Before the heat really hit last week, I headed a bit further north up the River Torridge than Great Torrington. North Devon is a bit of an unexplored country for me, so though it takes about the same time as getting to the centre of Dartmoor, it always feels like another country. I also wanted to explore an extensive coastal common – there are a fair few of these around the country and this is Devon’s largest.
First some facts: Northam Burrows is a 625-acre Country Park on the Taw-Torridge estuary, bordering Westward Ho! (which gets both its name and its exclamation mark from the Charles Kingsley book of the same name). It contains several SSSIs, including a long pebble ridge which protects the dunes and tidal marsh from the sea and is believed to have been created by the 1607 Bristol Channel tsunami. So important is the ridge, which is unique in the Northern Hemisphere, in protecting the burrows that until the c.20th, an annual event (involving much drinking) was held for ‘potwalloping’, which meant heaving up displaced pebbles and chucking them back onto the ridge.
It’s been used for leisure for hundreds of years, once having a pond for model boats, and is home to England’s oldest links golf course. It’s also been home to an extensive radar array, during WWII, and been a tip from prehistoric times up until the 1980s (for which reason some of it is still off limits). It’s also still commoned and while I didn’t see any sheep, their tracks, fleece and droppings were everywhere; it must be fun playing golf when they and the ponies descend on a green. It’s registered for common rights for sheep and horses and a local fight over this took place in the 1970s which was only settled once a Norman document was unearthed in a local church’s archives.
It has a brand-new visitors centre with enthusiastic staff (this is why I know so much about this place) and a café. It’s very popular, as the sandy beach is extensive and so an important resource to the seaside resort of Westward Ho!, but also as a place for a short walk, a leisurely moment of quiet, or some serious birdwatching. It’s opposite the hugely famous and internationally important (and frequently filmed) Braunton Burrows dune system with its remnants of a huge open field).
I enjoyed my visit. It made a change walking along the coast and this is a beautiful spot full of fascinating stories. But would I use Northam Burrows for my project? I don’t think so, at least not based on my visit and it’s worth thinking about why this is. Country Parks were designations given to hundreds of green spaces in or near urban areas in the 1970s, with the intention of giving urban populations easy access to a near-rural environment, leaving them less managed than a formal park but with good access and amenities like car parks and cafes. It would be interesting to know how many other commons are now Country Parks – it seems a logical adaptation. Northam Burrows is owned and maintained by Torridge District Council, and the feeling here is distinctly municipal. Not that this is a problem, but if I’m going to have a municipal common, I want it to be Bristol’s Clifton Downs, for numerous reasons, not least it being up the road from Bristol Uni, where I’ll begin the formal process of my PhD in September.
I visited another common last Wednesday, though didn’t have time to explore it much. Fremington Marsh is further up the estuary, near to Barnstaple. It’s on the Tarka Trail and near to Fremington Quay, once a busy port and now an old station with a café which is a minor tourist hub. Actually, I believe I visited one and saw another which I didn’t visit, because the stretch of access land I walked up to view Fremington Marsh is, perhaps, a separate parcel ‘Part of saltings of the River Taw’. It’s the strand between tideline and sea wall (now starting to decay) above which is farmland, and which leads from the quay up to the tip of the bend, and beyond that (I believe) starts Fremington Marsh. There seemed to be evidence of, perhaps, a lime kiln. A couple of lone men say listening to music on headphones and looking at their phones. It was very much an off-duty place. The Saltings are registered for sheep, as are the Marshes.
I found this spot intriguing. It felt like a hidden corner. There was no signage, no map, no name, no public footpath past where the footpath turns off half way along the strand. The place felt like it had secrets it wanted to hold onto but which, with a bit of coaxing, could be unravelled. It reminded me of one or two of these other hidden spots of common – like Witheridge Moor, or Wick Moor. Places quietly getting on with it.
And this is something worth considering, because it’s where I become personally involved in this project, as a person with their own feelings and a life history. I love a sense of discovery to a place, I love developing my own relationship to it, and to an extent imposing my own interests and needs on it. Northam Burrows, aside from its deeply uncanny central dried-up lagoon, precluded this, partly because it’s so popular, partly because it’s too flat and open to hide anything, and partly because the visitor’s centre lays everything out. I feel like there’s no point in me making a film there because there’s nothing to be discovered that a visit won’t tell you. Its municipality sets the tone; there are expectations about how I am to become involved. In other places – even well-managed places, like Petersham Common or the Pebblebed Heaths – not everything appears knowable, not everything is made easy. It’s possible, even necessary, to apply the imagination.
I’ve recently been watching the TV show Detectorists and read a collection of essays published recently about it (ed. Keighren & Norcup, 2020). The show struck a chord with me, though I wasn’t entirely sure why at the time. Having read the essays, I think I’m starting to see why. The main characters of Detectorists – hobbyist metal detectors, in case that’s not clear –to an extent do exactly what I’m doing. They use a certain amount of basic historical and topographical knowledge, but largely work on impulse, instinct and imagination. As Isla Forsyth argues, they’re not collecting facts, as an archaeologist would, they are collecting stories; their experience is not the objective historian but more like the subjective artist. Of course, these boundaries are not absolute, and are increasingly permeable through phenomenological strategies such as those used by Chris Tilley up at the Pebblebed Heaths some years back.
It strikes me that in the work that I’m engaged in right now, these emotive, impulsive scouting trips I’m blogging about here aren’t just fact-finding for the ‘real’ work; they are intrinsic to the project because they’re very personal. I’m choosing a spread of commons not using the scientific strategy of building a representative sample, but simply because I want to follow my interest and my inclinations, and because after a year cooped up in a house, I’ve a rage to explore and seek out experience. And central to all of this is the imperfect excavation of facts – and so if the facts are laid out neatly in a visitor’s centre, there’s nothing particularly exciting about the process.
I often feel that my filmmaking isn’t particularly professional, is a bit rough and hasty, although behind it is a very considerable amount of thought and knowledge. Likewise, my photography. And yet, out on location, I feel very much a part of my environment; the lens is my point of engagement with a place and all the things to be found within it. Like metal-detecting, my filmmaking is a ‘placemaking’ activity. It sets the terms of engagement with a place and it becomes part of its story. It’s not an exact science but what it produces is no less valuable through being more personal. In fact, it’s just that passionate roughness, that subjectivity, that lets me say and do things that would otherwise be left unsaid and undone. I would not be doing any of this if it wasn’t so personal to me. And so the roughness of my filmmaking is central to my filmmaking. I couldn’t be doing this any other way. It would be missing the point entirely.
Keighren, I. M. & Norcup, J. 2020. Landscapes of Detectorists. Axminster: Uniform Books.