Kate Hewett searches the stories and symbols of her lineage to reclaim her roots.
Before the Christian Era
They call me Ullad of the Owls.
It was in the night at winter’s end, during their mating season, that I was born. As my mother pushed me out, a tawny ghost was seen to flit across the doorway. So they say. Ever since I have been a hunter of rabbits and rodents, which I net and trap in the dusky light. The men track the big prey, the horses and the deer, and come back covered in blood and loud stories of courage, or more often nothing but a hungry belly. I, soundlessly, bring something for the pot every day. Some of them do not like it, I can see it in their eyes.
They send me out to protect the just-born lambs and kids, as I have the night hunter’s eyes. I sleep leaning against the reave, wrapped in skins, and the spirits, or the dogs, wake me when danger is near. My spear and pile of sharp stones mostly work, but if the bears and wolves are too many and too hungry they may still lunge, even as I hurt them. That’s when I take a branch from the fire and we hiss-spit at them together until they slink away into the murk.
Only once did I fail to awaken. When they shook me I told them the dream: She wanted sacrifice. We caught an owl the next night, pierced its heart in the way we have been told to, and pinned it to the gate of the pound. No more animals were lost that year.
Now, when the length of the days tells us it is a sacred time, I wear her long, wing feathers, hanging from my neck, to the great oak grove. This is when we meet the other people of the land. I trade woollen cloth for good flint and tin beads. It is at the standing stones, as well, that our matches and couplings happen. Some of the men are scared of me because of my name. Already my mother, born of the cailleach’s winter frost, is known to be fearsome, so with the owl feathers I am a rare choice. Only the drunk or moonstruck will approach me. But that is enough. The leaves are turning to gold and I have child within me. I pray she will take her first breath with the flap of a silent wing overhead. May it be so.
I am known around here as Adair, son of Robert.
Our lands are by the noble river Exe, fertile and well watered, hence we are a family of repute in Dumnonia. But the Norman scribes said that would not suffice for their books. We were obliged to take a surname to enable us to be known as far away as France. It took a while for the right one to be chosen. In the end we were given Hiewet. In our dialect it means ‘he who dwells by the clearing in the oak wood’, as that used to be what, back along, we told travellers who sought to find us. The foreigners say it sounds like their word for owl. As the oak woods have mostly been felled for fuel and lumber it is agreeable for it to have another meaning, and we like the sound of it well enough.
My father was the second son, so he became a soldier during the civil war. He fought with so much courage the Baron did him the honour of making him his squire. After it ended he generously extended our lands, gave him the right to build a watermill, and an invitation to hunt wild beasts with him on Dartmoor when he is in residence. Now, I am not built to be a great hunter, my legs being stunted by the pox when I was a boy, so Father goes alone. It is to my great fortune that England has been at peace for my lifetime, for I would not be a good soldier neither, yet I am good enough at managing the mill and our tenants. With the Lord’s blessing we prosper.
Father is a wise man and chose a wife from up on the moor to bring vigour into my sons. He says the thing about wars is they never go away for long. Her family have some of the wildness of that place in them and the men are strong and sturdy. In the dark days before Our Lord Jesus Christ’s precious blood saved us from the devil, they say they used much of the old magic. But she seems most pious, and across two winters has borne me two sons, so I’m content enough with the arrangement. There she is now, sitting in the window, embroidery at hand, with child once more.
This last year the Baron bestowed upon us a family crest, an owl on an oak branch given the two meanings of our name. The news caused my wife much mirth, but she would not speak her reasons for it. I have commissioned a stone carving of it to be put above the main door of the house we are building. It will ensure the Hiewets are remembered for all time.
I am Robert Hewett of Hewett Partners.
We have close to two hundred boats, including the cutters, in our Short Blue Fleet, which makes it the largest fishing fleet in the world. My father, Samuel, pioneered the use of ice to keep the catch fresh at sea and on to market, expanding the trade exponentially. He has quite a nose for business and is still at the helm today, with me his second-in-command.
We have established wharves, ice-houses and boat-building yards at Barking, although we’re increasingly landing the fish at Great Yarmouth as we expand into the North Sea. Steam ships may be viable in other industries, but it is still most economical to fish under sail, and it is what we do best. We build solid smacks that will survive anything but grounding or collisions, and our yards are highly efficient. My beloved yacht, The Gnat, was built in just 21 days! Sourcing the timber is often the biggest challenge. Almost of all it is imported these days, and for masts we have to ship oak from the Baltics as it’s simply not possible to obtain suitable lengths in England any more. If the taxes go up again it will be cheaper to import from Canada, would you believe it!
The sea is in my blood, and my most important education, like my father’s, took place on board. I am never happier than when skippering The Gnat in a bracing wind. HRH the Prince of Wales appointed me Vice-Commodore of his Yacht Club, no doubt because he wanted my fearsome reputation of winning on his side! I always thought we should have had a fish, or some kind of sea creature, in our family crest but no, our Norman ancestors claimed the owl and oak.
I am sad to say the time I spend at sea these days is pretty limited, as I oversee our trading at Billingsgate. Although the railway makes the journey from Barking much quicker, it is still a long day if I am to return home at night, so I spend a lot of time at my club. Thus I am considering moving the family home to London. A bit of distance may ease the friction between my father’s second wife, who has yet to bear him a viable child, and mine, her younger sister Emily. She was not in favour of our marriage, but we persisted. Emily was sure it was a curse of hers that led our first son to be stillborn, but since then, by God’s Grace, we have had a healthy daughter, and another son just born. I have given him my own name, Robert, and I sense he will thrive. As soon as he opened his eyes, blue as the sky, he turned them to the tall masts beyond the window. I will make him into a great yachtsman and he will carry forward the Hewett name.
I am Kate Hewett, now of Lustleigh Cleave.
I am one of those rootless Westerners who doesn’t come from anywhere. I lived in four countries and six houses before I was eleven, and never close to any cousins or grandparents. I have always hated the question ‘where are you from?’ because I didn’t have an answer.
As with so many other itinerants, I ended up in London where I met my husband. He had lived in three countries and four houses by the time he was ten. We were both seeking something, some kind of umami that was not present in the flavour of our lives. And so we dipped in and out of different spiritual traditions from Africa, India, Tibet and South America but they never really felt like our own. By then my parents had moved to Devon, friends invited us to workshops in Gidleigh and Scorriton village halls and in farmhouses on the edges of Totnes. We thought about moving to Chile, New Zealand, France, then Portugal. Eventually, driving off the end of the M5 and up the steep ramp of Holden Hill into the mist, I realised the feeling I had there was as close to coming home as I had ever been.
At that time I had got caught up in that positive psychology / new age ‘you can heal yourself’ vibe as I had a lot of health issues. I was doing everything I was supposed to be doing but just kept getting sick and couldn’t conceive a child, either. So I got really sorrowful about that, and sorrowful about the state of the world. The thing that soothed my heart was the land, the trees, the soft dampness of Dartmoor. I found some kind of contentment in the company of plants and in the green light of a woodland canopy.
I’ve now lived on the moor for twelve years and I guess I just realised that was where I needed to go, to the land. Our first home was a remote cabin on old mine workings and it was a kind of initiation to live there as the land had a lot to say about how humans had treated it, but a privilege all the same. We moved three years ago to a much easier place. It is next to a huge expanse of commonland, and it feels as if the relationship between humans and the land here is that of friendship, a kind of custodianship instead of ownership. And I just love it, this place. I’ve never loved the land, never loved a place like I love this place. And in some ways that feels like what I’d been looking for.
Often the owls hoot as I walk our dogs, in the dusk, through the woods. There are still old oak and beech groves here, residues of great forest, and hut circles, residues of the people who cleared them. In our garden there is an oak which must be at least three hundred years old. Once she told me her name. Our neighbour wants us to cut down one of her branches as it overhangs their driveway and goes close to their phone line. No chance.
The family crest goes down the male line so no longer applies to me, and in any case I have no one to hand it on to. But I have found my way to an older lineage, not only of human creation, which my bones sense. It was land I was seeking, a place not to call my own, but which would beckon me in. Here and now, in the oak woods, I have found it.
Kate Hewett lives in the woods on Dartmoor, who whisper to her of the urgent need to return to harmony with the more-than-human. As she travels that ancient, obscured, yet still accessible path, her creative work aims to express some of the stark beauty, wisdom and magic she is encountering. www.katetaylorhewett.com
Read more of Kate’s work on Edgewise: an essay here, an oral story here and an interview here.
Header and fifth image is of a hut circle believed to be from the Bronze Age on Lustleigh Cleave, Dartmoor. Second photo is a detail of a Buzzard wing from the artwork ‘The Wild Redeemer’ by Ben Taylor, reproduced with permission. Third photo is a detail of the Hewett family grave in Barking Abbey cemetery. Fourth photo is of Hewett family crest from family records, original artist unknown and any copyright expired. Thanks to Douglas Scott Hewett and M. S. Scott whose own writings on Hewett family history greatly informed the 1860 section.
Words and photos copyright © Kate Hewett 2021