The Giant Sleep

Posted on July 4, 2012 by admin

In North Devon, Beaford, Great Torrington on 4 July, 2012

Last time I was down in this neck of the woods was almost precisely 6 years ago, for a debaucherous week long party in a derelict hotel in Bude (on the North Devon coast/West boundary of the biosphere), owned by a friend of mine’s uncle. Forty of us happily crammed in and temporarily repossessed the property, bedding up in old hotel rooms on the 1st and 2nd floor, and sprawling out in the dining room and hotel bar with a tiny stage for very small scale burlesque cabarets in post war England. We spent most of our time lying around on the beach, lying around not on the beach, and freaking each other out in the enormous horror-filmesque meat-hook-adorned walk-in refrigerator in the old commercial kitchen.

Another 4 years before that, I spent a school trip in Ilfracombe (in the North part of the biosphere) and on Lundy Island (just off the coast). My lasting memories are of lying around on a windy island, and lying about having seen a Basking shark to irritate my friends.

The area I’ve been exploring these last days is sort of the 4th corner of the completed square connecting these visited places, and into the dark heart of the biosphere. I’ve been lying around a lot less than my previous experience of North Devon activities had misled me to believe.

The North Devon Biosphere is centred on a large sand dune system at the shared estuary of two rivers, the Taw and the Torridge. This dune system, and the areas of coastline on either side of it were declared an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1959. During the 1970s, once the area had become established, it was understood that for any effort to conserve this AONB to be successful, a larger zone than the AONB itself would need to be considered. With the dune system at the heart of the region directly affected by its two contributing rivers, these rivers would need to be managed also. Fortunately the majority of people living in this catchment area already knew what they were doing[1], and the AONB was doing AOK. In 2002 the North Devon Biosphere Reserve, the first in the UK, was officially ‘decreed’ by UNESCO as the broad catchment area of the rivers Taw and Torridge. So, you see, instead of lying around as my Devon habitudes had led me to expect, I’ve been spending my time cycling up and down the Torridge, as the Torridge is sort of important in the big ol’ grand scheme of this Biosphere thing.

Crossing a bridge over this very river, I spied a discreet sign explaining that this ere stretch o river was where Tarka the Otter was born! How exciting. The Giants appear to be as gimmick savvy as the local business owners, as it was here that I caught a glimpse of their foliage-furrowed brows and ferny features: two of them having a little chinwag on one side of the river, and the other one looking forlornly over at them, all lonesome like[2]. It seems the less than usual weather we’ve been having ages some giants more than others, as the lonely giant appears to be growing a rather delightful green flesh, while the two conspirators have been cruelly stripped of the majority of their vegetation and left displaying more of their willow withy wrinkles. They are lovely though, leafy or nay, and beautifully subtle.

In comparison to the past year that I’ve spent living in a lively little house in a small city packed with people that I know, these last days have been something of a (not necessarily unwelcome) social cold turkey[3]. Lonely like the verdant giant, I’ve been forced to do some talking to other people. So I start with the man at Torrington Cycle Hire, the site of the Giants’ birth, opposite the Puffing Billy[4]. It seems to be a suitable community, with people coming and going for a chat and a cup of tea. The man in charge has been keeping an eye on the Giants’ progress, too, suggesting that an ‘uncharacteristic’ 5 days of sun in May could have led to the interesting variable Giant growth patterns.

My next conversational partners were Mark Wallace[5] and Beth May at Beaford Arts – part of the conglomeration of different teams involved in the biosphere partnership that runs what goes on how and when. Its claim to fame is as the oldest rural arts centre in England, supporting “Extraordinary events in unexpected places”. Thus I’m not particularly surprised to see them involved in the Giants’ project.

Other works supported by Beaford Arts include a promenade production along the Tarka Trail of Don Quixote, but with actors (and audience) all on bicycles. For them, the Giants are a link between Man and the Environment, both in their construction method and their hybrid form. But as well as reinforcing the biosphere link between a community and its habit, it also links the three biospheres in the three nations of Great Britain. They form a temporary celebration, a spine along the West coast of the biggest island in Europe.

As a centre, it seems Beaford embodies the biospherical ethos within a trident-like manifesto: events (music, theatre, comedy etc) which take place all over their North Devon ‘stage’; education, through residential art schools housed at the centre, where the links between communities, art and the environment are explored (natural pigment workshops, activities in the landscape and rural community, and using that landscape and community); and archiving, predominantly based around the 80,000 images produced during a 17 year anthropological photographic documentation of the North Devon area, based in Beaford[6]. Through these core activities, the Beaford Arts centre helps continue a long and proud North Devonshire culture, linking three centuries worth of cultivation and maintenance of the land with the people and traditions that go with it.

The giant question is: how are the local community interacting with their temporary big neighbours? Using thorough scientific method, I conducted a straw poll amongst people who I passed on my travels, asking a number of deeply probing question: Has rumour spread to them of the mythic arrival of the Giants? Have they seen them themselves? And what do they think their presence means?

My rigorous population sample included:

6 walking tourists
7 cycling tourists
3 cycling non-tourists
3 dog walkers
5 dogs
1 ice-cream van proprieter
1 barmaid

The general consensus was that a fair number of locals knew about them, but the tourists had no idea at all about what I was talking about.

Everyone seemed to have trouble seeing them if they hadn’t suspected that they were there to be looked for, their subtlety and incorporation into the environment perhaps laying too strong a camouflage for the uninformed eye. Of all these micro-communities the dog walkers were the most perceptive. The dogs appeared to have trouble seeing them – they kept their heads down, presumably in an effort to stay out of trouble with the local crime network.

Those who saw them understood the link, between man and environment, man and beast. They told me about otters, and herons, and eels. They talked about how the Giants got there, and about how they’d changed since their arrival. The citizens were still, in general, blissfully ignorant of the recent arrival of these Giants. But those who knew, knew. The Giants still have time to work their magic, to evolve and hint.

After all this legwork, and time seeing men about their dogs, I made one last call for the day, following a lead the Beaford Boys had left me. Sitting under the grey drizzle on an abandoned train car in a forest, I spoke to The Facilitator, the Mafiosi-style fixer for the Giants in the area. A pretty Big Dog, I’d gathered. As a Director of the North Devon biosphere foundation local kingpin, she stressed the importance to her of the link between the three biosphere famiglia extending their tentacles over the UK. I eventually realised the extent of this thing, the sort of racket I’d become caught up in. A small-town cycling sleuth propelled out of his home, and dealing with Giant environmental heavies. Out of his home, and perhaps out of his depth.

The rain strengthened.

The whole thing with these Giants, it’s bigger than I’d previously thought: they’ve wrestled control of most of the Western Seaboard of Great Britain, with the aid of people sitting in positions of power. But I see their game. They’re the figureheads of a cunning community cartel, subliminally pushing sustainable environmental development onto the masses. This should not be kept quiet, hushed. I cannot remain silent like a man in fashionable concrete shoes, silent like the horse whose head lies on the pillow. The secret truth must come out, of how these mythic Giants plan to encourage further interaction and understanding between man and his natural environs.

The task is daunting, to say the least, but a man’s got to start somewhere.

I took a slug of cheap bourbon, and shuddered at the lack of awareness the majority of people had of the impending situation. I shuddered again, this time from the cheap bourbon.

I remember what my grandpappy once said to me in times like these: “You gotta like your Giants like you like your women – willowy”.

[1] See lesson 1 on the basic criteria of becoming a fully certified Biosphere Reserve.
[2] Apparently they were named Nick, Dave, and Ed, by the satirically-minded giant-hoisting tree surgeons.
[3] My rate of bad pun production has consequently slowed to a sombre trickle, which is definitely a worrying sign. I think I may be ill.
[4] Less illegal than it sounds, the Puffing Billy is a pub with a steam engine outside sitting on the old clay transporting railway tracks of the Tarka Trail.
[5] It turns out Mark should be writing for Life in the Clare Colonies too, as he was uncovered to be a Clare alumnus from the 80s!
[6] I hope to get some of these images, taken by James Ravilious, online soon. They show the maintenance of a traditional culture, while at the same time the community was on the cusp of technological change. While the agricultural land usage in the area is roughly the same as it was 150 years ago, the number of people employed working that land has reduced by 80% in that same time.

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