In my own fishing days on the Estuary in the early seventies I sometimes had the feeling that I was working in a tradition that stretched back at least to include Stone Age humans. An instance being this: there were many times, when the night tides were ebbing away, that my skipper and neighbour, Dick Squire, the last of the full time fishermen in my village, would fetch me down from my sleep by throwing shingle to clatter against my bedroom window pane. A few yards from my door at the end of the slipway would be two or three men waiting silently in the dark. We were the crew, off in a group to walk across the mud, sometimes as much as a mile, to where, at the edge of the channel, we had left our salmon boat the tide before, anchored out and waiting for us. Those marches across the wet mudbanks, sometimes by moonlight, sometimes by starlight, sometimes under cloud, were wonderfully timeless. I had always the sense that just such expeditions had been part and parcel of man’s experience of the Estuary for ever.
At night almost every thing that was done by the salmon crew was done in silence. Dick, when we reached the channel’s edge, would bend down and plant a twig into the mud at the very edge of the tide and stand back and watch how the swirl of the tide lapped around it. From his observations of the little stick he judged the speed of the flood and divined when and where to make a haul, when and where to row the seine out into the channel. It seemed to me that he had sorcerous powers. He was intimate with the fishing god and by starlight he could see the fish deep beneath the water.
Nowadays, as far as I know, no one makes such night walks across the mud but still today I experience two circumstances when I, in my own small boat, Poppy, can feel that I am lost in time and experiencing the tides with these cave dwelling first comers and their prehistoric descendents. The first is again by night when, drifting aimlessly on a tide, I think to share the sense of blind adventure with these first humans. I can imagine them floating hereabouts, all senses, smelling with dilated nostrils, seeing with night eyes, listening with ears that twitch and move, trailing their fingers in the water, tasting the salt in the air.
My second prehistoric Estuary, even more so, is when there is mist on the river. Then the sense of a primitive past can be strong and every inch of the journey is a surprise, the fish that jump, the seabirds that fly out of the mist only to disappear again, the banks that loom out of the gloom at the last moment. We speak of the mists of time and it is a powerful metaphor for there seems something so transforming about mist that all our our senses including our sense of time can be warped by it. I once wrote some verses on this theme inspired by standing at the end of the boat shelter wall at Lympstone and gazing out across the Estuary into, well, into mist and kidding myself that I was gazing into time. I shall post them tomorrow.