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PeopleSarah Acton

Sarah Acton

‘One of my earliest memories is of a family holiday in Weymouth. The golden sands stretched out to the glitter of dancing waters at low tide, and I remember sitting on the beach asking some tricky questions, receiving explanations of what time is, and tides are. I love being outdoors and near the sea, and feel lucky that my work as a writer sees me roving along the coastline. My partner, Dan, and I moved to Beer ten years ago, and though I’ve swum, sailed, rowed and daydreamed the Dorset and Devon shores for much of my life, I grew up in the landlocked West Midlands. The school I attended in Solihull no longer exists, now a car park, though I float its Victorian corridors in dreams. We all live with ghosts, and much of my work today explores memory as a multi-dimensional space.
Growing up, I carried the Young Naturalist’s Handbook everywhere, identifying wildlife in my notebook and wandering off with my brothers into gardens, fields, copses and suburban-edgelands that hold hours of exploration. Like most writers, I love reading. As a teenager, my friends and I dressed in vintage frills and velvets from Birmingham Rag Market. We’d encourage each other to memorise poems, and copy the most outrageously romantic lines we could find into letters to each other. All those ink-penned letters with ornate drawings; equal weight given to Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Wordsworth and Keats. Looking back, this was an early apprenticeship into language and poetics. It was also competitive, adopting gentle swagger that Taliesin might approve of. Inspired by these poets, and taken often by my parents to storytelling performances at Solihull library theatre, and to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon Avon for school trips, I was writing stories and poetry from a young age.
I studied English and Medieval Studies at Exeter University and remain passionate about Old English and Norse early literature, myth, folk traditions and communal storytelling rooted in place. The performative power and politics of voice in orally transmitted story still holds sway over me.
One summer I finished exams before everyone else and took a dinghy sailing course in Salcombe, then spent four summers teaching sailing there. With friends from the sailing club, when we weren’t sailing, we water-skied or hand-lined mackerel off the back of a borrowed yacht at sunsets. Tall ships sometimes sailed into Salcombe harbour to moor up together, and Breton musicians soundtracked the skies with accordions, belly-laughter and song. I’d stay up all night on deck listening and I fell deeply in love with wooden boats and sea shanties.
During an Erasmus year in Brussels studying European Medieval Studies, a fellow student introduced me to art history. Each week we visited the Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts and immersed ourselves in one painting. By the time we left, the experience of the painting was as real as anything outside the museum.
After university I worked for a year in the rural mountains of Yamagata, Northern Japan. It was a challenge as I didn’t speak Japanese when I arrived, and little when I left, though I understood and could get by, and there was karaoke when all else failed. I wrote for local magazines and papers. When I returned, I trained in law and worked at a shipping firm in London. The Admiralty court had a gravitas and glamour that was interspersed with site visits to container ships wearing a hard hat, but city life wasn’t for me.
I sailed around the world and rounded Capes Horn and Good Hope; after this you become ‘a Cape Horner’. Chay Blyth’s round-the-world race for amateur sailors was known as the world’s toughest because it went the wrong way, against winds and tides. For me, it was about encountering wilderness; elements and seas. The longest of seven legs was 49 days in the Southern ocean. Rules change at sea. Each day is divided into watches and never a break from discipline. We were eighteen crew in two watches and hot-bunking, everything pared down to the absolute minimum, with prolonged periods of being constantly hot and sweaty, or cold and damp. I’ve never been so physically exhausted before or since, you have to dig deep to manage each step or task.
There were hours sat on the rails with our legs over the side, spray breaking over us, weighed down in weather gear, and clipped to the boat with a harness for survival. The endless motion, the roll of the vast and deep sea, the grey Southern Ocean, the soaring albatross and tiny birds blown off course, were all part of waking-life as much as the slipping in and out of liminal dreaming. There was a strong sense of joint endeavour as we were racing, but how to endure periods of extreme isolation and stress…how does anyone deal with this? I began to repeat to myself all of the things that I valued in life, named everything I hoped to do in the world. I returned with urgency to make my way as a jobbing writer.
Moving to Bristol after the race, I joined an online course in professional writing at Falmouth University to learn the tools of the trade, and from this time was writing, curating, and running events. I also helped The Cube Microplex to purchase their building premises from the landlord. It feels good to know that this is now a protected arts space, come what may. The Cube was a vibrant arts community, and it was exciting to be part of playful collaborations, experimental happenings and fun. I met Dan at the Cube and we fell in love. Surrounded by artists, I realised that a writer doesn’t need to be one thing.
I started gig rowing in Bristol, and have since taken part in three world championships in the Isles of Scilly including two for the Lyme Regis Gig Club. I haven’t rowed much since Covid, but I love the metronome-rhythm of oars-in together.
When we moved to Beer I focused on writing and arts projects with and for communities for nature connection and wellbeing. I ran workshops, retreats and events as Black Ven Poet (Black Ven is a cliff near Lyme), and received commissions from Dorset AONB and Stepping into Nature, local museums and libraries. Wild Writing was a commission from Activate Performing Arts that also helped me through lockdown, while other projects for communities include: Museum at Home for Lyme Regis Museum, Environment and Me for People First Dorset, Talking Tent for Dorset AONB and Seasons of Stories books and podcasts available from Libraries BorrowBox.
Following a writing residency at Portland Museum in 2019, I facilitated discussion cafes there for four years to share stories of former quarrymen, and recorded our conversations. I’ve learned by listening that continuity, dialect and folk tradition shapes collective identity, and that memory is connected to place.
Using verbatim scripts from these recordings and island folklore, I wrote a community play, Heart of Stone, performed outdoors by the Portland Players at b-side festival, then toured across Dorset with funding from the Arts Council England. The Portland Players are now making new work, which makes me very proud. I’m part of their next community play inspired by Shakespeare’s Tempest, co-writing an outdoor play to be performed in September.
Heart of Stone has had ripple effects and continues to grow. Our oral history legacy now includes a film by Rob Jayne and podcasts by Tom Hughes capturing and celebrating the quarrymen conversations. These will be launched at an event at Royal Manor Theatre on 24th March with free screenings, then archived at Portland Museum and the Dorset History Centre.
In a similar way, my book recently published by Little Toller, Seining Along Chesil, celebrates traditions of Dorset fishing communities and seining families, with oral histories and stories gathered at events and interviews. The book tour is currently on the road to keep the conversations going and trigger more shared memories, but it also means I spend more time on and near Chesil beach, where I take time out to walk the Fleet while enjoying community engagement. The work keeps growing. By remembering the past together, we shape the future.
Meanwhile I’m planning to write a solo performance later this year based on memory and place, called Bard by Nature. After a recent Masters at Dartington Arts School, I’m exploring traditional storytelling techniques and oral memory to deepen connection to mythology and landscape in my writing. In this and all projects, I record, celebrate, reflect, reimagine, remember, and provoke change-making. The time is now, to make together and spark hope.’

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