PICTURE a spool of artists, historians and performers . . . curious types, retired individuals, schoolchildren and students, a community cross-section joining forces to revive the stories and experiences of a feat of Bru-nel engineering, living, breathing and preserving its unique history.
Weave these threads together and what have you got? The promise of an exciting, carnivalesque spectacle filled with music, dance, theatre and the sound of people past, leaving a lasting local legacy.
This is the vision of the Whiteball Tunnel community play project – projected to run as five shows in November, 2014, and it needs your help to get it off the ground.
The Taunton-based Actiontrack performance company, and Wellington creatives Forkbeard Fantasy and Take Art, are teaming up with local historians Richard Fox, Denis Dodd and Amyas Crump for the king-sized project.
They’re hooking it on three specific tales surrounding the Whiteball tunnel, which runs under the Blackdown Hills to Wellington Bank.
The first story is of the tunnel’s construction in the 1840s; Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s challenge to build one of the longest railways tunnels, and in sandstone.
The second is the incredible human story of a community of 1,000 navvies enlisted to do the hard graft of building the tunnel.
Speaking to the County Gazette, Actiontrack artistic director Nick Brace said: “The navvies who were, more often than not, migrant workers from Ireland built a village, essentially, outside Sampford Arundel.
“The lion’s share came looking for work, started on the canals and then transferred to the railways.
“The Whiteball Tunnel was built by 1,000 navvies who turned up and in a relatively short amount of time set up a shanty town-type village between Sampford Arundel and where the tunnel starts. That’s 1,000 people turning up on your doorstep.
“The stories Richard Fox has about these men, women and children, and the manner in which they lived and worked, are fascinating – the desperate conditions they worked in, the 12-hour shifts, the competition to complete really high-level technology, and this was in the mid-1800s, using shovels, picks and bits of wood.
“There’s a domestic structure which involves relatively few women – we’re talking one woman per dozen men – with some children born during the programme.
“We know little about how the children were treated, though we do know the boys were expected to work with the horses and the girls as domestic assistants.
“It was an extremely hard life for all these people who were worked to the absolute maximum.
“As far as I know, the only place this story has been written down is in the Sampford Arundel Parish News.”
The Whiteball navvies’ story casts Brunel and his fellow contractors in a bleak light.
Nick continued: “Essentially, these groups of people were run by contractors who were highly competitive, extremely shrewd and very hard men who would bid for contracts to shift the earth or dig the tunnels.
“There’s a human story here, quite apart from the detailed domestic story.
“The navvies must have come looking for work, but were paid in tokens – beer and bits of wood, non-transferable currency – so what did they send home?
“It was all in the quest of the railway, and Brunel was at the top of it all.”
The third story is the mind-boggling 20th Century tale of Odette Hallowes.
Born in France, she became a Whiteball Tun-nel resident at the outbreak of the Second World War, and turned heroine of the conflict who took part in Special Operations.
She was the first woman to be awarded the George Cross, and once the war was over she returned to the area to recuperate from SS torture.
Nick said: “She was recorded saying one of the things that got her through was her memory and love of Somerset, in particular the view from the top of the Whiteball Tunnel.
“Odette’s a local hero as far as we’re concerned – not only was she looked after by the local people, but she looked after this country.”
Work has begun to get local primary and secondary schools in the Wellington, Uffculme and Tiverton area involved through creative workshops, and a public meeting is set for 6pm on Thursday, April 24, at the nearby Beam-bridge Inn when those with even just an inkling of interest, whatever their field, can get involved.
Nick said: “It’s wide open. The important thing is that people are bringing ideas.
“The bottom line will be making sure this is a mixture of the interest and commitment of people involved, and the practicalities of where and when.”
Beyond what is hoped will be a spectacle to grip mind and memory, the team is also working to develop a smart phone ‘app’ to draw visitors to the area in the years ahead.
It will enable smartphone users to connect, via QR codes, to three markers on the footpath above Whiteball to access the project material.
“Given that we started talking about it in 2002 it has been a very long time coming,” said Nick.
“But the strength of the story I think is a tribute to the fact that we’ve never let it go.”
Exciting and nerve-wracking in equal measure, nobody knows what shape the Whiteball community play will take.
To get involved, email email@example.com or call 07724-406105, or come to a community workshop on Tuesday May 6, 13 and 20, 6.30pm-8.30pm at Wellington Arts Centre.