Over the past decade or so, there seems to have been a growing trend for writing in coffee shops. Whether this has been popularised by J K Rowling’s accounts of writing the first couple of Harry Potter books in The Elephant House in Edinburgh, or just a knock-on effect of the growing coffee shop culture, I’m not sure.
I like it though, this gradual graduation of the writing process into the public space. No more the weary novelist, cramped alone in his tiny attic room, shut away from the world as he squeezes words from his brain with only a few spiders for company. No more the lonely poet, tramping verse across the mountaintops, singing them mournfully back to the wind. (Well, maybe still here and there in Cumbria…)
Writing in coffee shops brings writing out into the open. For me, it stops is being some secretive, mystery thing that unusual-looking people do in the privacy of their own homes, and turns it into something public. Oh, you see that woman over there with the flat white and a Mac? She’s an author. That man with the doodled notebook? He’s writing poems.
I think (or maybe I hope) that when people see writers writing like this, it reaffirms the fact that writing is real work. I think that sometimes, non-writers underestimate just how hard writing can be. After all, we just sit at a table and make stuff up, right? What’s so hard about that? It probably doesn’t even take very long. Writers probably spend most of their time sleeping or practising their autographs…right?
If you’re a writer, this attitude is probably pretty familiar. If you’ve shared a house with someone who isn’t themselves a writer / artist, you’ve probably had to fight tooth and nail to protect your writing time, and stop it morphing into washing up time, or putting-the-bins-out time. You’ve possibly also had to put up with comments like, ‘Are you busy? Or are you just writing?’ I actually had a friend who asked me: ‘Are you working or writing today?’ I think my response was, ‘Umm, both…?’
At least when it’s out in the open people can see you’re working. Well, sort of. I mean, I’m not saying that people can see you at the coal face, because for writers most of the work does and always will take place inside our heads – but at least people can see you’re putting in the hours.
Writing in coffee shops is also a good way for me to shake my ideas up a bit. There’s nothing like a change of setting to help with a change of mind, or a bit of people watching to bring in some added inspiration. If I’m stuck on what to write, I tend to do one of two things: read a book, or migrate to a cafe. Sometimes I do both.
Not that I never write at home. I do. I write at my kitchen table, at my desk, on my sofa, in bed… Sometimes while I’m cooking I’ll write standing up at the kitchen counter. But sometimes at home I can feel too conspicuous. Which is a weird thought, since I live on my own – who is there to be conspicuous to? But at home, everything clamours for my attention, because everything is my responsibility. There are a million other jobs that need doing, from hoovering to re-stacking the log basket to dusting the tops of the kitchen cupboards.
Whenever I’m even remotely considering dusting the tops of the kitchen cupboards, I know I must be procrastinating, and it’s definitely time for a change of scene.
For me, writing in a coffee shop can help me feel like a ‘real’ writer. Going to a specific place, like going to an office, can help remind me that, like any job, I have to put the hours in. It can spur me on mentally and give me a fresh creative canvas. When I want to get some serious writing done, they can give me a break from the thousand other things that try to hold me back.
Also, I just quite like coffee.
These are my 5 favourite coffee shops for writing in in Cumbria:
1: Abbey Coffee Shop, Shap
The Abbey Coffee Shop in Shap is my local. If I’m stuck and it’s a nice day, it’s just a 15 minute walk across the fields. Perfect for instilling that freshness of thinking.
There’s no wifi at the Abbey Coffee Shop – it’s a ‘talk to people rather than phones’ kind of place, with a really friendly, local feel. I don’t think I’ve ever been in there without seeing someone I know – something that can be great for the lonely writer. (Stuck on my own in that attic with the spiders? No thanks…) The only issue with this (for writing, at least) is that it can get crazily busy around the middle of the day, which means that taking up a table by yourself with nothing but a latte and a notebook for 2 hours isn’t really acceptable. But get there early when they open, and it’s great – not to mention the fact that the freshly baked scones will still be warm.
It’s also run by locals, so it’s supporting local business: my friend Rowan, who I went to primary school with, and her dad, who makes the world’s best lamb & apricot casserole. No exaggeration.
2: Brew Brothers, Kendal
I once saw Brew Brothers described as ‘an urban cafe in a rural setting’, which is a description I took issue with, as I don’t see Brew Brothers as an ‘urban’ cafe at all. For one thing, it has a giant blown up photo of a sheep covering one whole wall. I think the person who wrote that description was confusing urban with hipster, because Brew Brothers is a very hipster place. Eclectic chairs, an old piano stool, pretty mismatched china, water served in jam jars… Basically it’s my favourite kind of style in a nutshell.
Like the Abbey Coffee Shop, it can get super busy during the middle of the day, but that’s because the meals and cakes are both delicious. Plus it’s about the only cafe I know which offers a big choice of different flavours of chai latte.
3: Cakes & Ale, Carlisle
Cakes & Ale is attached to Bookends, the independent book shop in Carlisle, which itself is attached to Bookcase: the biggest and best warren of a second-hand book shop I think I’ve ever been in. Mum & I once wandered apart in here, and she had to phone me to see where I was, because apparently she’d been calling my name and I hadn’t heard. Turns out we were still on the same floor, which shows how big the bookshop is.
The books seem to spill over into the cafe, too. If I’m stuck on what to write, there’ll always be something interesting to read in Cakes & Ale. Or I can just listen to whatever’s on the turntable of the record player, or order another yummy cake. (Cake seems to be a developing theme in these cafes. Just so you know, that isn’t a coincidence.)
4: The Yard Kitchen, Penrith
If you’re looking for an inspirational place and you can’t find a cafe attached to a bookshop, find one attached to a salvage yard. The Yard Kitchen oozes vintage salvage style, from the wood-burner in the back room, to the neon sign that slightly older Penrith folk will recognise from one of the now-closed nightclubs. There’s also an upstairs snug, which is a great space for writing when you want to get away from it all a bit. In the summer, there’s also an outside seating area, with views across town to the beacon.
Oh, and in case you haven’t guessed already, the cakes are amazing. Especially the scones.
5: The Wild Strawberry, Keswick
Of these coffee shops, the Wild Strawberry is the one I go to least. No reflection on the cafe itself, but just because I don’t often find myself in Keswick with a couple of hours looking for somewhere to do some work. But when I do, this is generally the place I gravitate towards. (Though I avoid going at all during school holidays, especially in August, when Keswick turns into a great big tourist trap.)
Downstairs, The Wild Strawberry is pretty bustling, but I like to secrete myself away somewhere upstairs, where there’s less pressure on you to leave as soon as your coffee cup is empty. Also, they have good cakes (of course) and nice milkshakes.
Oh, and if you have any other great cafe recommendations, do let me know – I’d love to expand my repertoire!