Hefted is a new play by David Lane, developed in partnership with Beaford. A story in nine scenes, hurtling through 600 years of life in the dynamic landscape of North Devon and beyond into the near future, it was inspired by Beaford’s oral history collection and work with local schools and communities. Here David shares some of the vital research findings that informed this epic new play for the region.
I’m sitting in a cottage in the tiny village of Lee on the coast of North Devon, on a freezing cold but beautifully clear morning in November 2017. With me is Beaford’s Oral Historian, Malcolm, and across the table from us – past the carefully prepared collection of old maps, reference books and newspaper cuttings – is Colonel Bob Gilliat, ex-warden of Lundy Island.
Over the course of a few hours he shares his recollections. He remembers how the swans only flew over Lundy when there was a funeral, and how the small community of inhabitants learned to work together within the island’s limitations. He chuckles at being asked by visitors what there was to do on Lundy, and the pride he always took in his answer: ‘nothing – that’s the beauty of it’.
I was mesmerised. Over the next four months of my playwriting research, which would ultimately lead to the writing of Hefted, these deep connections and contradictions between nature, humans and landscape, past present and future in North Devon, were echoed again and again. I saw a repeated theme emerging: North Devon and its inhabitants – whether nine or ninety, natives or incomers, farmers or teachers – were inseparable from the landscape.
I came across the word ‘hefted’ during an oral history interview in Exbourne with a woman in her eighties, who used it to describe her relationship to the village. She was brought up on a farm around half a mile from the village centre. The ancient practice of hefting sheep – or ‘learing’ as it would be better known in North Devon – involves generations of ewes and their offspring learning the natural boundaries of their habitat. Incredibly the sheep can not only recognise this habitat, but also physically and even genetically change to live more effectively within it. The metaphor this interviewee found to describe her relationship to Exbourne took direct inspiration from nature. She made sense of her own experience by transforming my understanding of what she was trying to communicate: that she was almost umbilically connected to her immediate environment.
During my research, I also became interested in how time was experienced in North Devon. Andy Bell, UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve Coordinator, talked about the route you can take through Braunton Burrows as ‘literally walking through time’ as you track nature’s inevitable evolutionary march from colonising plants in the sand to rich woodland. On a more domestic level, the farming families I spoke to described the structure of the normal farming day in the 50s, 60s and 70s around set mealtimes, and the farming year around established necessary routines and rituals.Then there were the anomalies of time – a farmer’s wife in King’s Nympton remembers double-summertime-hours being introduced during World War II. Confusion was wrought among the poultry of her farm, awoken an hour early by the cockerel in the dark which then attracted the fox (who was still awake instead of safely asleep) and then slaughtered them: a vivid warning against messing with nature’s clock. North Devon was repeatedly referred to by both natives and incomers as an anachronism: the land that time forgot; the forgotten land between the moors; that there were farmsteads in the depths of the countryside one might still stumble across that had escaped the progress of time.
There is also a sense of exceptional endurance in North Devon. From the sheer work-rate of farmers in all weathers, to the determination of those who’ve shaped the landscape to serve human progress (and those who’ve sought to prevent it, in favour of preserving the landscape), there is a sense of determination, rigour and inventiveness. A ninety-three year-old ex-farmer scoffed at the very idea of having taken holidays in his youth. A smallholder near High Bickington tries to capture for me the indescribable sleep-deprivation of lambing season, when life-and-death stakes rest on a couple of hours’ rest a night for a month. North Devonians do not give up. This spirit of survival has permeated Hefted to its core – it’s a story of how the people have endured alongside the landscape – but it had to be pitted alongside a question that kept cropping up for the entire four months: if you’re born here, do you stay or do you leave? That ongoing tension is one of the driving forces behind the play.
What I’d hope audiences get from Hefted is a chance to experience where they live in a new way that is familiar and celebratory and surprising – and a little provocative too. To have their beautiful and mysterious landscape, its history and its future reflected back at them with a sense of theatrical adventure, mythology and magic. This is what Ravilious and Deakins opened up for me with their incredible images.