church in Wreay, just south of Carlisle – it was designed in the mid-19th century by Sara Losh, who was one of the few female architects working at the time. I don’t really believe in masculinity and femininity but if you look at the building you can somehow tell it’s been designed by a woman. It’s very strange.

I like Long Meg and her Daughters, which is a very strange stone circle in the Eden Valley, and Castlerigg near Keswick, another stone circle that’s fantastically well-preserved. Nobody knows why they’re there, but I get a sense they were mapping the region for people and I really like that.

I’ll always say that the Lake District is my spiritual home. It’s a place where I feel really comfortable, and if my parents weren’t still living there I’d feel slightly bereft. I was so lucky to have been brought up there. The area definitely has a bind on people and I wouldn’t rule out moving back. KF

Dorset: Anna Calvi, musician

Swanage, Dorset
Swanage in Dorset, where the sea unlocked Anna Calvi’s songwriting imagination. Photograph: Alamy

Earlier this summer, I spent three weeks by myself in Swanage on the Dorset coast. It was a writing trip, to overcome a bit of block, but I also wanted to experience what it would be like to go to a place where I knew no one and could be completely on my own.

Anna Calvi
Anna Calvi. Photograph: PJB/SIPA/Rex Shutterstock

I’d been to Dorset a couple of times when I was younger and it had made a big impression on me. When I was eight, my parents took me to Studland Bay, where there’s a really beautiful beach, sand dunes and marshes. I found it really magical, like being in another world. A few years later we went to the Jurassic coast, and I have a memory of looking for fossils and finding it quite amazing. I’d always wanted to go back, so when a friend’s flat became available in Swanage I felt it would be the perfect opportunity.

The flat was high up with a balcony that looked out to sea, which was exciting because I’d never lived by the sea before. I got into this routine where I’d have my breakfast and then go walking by the sea and think about songs. I would compose them in my head, come back and write them down, and then go straight out again. I found that the walking and thinking was more important than the actual writing, something I’d never experienced before.

There was a certain spot by the marina where I would sit on a rock and listen to the boats in the wind making chinking sounds and bell-like noises – it was almost like being next to a Buddhist temple. After being in London, I found that having space around me and being able to see the horizon was really good for my state of mind. It helped me feel calmer so that my ideas could come out more easily. I was writing every day and I only spoke to one person the entire time – I asked the woman at the café, “Can I have a hot chocolate please?” and that was the only time I spoke.

Some of the songs I wrote in Dorset contain references to the sea and feeling like a small part of this huge expanse. I’m not sure which ones will make it on to my next album, but if you hear a reference to the sea, you’ll know where it came from. KF

South-east London: Destiny Ekaragha, playwright

Destiny Ekaragha in Deptford
Film-maker Destiny Ekaragha’s work is inspired by Deptford, where she was born and bred and still lives. Photograph: Andy Hall/Observer

Growing up, I didn’t move around at all: I was straight-up south-east London. My primary school was south-east London, my secondary school was south-east London, my college was south-east London. The furthest I moved was to university, and that was just across the river in east London. So when I’m writing and making films, I base most of my characters in New Cross, Deptford, Peckham... the areas that are familiar to me.

Hate it or love it, there’s no place like it. I think it’s the people that make it different. In south London as a whole, there’s a warmth and a realness and a sense of community I haven’t found elsewhere. It also gives you street smarts. You develop this antenna for trouble or danger, and for good stuff as well – good people and good food. I carry that with me everywhere I go.

My parents were Nigerian and came over here in the 70s, so I grew up in a very Nigerian household. I only saw British life – food, clothes, the way British people spoke – outside of home. New Cross was pretty much black in the 80s and 90s, but there were also different cultures around. That’s the great thing about state schools: people from different backgrounds all thrown together. It creates tolerance. We never spoke about our differences that much. It was more like, “I can’t be bothered to do maths today”.

A lot of films set in my part of London focus on gang violence and drug dealers but that wasn’t my childhood. Yes, I know people who were in and out of prison, but my friends and I weren’t getting in trouble, we were just hanging out and talking and eating. I’ve always wondered why this aspect of the city wasn’t on screen. Why were we only seeing the bad parts? So I decided to tell stories from my own experience. That’s why I love [playwright Bola Agbaje’s] Gone Too Far! so much, as a play and as a script [it became Destiny’s debut feature]. That story was much closer to so many people’s reality. That was our lives: hanging out on roads, dealing with cultural differences and trying to fit in as teenagers, like everybody else.

I still live in Deptford. Deptford High Street, which people call “Little Lagos”, is one of my favourite places. As a person of Nigerian descent, I can go into any of the shops and buy hair creams and stuff that caters to my skin. It’s the same with food. If I can’t be bothered to cook, I can go down the road to Island Buka or Tomi’s Kitchen and get jollof rice. Everything that I need, culturally, is on that street.

I really love Peckham as well. It’s being gentrified very quickly but there’s still a real sense of community. I really like the high street there and the library and the PeckhamPlex, a cinema where you can still see a film for a fiver.

I’ve travelled now and seen other places and met other people and loved their cultures, but my voice is south-east London. You hear stories about people not being proud of where they grew up and pretending they’re from somewhere else. South-east London is given such a bad rap – it’s like: “You’re nothing if you’re from here, you’ll never achieve anything.” That’s why it’s so important for me to tell stories about this place, stories that show that south-east London is much more than what the media say it is. KF

Cornwall: Patrick Gale, author

Patrick Gale
Patrick Gale at home near Sennen, Cornwall. Photograph: Harry Borden/Observer

I live by Land’s End, on the last farm in England in a hamlet near Sennen. When I’m needed, I help out with the cattle and drive the tractor during the barley harvest. I’ve had to learn all that since meeting Aidan, my husband; it’s his family farm. We’ve got our own little beach, Nanjizal, which is west-facing, so you have the sun right until sunset. It’s a famous beauty spot because it has the Song of the Sea, a natural arch in the side of the cliff, and there are seals and occasionally dolphins and basking sharks… I’m very lucky – it’s like living on a writers’ retreat.

Culturally, Cornwall is incredible. Especially west Cornwall, because it’s so remote: there’s a well established tradition of being self-reliant. There’s a fantastic art colony, a really good music scene, lots of writers, book festivals… There is a huge sense of community and a very strong ethos of understanding; you don’t have to apologise for the fact that you spend your days writing stories.

It’s a fantastic place to be any kind of artist as you can still buy somewhere pretty cheaply if you don’t want a sea view, and we’ve got so many arts festivals here: Penzance, North Cornwall, Fowey, St Ives festival, and the wonderful Port Eliot festival as well. For local writers, there’s usually a way for them to get their work heard without having to go too far. I started the North Cornwall book festival three years ago – it’s enormous fun, and by keeping it small I can invite writer friends and writers I admire. On top of that, I’m patron of the Penzance literary festival.

I love Penzance – it’s not well known by tourists, but it’s an undiscovered jewel. It has lovely regency squares and sub-tropical gardens; rather like Brighton, but prettier. It’s got a great hippyish vibe, with pop-up cafes and little art galleries, and it’s slightly eccentric, too: it has one of the only hospitals in England where you can ask for the wise woman instead of the Catholic priest, which I think is very charming, because there are so many pagans down here.

Cornwall is the second poorest region in the UK, but it happens to be very beautiful, so although a lot of households here are struggling financially, many say they’re happy and feel that their children have a nice time. That mixture of hard-bitten and poor, and yet rich in natural beauty certainly feeds my kind of writing. I’ve set quite a few books here, as Cornwall gives me lovely, atmospheric settings. But it also stops me ever taking for granted my good luck in being able to make a living as a writer, or ever being tempted to write a book about writers or artists; it reminds you there are people who have real needs.

I work in longhand, so if it’s sunny, I’m fond of writing outdoors in the garden, or on a bench in our field overlooking the Atlantic. The cattle mill around by my feet; it’s pretty idyllic. In the winter I love writing in my little shed in the garden. It has a wood-burning stove, so it’s very cosy – I sit out there with the dogs, it’s great. I often find that if I’m wrestling with some difficulty in a book then walking the dogs around the cliffs helps. The footpath from Sennen down to Nanjizal and then round to the beach towards Land’s End is one of the most dramatic clifftop walks going. It’s especially good when there’s a big swell, so the waves are breaking right up against the cliffs.

I moved to Cornwall from London in 1987. The thing that really appealed to me initially was how cheap it was. As a starving novelist, I could afford to buy a three-bedroom house with a garden here for £45,000, which you certainly couldn’t do in London. But the thing I love really is the remoteness; I don’t mind that it’s a five-and-a-half-hour train ride to London: that suits me, because I get loads of work done on the train rides, but it also means I don’t get visitors all the time. CJ

Wales: Owen Sheers, writer

Owen Sheers at home in Talgarth
Owen Sheers at home in Talgarth near Brecon, mid Wales. Photograph: Dimitris Legakis/Observer

I grew up in Wales, in an old Welsh longhouse just outside Abergavenny, and moved back here about 18 months ago, to the northern edge of the Brecon Beacons. We live just beneath Castell Dinas, an iron age hill fort near the village of Talgarth. Even though I’ve had lots of periods of travelling in my life, my parents haven’t moved, so I have that sense of being rooted in a very specific place.

What I love about Talgarth is that there are lots of artists and writers and sculptors here, but it’s a living market town. It has its livestock market every Friday and it’s got its feet on the ground. Place takes a long time to distil through you, so it’s probably too soon to say what effect it’s had on my writing, but on a practical level, the possibility of solitude is much more on hand. I can walk down and sit by the river and know that I’ll have silence and no one else there.

Sometimes I’ll walk up to the hill fort or across to Mynydd Troed, which means foot mountain. It looks over Llangorse Lake, which is another area of ancient habitation. Just being in this environment, you feel more connected to the fundamental aspects of life and a longer view of history. Our neighbour runs a horse-trekking business, and in the summer he puts a couple of horses in our field. That has been amazing, to be able to saddle up and be on the hill in 10 minutes. It’s a totally different way of exploring the landscape. The wildlife stays much closer to you, you cover so much more ground and there’s something elemental about sharing these totally unpeopled views with this living, breathing animal.

At the bottom of our lane, the old chapel has been bought and converted by Alan McGee [former boss of Creation Records and manager of Oasis] into this fantastic live music venue, the Tabernacle. He has great acoustic nights, and I’m going to start curating a series of readings there. I started a writers’ book club with our neighbour Ben Rawlence, who’s a non-fiction writer, and we thought there might be three or four of us. By the second session there were 12 of us, and it was kind of hilarious – all of these authors hiding in the hills, and none of us knew the others were there.

There were many driving factors for us to move back to Wales, but one of them was that I was increasingly coming here to work because this was where the interesting stuff was happening. I was doing things here I couldn’t do anywhere else. I spent a year as writer in residence with the Welsh Rugby Union team, I did Mametz [a play about Welsh soldiers in the first world war], which took place in a wood. Before that there was the The Passion [a 72-hour performance of a work inspired by the Passion plays co-directed by and starring Michael Sheen], which used all of Port Talbot. We do seem to be in a moment where you’re allowed to do some pretty unique and cutting-edge stuff.

The thing I miss most about London is the parks. Over the past four or five years I’ve really found that parks are where I can have that crucial experience of the first words on the page. There’s something about the communal solitude, taking a bath in the crowd and yet being on your own. My latest novel, I Saw A Man, was basically written on the benches of Victoria Park in east London.

Now if I want to work surrounded by the hubbub of noise, I’ll pop down to our local cafe, The Bakers Table. It’s attached to Talgarth Mill, where they make this great bread. It’s partly powered by the river that runs through our land. There is something lovely about working with this great big mill wheel turning. JO’C

The south-west: Richard Long, artist

Richard Long
Richard Long photographed with his work on the Clifton Down, Bristol. Photograph: Max McClure

I’m one of those few artists who still lives where I was born, which is Bristol. I’ve always lived here, apart from the two years when I was a student in London. There are lots of reasons why I’ve never left. For one, I’m not an urban artist and there was no reason for me to stay in London. In some ways Bristol is still the heart of my work: it was where I did my early works in the landscape, and I still to this day get my mud from the River Avon.

Many of the walks I do as art begin from my front door. One of my favourite areas in the world is from Bristol to Land’s End, and I’ve made many walks leaving my front door in Bristol, crossing the Mendips, the Somerset Levels and on through Cornwall – and vice versa: I’ve walked from Land’s End back to Bristol. The territory also includes Dartmoor, which is the nearest proper wilderness to my home in Bristol. Since 1969 I’ve done many wilderness walks on Dartmoor. It is beautiful and it’s empty. It was like a tabula rasa in the old days, a prototype landscape.

Bristol is just the place where I live. The city itself isn’t relevant to my work, though I would say the River Avon has been very important: the limestone gorge, the caves, the towpath, the mud banks, the tides… Watching the river fascinated me as a kid; sometimes it was completely full, sometimes it was completely empty and you could see right to the bottom of these enormous mud banks.

I still cycle over the same bridges I did as a child – the swing bridges going over the harbour and Brunel’s famous suspension bridge, which I cross every day. Childhood pleasures feed into the pleasures of making art now. The first things I ever made were mud pies on my front path. In some ways I’m still making mud pies. KF

Interviews by Killian Fox, Corinne Jones and Joanne O'Connor

The GuardianTramp

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