The Next Stage…

It’s been several weeks of digging into the local history of everything from shipwrecks to gravesites, shopkeepers to witches, hovels to hotels, steadily uncovering an increasing number of interesting and interweaving accounts. Our forays into historical research – diligently undertaken by our incredibly dedicated volunteers in both Ilfracombe and Honiton – have been balanced between training sessions and preparations for the interview portion of the project.

As discussed in the previous blog post, Jess – our Honiton-based Project Coordinator – provided both teams with excellent training on oral history and best practice for interviews, detailing with clarity the importance of storytelling and the function of oral history.

So surely, with such training under our belts, such research well underway and all of our recording equipment lined up and delivered, we are all set to dive head first into this next stage of the project, with no hesitations or trepidation on our part?

…well. Not quite.

Words Talk

Stories have been told since early humans first sat around their newly harnessed campfires, cooking and communicating many tens of thousands of years ago. Illuminated by firelight, our ancestors wove fables rife with the supernatural and expressed vulnerabilities, structuring their time and tales around their relationships and speech. 

“Campfire” by JelleS is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

These stories were abstractions of their daily comings and goings, warnings against dangers, an act of sharing in memories. There is an intimacy and honesty to conversation captured at the right moment and in the right circumstances, something evident even – especially – today.

When Anthropologist Dr Polly Wiessner spent over six months living with the Ju/’hoan Bushmen of Botswana and Namibia, she found that while three quarters of daytime conversation was centred around work-related talk and general gossip, at night the topics changed. An even larger percentage of the time spent talking – 80% or more – was spent on storytelling and the creative recounting of local politics, adventures and exploits of their kin. These conversations were personal and riveting but required a level of vulnerability from each speaker that was only made possible by avid listeners and the existence of a culture of reciprocity and understanding.

The passage of time combined with a lack of record makes the loss of these stories all the more evident leaving commentators and historians to make educated assumptions.

It’s important then that these records are made. They illuminate a range of experiences, to broaden our understanding of our community and our local heritage and provide us with transcripts that could end up becoming some of our only records of real people’s lives. 

In a hundred or more years’ time these records could prove crucial to our future understanding of our past and present – perhaps even acting as a historical record to be delved into in much the same way as the project’s volunteers are currently uncovering these hidden, secret histories.

Support Through Conversation

Storytelling matters. But people matter too. And at times, it can be hard to reconcile the two.

By the very nature of the project, the stories it encounters and records are those rife with accounts of discrimination and isolation, as well as those of resilience, observation and humour.

There is a crucial importance in emphasising the wellbeing and emotional safety of everyone involved in these conversations, and also in ensuring that the interviewees are provided control over their narrative and how their story is told.

Above all else, above even seeking to record information that would otherwise be lost to time, we are ensuring we provide a space of open communication, healing and respect.

Human beings are natural storytellers. By emphasising the person within that equation we find that their stories will follow – in time, at a slower pace, but all the more free because of it – as we step into the next stage with curiosity, self awareness and with boldness too.

The best participatory projects create new value for the institution, participants, and non-participating audience members. When you are driven by the desire to create new value, you end up with products that are transformative, not frivolous.”

– Nina Simone


The Telling Our Stories, Finding Our Roots project seeks participation from those who have a story to tell that connects you to Ilfracombe’s or Honiton’s past and present multicultural heritage. Please get in touch!

For links to Ilfracombe contact Abi Obene
For links to Honiton contact Jess Huffman 

To keep up to date with project stories, news, events and opportunities visit our Telling Our Stories Project website or our FaceBook Group

For more information on the paper mentioned here please see:

Wiessner, P. (2014) ‘Embers of society: Firelight talk among the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen’ in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, (Vol. 111, No. 39).