Tuesday, 22 December 2009


Delicate and like the finger bones of long drowned mariners are the broken pieces of the stems of clay pipes that are still to be found among the shingle on the beaches of the Estuary. Once there was such a remarkable number of these that they cried out for an explanation. Very occasionally the bowl of a pipe was found entire and sometimes with an elaborate moulding of grapes and vines or some other such conceit but mostly it was short lengths of tide abraded stem that were found. But why so many?

In my Liverpool childhood the pipes were for sale in every corner shop. I remember this because my mum used to buy them for us to use for bubbleblowing. They are probably still being made and sold somewhere but I, with my seventy years, can never remember seeing anyone smoking out of one of these clay pipes. It is,of course, the short stubby pipes, no more than a hand's breadth, of which I am thinking, not the long elegant "curlew" pipes that churchwardens are said to favour.

Somehow I associate these clay pipes particularly with the fishermen and sailors and longshoremen of Edwardian England. This may be because of all the wonderful Will Owen illustrations in the W.W.Jacobs books where a stubby pipe is never far away. It seems likely that the stems among the shingle were largely the legacy of generations of hard smoking mariners gaily tossing broken pipes overboard. But I have another vision which is of the armies of labourers who built the railways that run along both sides of the Estuary, sitting in rows and in a peaceful moment, did they ever have one?, gazing across the waters and smoking and whenever a pipe broke, casting the parts into the tide with a healthy navvy's curse. The railways came in the eighteen sixties which would have been a peak pipe smoking era.

When fishermen went sunrising over the bar a short length of pipestem was the certain bait with which to catch the first mackerel After that the fisherman could rely on the mackerels' cannibalistic appetite. In the Estuary the same lure served to catch the bass. These days two inches of white plastic electric cable answer the same purpose.

But lost fishing lures cannot much have accounted for the great Exe Estuary Clay Pipestem Phenomenon.

Friday, 11 December 2009


Seagulls mourn the day.
The winter light drains away,
so too tide and time.

Lovelorn curlews call.
So sad is the rise and fall
the fish weep salt tears.

Had I wings I might
flap off into this good night
with the silly ducks.

Thursday, 10 December 2009


The fishermen I knew in my youth often spoke of moots, 'moot' here being their idiom for something, anything, that might tangle the net. 'Can't fish here! Too many moots!' Drift nets in particular were in danger of snagging moots. I don't know how general the term is.

A most likely moot to snag the net is the stump of a tree and this, I think, is what Devon farmers call a moot. The word is clearly Old English and must surely be connected to the other kinds of 'moot' that all have to do with meeting, hence the moot halls in Keswick and elsewhere. Perhaps this Devon dialect moot is simply 'something one meets with'. Your ploughshare or your net meets with a moot and you wish it hadn't. You might even curse or swear at the moot.

There is always a fair selection of tree stumps and tree skeletons along the beaches of the Estuary. Some float in with the tide but the more dramatic ones have tumbled from the red cliffs. Where the trees at the cliff top have had their roots stripped bare by the wind and weather they have a wonderful gnarled and windswept look to them but sooner of later they fall below the tideline to float about a bit and to become moots for a generation.

Monday, 7 December 2009


There is strong evidence that, centuries before the Romans came to Caerwysc, which is thought to be the name Exeter then bore, the ancient British who were living there were trading with Continental merchants. Seaworthy merchant ships were carrying cargo up and down the channels of the Estuary a hundred years or more before the year dot.

Professor Hoskins, in his "Two Thousand Years in Exeter", describes the exciting find of coin in the city two hundred years ago which still provides the best evidence for this ancient trading:

"In the year 1810, a considerable number of Hellenistic coins - that is, coins of ancient Greek types from the eastern Mediterranean- were found in the Broadgate while workmen were digging at a depth of twenty feet. These coins, the largest discovery of their kind yet made in this country, could be dated as belonging to the third, second and first centuries before Christ.

"This discovery was so remarkable and unexpected that many scholars refused to believe the evidence. Two distinguished numismatists in 1907, examining them again, decided that the coins had been planted on the site to cause confusion, or that some private collection had been lost there. In any event, they decided that the coins were not evidence for the existence of a trading settlement on the site of Exeter at that early date.

"Since they wrote, however, two things have happened to alter the picture. In the first place, other Hellenistic coins have been found in Exeter, and secondly, many more have been found at various places along the south coast of England - for example, at Penzance, at Mount Batten (now part of Plymouth), and near Poole Harbour in Dorset. We must therefore accept the conclusion that there was considerable trading between the Mediterranean countries and southern Britain a century or two before the birth of Christ, and that Exeter (under some other name,) was one of the places engaged in this trade."

Professor Hoskins believed that cattle and hides were the goods most likely to have been shipped from Exeter to the Continent and that the ships came from'such places as Rouen in Normandy'.

For some hundreds of years then local men watched from the high land and from the Estuary's bogs and banks and reed beds as these trading ships came and went with the tides. And only then came the Romans!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009


The Estuary port of Exmouth was busy in the year 1814. Below are listed just some of the cargoes reported in the Exeter Flying Post that were unladen in the spring of that year.

From Newport,coals; from Liverpool,salt; from London and Bristol,groceries ; from Teignmouth, slate and pipe clay; from Neath, culm; from Plymouth old junk; from Guernsey,cork and passengers; from Milford, stone; from Stockholm, deals and pitch tar; from Oporto, wine; from Lisbon, bale goods; from Portsmouth, potatoes; from Bridport, timber; from Portland, household furniture. And more, much more!

Culm, as well as being the river on which Culompton stands, is a secondrate coal. Junk is old rope, the hemp to be reworked, not smoked! Each of these many cargoes argues a business enterprise. And imagine, O glory, the tarry crews ashore!: the proud captains and the happygolucky sailors, Scots and Welshmen, Spaniards and Swedes. Not too many Frenchmen and Americans because we were still at war with them. Most of the ships that came to Exmouth sailed in convoy under the protection of the Royal Navy's gun brigs and therefore arrived in port at much the same time. The harbour must have been a lively, busy place with tall ships jostling for a place to land their cargoes.

Meanwhile at Topsham on 27th April 1814, Mr Pridham informed the nobility, gentry and others that his TEPID and COLD sea baths were ready for their Accommodation, and that he had the addition of a Pump, for such as required Warm or Cold bathing.

Now what was all that about? Rolling about in Topsham mud? Ugh!

Monday, 30 November 2009


"'I'nt that sunset nice?" she said
"Lovely!" said her man.
No one can pat that fiery head
But don't we just think we can.

Saturday, 28 November 2009


When we lived in a waterside cottage, where occasionally the tide came uninvited to our threshold, we would come down in the morning or whenever to find a multitude of sandhoppers dancing about on the kitchen floor. Their dancing is remarkable. It beats the Royal Ballet. They spring in all directions and in such a fine, demoniac frenzy that it seemed a pity to take the sweeping brush to them. These sandhoppers were refugees fleeing the tide because, like some of our neighbours, although they liked living by the water, they did ot want to drown and had no wish to venture away from the firm land.

Normally the sandhoppers try to hide away but they are to be found everywhere in the Estuary's sands and shingles and can be discovered beneath stones and within bunches of seaweed. They are related to the shrimps and the lobsters and should therefore be good to eat if enough of them were collected. It sounds like something that the Japanese ought to know about.

I imagine they must form an essential link in some creatures' foodchains. It must be sandhoppers that bring the crows and starlings to the shingle although the former also relish the carrion of the tideline. Sandhoppers are said to be 'amphipods' which means they have feet on both sides, whatever that might mean. Both sides of what? They hop, says my AA Book of the Countryside, "by using the abdomen and last three pairs of legs as a spring."

Bless you little amphipod
How prettily you're prancing
To use your abdomen is odd!
Could this be belly dancing?

Thursday, 26 November 2009


O hack, aren't you the clever fish?
But soon I'll see you in my dish
for here's the barb shall hitch your flesh
and draw you from your socket.

O hack, you think you're safe and sound
inside your shell deep in the ground
but just you wait until I've found
the salt that's in my pocket.

A dash of salt to make you swell
and teaze you from your razor shell
and when you leap, hack I shall kill
you with my spiky snagger

and with a twist I'll hitch your flesh
and you shall end up in my dish.
I'll wash you down, you tasty fish,
with half a pint of lager.

T0morrow: Sandhoppers

Wednesday, 25 November 2009


The razor shell is a curious fish. It lives vertically, buried in the sand, and the sea brings it its food, tide by tide. Dawlish Warren is a great place for the shells of razor shells. Whether the fish are there I have not yet discovered.

John Cremer Bellamy was a young doctor in Plymouth, he died when he was only 29, who took an interest in the fisheries of Devon and Cornwall and who wrote a book, published in 1843, the year after the year of his death, entitled "The Housekeeper's Guide to the Fish Market for each month of the year; and an account of the fishes and fisheries of Devon and Cornwall, in respect of commerce, economy, natural history, and statistics." The little book with the big title is full of good things but nothing better than the account of how to catch a hack. "Hack" is the name John Bellamy gives to the razor shell.

Here is John Bellamy's account:

"Hacks or Razor fish can only be secured at low water of spring tides; the fisher provides himself with a pocket full of salt and an iron rod about two feet long with a barb at one end; finding a hole where a Hack is lodged, he drops in some salt, on which the creature, a few inches below, thrusts forth its body (in all likelihood from pain) and, as it advances upwards, he drives the spear perpendicularly through it and then, with a slight turn of the instrument, to effect a hitch in the creature's flesh, he drags it out of its habitation."

Happy hunting!

Tomorrow: a pretty poem about catching a hack.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009


One sunny day last June I sailed within a yard of a pretty tern, a juvenile, as smart as paint, who was sitting on a buoy in the moorings. She was so confident and happy there that she did not so much as flutter a feather when I sailed past her and I was so pleased to find so unperturbed a wild thing that I put "Poppy" about and sailed past her again. The unflappable tern stood to her buoy as firm as a sentry and I sailed away and left her in her unruffled peace.

One expects a bird to flap but one is happy when the flapping doesn't happen. O you beautiful unflappable tern!. I hope some day to see your like again. After all, one good tern deserves another.

Friday, 20 November 2009


Celia Fiennes who famously travelled side-saddle throughout England in the seventeenth century had a glimpse of the Estuary in the year 1698. She was thirty-six and had been travelling and writing the account of her travels for some thirteen years already. Celia had stayed with friends in Exeter and had noted how the Exonians slew the leaping salmon on the river there with spears. I suspect that this already seemed to her to be archaic but in fact fishing spears were still being used in the estuaries well into the nineteenth century.

From Exeter she went to Topsham, “which is a little market place a very good key; hither they (the Exonians) convey their serges and so load their shipps which comes to this place all for London, thence I saw Starre Cross where the great shipps ride and there they build shipps, this was up the river, 5 or 6 miles up the river, but the tide being out could not goe and it was ten mile by land and their miles are soe long here I would not goe it, seeing almost as well the shipps that lay there as if at the place.”

What a heroine was Celia! She may not have known her uprivers from her downrivers but she was a noble noblewoman nonetheless.

Sunday, 15 November 2009


‘Lovers’, decreed the melancholy Austrian poet, Nikolaus Lenau, ‘should never venture farther apart than the westwind can carry the sweet song of the nightingale.’ But of course these days lone lovers venture to the very ends of the earth.

In the late summer of 1964 I was alone and melancholy and lodging in the attic of the Passage Inn at Topsham. To cheer myself up, I, who had never sailed before, bought, for thirty pounds and at the Cherry and Cherry, Shaldon boat auction, a little boat without a name. I called the boat ‘Bärbel’ after my distant beloved. She was a lovely little sprucebuilt, twelvefoot, lugsail dinghy, straight out of Arthur Ransome.

Anyway the first outing I made with ‘Bärbel, the boat’ was to that part of the river where now the motorway crosses the Exe. I rowed, I did not attempt to sail, among the reed beds and and was enchanted by what I found there. On every reed, or so it seemed, sat a starling. The reeds were bending beneath their weight and there was a noise of chatter and singing everywhere. A few birds, but only a few, allowed me to disturb them but they soon settled again as I passed among them like a Pharoah.

The reed beds are still there and, despite the motorway, the starlings still visit. In that neck of the Estuary I have seen murmurations of starlings since. Sometimes they fly so as to darken the skies. But that first progress of mine, paddling among the reeds nearly fifty years ago to be welcomed to the Estuary by happy starlings, is still one of the most cherished of my memories.

Friday, 6 November 2009


Eden Phillpotts writes about George Bernard Shaw in his Memoir 'From the Angle of 88':

"Bernard Shaw was fond of the West Country and visited it sometimes. I can see him at Sidmouth scattering scraps for the seagulls while the great silver birds swooped round him."

What an image! The greatest playwright in the English language of the twentieth century, bearded and blown on Sidmouth front and the beautiful gulls flying shrieking about him.

Visitors to Sidmouth, go on feeding the gulls! You are in the company of the great!

Thursday, 5 November 2009


Sooner or later Captain George Peacock FRGS must be introduced. He was born in Exmouth in 1805 and he settled at Starcross in his retirement. He is the Estuary’s most distinguished son, though neither in his lifetime nor since his death has he been given the attention he merits. There are many tales to tell of Captain Peacock but here by way of an introduction is an excerpt from the Western Times for Friday June 23rd 1882, the year before the year he died.:

“It was not long ago that we had the pleasure of recording the fact that the President of the Republic of Columbia had presented a decoration to Capt. George Peacock of Starcross, in acknowledgement of his services to the State of Columbia as the first modern surveyor of the Isthmus of Panama. It will be recollected that, last year, in the month of June, in a public meeting at Liverpool, Count Ferdinand de Lesseps declared that he was grateful to Captain Peacock for showing how to make the Canal which is in due time to cut through the neck that separates the two oceans. This scientific navigator of Devon has now, we learn with pleasure, received another mark of distinction, which reaches him from the classic shores of Greece. The cutting of the isthmuses seems to have much occupied the gallant Captain’s mind. Among other tasks of his busy life he undertook to survey the Bay of Salamis and explored the Isthmus of Corinth with the view of joining the Gulfs of Aegina and Lepanto. This was done in the time of King Otho, some thirty years ago. Captain Peacock presented his chart and plans to his Majesty, who, in return, presented him with a richly-embossed gold snuff-box which is to be a family heirloom. A quarter of a century or more having passed since these incidents occurred , we now see the work of the cutting of the Corinth isthmus actually taken in hand, and the opportunity has been embraced by his Majesty King George to give further marks of the esteem in which Captain Peacock’s scientific plans are held in testimony whereof the King has created him a Chevalier of the Royal Order of the Saviour. Intimation of this fact was conveyed to the worthy Captain at his residence, Starcross, by a letter from the Greek Minister in London who encloses therewith the diploma bearing the royal signature and countersigned by the Foreign Minister of Greece and also a letter from the Foreign Minister felicitating Captain Peacock on the honour which the King had conferred upon him. It is needless to say how great a source of gratification to him is this well deserved honour so graciously bestowed on the veteran and much respected officer. With the official document was transmitted the golden crown, cross and ribbon of the Order. The cross has in its centre the head of Our Saviour.”

Well done Captain Peacock! Without you no Panama Canal nor no Corinth Canal neither.

And well done the writer of this piece!

Tuesday, 3 November 2009


I had always been tempted to discount the tales of smuggling in the Estuary. In my village there are tales of hidy holes and tunnels and sliding panels galore. It seemed to me that no one would make a landing up the Estuary when it was so much easier to land contraband on the seacoast. At Exmouth was a gallant naval officer commanding a preventive cutter and it seemed unthinkable that contraband goods would come up the channels of the Exe.

Well I was sort of right but I was very wrong. I was reading Mr H J Trump’s book about Teignmouth when the following quote leapt from the seventy third page:

Coombe Cellars had always offered a safe and easy means of Transit for Tobacco and Tubs landed anywhere west, the smugglers passing over Lower Haldon… and from thence by bye roads to Powderham, where Boats have been in readiness to tow the Goods…to Lympstone on the River Exe at any time after dusk, tide permitting. Lympstone is as free and open from Contrabandists as any smuggler could wish… consequently a notorious haunt of Smugglers who are in constant communication with groups at…. Teignmouth, Coombe Cellars, Bishopsteighnton and even the Bristol Channel.

It was an eureka moment! The sbove was written in 1857, towards the end of the days when smuggling was rife. The Inspecting Commander for the Exmouth District was writing to the Board in London. No goods were being landed up the Exe but they were certainly being given a safe conduct across the Estuary by way of the ancient passages from Powderham to Parsonage Style and to Sowden End, thence on their way up country.. The hidy holes and sliding panels and perhaps even tunnels of Lympstone, that NOTORIOUS HAUNT OF SMUGGLERS, helped them on their way.

Thursday, 29 October 2009


When there were still men working full time and making a living from the fishing in my village there was a lot of net mending going on. On the foreshore some of the poles are still standing where the fishermen strung their nets between tides to mend them. Now they are used as washing lines. I suspect thay always had a secondary use as washing lines even in the busiest days of the fishing. They must have been a point of conflict between fishing man and washing woman. The one or two fishermen who were still mending nets here in the sixties were very deft. The needles, somebody somewhere must still be selling netting needles but I have not seen one for an age, flashed in and out of the net and the quickness of the hand deceived the eye. Before the nets were mended they had to be cleared. All manner of unwanted flesh and weed was plucked out of the mesh and left to rot in the sun. The flesh was mostly dead crab which on a summer’s day were soon reeking to heaven and smelling of death and corruption. Horse mackerel and other unwanted fish added to the stink on the shingle but the tides came and went and cleansed the beach and washed away all vile things so that the nets might be cleared once more.

To have a hole in a salmon seine is to court disaster. The salmon is a clever fish and he will find that hole and be away before you can pull in the net. He will even leap over the head lines or dive under the lead lines if there is any snag or irregularity to the net or if a crew is careless. It was a matter of pride with the old fishermen that all their nets should be without kinks, twists, gaps or holes,

Net mending was one of those activities that permitted a man to talk to his idle neighbours. I remember listening to my skipper’s old father while he worked away with his needle. He was in his seventies and had a good line in philosophy and would make a strong case for the quality of his life and work. He knew well enough that the age of the inshore fishermen like himself was coming to an end and that he had seen to best of it but he believed that his had been a good life, better than many lives that would be lived in the new age. He remembered when there had been a dozen men mending nets on the Hard in Lympstone, talking the tide up, but now he was the last of them. He had been working at the fishing day and night, ebb and flood, since he was a boy and he remembered going out to catch the herring in the days when they swarmed around the Devon coast. He remembered to a fish what catches they had made and to a penny what rewards they had enjoyed for their labours. He had sailed and motored in green seas and had netted more herring than the stars in the sky. I found him working at the nets in the evening of the day that his twin brother was buried and we talked while the tide crept in. He was philosophising about life and death and telling the history of the twin brother that he had lost and talking again of the weather that was coming and of the scarcity of salmon and the price of eels.

Monday, 26 October 2009



by Ogden Nash

I don't mind eels
Except as meals.

And while we're at it, Ogden Nash on the Seagull.

by Ogden Nash.
Hark to the whimper of the sea-gull;
He weeps because he's not an ea-gull.
Suppose you were, you silly sea-gull,
Could you explain it to your she-gull?

Next: Mending nets.

Sunday, 25 October 2009


What subliminal memory, what gene
causes these living, dying squirmers so to disquiet?
Why should corporal entwinings so unsettle,
fleshly twistings so disconcert,
bodily twirlings so disgust?

Worms and snakes are bad
but eels are worst.
Harmless, unless the snappy conger,
but I have seen
strong eyes shun, rugged faces blench,
appalled by these muddied writhings.

Atrocity lurks somewhere in the eel bucket
like a secret shame.
There brutally displaced,
now desperate in their poisoned chamber,
the doomed eels twitch, jerk, thresh ever the more
as round and round they go
in and about each others nakedness.
What ghastly convolutions!

A danse macabre!
Look away!

Thursday, 22 October 2009


The fishmonger who came to Lympstone in his battered van to buy my skipper's catch needed to find his eels alive. The day before his coming was the day to raise the eel keep. This keep, as I remember it, was a very simple home made contraption of rusty iron and chicken wire no bigger than a ferret cage. It was rowed out, attached to a buoy and sunk in the Lympstone lake at a depth where it would never dry out. Every time a sizable eel was taken in the nets or on the flounder lines it was delivered to this prison. the keep was raised and sunk again and the newly taken eels joined their fellow captives in the depths. By the time the fishmonger came to call, the often chock full keep of muddied, squirming eels, each wrapped around other, had been washed and bucketed ready for sale.

My father loved to catch and cook eels. He had a little Swedish oak smoker like an army mess tin which cooked an eel to perfection. What he, what any right minded person, could not enjoy was the skinning of them. Eels love life or at least are wonderfully tenacious of it. However dead you think your eel to be it will still squirm and twitch so as to surprise and disconcert you. An eel skinner has constantly to convince himself that the creatures feel no pain. (Ah! but can any man who has never been an eel in the skinning be sure of the matter?)

My father's way of skinning eels seemed to me to have been truly creative although I suppose he borrowed it from his more 'genuine' fishermen neighbours. He had in his shed a blacksmith's vice. This description by the way is not for the faint hearted. if in doubt look away now! He would clamp the head of the eel fast. Then with a Stanley knife he would cut a delicate line around the eel's neck and then with a pair of pliers would tug the skin downwards. The skin would come away, he would never tire of saying, like a silk stocking from a woman's leg.

The doomed eel would twitch to the last.

Next: A disturbing poems about eels.

Sunday, 18 October 2009



The smaller estuary salmon that were caught in the seine late in the season were called by the old fishermen: ‘lammies’. I don’t know who told me but I believe it, these lammies take their name from the Lammastide, one of those half forgotten festivals with roots reaching down to pagan times. Lammas is now disregarded almost everywhere but not forgotten in the city of Exeter where once a year a Lammas Fair is held, a grand occasion where the Lord Mayor leads a procession of rejoicing costumed schoolchildren to the Guildhall and, for the duration of the fair, a pole and a gilded glove stand in the market placeas a symbol of amnesty. The city claims that its ancient Lammas Fair is ‘at least nine hundred years old’ which is so much longer than anyone can remember that it might as well be a lot older.

It is therefore just possible that this fine word, lammie, which, in the context of salmon, is in danger of being lost for ever, has echoed around the banks and flats where men catch salmon for quite a while. The Exonians celebrate Lammas as and when they choose but the old festival was fixed to the first day of August in the old calendar, which, add eleven days, is about the time when the lammies run thickest in the channels. They are clean, pretty fish and they weigh between seven and nine pounds and tend to be relatively numerous. Even in the lean seventies it was not unknown to catch seven or eight of the fish in one haul and it was heartening to the weary seiner for once to see so many fine fish in the bunt of his net. It meant too that the precarious salmon season often ended on a high note.

The lammies of course, like all true salmon, are great leapers, that after all is what the word salmon means, but they do not only leap up weirs and falls. They leap for joy in the calm of the estuary. They leap for the fun of leaping and from time to time I still see the lammies at the lammastide, jumping clean out of the waters and glinting in the sun.
Next: Eels.

Thursday, 15 October 2009


I had meant to leave Eden Phillpotts and Dawlish Warren well alone for the time being. We have had more than enough of both of them. But then I discovered that there is a new (Copyright 2008) book, “From an Obtuse Angle, the Life and Work of Eden Phillpotts.” written by David Needham and available from Lulu Publishing, http://www.lulu.com/ . It is by far the best account of Phillpott’s life and work available.

David Needham lived in Devon until 1972 when he moved to Tasmania. By coincidence he quotes the same passage that I quoted in my blog of 8th October but I am going to let him quote it again because of the wonderful comment that he subscribes to it:

“Many years later Phillpotts would recall these halcyon childhood days in one of his essays in My Devon Year (Methuen 1904 ) after he had revisited Dawlish Warren following an absence of over thirty years. Like many children his imagination was vivid: “these by sand hills were a procession of lion-coloured monsters, wandering in awful company by the waters and I imagined these gigantic and sinister things as leaping into the narrow channel where Exe flows to the sea, and crossing over it that they might devour a little town upon the other side”. The monsters that finally devoured the little town of Exmouth were not, however, the monsters of Phillpotts’ imagination but developers and contemporary town planners.” (my italics)

Which brings us neatly to the subject of Exmouth philistinism. There cannot be another place in the kingdom that is surrounded by so much natural beauty and yet has so little integrity or charm. To consider Exmouth’s relationship with the Estuary alone is to review a history of disasters. What a wonder the land between the railway and the beaches of the Estuary might be. Where now there are dismal carparks, coachparks, boatparks and general squalour there could have been tree lined avenues and promenades where lovers could walk; there could have been waterside inns where one could watch the sun go down in a blaze of glory over Haldon and a foaming pint; there could have been cafés and restaurants with glorious estuary views. There could have been boat shelters and quays and quiet places where small boat owners might tie up and come ashore.

As for that monstrous development of today's tackiness and tomorrow’s slums where once were the docks, with the myriad signs of ‘bugger off this is private!” , "park and be clamped! & co. … but enough! ....I must consider my blood pressure.

Next: 'Lammies'

Tuesday, 13 October 2009


The day the sky turned green on Dawlish Warren
the trippers came in droves to Exmouth front
and some rejoiced to see a sight so foreign
and some dismissed it as a silly stunt.

The day the sky turned green there was no reason.
The sun was shining and there was no cloud.
It was a dog-day of the summer season.
It made a deep impression on the crowd.

The locals lowered and blamed the District Council,
the pious prayed and took it for a sign
and still the sun shone down on saint and scoundrel,
a golden grape upon an em’rald vine,

and swam its course as guileless as a goldfish,
gliding through the clearest, greenest seas,
until the day grew old, the air grew coldish
with the upspringing of the evening breeze.

The green drained from the sky and on the morrow
the heavens once again were welkin blue
and some expressed surprise and some their sorrow
and some went off to Paignton and the zoo.

And we were young and life and love were jolly
amid the sand dunes where we were not seen.
None but the summer sun remarked our folly
on Dawlish Warren when the sky was green.

Monday, 12 October 2009


“I have seen dawn upon the Exe,” writes Eden Phillpotts, “ and can remember how a great mist rolled down the river to meet the morning. In billows it came under a breeze from shore, hid all the heron-haunted flats and marshes, heather-ridges and sleepy dunes; then the risen sun touched it, and it waned gloriously in a rosy glow against the increasing blue of the sky; while from its depths stole Exe to the sea; and I saw red cliffs and marble beaches and fishers with bright sails setting forth into an ocean of light.”

This would have been the eighteen seventies. To have seen the dawn from the Warren, it argues that the boy Eden spent the night there. Did young adventurers camp there in Victorian days? A lot of families camped there a hundred years later in the nineteen seventies. We did, my wife and I and two infant children, on a wild night of thunder and lightning and were woken by the sea birds to our own desert island and a day of fine weather. Now, alas, there are ‘notices’ on the beach prohibiting all sorts of things, camping amongst them.

In his soap operatic novel “Redcliff”, Phillpotts sends two pairs of lovers to the Warren, not at the same time!, to experience the bliss of young love enhanced by the beauties of Nature.

“He took off his coat and spread it for her to sit on. Then he flung himself on the sand, smoked and looked at the evening light creeping down the estuary and burning on the flats till they shone like red gold. Mary heard the whispers of the dune, where breezes stirred its ragged, grassy crown; she listened to the ripple of the waves also and the cry of the marsh birds. The boats were returning to Redcliff on the tide, their little sails aglow.”

Eden Phillpotts was one of those men who had been ‘in love’ with some girl or other since his schooldays and I strongly suspect the Warren might have been the scene of one of the old womanizer’s first dalliances.

Be that as it may, tomorrow I shall post a love song entitled ‘The day the sky turned green on Dawlish Warren

Thursday, 8 October 2009


Eden Phillpotts in his essay on Sand Dunes in his 1903 book ‘My Devon Year’ writes of his childhood visits to Dawlish Warren:

“Then these sand-hills were a procession of lion-coloured monsters, wandering in awful company by the waters; and the scanty grasses served for bristling hair upon them; and I imagined these gigantic and sinister things as leaping into the narrow channel where Exe flows to the sea, and crossing over it that they might devour a little town upon the other side. Yet me they hurt not, and I would lie upon their hot breasts fearlessly, roll in thesoft sand, speculate on the purple of the sea-holly, prick my fingers with it, tumble and bask, and gazing upwards, build my secure kingdom, fortress, home in the pinnacles of a summer cloud.”

And again:

“These rolling dunes are a home of many good things: for flowers that are beautiful dwell among them, and flowers that are cheerful under stress of circumstances, and flowers that are merely rare. Hare’s-foot trefoil, whose pink blooms are hidden in a pearly mist, make a sort of manna scattered by the way; soldanella spreads little arrow-shaped leaves under the grey-green wheat-grass and opens her trumpets there; sea-rocket creeps to the very feet of the sea-horses that paw the beach at high tides, and the great gulls look into its mauve eyes as they strut on yellow feet in the harvest of the last wave.”

And so on. And so on. I find it all sounding just a little alarming. Those hotbreasted monsters are about to gobble up poor little Exmouth while the sea rocket keeps a mauve eye on the yellow legged gulls (not herring-gulls then!) and the sea horses. But he was a great observer of detail was Eden Phillpotts. He would have liked to have been remembered as “a man who used to notice such things.” The quotation is from the poem ‘Afterwards’ by the writer said to be Phillpott’s ‘god’, Thomas Hardy. But compared to Hardy old Phillpotts is hardly remembered at all.

Next: A little more of Phillpotts on the Exe.

Monday, 5 October 2009


I have misjudged the tide but that's no matter. My boat is still leaning awkwardly on the mud but I can soon walk out to her in my short boots and clamber aboard. Once one saw a lot of longbooted walkers and waders out to boats who did not want to waste a moment of the tide. My father used to wade out to his 'punt' relying on a boathook to give him a third leg. This word 'punt' in local usage was given to the open, estuary built, clinker fishing boats of fifteen or sixteen foot, such boats as , in the days of the fishing fleet, carried the men out to their moored craft.

I sit in my stranded boat as though I were a child playing some game of the imagination and for a moment I consider that there might be something ridiculous about sitting in a boat that is lying high and dry and on her side. I have, however, already pushed that thought to the back of my consciousness for there is much to do. I have carried a few unwelcome pints of Exe mud into the boat on my boots and the seagulls have left a spattering of lime on the thwarts and there is some bailing out to be done and fishing lines to be rewound and any amount of cleaning up and tidying ship and squaring things away. It is amazing how much can be found to be done in such a small boat

Meanwhile the water is already lapping around Poppy's keel and there is a breeze and the air is fresh and the banks are fast disappearing and the gulls are wailing, mourning the loss. A little more general boatkeeping and now the tide is under my boat and she has steadied and I can feel her waking from her slumber. I slip her mooring and set my one sail and my Poppy tries but fails to pull herself into the flood. I poke with an oar, usually too early, but eventually she slides and bumps into deeper water and catches the breeze and wings away to glory.

Tomorrow: Back to the Warren.

Saturday, 3 October 2009


In 1862 Eden Phillpotts was born in India. His father died when he was four and he and his mother and his brothers returned to England and it seems that they lived for some years at Dawlish with his grandfather and his mother’s sisters.

Anyway, one of his most precious memories was that as a boy he ran and rolled in the sand dunes on Dawlish Warren. He later wrote verses about it. Let me quote a stanza or two:

Oh naked-footed boy with the wild hair
And hopeful eyes, is it so long ago
Among these windy dunes you made your lair
Beside the immutable sea’s unwearied ebb and flow?

Above you sings the horrent bent; the sun
Finds you and burns your budding limbs to brown;
You race the waves and wade and leap and run
Then in the sweet, hot sand contented cuddle down.

You dream great dreams while all the upper air
Is musical with mews and round about
Upon the flats among the sea-ways there
The dim sea lavender spreads her purple fingers out.

I can report that the mews were still musical, at least in the spirit of our contemporary composers, and the horrent bent was still singing when I visited the Warren this summer: probably singing the same old song!

In a chapter of his book ‘My Devon Year’ of 1903 Phillpotts records a return visit to his beloved Dawlish Warren from which, in a day or two, I shall quote .

Tomorrow: Misjudging the tide.

Friday, 2 October 2009


There are in the world coasts where there is no tide. True, the moon still shows her power. She waxes and wanes and grows horns and loses them and swells to a golden orb. Men, women and beasts howl and whimper to the moon when she rises in her glory. Madmen run wild in the forests. All nature everywhere feels the influence of the goddess. There is, however, in many places no tide.

Here in the Estuary the tide comes and goes as prescribed by the moon and more or less as predicted by the Hydrographer of the Royal Navy and at the beginning of the year the boat owner buys a year’s worth of local tidetables from his Post Office or from the chandlers in town and thumbs it and bends it throughout the season until such time as he has no more use for it. He expects the information to be reliable.

In the Estuary a flood tide arrives more or less on time every half day and lifts my Poppy off her mooring and invites me to go for a sail.

But tides can have a will of their own. They often creep up on us when we are not looking and people like to complain about them in the same way that they like to complain about the weather. However much they are predicted they are yet unpredictable. There is either not enough water or there is too much. The tide floods either too early or too late.

But, as the poet has it, 'it ain't no use to grumble and complain It's jest as easy to rejoice.' Tides are for people who like surprises. The capricious tide adds zest to the boatman's day. Let us thank the Fates that our waters are tidal waters. Life on our coasts without tides would be decidedly dreary and dull.

Tomorrow: On Dawlish Warren.

Thursday, 1 October 2009


The skate really does have wings. It flies through its element. It is a beautiful olive colour when it comes up in the trawl. It can grow to be nine foot long but half of that is always tail. The phrase ‘as big as a dustbin lid’, which I used in my verses just posted, was a gift to me from a local fisherman describing an experience when he was seineing off Exmouth. He was, so runs the yarn, walking through the shallows off a sandbank when he stepped on the famous dustbinlidsized skate and was quick enough to grab it by the gills and add it to his catch.

My verses, ‘The Skate’, that I posted two days ago were written for a competition run by the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery maybe fifteen years ago. The Art Gallery had exhibited paintings by famous couples. Stanhope Forbes’great work was flanked by a wonderful painting by Elizabeth Forbes, his wife. To enter the competition, prize a fifty pound book token, one was invited to write a ‘poem’ inspired by a painting that had been exhibited. I don’t suppose too many people entered but I had the glory of winning joint first prize and was invited to the Gallery to receive my book token. At Plymouth I found that the enterprising gallerists had assembled an audience and I and my co-winner were invited to read our poems. The audience was made up of about twenty old Plymothian ladies and a couple of old Plymothian gentlemen. My opposite number read first and the audience responded with the gravity and applause that his work deserved and I then read my verses. .. Well! I thought I had written a funny poem and I expected at least half a smile from some of the listeners. No! They heard me out agape giving me the respect which they obviously thought that ‘poetry’ merited. Not the flicker of a smile. I somehow felt that I had earned my twentyfive quid.

A Hopeless Dawn, by the way, is a tremendous painting by Frank Bramley hung in the old Tate Gallery. It is a grim spoonful of social reality.

As we drove home I had much to say to my wife about the reception of my wonderful and amusing verses by the Plymothians but over that it might be a good idea for me to skate.

Tomorrow: Tides

Tuesday, 29 September 2009


Plymouth's old Museum and Art Gallery is very grand
and there's quite a few paintings there that I like and understand
such as that A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach by Stanhope Forbes
which makes the point that a fisherman's life wasn't just grief and storms
as you might think from paintings like Hopeless Dawn, which, you might know,
shows two women weeping because their men are out in a blow.
But for me the best about A Fish Sale is the giant skate
as big as a dustbin lid and weighing half a hundredweight.

Well, I've caught a few skate myself but never one half so fine
but this was Newlyn, 1885, not Exmouth '99
and when we'd caught skate we'd always fillet them on the way home,
cut off the wngs with two curving knifestrokes and the gulls would come
screaming from godknowswhere to gobble down the guts and things
until the skies were full with the flash and smack of their wings.

And that's the one thing about A Fish Sale I don't understand:
there's not one gull in the picture, neither at sea nor on land.

Monday, 28 September 2009


All gulls are omniverous and will eat the living with the dead but it is the great blackbacked who has the worst reputation for tearing apart the live young of other birds. A local name for the great blackbacked was the much more expressive “saddleback”. Here on the Estuary these murders are hidden from us and the lesser gulls do not seem at all shy of the great blackbacked who strides about among them and is so much bigger than they. All the voracity of all the gulls seems to be directed towards gobbling up the little green crabs and whatever else it is that they find in the estuarial mud.

Gulls are certainly greedy but there is something refreshingly honest about their greed. I used to much enjoy the cloud of herring gulls and black backed gulls, the lesser saddlebacks, that would follow the little trawler when we came home into the Estuary with the tide after we had been catching skate. Skate is the one fish that was filleted on board. Two crescent cuts and the bits went overboard to the savage delight of the gulls. What a brightness in the sunlight! What a diving and swooping was there! What a plunging and pouncing! What a howling and shrieking! The gulls were singing their hymn to life in the raw and one had to be a fearful hypocrite not sometimes to join in the chorus.

Tomorrow: A pretty poem entitled 'The Skate'.

Saturday, 26 September 2009


Here on the Estuary the gulls are sane and law abiding enough and only quarrel among themselves. The one thing one can criticise them for is the methodical way in which they bespatter the boats on the moorings with their viscous guano. At certain times of the year around high water, rows of juvenile gulls can be seen sitting along the gunwales of small boats comfortably perched, facing outboard and cheerfully discharging inboard. They put me in mind of the German recruits on their Gemeinschaftslatrine that Erich Maria Remarque describes in All Quiet on the Western Front.

I think the authorities that make war on seagulls would miss them more than something. They are certainly more enthusiastic scavengers than , for example, Plymouth’s streetcleaners. I have watched gulls cleaning up Union Street in the early hours, after the jolly sailors and royals have found their tripashore beds. They gobble up the abandoned fish and chips, the burgers, the fried chicken, the kebabs and even the naval vomit from the paving. Wherever the people fill the land with their uncleanness the seagulls descend like pure white miniseraphs to make good.

Tomorrow: The essential greed of gulls.

Friday, 25 September 2009


There was once a facetious car sticker, I haven’t seen it for a long while, that was popular with our insular peninsular rednecks. It bore the motto GROCKLES GO HOME AND TAKE A SEAGULL WITH YOU.

The word grockle, which means first and foremost a tourist or holidaymaker visiting glorious Devon, is a word that originated here but which has now gone on to wider usage. This car sticker always seemed to me not only to have a problem with number but also to be doubly offensive. After all are we not all somebody’s grockles somewhere, sometime? And would we want to be being asked to go home? As for seagulls, in my book they are glorious birds. If they were rare they would be treasured. I do not believe the official propaganda that urges fifty reasons why I should not feed them and I don’t believe they deserve to be treated as public enemies.

It is true that I was once fiercely attacked by a divebombing herring gull and momentarily feared for my life but that was an over reaction on both our parts and the attack took place not on the Estuary but in Chancery Lane, London and no doubt it was the stress of city life that had crazed the poor bird. In any case there are many species of gull in the British Isles, Coward lists fifteen not counting the Terns and Skuas, and surely they are not all to be brushed with the same tar.

Tomorrow: More Seagulls.

Thursday, 24 September 2009


Unfeeling, head and foot and heart of stone,
more blind than churchyard mole or belfry bat,
as mindless as the mould’ring buried bone,
and deaf and dumb as is the parson’s hat,
this tower has stood firm six hundred years.

Sometimes I give this tower half a nod
in passing, kindly, much as though it were
some gentle giant stood beside the road
who loiters, still and silent, and from there
has watched the traffic for six hundred years.

There’s many of us love this ancient structure
who nurse an image of it in the mind.
We’d weep for it if it should fall or fracture.
We praise it as a model of its kind,
this tower which has stood six hundred years.

This image I love best: by noontide light
the tower soars aloft; the warm stone glows;
the swifts fly high; the sky is blue and bright;
the tower blushes like a summer rose
as it has blushed for good six hundred years.

Others, of course, have stored this image too,
some now alive, many who are no more.
A bard perhaps hymned this same red on blue
let’s say about the time of Agincourt.
A vision shared across six hundred years?

Enough!.. Our tower, head and heart of stone,
more blind than churchyard mole or belfry bat,
as mindless as the mould’ring buried bone,
and deaf and dumb as is the parson’s hat,
has stood its ground these last six hundred years.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009


Today I particularly want to put the Tower of the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lympstone into my blog because tomorrow is that tower’s birthday. It is to be six hundred years old and much is being made of that. Its connections, however, with the Estuary are pretty tenuous.

True, the tower can be seen by boats on the Estuary from as far down channel as Cockwood but these days it can hardly be said to be a landmark. It nestles rather than looms! But six hundred years ago it would have been more evident and the most significant building between Topsham and the sea and would have served to guide boats from the main channel into Lympstone Lake, always a tricky turning.

The stone to build the body of the old, fourteenth century, church which is now replaced by the new church of 1864 came sailing along the coast and up the Estuary from the quarries at Beer but the great stones for the tower which is all of the old church that still stands were quarried in a field only a somewhat smaller stone’s throw away.

The tower carries a fine peal of bells, six of them, and when the tide is in and the bellringers ring the changes the sound floats across the water and fills the Estuary and delights the passing boatman.

And let us not forget that in the shadow of this tower lie buried the bones of many dead mariners: smugglers, pirates, fishermen and yachtsmen.

That will have to do!

Tomorrow is being celebrated this tower’s six hundredth birthday, or rather is being celebrated the precise day six hundred years ago (did anybody allow for the Old Calendar?) when it was consecrated by the then Bishop of Exeter, one Edmund Stafford. It would be nice if the bishop floated up with the tide and stepped ashore from an episcopal barge. (Well, he mitre but he didn't. He had been towerconsecrating in Woodbury only the day before!) and the pretty verses that I was pleased to be asked to compose for this grand occasion will be ceremoniously delivered tomorrow morning to the sound of a Royal Marine fanfare.

And I shall publish them tomorrow.

Monday, 21 September 2009


Look in any Devon guide book and Teignmouth equals Keats. It is of course quite unfair, this unreasonable monopoly, this power that the long dead poets exercise on our minds, our memories, our too many books.

Keats was in Teignmouth for only five minutes, for three weeks, okay three months perhaps, and yet by some magic he has somehow taken the place over. And can Teignmouth not boast long-resident and memorable dentists, house-agents, stockbrokers, bankers, perhaps even engineers, scientists? Certainly I am sure the town has seen many excellent butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, beggarmen and thieves. But the little place can’t escape the poet any more than I can.

So, homeward bound now, I bring my boat in close to the shore where the rocks are yet again green with sea-weed and there I see them, the doomed boys, the pale poet standing, frowning, I recognise him from Haydon’s sketch, and the little brother, curled up on a rock like a mermaid. Their ghosts watch me pass. I know what John is thinking: every maw, the greater on the less feeds evermore. That’s the way of the sea all right.

I give the matter some solemn thought and scrabble about to find a mackerel line.

No madam! There is no escaping dead poets. They cling like Lampits.

Tomorrow: An old church tower.


It is the year 1818 and Shelley is in Pisa or Leghorn or Lucca or somewhere. Byron is in Venice steeped in wickedness. But Keats is at Teignmouth being, with the turns of the tide, shallow and profound, happy and sad, breezy and sulky. He has been gazing on a lampit rock and has had deep poetic thoughts about what he can read there and he is now setting down verses and trying them out on Tom who no doubt has been gazing at the same lampit rock, a lampit being a limpet. And John is writing this poem by way of an epistle to another boy poet, his friend John Hamilton Reynolds:

Dear Reynolds! I have a mysterious tale
And cannot speak it: the first page I read
Upon a Lampit rock of green sea-weed
Among the breakers; ’twas a quiet eve,
The rocks were silent, the wide sea did weave
An untumultuous fringe of silver foam
Along the flat brown sand; I was at home
And should have been most happy, - but I saw
Too far into the sea, where every maw
The greater on the less feeds evermore,-
But I saw too distinct into the core
Of an eternal fierce destruction,….

“Find me a really good rhyme for destruction, dear Tom!”

“Destructi-on/gone, dear brother?” -

“Brilliant Tom! I don’t know how you do it. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

….And so from happiness I far was gone.

Eternal destruction/ gone! Yes! Gone too soon! And yet not altogether gone. Poets linger.

They cling like garlic.

Tomorrow: Keats Adieu!

Sunday, 20 September 2009


There is a soldier’s wind and it is a mild day. Come with me in my boat, Poppy, which also serves me now and again as a time machine, and let us cruise as far as Teignmouth and the Regency. True we are no longer in the Estuary but we are only a sea mile or two away and in Teignmouth we can visit the boy poet John Keats.

I imagine John Keats would not have answered to boy but surely that’s what he was first and last. And here he is, in love with words, drunk with words : - “You may say what you will of Devonshire. The truth is, it is a splashy, rainy, misty, snowy, foggy, haily, floody, muddy, slipshod county.”

“Give me a really good rhyme for Dawlish, dear Tom!” His teenage brother, Tom, much loved, even paler, only months away from death, is sprawled on the bed. They are lodging at Number 20, 21 or 22, the Strand, Teignmouth, perhaps even at the house that bears the plaque. John is working hard and falling over every really good rhyme that presents itself.

“Dawlish/smallish, dear brother?”

“Brilliant dear Tom! I don’t know how you do it.” And then the scratching of the quill as the boy-poet makes a gingerbread feast of it:

And Tom laughs and John laughs and then the boys flutter out, like pale ephemera, into Teignmouth Strand still laughing and it is a day in May though not sunny and the pretty girls in the bonnet shop laugh with them and so does the Devon maid whom John Keats fancies and wants to kiss behind the door.

And ginger is the spice of the moment.

Tomorrow: More Keats.

Saturday, 19 September 2009


The Estuary is best enjoyed by little boats. Any boat with a draught of over, say, two feet is asking to be taken to sea and, in the Estuary, is much confined to the channels. The crew has to take soundings or gaze at echo sounders when there are better things to see.

There is a perfectly respectable opinion that ‘going aground’ in the estuary is a thoroughly bad thing, something never to be risked and to be avoided at all costs, and, something, if by misfortune experienced, not to be talked about. This, however, is a very limiting opinion. If sandbanks are always to be given a wide berth then, at a stroke, much of the Estuary becomes out of bounds. Certainly, if small boatowners only feel happy sailing at high water on a ‘good tide’ they miss much of the glory of the Estuary.

The small ‘punts’ that fished the Estuary were always using the sandbanks and mudbanks. If, as sometimes happened, a boat returning home ran out of water under her keel the crew, without fuss, would step over the side of the boat and spread two fisherman’s anchors wide apart in the sand or mud and walk ashore creaking in their long boots. The boat would not complain. She would be quite happy to stay where she was left for as long as was required. The salmon boats were often left so anchored as a matter of course. When the fishing demanded it the boat spent a lonely night far from home. It was once common to see a salmon boat with all her gear floating lonely as a cloud somewhere in the middle of the Estuary.

It was remarkable how cleverly the small ‘punts’ would creep atround the banks only a couple of yards from the sand or mud. Mostly boats were rowed and the Seagull outboard motor only used when winds or tides were unfavourable or when time was pressing. My skipper kept a pint of fuel in a screwtopped pop bottle under a thwart. That was his reserve in total.

It is comforting for the solitary boatsman to know that as a last resort he is strong enough to push his boat off a bank and into deeper water. Ergo, as one grows older and weaker one requires an ever lighter boat for the estuary. For my eightieth birthday I shall be looking for a kayak.

Tomorrow: Keats in Teignmouth

Thursday, 17 September 2009


The swan in her power and her pride
passes by on the top of the tide
on a clear, calm and starstippled night.

and as she rides, silent and white,
her head, in a long lissom arc,
dips low to that sorcerous dark mirror,
the untroubled tide.

The swan in her power and her pride
pecks once at a tremulous flame
and somewhere a sun with no name
is swallowed and lost to the sky

and the swan in her power passes by.

Tomorrow: Going Aground.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009


Forty years ago it was an occasional cause of complaint by my wife that she had woken to find salmon scales again in our marital bed. I wonder how many wives around the Estuary have had the same cause. Whenever a fisherman who is lucky enough to have caught and handled fish comes home in the dark hours weary from working the nets and out of consideration for his sleeping wife finds his bed without switching on a light depend upon it there will be salmon scales between the sheets in the morning. Even if he is conscientious enough to scrub and shower before climbing into bed some of the shining scales will cling to him.

The salmon’s scales are things of beauty and are irridescent.

There are of course also the other kind of salmon scales, that is to say scales with which to weigh salmon. These my skipper kept in his fish shed where he had also a chest freezer. This freezer had been purchased second hand and had once belonged to an ice cream vendor. On the lid were still depicted ice creams and lollies in glorious colour. Children invited into the fish shed found these depictions of more interest than the fish. The weightiest salmon that was caught the three summers that I was with the salmon boat hit the scales at over twenty four pounds. As salmon go this is hardly a record. The salmon that once ended up stuffed and in a sad case at the Royal Albert Museum at Exeter weighed more than a hundred pound. But the fish we caught seemed to me a whopper and I took it to show my infant children at the cottage door. They still remember the fish hanging over both my arms, the head down one side and the tail down the other.

No doubt there were salmon scales to be washed from my clothes.

Tomorrow a pretty poem about an estuarial swan.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009


The principal places that lie in Exmouth’s Bay and up and down the Exe Estuary, west to east, are these: the Langstone Rock, Dawlish Warren, Cockwood, Starcross, Powderham, where the Exe meets the Kenn, Turf Lock, where the river meets the canal, Topsham, where the water freshens, Mount Howe, where the Exe meets the Clyst, Exton, Nutwell, Lympstone, Exmouth and so up and out to Straight Point.

To the north, above the reed beds where the motorway now crosses the river at Topsham the push and pull of the tide is still to be felt but here between these narrow suburban backs and banks there is little or nothing to be sensed of the Estuary except for this weak pulse of tide. To the south, beyond the narrows where that mighty sand bar, the Dawlish Warren, almost meets the Point at Exmouth, the Estuary is choked and narrowed and there is a famously fierce current or race. Once a boat rides through these turbulent waters at the Point she might as well be at sea though there is still a long haul before she reaches the Bell Buoy that signals that she has cleared the channel. Nevertheless the exposed waters between Langstone and Straight Point are Exmouth’s Bay and, weather permitting, even a cautious man whose boat is very small will be happy to venture thus far.

The widest point of the sheltered Estuary then lies not at its mouth where this sand bar straddles the river but is between Starcross and Exmouth where it measures well over a mile. The length of the Estuary, the distance from the Point at Exmouth to the high bridge where the M5 crosses the river at Topsham is more than six miles. At high water on a spring tide the Estuary is a wide, brimming, gleaming lake. At low water there are often more banks than waterways and a boatman voyaging northwards, up channel with the incoming tide, passes first the infamous Exmouth Pole Sand that has wrecked more ships than a flounder has freckles, then turns to the west into the Bight around the Dawlish Warren, then northwards past the Great Bull Hill, the Little Bull Hill, the Shaggles Sand, the Cockle Sand, Powderham Sand, next he curves around that wide bank of black mud called Greenland and so keeps the long West Mud between him and the Wall and the canal and at last he comes to Topsham moorings. He finds on this voyage that the banks transmute gradually from golden sand to black mud until at Topsham the mud is fairly sticky and stinking.

The names of the banks are ancient enough for no one to know their origins. Bull Hill is an odd name for a sandbank. The one or two seals, bulls or cows I cannot say which, who are often basking there looking blearily across to the Bight offer one possible explanation and Shaggles Sand suggests a local name for the cormorant who still gather there but I have never heard of shaggles anywhere else. It is a lovely word! The Cockle Sand is still the most likely place for cockles and Greenland is green enough in August when the weed lies on it. The Bight meaning a bend is an Old English word first written down in the fifteenth century with a ropy, sailorly feel to it.

Tomorrow: Salmon scales.

Monday, 14 September 2009


Fishermen, seeing the bird in a high place holding up his wings to dry, gave it the name Isle of Wight Parson. They were remembering their black cassocked priest high on his pulpit gesturing in his preaching or his prayer. I have somewhere heard the outspread wings called a crucifixion. Henry Williamson seemed to think that by so raising its wings the cormorant was able ‘to ease its tight crop’.

In ‘Redcliff’ Eden Phillpott’s gives us this lively exchange between clever Mary Honeywill and honest Joe Parable:

Mary. Look at the shags sitting on that mud-bank with their wings stretched out.’

Joe. Why do birds do that? I’ve often wondered. ’Tis as if they were going to start on a dance almost.’

Mary. They spread their wings out to dry them I expect.

Joe. The cleverness! Fancy a sea-fowl being so peart as that!

(‘Peart’ is an endangered Devon dialect word meaning wise, clever, able.)

There is often a muster of perhaps a dozen cormorant on the shingle beneath the Royal Marine barracks at Exton together with a siege of patient herons. The cormorant wait in line like so many jollies on jankers or perhaps more like so many bottles of Guinness. They wait for a full tide of little fishes and now and again they are lucky.

The old estuary fishermen used to grumble into their beers about the voracious nature of the cormorant and the dire effect he has on fish stocks. Their grievance has a long history. For Shakespeare cormorant was an adjective meaning greedy, insatiable, all devouring and William Congreve’s skirtchasing Old Batchelor has the splendid line: “Why what a Cormorant in Love am I!” Perhaps he knew the reputation of the cormorant who once were trained to take fish from the royal London fish ponds. In England the training of cormorant to catch fish has been known since the fourteenth century and in the seventeenth century it became a fashionable amusement. What hawks were to fowl cormorant were to fish. The Master of the Cormorant was one of the officers of James the First’s and of Charles the First’s households. I wonder if ever the cavalier Earls of Devon at Powderham dabbled in shagging for fish here on the Estuary. As for the common folk, our ancestors were wonderfully resourceful and, although I know of no evidence for it, there might once have been baseborn cormorant keepers. In a fanciful moment I can imagine cottagers here in the estuary villages keeping cormorant in cages at the backs of their cottages much as they used to keep ferrets when I first came to the village. Were there ever such cages with disconsolate cormorant standing on big webbed feet, hooded like falcon and nervously waiting to see a bit of action? Okay! Probably not!

The bird’s defenders make the argument that the bird’s voraciousness is overstated. Like most predators, the cormorant picks off the small and unhealthy fish and thus might be said to perform a service to the fisheries. Nevertheless there is a queue of people whom they have not convinced wanting gun licences so that they may find a few cormorant and kill them.

When cormorant choose they can swim along the surface with their bodies submerged and only their heads and necks periscoping above the water. From the boat it is fun to watch them diving for fish and to try to guess where they will surface. This is a bit like playing Spot the Ball, and just as difficult. There are times when the peart sea-fowl swim backwards under the water just to amaze and confound.

It is a pity that neither cormorant nor shag ever seem to find the right conditions to breed here on the Estuary. Their squabs are said to make good eating and a line in shagsquab pies and puddings in the village shops would be a better way to cull them than shooting the uneatable adult birds. Perhaps all that is needed to encourage them to breed is a goodly supply of paper bags.

Tomorrow: A Topography

Saturday, 12 September 2009


“The common cormorant (or shag)
Lays eggs inside a paper bag..”

A keen bird watcher might take exception to these fine, unforgettable lines from Christopher Isherwood’s poem, Common Cormorant, pointing out that Cormorant and Shag are separate species: Phalacrocorax carbo and Phalacrocorax aristotelis and what is more that they have very different nesting habits. To the Old English, however, both these shaggy birds, the one greenish black and the other blackish green, were shag and to the Normans they were both cormoran, the latter lovely word deriving from corvus marinus, the ‘sea raven’. The old Saxon speaking fishermen of the Estuary mostly called them shag. The fine distinction between the species perhaps came into being after the Conquest in much the same way as the distinction was made between sheep and mutton. It is easy to tell your cormorant from your shag but I have to admit that, although both carbo and aristotelis abound on the Estuary, I have seldom felt I needed to do so.

Here, opposite Starcross, we have the Shaggles Sand, a sandy island at low water to the northern end of which the cormorant still gather. How much nicer if the birds were generally called shaggles. It would put an end to all those tired jokes.

The birds who gather on the Shaggles Sand, like cormorant everywhere, enjoy spreading out their wings to the sun and the wind, so to dry them and in the act looking much more like heraldic eagles than any eagle I have ever met. Some say the cormorant is an ugly bird. True there is something truly primeval about him but I love to see him. He pleases the eye. The designer of today’s German eagle certainly seems to have taken a cormorant for his model. I think I know which one.

Next: Even more cormorant.

Friday, 11 September 2009


See how steadfastly they stand ,
the cormorant of Lympstone Sand,
in ranks like booties on parade
with all their better parts displayed.

They face up nobly to the wind
and neatly tuck their tails behind
and number off from left to right.
Their hearts are true. Their eyes are bright.

They never twitch or jig about
but hold their heads high, chests puffed out
and perk their bills up, if you please,
to smackbang forty five degrees.

These cormorant of Lympstone Sand
defer to none in all the land
nor ever let their bearing flag
lest some fond souls might think them shag.
Tomorrow: Something more on the Cormorant

Thursday, 10 September 2009


In the spring of perhaps the year 1932 a lusty Devon lad, he might have been all of twenty seven, with his Kraft durch Freude girlfriend, Monica, was staying in one of the little bungalows that in those days stood at the Exmouth tip of Dawlish Warren. His name was Raymond Bernard Cattell. One day the local fisherman, one Bill Luscombe, who had made it his business to deliver food, letters, newspapers and drinking water to the several bungalow dwellers on the Warren, brought to Cattell unknowingly (“If I had told him it was a boat” writes young Raymond “he would have laughed his head off.”) packages containing a build it yourself, collapsible, German, two man, sailing canoe. Cattell and his friend Monica assembled this boat on the sands of the Warren and for her first voyage they paddled off up the Exe and into the Clyst. They skimmed over the weir at the Bridge Inn, had a jolly day up the Clyst and then paddled back by moonlight not without some curiously related adventures which can be read in Cattell’s 1937 book Under Sail in Red Devon.

No doubt many have made that trip up the Clyst before and since but what I think makes this story of interest is the fact that Cattell went on to be one of the twentieth century’s greatest and most celebrated psychologists. His life was truly illustrious and when he died in Honolulu in 1998 he had spent sixty years teaching and experimenting on the far side of the Atlantic. Countless psychology students, myself included, knew his name from his many heuristic experiments. For a long time I owned and enjoyed his Under Sail in Red Devon but never suspected the intrepid young canoeist and author was the self same man as the great American psychologist.

Tomorrow: a pretty poem entitled Cormorant.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009


Even in inshore waters a calm can bring a trace of eeriness, a touch of melancholy. The sailing boats going nowhere with their canvas hanging limply look withered and uncared for and any kind of motor boat that splutters out and scratches the glass is a vandal leaving his tag on the calm of the day. But for the lucky oarsman now is the time and tide to go floating and boating. On such a tide his boat will be rowed with long and leisurely sweeps of the oar for there is no need to pull hard and dig deep and chop in and out of the water as there is when there are waves be to cut across. His boat sweeps smoothly onward, gently, effortlessly like a swan gliding across a mill pond.

When the wind dies, the tide inherits, which is to say that whenever there is a flat calm the tide comes into its own and idle men can take full advantage of its ebb and flow. They can rest their oars, easy all, and let their boats drift with the rising waters up river until such time as the tide is full. If, as here on the Estuary, there is a waterside pub at the top of the tide, I am thinking first and foremost of the famous Turf Hotel, (pictured above,) so much the better. Then, a merry crew, perhaps beneath the setting sun, they can take themselves home again without care, putting their backs into it only here and there, now and again, once in a while. This is the kind of boating of which George and Harris and Jerome dreamt but hardly found on the upreaches of the Thames. It is the kind of boating to be enjoyed full leisurely, all in the golden afternoon, the kind of boating that calls, alas!, if only they were plentiful, for pretty girls in white dresses with pure unclouded brows and straw hats and parasols and picnic baskets.

The old fishermen could see the fish beneath the surface swimming up the Estuary on such a flat tide and once or twice I have seen for myself the faint chevrons on the surface of the water where the mullet and the bass are pushing their noses up river. If they do come up the Estuary when there is dead calm, the bass and mullet leap flashing out of the water and of a blue moon an angler can find himself in the middle of a school of sporting fish and can pull them in on a pipeclay lure.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009


In Lympstone at the water’s edge stands a clock tower with a pyramidal roof, a pint-sized version of Saint Stephen’s tower at the Houses of Parliament, and on top of the pyramid is a weather vane in the form of an arrow. When there is no wind five young starlings come to perch on this vane, from time to time they balance on only one leg each. These contented birds might be said to be demonstrating to the world sufficient evidence of calm on the Estuary. But perhaps not! Come to think of it, as tipsters, these five starlings should not be relied on. They have been known to deceive the innocent sailor and keep him at home on a tide when he could be winging up and down the river like a fiddler’s elbow for there is many a time that a fine breeze is waiting out in the channels that does not make itself known in Lympstone’s cove.

The surface of the water is a much better indicator. The tides flood and ebb but they hardly ruffle the water. The slightest breeze does so. In a true calm the waters are a mirror to the sky, a pewter mirror to a cloudy sky, a silver mirror to a sunny sky, a star spangled mirror to a clear night sky.

Calm at sea has a bad reputation and a ghostly feel about it. Was calm not the albatross’s revenge? It can’t have been much fun to be trapped aboard a painted ship upon a painted ocean and in the great days of sail a prolonged calm was understandably dreaded by all ancient mariners and whistlers for winds. There is a boatman in a Goethe poem who is also somewhat perturbed by an awesome Meeresstille. (my translation)

Stillness reigns upon the waters.
Nothing stirs. The sea is calm.
His boat as still as death, the skipper
Gazes ’round him in alarm.

On every side a fearful silence.
No single breath from any quarter
And far as eye can see no wavelet
Frets the surface of the water.

Tomorrow: still becalmed!

Saturday, 5 September 2009


Dick Squire would say that peeler crabs were the one catch that could be relied on to keep a man off the dole. They were to be had all the year long and they never failed. In the days when the trains would still carry them up country they regularly journied with British Rail, limp but living and in shiny silver tins with holes in the top and each tin neatly labelled, from Lympstone to Dover and Folkestone and Hastings and such other places where they were desired for their plump bodies and their long and beautiful legs… five pairs of them! Thirty years ago I remember seeing old Sam Squire wheeling them by the barrowload, and it was a splendid, old , creaky, painted, wooden barrow too. The tin cans were wheeled up to the old station to travel in the guards van to Exeter and so on their way.

To harvest peeler crabs, hubbers are laid in a row three or four foot apart along a mudbank. 'Hubber', or perhaps 'ubber', is the village name for the pantiles or Spanish tiles or short lengths of guttering or, best of all, ridge tiles that are laid out on the mud or sand of the Estuary for the crabs to hide beneath. The little green crablings, shed their horny skins several times as they grow to crabhood and at the same time their watery innards change to firm flesh and they become prime provender for birds and fishes and the ultimately desirable bait for fishermen who want to take flatfish from the bottom. These soon to be naked crabs, those that are about to shed their carapaces, have learned to hide away and wait for their new armour to harden and if they see a hubber they think themselves lucky and scrabble underneath it quick and lie low.
Tomorrow: A word about bootlegs.

Friday, 4 September 2009


Mine is a very little boat. Her name is Poppy and she is of a type called Scaffie. For seven months of the year I keep Poppy on a mooring at Lympstone on the River Exe. This is her fourth year in commission and she has already given me more fun than I deserve. She is one of the smallest boats on the moorings, her overall length being a mere fourteen feet and nine inches, but for me and to fulfil all my dreams and to serve all my purposes she is big enough.

For some forty years I had owned and loved somewhat bigger day boats and when I found this last love, thinking I might be past love, I did not expect to love her half so well as I had loved Bärbel or Lorna or Squab I or Squab II, but in no time at all the little minx had stolen my heart and in the words of the song, ‘I loved her as I never loved before.’

This wonderful boat was designed by the late John Watkinson, the designer of the legendary Drascombe Lugger. He had been a naval officer and there is a touch of romance and panache about every boat he designed. In the dim and distant past I went to the Boat Show and saw the Drascombe Lugger for the first time at the stand of Kelly and Hall, boatbuilders of Newton Ferrers. Like many other people I was enchanted by the design. I loved the tan sails and the piratical rake and the promise that she would ‘jog along under jib and mizzen’. I imagined her jogging through immense shoals of mackerel off Exmouth while I did some serious fishing. Without further ado I commissioned the building of a boat that was the first such on the Exe and which served me well for many years.

When I bought my first Lugger, Squab, I was still in my twenties and my growing family sailed with me. When, however, I decided to buy the Scaffie, Poppy, I was in my sixties and all my chicks had flown and my wife had long since declared that her sailing days were done. It was clear to me that I wouldn’t be needing a big boat. In any case when it come to boats and boating I have always thought small. What I want and need is a small boat in which to potter about the Exe and, on increasingly rare occasions, to sail me through coastal waters on a fairweather day. My boat has to be small enough for me to be able to slide her off the estuary mudbanks whenever Iput her aground. She has to be a rowing boat as well as a sailing boat because it is my delight to row across the calm flood tides. She has to have a simple sail plan because I am a bear of little brain who has always fumbled and confused sheets and halyards. She has to be supplied with a small outboard motor to rush me home whenever I become cold or hungry, weary or queasy.

It was with personal, practical and less than heroic considerations such as these that I went shopping for my boat.

Tomorrow: Something on Peeler Crabs