I’m Sarah Acton, the Jurassic Coast’s Poet in Residence, and this month I have been exploring the poetry of Exmouth as part of my East Devon residency series. I’m taking inspiration from each stretch of coastline, and the exhibits within their museums’ collections, to create a body of site-specific poetry.
I’ve already explored Beer and Budleigh Salterton, and now it’s the turn of this town at the very start of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site.
Here it’s all about the river. The sea as carrier of goods and people, with ports and quays to service Exeter, a once-great Roman fortified port. Exmouth feels alive with maritime adventures, not surprising as it is surrounded by open sea and vast coastline: 2 miles of golden sand seafront and 2.5 miles of river frontage inland.
With so much exposure to the sea and river, all thoughts turn to movement of goods, cargo, trade and tides. The town holds the excitement and danger of being gatekeeper to the estuary, with colourful stories ranging from invasion to crashing storms. From Viking landings, smugglers and Turkish pirates frightening early settlers to live inland, to the first 18th Century tourists coming ‘to take the waters’ and bathe in this elegant seaside resort when travel abroad was prevented by war with France.
Exmouth’s fortunes have always been shaped by its position at the mouth of the estuary. This is where the River Exe, the longest river in Devon running down from Exmoor, meets the sea. It is where three metres of tide rush around the sand spit at Dawlish Warren twice a day, and where the battle to maintain sea defences exists alongside dramatic natural erosion in full view to all.
Can we hold back the sea, the tides, the estuary?
Exmouth does. Built from The Beacon down on reclaimed estuary, this seafront and its ever-shifting sand dunes and land have a few stories to tell.
Exmouth is also the start of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, the gateway to 95 miles of coastline. And it is Orcombe Point, and the red sandstone cliffs that hold the memory of heat of the ancient Triassic desert, and the secrets of life on this planet over 250 million years ago.
Lucky for me that I’ve been the recipient of help from fellow Jurassic Coast Ambassadors to get to grips with the town and earth history: with a geological walk from Anthony Cline, a tour of Exmouth’s Dinosaur Trail by John Wokersien, and also kind support from Chris Woodward. A very knowledgeable community of experts here as mentioned in my previous blog.
It is almost too much to comprehend, that the clear curved grooves we saw cut into the rock below the Orcombe Point Geoneedle represent petrified sand dunes, cemented and compacted with the water of the flash floods that created the great red Triassic river rushing across the red desert. So many millions of years ago. From sand to stone to cliff and sand again. The living landscape is always shifting and changing shape and texture.
I’ve also had the great pleasure of an evening on the water with Exmouth Gig Club, where I felt the force and speed of the tidal flow, plus an afternoon with the National Coastwatch in their cosy lookout tower observing craft leaving and entering the estuary, and a guided tour of the Exmouth Lifeboat station, and time at the marina with Harbour Master and RNLI coxswain, Steve Hockings-Thompson. It’s not just the land that’s changing shape, with the current marina housed in the old commercial docks of the town. Progress never stands still, and the smart new marina is in its final phase of development.
Most of all this month, I’ve had the pleasure of the company of dedicated Exmouth Museum Volunteers, who never failed to impress me with their passion for the exhibits in the museum and their lived memories, combining to bring local history to life. The Museum is living history itself, a former stables for two shire horses and adjoining cottage restored with a Victorian kitchen and 1950s living room.
Amongst the impressive war memorabilia, and the fishing, pilot and ferry maritime histories in the museum, there are also local women of note, like the plucky powder monkey Nancy Perriam who stepped aboard the Royal Navy fleet in the late 18th century to see active service on the gundecks (can you imagine!), and as I switched on my TV and caught a scene from Victoria on ITV recently I recognised one of the characters…the mathematician Lady (Ada) Lovelace. She and her mother, Lady Byron, moved to The Beacon in 1823.
As I fall into a hypnotic state with the smooth pendulum of the Victorian Diamond Jubilee clock tower movements, hand wound, and still working in the Museum cottage whilst the electric version ticks away on the seafront; dredgers tip tonnes of sand onto Dawlish Warren to prevent the estuary flooding over Winter, the red Triassic cliffs quietly retreat inches each year, and all the while the weather rolls down from Dartmoor and kite surfers dance on the horizon outside.
With grateful thanks to Exmouth Museum committee and volunteers, the Jurassic Coast Ambassadors, Exmouth Gig Club, Exmouth RNLI, National Coastwatch Exmouth, Exmouth Journal and Steve Hockings-Thompson for supporting this project.
Tune into Bay FM to hear Sarah talking about her Exmouth residency on Sunday 8th October 11.15am-12.