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PeopleMartin Maudsley

Martin Maudsley

‘My grandparents were farmers on the Fylde peninsula of Lancashire, between Preston and Blackpool. They eventually retired to a tied cottage on the farm, which meant my grandfather lived, worked, and died on the same patch of land. As a boy it was wonderful to have access to both the land and their tapestry of stories: embroidered tales of farming, folklore and country life. It was a treasure trove I managed to capture on tape before they died, and formed one of my first storytelling performance pieces, called Old Tom’s Tales.
I was brought up on the outskirts of the town—now city—of Preston, but many of my early recollections are of the countryside. At weekends I’d explore the fields beyond my street and holidays were either spent with my grandparents, including haymaking in the summer, or in Cornwall where my uncle and aunt also had a farm. So perhaps it’s no surprise that I grew up with a fascination for the natural world and a connection to rural life. With such childhood passions, I went on to study ecology the University of East Anglia in Norwich. It was quite a new course in those days, with lots of outdoor based learning, and I was fortunate to be taught by some leading lights in the field. Insects became a specialist interest and I stayed on to do a PhD in farmland entomology, before moving to Bristol for a post-doc at Long Ashton Research Station, which also incorporated the Cider Research Institute. My research focus was on the ecology of hedgerow management, but I was becoming aware of the cultural, as well as biological, importance of farmland habitats —including orchards, which have become a big part of my life in Dorset.
I remember groups of school children sometimes visiting the research station, and no-one else wanted to show them round. But I enjoyed doing it, and the challenge of explaining scientific subjects in terms they’d find exciting and memorable. I once used the Little Red Riding story to describe beneficial beetles as predators of crop pests, with their adaptations like the big bad wolf—‘big eyes, all the better to see with, long legs, all the better to run with, huge jaws, all the better to eat with’.
After Long Ashton I took up a post at a newly opened science museum called At-Bristol, which included an interactive natural history exhibition set up by Chris Parsons, the producer of Life on Earth with David Attenborough. The job helped develop my environmental education skills in general, but also gave me an opportunity to use storytelling as a means of communicating ideas about the natural world. I soon found stories were a natural way to engage with people, allowing emotion, imagination and improvisation to be part of the experience. After a year, I embarked on a freelance career as an environmental storyteller, discovering to my amazement and great joy that there were literally hundreds—thousands—of folktales and myths to draw on, accrued from our deep-rooted relationship with the natural world. As an oral tradition, storytelling perhaps provided an effective way to pass on vital information within families and communities before the written word. Despite the myriad ways we now use to communicate, people still have a natural inclination towards stories told by word of mouth.
Part of what I hope to do through storytelling is increase awareness about how nature affects all aspects of our lives, including food and drink. I often perform in orchards at May Day, Apple Day and winter wassails where I try, through traditional stories and customs, to connect people with the changing seasons and local landscapes. I love wassailing and everything it represents. It takes place outdoors in January, traditionally on Old Twelfth Night, and revels in the dark, cold stillness of winter, rather than the artificial warmth and lights of Christmas. People gather in the orchard around dusk, often with a fire and a glass of cider, to bring good cheer to each other, but also to acknowledge and give thanks to the land itself. We tell stories and sing wassailing songs, and then everyone then makes as much noise as possible, yelling and banging saucepans or whatever comes to hand, to drive away bad spirits. Finally, we offer a toast to the trees with a generous libation of cider, wishing them ‘waes hael’—good health. I think there’s a real appetite for wassailing today, a chance to come together as a community with good intention and give something back; it’s all about reciprocity. Leading the Bridport community orchard wassail was a lovely introduction for me to perform and play a role locally when I first arrived here, and I’ve done it ever since, as well as at commercial cider orchards such as Dorset Nectar.
I’m also interested in singing folk songs and play in a local band called the Woodlanders, a name which of course roots us in Hardy’s Dorset. Many of the old songs hold the cycle of the agricultural year beautifully, in terms of the plants and animals (there’s lots of songs about skylarks and cuckoos!) and the seasonally specific tasks of working the land. As with storytelling, there’s no lack of interest in folk songs because they still resonate, they still conjure something meaningful. We often sing in the Woodman Inn, my local, which has become a hub in the community for music and spoken word, where the singing is often spontaneous, inclusive and whole-hearted. We also perform a Christmas Mummers’ play there, which I wrote in 2018, with the characters based on Bridport pubs, plus a cameo from the Cerne Abbas giant. There’s something about folk performances in pubs, which is different to theatre. During the telling of a story or the singing of a song, a temporary community is formed—it’s a kind of magic.
When I arrived in Bridport I quickly fell in love with the local landscape, and all its evocative place names: the Grey Mare and her Colts, the Hellstone, the Singing Barrows. I met with Tom Munro from the Dorset AONB, and initially became involved with their South Dorset Ridgeway Project. As part of that I was commissioned to create a storytelling programme which I call “re-storying the landscape”. Using local folklore and fragments of folktales, I worked with both adults and children to reimagine local legends, incorporating our direct sensory and emotional experiences of the landscape. For instance, the Valley of the Stones, in the Bride Valley, is said to have been formed by two feuding giants. When I took a group of school children there to looking at the scattered stones on the hillside, we had great fun imagining the giants hurling boulders at one another. From there it was easy to re-piece the rest of the narrative jigsaw; why they were fighting, who won the battle. We even found a pointy stone that looks like a giant’s nose, all that’s left after the loser was buried beneath the ground! That’s become a big part of my professional passion these days—connecting people with place, through stories and storytelling.
I also work with Common Ground, a well-loved Dorset environmental arts organisation, as their storyteller in residence. Together with its director Adrian Cooper we conceived an idea to raise awareness, particularly in schools, of the importance of the changing seasons and how they affect and enrich every part of our lives. I began collecting folklore and stories which highlight each moment of the seasons (there are many more than four!), and that became the inspiration for a book I’ve recently had published called Telling the Seasons: Stories, Folklore and Celebrations around the Year. At the end of each month-by-month chapter, there’s a section headed Old Roots, New Shoots, giving ideas and inspiration for instigating new seasonal celebrations. I’m hoping it might encourage people to be more aware of their own neighbourhoods and nearby nature, echoing Common Ground’s vision for championing ‘local distinctiveness’. Perhaps, by taking note of changes in our own patch, we can also begin to understand and take action on wider environmental issues.
Twenty years ago, my partner Ruth and I met in Bristol. Our children, Orran and Annie, were born there, but with my personal and professional interests in landscape storytelling projects, I hoped to make the countryside my natural habitat. So, we moved to Bridport before the children started school, 10 years ago now, and it’s proved to be a wonderfully wild place to bring them up. It’s a bit of a cliché perhaps, but despite having lived in Lancashire, East Anglia and the city of Bristol, moving to Bridport felt like coming home.’

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