Intra Actions

2018 – ongoing

Intra actions collects work written, performed and filmed as site-responsive pieces at a very particular location: Wonwell in South Devon.

Click to watch Ancestors
Click to watch Field Note: Wonwell

Collected Memories

Facts can be a useful starting point for uncovering recollections of place. What follows are a jumble of ‘facts’ from different sources, that all offer portals into the sediments of human histories which make a place – this place – unique. Random facts (in no particular order) follow.

A platoon of the 5th Buffs Regiment was stationed on Wonwell Beach; some in a Nissen Hut and some in one of the old cottages. One soldier was stationed at the phone box in Kingston to take messages to the beach.

In 1991 and 1992 42 tin ingots were found in the mouth of the estuary on the north side of the West Mary Reef. These date from between 500 BC and 600 AD. 

Although the moorland valley of the Erme today appears to be natural and unspoiled, the entire valley floor from its source down to Piles Copse is artificial, being created by the extensive tin-streaming operations that took place between the 4th and 14th centuries.

From Clyng Corn Mill there used to be a canal which has long since silted up and is now just a small stream. This canal brought goods to and from Modbury and beyond. “Runaway Lane” was the main link between Orcheton Quay and Modbury. The 1809 Ordnance Survey map shows the canal very clearly.

There was a fishing community on Wonwell beach for many years but the houses are now in ruins and overgrown. Professional fishermen worked the beach until the 1960s. The main catch was lobster and crab. These were boiled on the beach and carried to the village of Kingston on donkeys. The withies which were used to make the pots and panniers were grown in willow plats (areas of pollarded willow) in the area.

In 1940 a detachment of Indian troops were stationed at Woodleigh and there is a remembrance of these troops and their mules delivering barbed wire to Mothercombe for the coastal defences.

After a collision with the trawler Diane Marie on 12 May 1990, the tanker the Rosebay, sailing from the Persian Gulf to Rotterdam, spilled 1,000 tonnes of crude oil in the open sea. Semi-hardened remnants of the spill are clear to see on the rocks on the estuary, and in places lichen has started to grow over it. All the way down the estuary are large metal hooks, permanently sited, that were used to tether the booms used to clear the oil spill.

One eye-catching blog entry from The Flete Estate is not for the feint-heated: A whale was washed up on Mothecombe Beach many years ago.  It was wedged between the rocks in front of the old WW2 sentry box beyond the beach teahouse.  I remember it was about 10 – 12 feet long and we identified it as a Beluga whale.  These are normally found off the coast of Canada.  As owners of Mothecombe private beach, it was the Flete Estate’s responsibility to dispose of the whale carcass which was beginning to decompose.  We had to cut it up with a chainsaw, and shovel it on to a trailer with a farm digger.  Then we drove it into the city tip in Chelson Meadow.  As the farm tractor and trailer sat in a traffic jam at Laira Bridge in the high summer sunshine, the stench was powerful.

My relationship with Wonwell began in childhood. This beach is the closest one to my home and has consistently been the place where I go to get some critical and emotional distance from ongoing projects. I presented a short video poem about this site at Flows of Entanglements, a conference hosted by the University of Plymouth Geography Department in September 2019, and have engaged a number of people in walking conversations at the site, one at a time, including representatives of the local AONB and Natural England, a paleoarchaeologist, an amputee war veteran, a diver interested in wrecks and ordinance, and others. There are many more of these conversations planned, with a view to building up a repository of embodied relationships that this ecotonic site hosts. Irregular journal entries add to material that I hope to develop into a publication.

Excerpts from journal

October 3rd 2018 14.30

It is high tide but it is on its way out. Midweek on an overcast afternoon. One couple walk by. Recent tides have clearly been gentle, a pattern of wrack zone lines descending from the ever-crumbling cliff to the shoreline show little by way of sea-borne gifts besides fresh sea lettuce and small drifts of dead kelp, heaped in strings like discarded spinal columns or lions tails. Plus a baseball cap from Cyprus. At first, the sounds I can hear are like a discordant orchestra of school recorders, fluting out of sync and out of tune. Closer inspection reveals a small but vocal group of gulls bobbing on the open water. I think that two juveniles are seeking their parents. It is cold, even my legs want more layers. My short sojourn today however, blows some cobwebs and is very welcome. As I walk back to the road the ground is a swirling carpet of autumn leaves.

June 1st 2019 0800

Tide very out. A truly beautiful morning, a calm estuarial meander that meets clean waves with short-lived yet perpetual white crests. The surface of the water is positively mill-pond, reflecting the intense green of the headlands and the streaky blue sky. Everything about today feels like Day One of something momentous. Bit by bit, the beach gets drenched in light as the morning sun climbs above the headland behind me. I move further up the river towards the incoming ocean and sit on the log on the secret beach, watching an angler, and a paddle-boarder engage with the water. I am surrounded by footprints made by different birds – there was clearly an avian party here last night. A claw footed bird – a crow? – had played in the sand, dragging its tail or a wing as it walked. Another large bird, with webbed feet, had joined in. Their criss-crossing tracks are quite complex, they had clearly engaged consciously with each other, but whether as friends or foe I will never know. The sun on my back is close to being too warm. A small fishing boat passes out to sea, between the nearby waves and the very distant band of sea fog. My shadow gets shorter as the sun claims the day. Behind me a cacophony of hedgerow birds are busy with the business of late Spring. The here and now of a Wonwell morning captivates me.

February 27th 2020 12.30pm

Tide Out. After an eternity of storms, high winds and severe amounts of rain, at last the sun is out. Spring flowers already peek out from the hedgerows, which are themselves turning green. Today, evidence of kelp thrashing is clear, and minor landslides bring the cliffs a little closer to the shore. A man stands painting the scene. Another man walks his drone. Behind and above me, the cliff path has been cut back a lot to make the path easier to navigate, but it also played a part in causing – or not stopping – the landslides. The blue sky is vast.

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