This article is from the Dartmoor Magazine, issue 149, Spring 2023
Creative responses to Dartmoor through poetry, artwork and images
Unearthing Dartmoor is a two year project involving poets and artists working together in creative collaboration on Dartmoor. Members of Moor Poets, a group supporting local poetry writers, joined with members of Markmakers, a working group of local artists, to creatively reflect on our experiences of Dartmoor, and in response to one another’s work. During this time, despite Covid-19 restrictions, our group participants met frequently outdoors at a number of moorland sites. The project has created a large body of poetry and artwork including prints and photos, and published a beautiful anthology of poetry with artwork, called ‘Unearthing Dartmoor’. The culmination of this project will be a public exhibition held at the DNPA’s Visitor Centre at Princetown running from 1st July to 29th September 2023.
Moor Poets is a creative community group celebrating 20 years of encouraging and promoting local poets and poetry in and around Dartmoor since being set up in 2003 with a Tarka Country Millennium Grant. It runs regular poetry writing, editing and performance workshops led by experienced poets, and has published several poetry anthologies of members’ work. Markmakers is an established south Devon-based group of artists, photographers and print-makers who exhibit widely, set up by artist Anne Pirie.
Our two groups previously collaborated in 2019, meeting up at a number of Dartmoor sites to find inspiration for poetry and art together, as well as working in moorland village halls where we shared and responded to each other’s work. This process culminated in a successful exhibition entitled ‘Responses’ held in November 2019 at Birdwood House, Totnes, with large printed lines of poetry interweaving and interacting with artwork on the walls, linking responses between poets, artists and places on Dartmoor. The public response to the exhibition was exceptionally positive and our group was excited by the work we had produced, so we decided to carry on our collaboration.
We recommenced in spring 2021 determined not to be stopped by Covid-19 restrictions, but as we could not work together inside in village halls, we moved to working online. This was a steep learning curve for many of our group, but ultimately positive as we have managed to stay connected and creatively active with 33 poets and artists in total involved in the project. We brought in a professional trainer for online zoom training sessions for participants, and since then most group meetings and creative workshops have run online. We also decided to hold as many working sessions as possible outside, in the plein air tradition, with notebooks, sketchbooks and cameras, in all weathers and seasons. As restrictions eased, some of us were comfortable to meet in village halls again, but other were still not able to do this.
We immediately began visiting different parts of Dartmoor again, meeting regularly for writing and artistic inspiration, particularly Emsworthy, Merrivale, Holne Moor, Bench Tor, White Wood and the Dart Valley. We then ranged more widely to include Foggintor, HMP Dartmoor in Princetown, White Rock at Sticklepath, and some of the old Methodist chapels scattered around the moor. As we spent more time delving deeper, we expressed our experiences through painting, sketches, etching, prints, photographs and poetry. Some poets found themselves sketching and painting, and some artists produced poems! We found so many aspects to consider, including Dartmoor’s geology, archaeology, botany, wildlife, farming and farmed animals, history, pre-history and myth, as well as modern life and work across the moors, and especially the ever-changing light and weather conditions.
Over the past two years we have laughed and picnicked together, been drenched by relentless rain and enjoyed many warm sunny days. We have witnessed the birth of a foal, heard many cuckoos, met wild campers, stood silently among ancient menhirs, stone circles and burial cairns, walked the lengths of double and triple stone rows, and followed mediaeval leats (human-hewn water courses running along land contours.) We’ve traced Bronze Age reave field systems on Holne Moor that demarcate some of the earliest enclosures of farmland in Europe; we’ve sat within the ruins of a 13th century farming village at the Hut Holes; we have heard about the challenges of traditional upland farming and the rewards of meadow rewilding, and we’ve seen flocks of migratory and other birds leaving and returning.
Some of our members were extremely knowledgeable about many aspects of the moors, and this shared knowledge was supplemented by visits from experts including the wonderful Dartmoor National Park archaeologist and raconteur, Lee Bray; Sue Goodfellow, botanist and ex-head of Conservation at the Dartmoor National Park Authority, opened to us some of the botanical treasures in Emsworthy Mire; and Norman Cowling of the Dartmoor Preservation Association showed us around the fields and lanes of Dockwell Farm at Widecombe-in-the-Moor, where he is rewilding hay meadows, gloriously full of orchids. We are extremely grateful to these experts for so generously sharing their time, knowledge and enthusiasm with us.
The project name – Unearthing Dartmoor – emerged from the project’s varied and deeply satisfying enquiries and interactions. It has culminated in some very good friendships and a large body of artwork, prints, photographs and poetry chronicling and reflecting different dimensions of Dartmoor. This treasure-trove of poetry and art will be on public exhibition between Saturday 1st July 2023 and 29th September 2023, at the Dartmoor National Park Authority’s Visitor Centre at Princetown. Entrance is free and the exhibition offers enjoyment and inspiration to Dartmoor’s locals and many visitors alike. The Launch event for this exhibition will be held on Saturday 1st July at 3pm and all are warmly welcome to attend.
A more permanent record of our project is in the form of the beautiful high quality colour anthology of our poetry and artwork called Unearthing Dartmoor, and some of the poetry and images from this are displayed alongside this article. We are very lucky to have an experienced book editor, Alwyn Marriage, and book designer, Avenda Burnell-Walsh, to help produce this. We are very grateful to the Duchy of Cornwall and Moor Poets for supporting the project with grants, and for the DNPA’s support through providing the exhibition venue at the National Park Visitor Centre in Princetown.
Unearthing Dartmoor will be on sale for £15 at the exhibition in the Princetown Visitor Centre from 1 July until 29 September 2023.
It is also available by mail order for £20 (including £5 for packing and delivery) from Jane Ellis, tel 07818 454375, email: email@example.com.
A video presentation about Unearthing Dartmoor is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiVnCZyEtAQ
For details of artwork and the exhibition, see Markmakers’ project website: https://markmakers.avenda.uk/