My Jurassic Coast Poetry series has moved onward at the speed of tides to Sidmouth, the last stop for my residency this year. It has been a month of peeling away layers to find what energies lie beneath this well-heeled tourist haven.
At the heart of the Regency town’s history I found the patience of ochre Otter Sandstone rock, fast-crumbling Mercia Mudstone, and also the smell of fish, together with the soulful ghosts of all the many fishermen past who have ever been deeply connected to every crash and breath of the elements since early settlements here.
Fishermen are hardy souls, then and now. You may wonder what this has to do with geology and the features of the natural landscape, but I’ve realised when walking and listening to the coastline, and considering the communities shaped by it, that everything is connected. A fisher, a poet and a geologist all spend much of their time outdoors, gazing at the mighty ever shifting beach and cliffs before them – waiting, pondering, and happily surrendering to the dimension of slow rock time.
The living landscape has this effect on you. I mentioned this thought at the Sidmouth Science Festival last week as an example of why it states on the Geological Society website that there are ‘strong links’ between geology and poetry.
Sidmouth Museum has a fabulous fossil collection and first rate geology room, but of course there has been plenty more to discover, and my heart is as claimed equally by Bronze Age artefacts, by costumes, lace, artworks, and the pioneering resident scientists and literary figures who gazed along the shore nestled between Salcombe Hill and High Peak letting their imaginations roam wild, as I. The list of visitors to the town is impressive.
We tread in the footsteps of the baby Queen Victoria, Conan Doyle, Tolkien and HG Wells. We promenade along the esplanade to the sighs of Jane Austen, Vera Britten and Elizabeth Browning. I am not one to be dazzled by famous names, but the roll call of visitors is a quiet testament to Sidmouth’s reputation for health benefits and beauty. You had to be brave soul though to take the waters in one of the Regency bathing contraptions (many of the visitors were literally dunked in and encouraged to swallow a little seawater!).
And in the falling light of dusk under Jacob’s Ladder at West Beach I catch the last golden copper glows of the cliff across the once mighty ancient settlement of High Peak, most of which has long since fallen into the sea. Man’s history is such a small scratch on the surface of the earth, but earth history is written clearly through the rock’s sediment layers describing the millennia of its lifespan in detail.
It is to rock and sea, and land history that I dedicate my residency as a witness, as do my friends the fishermen and geologists. If I can whisper a grand aspiration for this ongoing Jurassic Coast Poetry project in my heart, it is to work towards invoking the language and voice of this coastline itself, telling in a new voice, this old old story.
– Sarah Acton, Jurassic Coast Poet in Residence
My great thanks and gratitude for generous support during this Jurassic Coast Poetry residency to the Sid Valley Association (‘SVA’), the Trust and volunteers of the Sidmouth Musuem, with special thanks to Dr Roger Trend, Nigel Hyman, Ann Tanner and to The Sidmouth Science Festival. Thanks also to Christine and Rab and the Trustees for allowing me unlimited access to the excellent museum research library at SVA. Thanks also to the East Devon District Council for their kind and generous support throughout this four month East Devon residency.
Sarah will lead a free tour of the galleries at Kennaway House as part of Colin Bentley’s Jurassic Coast Art Exhibition on Sunday 22 October at 12:00. Sarah will also be reading her new Sidmouth poems at Sidmouth Museum’s “Museums at Night” event on 27 October.
Next year: Sarah’s Jurassic Coast Poetry residency continues, moving from Triassic to Jurassic along the coastline from Axmouth to Dorchester…and beyond!