The musical is set in the mid 19th century, in the fictional region of South Hamerset. On the southern coastline is Highsands fishing village, on the shore of Highsands Bay. Just out to sea, to the east of Highsands is a reef and perilous outcrop of rocks ‘The Pennies’. (It is the price paid to Neptune by the people of South Hamerset, so the sea god provides for the population). Highsands is the home to a small community of families reliant on the fishing, including the Garland family. Anna Garland lost her husband a few years before. She lives with her husbands sister Clare and her daughter Katherine. They sell the fish they catch at nearby Borland Cove, a few miles along the coast to the east of Highsands. Between the village and Borland Cove, on the cliffs, is St Hedrok’s church, from where Katherine, the huer (fish watcher) looks out to sea.
The corn merchant ‘Marwoods’ has been trading in Borland Cove for many years, but the owner Francis Marwood has just died, leaving the business to his son Robert and his sick wife Agnes. Robert, who has been working as a teacher in Overbridge, is called back.
On the western edge of South Hamerset the river Over reaches the sea. The town of Overmouth lies on the east bank of the river and the naval dockyards of Overmouth Dock on the west. Overmouth is ten or so miles west of Highsands. Heading inland the course of the river sweeps round to the east, reaching the town of Overbridge, the principal town in the area.
Smuggling has a long history in the South Hamerset area, but has met ever growing challenges in recent years, notably owing to the establishment of a coastguard at Overmouth. Smuggling, despite previously being widespread throughout the area, is not met with so much favour now. Indeed there was smuggling through Borland Cove but a recent rise in violence is turning the local populace against the smugglers. However there is still some smuggling, particularly spirits and tobacco from France, all overseen by the Tope gang. They stash their contraband around the region, notably in the graves and tombs at St Hedrok’s church.
Rupert Whithorn (brother of Agnes Marwood) owns the Borland Cove ferry and a dredger used for dredging local rivers. He is also involved with smuggler Bartholomew Tope and recently gave him some capital to buy spirts from France. The respective boat is seized by customs and much of the cargo is lost. Rupert loses his capital. However Tope has been told by local dignitary Sir Jonathan Brockhurst that there is going to be a considerable development of the Naval docks at Overmouth, which will require a substantial amount of sand and gravel, and there is plenty in Highsands Bay. Tope has some kind of hold on Brockhurst and he tells Whithorn that he will be able to persuade Brockhurst to appoint Whithorn’s company to dredge Highsands Bay. And while dredging Whithorn will be able to bring in contraband tubs that have been sunk in the bay by the Tope gang. But to convert his river dredgers he will need money, and further capital to purchase more contraband. This he plans to get from the sale of his recently deceased brother-in-law’s business ‘Marwoods’.
The story is loosely based upon the fate of the fishing village of Hallsands on the south Devon coast which fell in to the sea following the dredging of the bay. The sub text is the clash of natural forces and human forces, such as tradition/religion, tradition/science, science/religion, superstition/science, sea/land, feelings/knowledge, loyalty/jealousy, love/jealousy, sensory experience/rationality, the benefit of progress/the cost of progress (humanity has discovered penicillin and nuclear weapons). Each of the characters reflects one side of the clash.
The constant rhythm of the waves, the to and fro, is reflected in the dialogue and lyrics, e.g. ‘The sea was our life. Our life was the sea’.
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