Sarah Acton is the Jurassic Coast’s poet-in-residence. She is exploring the poetry of East Devon and West Dorset as part of a writing residency spanning the Jurassic Coastline, taking inspiration from natural landmarks and earth history, and working with local museums, schools, and other organisations along the way.
Sometimes I like to think of my life as poet-in-residence as a Jurassic Coast embodiment of Dr. Who, especially now that Jodie Whittaker is driving the TARDIS. I travel across time and space along the coastline to discover new adventures with friends and ambassadors, and connect people to nature and the landscape through creativity and writing, to protect, in order to enjoy and learn from the past, and give language and reflection to what it is to be alive here today.
I’ve not encountered any other aliens from outer-space as yet, but this area of natural coastline, and the shape of the world, is always shifting and changing. There is always some force or another at work to threaten or move what we think we know as solid ground. There is a dynamic movement at play with the acceptance of erosion and connection with a greater universe that really fires my creative imagination, and I can learn from it, even whilst it excites and carries awe with such vast perspective. If the Jurassic Coast had a sound track, it might be rather like Holst’s The Planets, though there are multiple moods and weathers and seasons to be experienced even on a small stretch of coast path in any one day, as all walkers know.
This year, I landed in Beaminster Museum. I was eight miles further inland than usual, though the pull of the sea is ever present in the social and industrial story of the town. Physically, the ridgeway looms and curls above, whilst the town is nestled cosy around the church as in the day of Dorset’s dialect poet, William Barnes (1801-1886):
Sweet Be’mi’ster, that bist a-bound
By green and woody hills all round,
Wi’ hedges, reachèn up between
A thousand vields o’ zummer green.
– William Barnes
Opening the doors of my TARDIS, I listened to voices telling many stories at the same time, in different timescapes. The two floors of Beaminster Museum are radically changed each year, with new and permanent exhibitions curated to complement the history of the building, a Congregational Chapel complete with organ and surviving memorial tablets. I heard about the flax and hemp trade, agriculture, rural lives, and of wars, and tunnels and rebellion.
Over the Spring months, I visited the museum to research its collection, and talk to volunteers. I wanted to ask what item means most to the people who know the exhibits well, and many agreed on the Stone Age axes upstairs. Thanks to the pluck of a girl in the 1940s who found these hand-held chert axes in a hedge near Pilsdon Pen (now on display at the museum after nearly a lifetime on her mantelpiece), I can travel back in my mind to see the rough-hewn tools in action over 250 thousand years ago.
Hand-axes took an hour to make,
I wonder if they were discarded when
black bears, or a wolf disturbed a safe cave…
Who were they?
‘They’ had hands that shaped tools.
Hunted. Bloodied, warring, grunted,
furred. The past is so overgrown –
but I can see a young girl reaching through
at Pilsdon Pen. The rush as she untangles
the ancient bodies from the hedge,
and the axes trembling to her warmth,
and how she pedals so fast back home….
(THOUGHTS ON TWO STONE AGE AXES)
But to find out more about earth history, I only had to travel a short distance in my car to Horn Park Quarry, the country’s smallest National Nature Reserve, which contains an internationally significant fossil record of the Jurassic marine era, around 170 million years ago.
Time travel is mind-blowing, which is why poetry, story and art help digest the infinite possibility of multiple dimensions. The museum interpretation boards help too, with context and grounding factual details. But when you stand in Horn Park Quarry, only very occasionally open to the public to protect the precious site, you can follow cracks on the seabed caused by volcanic ruptures. You can see shoals of ammonites and belemnites swimming around the clear blue-green waters, and hear the warm tropical sea close to the Equator lapping at your ankles, even if you don’t think you’re a Time Lord. There is a portal in our minds that can always be opened through the genius of the imagination. Though the ammonites are now fossilised, their transformation takes us to places far beyond our own reality. Somehow we can see through them into the distant past, and perhaps the future too.
Tac-tac, tac tac. Tac-tac, tac tac. Tac-tac, tac tac. Tac-tac, tac tac.
All day long.
It brings a quietness on, this coolness of rock.
‘Stand up, behold!’ (A voice).
It’s Sky, beating his hammer to set pace, knapping, combing,
cutting the shapes, drumming us awake –
The beautiful thing about being a Time Lord who makes and speaks poetry, is that fact and fiction mingle into one glorious reality. I’m as keen to find the bush where Tess of the D’Urbervilles left her good shoes in Hardy’s novel on the road to Emminster, as find out how old James Daniel escaped from the bloody assize through secret pathways, or sit in St Mary’s churchyard and wonder about the great house at Parnham, now a burnt and charred ruin.
When it’s nearly time to push the lever and leave Beaminster, I’m pleased to be invited to read some of my poems inspired by my stay at an afternoon of Dorset literature, hosted by the museum as a fundraiser. It was a delightful event, we heard from many writers such as Barnes, Hardy and local contemporary poets including my friend, John Kemp.
Then it’s a quick wave of a sonic pen, and my residency theme tune starts as we enter the TARDIS to dematerialise into the vortex and reappear somewhere else on the page of the coastline. Bye Beaminster, see you again soon!
With heartfelt thanks to Beaminster Museum curator, Brian Earl, for giving me the generosity of all the time and space I needed, ideas and inspiration, and for opening your door to possibility. It has been a rewarding residency. Thanks also to Murray Rose, Mary Treacher and all of the museum volunteers and friends, and to resident Beaminster poet, John Kemp for good company and friendship.