Jurassic Coast Ambassador Sarah Acton is the Jurassic Coast’s poet-in-residence, and her East Devon residency is being hosted by Beer Village Heritage in June, Fairlynch Museum, Budleigh Salterton in July, Exmouth Museum in August and Sidmouth Museum in September.
Sarah will be taking inspiration from each place, and exhibits within the museums’ collections, to create a body of site-specific poetry. All workshops and poetry walks will be announced on the Jurassic Coast’s social media so keep a look out!
The second leg of my Jurassic Coast East Devon poetry residency is in Budleigh Salterton and the Lower Otter Valley, and is hosted by Fairlynch Museum.
Fairlynch really is an elegant museum. I don’t just mean the exhibits but the building itself, once a retired sea captain’s home. The museum is bright and smart and beautifully laid out, but retains the friendly familiarity of a much-loved home.
Each afternoon I’ve sat in the tiny library upstairs to write, listening to the busy activity below as the whole family of volunteers bustle about welcoming visitors, and the visitors laugh and chatter as they explore the rooms. Within a few days, the museum caretaker Sylvia looks after me as if I’m an old family friend, and it feels like I too, am home.
When I’m not in the museum library, I’ve been researching the town of Budleigh Salterton and the local area. I’ve been greatly assisted with tours of the town and museum by Michael Downes, plus a guided history tour of the nearby village of Otterton by Roz and Diane. I’ve been treated to a tour of Salem Chapel by the caretaker, Richard, and to an archaeological walk on the heath with Dr Chris Tilley. I’ve also worked with Clinton Devon Estates to deliver two poetry walks during Heath Week. I feel gratitude to have received such generosity from all of these people and organisations. Sharing your passion, and passing on in-depth and insightful appreciation of something that has claimed you, is such a gift.
The month here feels like a wonderful adventure doing exactly what I’d hoped to do, get under the skin of the area, and try to feel what it might have been like here fifty years ago when the museum was set up; a hundred years ago when Budleigh was a thriving town of local industry, including fishing; seven hundred years ago when East Budleigh was a prosperous merchant seaport; and four thousand years ago when hunters and settlers camped.
The elements and natural features of the land that were important to people living here years ago still shape the lives of the people here now in many ways: the sea, river, pebbles and red Triassic mudstone of the cliffs.
Inland a little, behind Budleigh Salterton is a vast area of lowland pebblebed heath owned and managed by Clinton Devon Estates. This is new terrain to me, with a huge wild atmosphere so different to the drama of the cliffs, but still connected to the sea by the element water.
The pebbles that form the pebblebed are layers of beautifully coloured stones that jumbled and tumbled along the great Triassic river of 350 million years ago, a wide roaring river formed of braided flood rivers that occasionally rose and ran through red arid desert. Now these same pebbles sit below the heath’s surface topsoil and pop out in the sea on the beach with veins of red oxidised iron sediment showing their lineage.
I’m struck by the colours of the heath, which is not the sea of bleak browns I had imagined, but soft orange and vivid purple of flowering heather and ling, tall forest green ferns, straw-grasses, and multi-coloured sand and yellow pebbles that change colour and come alive when it rains.
Well, it certainly has rained this month, so much that Sylvia was kind enough to dry my trousers for me one afternoon whilst I sat in the Fairlynch library surrounded by books and artefacts and the business side of running the museum, thinking how it takes many hands over time to keep a local museum alive. Many hands to love this beautiful building Fairlynch, many ancient hands over time to build a cairn on the heath, many poems to pass through these hands.
Just like rain flowing over the pebbles of the heath, highlighting their wonderful colours, the curators of this museum and the expertise of academics and enthusiasts in the area bring the natural features of the landscape, and exhibits that come from its people, alive with their passion and story.
I witness with pride what a privilege and a responsibility it is to look after these stories, and for me to give voice to some of them in my own way through poetry with a new perspective…by walking the heaths to listen to the land, and thinking in the library at the top of the stairs.
With grateful thanks to Fairlynch Museum volunteers and Trustees, and Clinton Devon Estates. Thanks also to the Historic Chapels Trust and Dr Chris Tilley.