The Watching Place

Beetor cross

This is Beetor Cross on Dartmoor. It’s on the B3212 that crosses the moor from Moretonhampstead to Yelverton. It’s also known as The Watching Place, and there are several stories in circulation as to why this might be the case.

The first is that it was the haunt of a highwayman called John Fall, whose speciality was leaping out at his victims and taking them by surprise. Then there’s the theory that it marked the point beyond which French and American officers on parole from Dartmoor prison during the Napoleonic wars and living in Moretonhampstead were not permitted to proceed. Or that in mediaeval times it was the site of the gallows, where relatives or friends of the condemned person would watch and wait for permission from the Lord of the Manor to cut down the corpse.

My favourite story is that the name dates back to an outbreak of plague in 1626, which was spread by soldiers and sailors travelling between Barnstaple and Plymouth via the Mariner’s Way. Some of the inhabitants of a settlement called Puddaven, near Beetor Cross, were afflicted, and as they were no longer able to care for themselves, every evening neighbours placed provisions for them on a flattish stone at some distance from the house. They would then retreat to wait and watch. If the food was removed, fresh supplies would be left the following day. On the fifth day no one came and the food stayed where it was, so the neighbours understood that the last survivor had died. So, having approached the house, with no response to their shouts, the neighbours set fire to the thatch and burnt it down in the hope that this would stop the plague spreading further. From this time, it is said, the area became known as the Watching Place.

Something about this old story, the solidarity shown by neighbours during a time of great fear and uncertainty, lifted it above its rivals and prompted me to start writing a story of my own. As part of my research, I read all the folklore I could connected with the moor, and found several other stories associated with outbreaks of plague.

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Notably, there was the story told about Merrivale by the celebrated chronicler of Dartmoor, William Crossing, who recalls that the area of Bronze Age relics on Longash Common was once known as Plague Market, the tradition being that during outbreaks of plague at Tavistock, food would be left there by moor folk for townspeople to collect.

houndtor

And another that attaches itself to sites all over the country, but on Dartmoor to the ruins below Hound Tor: that the mediaeval village was abandoned during the Black Death. I visited and was moved not just by the deaths of the villagers but by the detail of their lives also, such as the fact they built their houses into the side of a hill, with livestock housed in the shippon at the lower end, and a gully cut to drain the slurry, and the step leading up into the cramped communal sleeping chamber.

And I read and wrote, and wrote and read, and after seven years there was a coming-of-age novel, and after a few more years, during which it sat on my laptop while I wrote poetry, and won a prize to have a collection published, it finally emerged into a largely oblivious world under my publishers’ Tamar Books imprint.

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I picked up a copy the other day and read the back. Swine flu … avian flu … SARS … We are frequently warned of imminent, drug-resistant pandemics. But what is it really like to wait for the end of the world? Then I opened it and flicked through. Social distancing. Self-isolation. It’s all in there, centuries before these practices were formally identified and their names coined.

There’s even a scene involving frenetic hand washing, though no emphasis on that as a way of avoiding infection, because my characters, stuck in 1349, wouldn’t have known that. And besides it’s fleas they should mostly have been avoiding.

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Every day on Twitter there are countless stories of selflessness, bravery and idiocy surrounding Covid-19, and I’m reminded again and again that while pandemics come and go, and technology and medical treatments improve, people are essentially the same as they’ve always been. We’re all in the Watching Place now, and I feel a renewed closeness to characters that were such a big part of my life for so long.

If you’d like to read an extract of ‘Dart’, please click on this link.

Cover illustration and map by Dru Marland

 

This blog was first published on The Red Dress of Poetry.

 

 

 

Making something of the situation

Poets are natural hoarders. They understand the importance of memories to the process of writing, and stockpile them for when a future poem might demand the inclusion of, say, a complicit glance, an unexpected gift, or the fall of sunlight through a woodland glade thirty years earlier.

The restrictions placed upon outdoor activity by COVID-19 means that everyone will now be ransacking their reserves, falling back on memories of loved ones, favourite walks and landscapes, past holidays in distant places, to get through these lean times.

And once we’ve exhausted the highlights, it will be the mundane that sustains us. The memory of a bottle of glue in a Christmas stocking, the luxury of using it for sticking pictures in your scrapbook. Carefully stabbing open the slit on the red rubber top with the sharp point of a pair of scissors. Turning it upside down and dabbing it hard on a bit of paper to get the glue flowing. And when it was all used up, the disappointment of going back to the gloop of your mother’s homemade flour and water paste – its squidginess between the stuck down picture and the page, the inevitable damp wrinkles, the speed with which it congealed in its jam jar.

We all have the wherewithal to get through this time. It starts between our ears. It turns into words on a page, a drawing filling a blank piece of paper, the rise and fall of notes on suddenly cleaner, quieter air. Don’t say you can’t make something of this situation. You can.

A Perfect Circle

A Perfect Circle is from Deborah’s fourth poetry collection, The Shadow Factory. More poems from this collection can be read here on the Indigo Dreams website.

This blog was first published on The Red Dress of Poetry.

 

Writing Group Vacancies

 

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We still have a few vacancies in our new poetry writing group, the first meeting of which will be on Friday 22nd November 2019, from 10.00am – 1.00pm, upstairs in the Music Room of Bristol Folk House, 40a Park Street, Bristol, BS1 5JG.

The group will take place on the penultimate Friday of every month (bar October 2020), same time and venue, and the cost is £10 per session.

Dates booked for the first twelve months are as follows: 22nd November and 20th December 2019, and 24th January, 21st February, 20th March, 17th April, 22nd May, 19th June,  24th July, 21st August, 18th September, 16th October, and 20th November 2020.

We don’t require people attending to be at a specific level of expertise, although very inexperienced poets might be asked to submit a sample of their writing when they apply to join the group. What we do need from you is a willingness to improve, to write and read poetry widely, and to work towards getting your poems published.

If you’re interested and would like a further details, please contact us at admin@theleapingword.com.

 

‘Memory is my editor’

The question and answer session following the recent reading by Alice Oswald at the Bristol Poetry Institute, during which she read from memory for the best part of an hour, provided inspiration for a recent Friday morning poetry group homework assignment.

When asked how much the poem is shaped by the effort of memorising it, Oswald answered that her memory is her editor, adding that if she finds she can’t memorise a section, she abandons it.

Colin’s challenge, therefore, was this:

Write a poem and memorise it as you go. As you go through the process of memorising your poem, listen to yourselves speaking the poem and assess how it feels. If the rhythm feels wrong, change it; if there’s a word or phrase or verse that doesn’t feel quite right, change it. If there’s a part of the poem you’re having trouble memorising, cut that part and write something you can memorise. 

When you bring your poem to the group, make copies for everyone as usual … but you’re going to be speaking the poem by heart, without benefit or distraction of a written copy. If you do forget a word or a line on the day, be prepared to improvise a line – don’t panic, get hung up, stop or give up. Don’t be nervous or intimidated; it’s only a workshop with supportive friends. 

It’s the process itself that’s important. It’s something to try.

Your poem must be at least 12 lines long.

Initially, I felt this assignment was going to be easy. Although I’ve never had the self-assurance to stand up and speak my poems from memory, I read them aloud so often in their almost-finished state that I do effectively learn them by heart, and I felt sure I could handle the assignment. The reality, however, was different. What I hadn’t taken into account was that I would be memorising from a far earlier point in the poem’s creation, and because it was still in a state of flux, I was effectively commiting consecutive drafts to memory. Again and again, I would fall back on something I’d changed at a much earlier stage and change it back, or stumble over the perfect combination of words I’d finally settled on, only to discover that according to my new editor, they weren’t that successful after all. But what I was left with was defnitely different from what would have been the finished poem, had I started reading it aloud at a later stage.

The other drawback I discovered is that the memory – or rather, the sneaky, hooded-and-cloaked brain behind it – tends to be an unreliable editor. Several times mine would substitute what I’d written for something rather more predictable and dull. Cliché really does trip more readily to the tongue.

On the day, before the scrutiny of my suddenly-rather-more-scary-than-usual peers, I managed to dredge up my poem with only one minor stumble, which was pleasing, but I don’t think I’ll be in a hurry to do it again, and I certainly won’t be rising to the challenge of doing a public reading from memory. Alice Oswald is a consummate poet and performer, with a background in drama, and she has acquired specific skills over years to pull off her prodigious feats. I find that remembering to assume my poetry reading persona (which is slightly different from the poetry-writing me), and to drop my voice a little, and engage with the audience, and make it sound as if I’m talking with them rather than reading at them, is quite enough to hold in my head at once, so I’ll definitely still be turning up at readings, clutching my file of poems to my ever so slightly nervously beating heart.

acoustic night