As mentioned in my last post, a couple of weeks ago I had a gig in Bideford, North Devon and spent a few days prior to it roaming around the area, meeting people and witnessing landscapes with a view to researching and developing a new piece in response to the Biosphere Reserve.
I was driven about all week by Beaford's programme manager, the very wonderful Hannah Ashwell, who not only arranged meetings and transported me to them but tirelessly filled my head with information and my belly with food en route and at the end of each day, usually along with a glass of wine or two as she generously put me up at her house. I 'd brought my bike down with me, but my schedule was so packed, and the weather so miserable that the bike stayed in the boot most of the week.
The idea was that I would blog about it whilst I was down there, posting video diaries and bits of writing that tracked my progress. Hannah lent me a pocket sized digital video camera and I duly stuck it in people's faces to record sound bites, including my own, and attempted arty landscape shots through the drizzle-streaked car window. Unfortunately I realised early on that my video editing skills were not what I thought they were and as my laptop didn't want to be friends with Hannah's wifi there was little opportunity to even write posts, let alone the slick media-savvy videoblogs I had envisaged.
So what follows is edited diary-lights of my time in North Devon, along with largely unedited clips of a few of the people, animals and places I visited. Once I've brushed up my digital media skills I might post a longer shinier compilation of the whole week, but don't hold your breath...
Day 1 (Mon): Spent the whole day on the train. Hannah met me at Exeter and drove me to her village where we drank beer and discussed the week ahead. Had a nice dinner back at Hannah's house in the company of her housemate Steven, and cats Max and Charlie.
Day 2 (Tues): Met Mark, the director of Beaford Arts in the morning and chatted about possible lines of enquiry. Went for lunch in Bideford and checked out the venue for Saturday's gig, the Burton Museum and Art Gallery. Afterwards we drove out to Westward Ho! and visited Northam Burrows and the pebble ridge, a long line of stones that protects the burrows behind. Created by the sea, maintained by locals over many years (in the annual pot-walloping festival) but now being threatened by the sea, the ridge is an interesting site of conflicts; environmental change, human need and traditional customs; and as such epitomises some of the tensions at the heart of the Biosphere concept (which I will write a poem about in due course)
In the evening we went to visit a village called West Buckland, whose inhabitants are considering programming arts events through Beaford for the first time. Chilly village hall warmed by friendly locals, tea and kit-kats.
Day 3(Wed): I'd begun to get an idea of the piece I wanted to write for Saturday, a combination of the biodiversity and the cultural diversity that make up the 3000 odd sq km of the Biosphere. Hannah suggested we go to meet Rob Woolton, co-chair of the Devon hedge group who also has a small farm.
Turns out it's actually his wife Paula who is the farmer and is just as fascinating and knowledgeable about the countryside as her husband. Time didn't permit me to interview her as well, but I hope to meet them again next time... Though I did get to meet their friend Dora:
Rob and Paula both came to the gig too, which was lovely, though Dora already had plans. That evening we went to meet Andy Bell, the coordinator of the Biosphere, at Braunton Burrows, another important ecosystem in the area, a sand dune system of world importance:
It was beautiful, but windy, and as the night drew in we decamped to a nice pub where Andy bought us dinner. Cheers Andy!
Day 4(Thurs): Tired from all our visits and the mental overload entailed, as well as starting to feel nervous about writing something for the gig, I spent the morning editing lists of North Devonshire flora and fauna, before going off for lunch at Tapely Park Estate. Tapely is owned by a guy called Hector Christie, whose family also own Glyndebourne. Hector owns a lot of land in the Biosphere, including Braunton Burrows, but is not your usual large landowner. He became radicalised during the foot and mouth crisis, barricading his land against the police, army and MAFF vets to save his herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle. Since then he has become a prominent evironmental campaigner and runs the house as a sort of commune. We had lunch with Hector, his girlfriend, Andy, Hannah and a documentary maker called Sheilagh. Wished I could have stayed all afternoon to find out more about Hector and his campaigns, but had to be whisked off to meet another great character in the shape of Paul Niemiec, a community priest and youth minister. Paul once put on a rave for under-eighteens in Salisbury cathedral, and runs his church as more of a community centre, putting on film screenings and youth and community events. When we met him he was listening to a CD of early Elvis recordings on the church sound system and they were advertising a screening of Age of Stupid the following evening. Paul told me about some of the young people that he works with in the area, and some of the problems they face.
That evening I bought Hannah dinner to say thanks for being such a great host, as it was my last night at her house, and tried to do a bit more scribbling before I passed out.
Day 5 (Fri): Spent the morning/afternoon at Hannah's writing some of the characters I'd decided on for my piece before heading over to Beaford where I was staying for the next two nights. Hannah was off to help a company called Jammy Voo do their get in so I had the place to myself until the evening when Maxwell Golden arrived. Maxwell is a brilliant hip hop theatre artist, MC and producer who I met a few years ago, and bumped into again recently. We were chatting about my upcoming work at Beaford and he asked if he could come down and check it out, so we arranged it and he thankfully agreed to a spot on the night. That evening we had a few too many drinks at the local pub and had a good time meeting Jammy Voo back at the centre.
Day 6 (Sat - showtime!): Spent the morning going over material with Maxwell and Hannah, was great to have their direction and made me feel a lot more confident about the gig. Headed over to Bideford in the afternoon to set up, and after various techncial hitches had everything set up and ready to go. As well as Maxwell we were joined by the always excellent and only slightly elf-like Byron Vincent, and also showed a video by Forkbeard Fantasy called Carbon Weevils:
The gig went off brilliantly, with only a few minor gremlins. The crowd were great, really warm, friendly and responsive. Below is a transcript of the new piece I performed. I'll post some clips of the gig shortly but it's taken hours just to publish the ones I've done!
The poem itself is a combination of species particular to the North Devon biosphere, some of which are endangered or have become extinct to the region or even the country, and characters I imagined from the places I visited and the people I spoke to. I tried to imagine what they might say if I'd had a chance to stick my camera in their face and ask them questions. I hope I haven't trivialised or over-simplified any of the people or issues in the area, but it's hard to feel you know your subject deeply after only a week!
Thank you to Hannah, Beaford Arts and Burton Museum and Art Gallery for making the week and the gig go off so well, and thanks to everyone who came down and made Saturday so special. I look forward to returning and making the work bigger and better... (and maybe having a crack at those accents!)