Wednesday, 26 August 2009


By chance I met a charming woman last Friday who was ninety-nine years old and bright as a button. It was a brief encounter and somewhat surreal.

I was in Exmouth, in the Age Concern charity shop opposite the library, buying a couple of Victorian photo frames at two pounds apiece and she was at the counter beside me buying a book and a pen. She looked at my photo frames in one of which was still the likeness of a fine Victorian pater, all whiskers and waistcoats, and she smiled at me and said: “That could be your grandfather.” “It’s not!” said I, “but I might replace him with my great grandfather.”

And then out of the blue she said “My grandfather was a fisherman in Lympstone. I was born in his cottage in one of those lanes that go down to the beach.” “Quay Lane?” I asked. “Yes.” said she.

Well I was interested. Here was the granddaughter of one of the old Lympstone fishermen who had been born in that huddle of cottages in Edwardian times. In those days Lympstone had a proper fishing fleet and not a motor between them. This was the fleet that Eden Philpotts described in his 1922 book Redcliff aka Lympstone. Here he describes the local fishermen setting out at night:

“… not a few fishermen stood upon the little breakwater with their dingheys (sic) waiting below. The fishing fleet rode at anchor a quarter of a mile from land. They were set blackly on the still waters, and a boat or two from the haven had already started for them. Women and landsmen stood about among the departing fishers. Little groups talked, moved, mingled; lanterns twinkled and one by one the shore boats carried their crews to sea..”

I asked my chance encounter for her grandfather’s name: “Challis” she said. I asked her if she remembered much of Lympstone in those days. “Well no,” she said, “you see, my mother married a soldier and when I was about ten he was sent out to India, to Rawalpindi, and we went with him.” She grinned, “and I was taught at an army school - by a corporal – I think I knew more than him – because, you see, I was a reader – I’ve always been a reader. She held up the book she was buying to make her point.

I wanted to ask more but we were not alone and I was unsure what to ask and how to ask it and somehow I missed my moment. We went our separate ways and I was strangely stirred. I had learned nothing except that a fisherman called Challis had once lived in Quay Lane. I had done nothing more than chat for a half minute with one who had been a little girl shipped off to India at about the time Eden Phillpotts was writing his book about Lympstone. Nevertheless I felt that something significant had happened.

I had met a daughter of the old Estuary!

Perhaps I shall meet her again.

Tomorrow a sermon on the Spirit on the Waters

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