It may sound like a scene for some dark, murderously-plotted Hitchcockian thriller-noir, or a recipe for disaster at the very least, but putting a group of seven total strangers together in a remote rural house in the southwest of France, for five days, turned out to be anything but that.
At the Domaine St Raymond, a renovated two-hundred-year-old barn, sited in France’s bountiful Languedoc, amid acres and acres of bursting yellow sunflowers, close to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Carcassonne, a party was underway.
The French House Party, as this venture owned and hosted by British lass Moira Martingale is known, is a simple but glaringly brilliant concept. Bring a group of people together in one of France's most lovely rural locations, allow them to get creative, enjoy nature, eat gourmet foods, sample the wines of the Languedoc locale – France’s largest vineyard – and even manage to learn a thing or two along the way.
When her visitors are not engaged in any of the above gruelling tortures, they may just find some time to relax by the azure pool which exactly mimics the colours of the Southern French sky, or stroll in the maple-dappled shade along the banks of the nearby Canal du Midi, or poke one's nose into the nooks, corners, and curiosities of the many sleepy towns and villages that dot this lovely landscape. The more energetic may choose to relax by the pool while actually "reading a book" from the huge house library.
If your energy levels are truly Herculean and border on those of a superhero then a game of tennis on the House's own court may excite. Or, you may simply borrow a bicycle from the shed and go explore the unending miles of country paths and lanes while the faces of a million beaming sunflowers nod their sunny approval.
But I was there for another reason, I was there as a participant in one of The French House Party's regular Creative Writing courses. As is the norm at courses like this, when strangers are thrown together in new locations and nervous of their neighbor's creative pedigree, (what if I can't write, what if they've all published a library of novels, what if I look stupid?) people are at first, understandably shy. But the French House Party was an exception to this unwritten law governing the psyche of all creative people. Perhaps the timetable Moira, our sympathetic host, had conjured up was the catalyst that hastened the group's bonding process. I'll let you decide: Day 1. 1). 1:30pm – Arrival. Settling in. Light buffet lunch. 2). 5:30pm – Welcome talk by the pool, drinks and canapés. 3). 7:00pm – Dinner at home.
As I unpacked my bag and savored the light flooding through the open window of my balcony, illuminating the tastefully decorated en-suite room, a simple thought crossed my mind – I’m going to enjoy this. And I did.
On the terrace by the pool, I met my fellow pilgrims. A varied group to say the least, they comprised the following: a rather splendid lady of years who appeared as if she may have just stepped from the pages of a Somerset Maugham novel; a South African mother and daughter – the mother having been a successful actress and her charming daughter who was a master of good manners and taste rarely seen in one so young; a retired British GP whose sense of wit has left me hanging anxiously for the appearance of his first book; a globe-trotting New Zealander ("Free spirited Kiwi" was her exact term); another British man and local inhabitant who ousted the yoke of Blighty and moved to the Languedoc to pursue his many creative talents; and then there was me.
The glue of this group would be our instructor, British poet and author Sarah Hymas. Over the next five days, through Sarah's inventive methods, our group played word games, wrote short pieces about topics that left us scratching our heads and sounding like school children, wrote about feelings and emotions, landscapes and characters, theme and composition. At times we wallowed in the misery of our short-comings; at others we punched the air secretly in triumph. We carried each other and supported those in need of solace, but it was all Sarah's doing, and we knew it.
But The French House Party isn’t all work – the clue is in the word "party." After a morning of fastidious scribbling and yet another gourmet lunch, the afternoons were ours. For me, the solitude of the Canal du Midi called again and again. Long walks along its bank acted like a tonic I hadn't even realized had been prescribed. For the others, well they did what they did until it was time to meet again for another poolside dinner, or a visit to a distant lake-side restaurant, or to marvel at the fireworks over La Cité at Carcassonne.
The French House Party caters not only for writers. Legendary songwriter Dean Friedman (Mc Donald's Girl, Ariel and Lucky Stars) leads an annual, hugely successful song writer's course. There are courses in creative digital media, gourmet courses for all abilities run by highly reputable chefs, golfing holidays, art classes, drama courses, and tailor-made groups or corporate breaks. The French House Party was named as Top Retreat in the respected National Geographic "100 Best Worldwide Vacations to Enrich Your Life."
I may never produce the book waiting inside me, but at least I have experienced that enrichment for which The French House Party has been so illustriously honoured.