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

Thursday, 3 September 2009


“What are those ragged creature going out on the mud for?”

“After mussels and cockles,” says pretty Milly Batstone….

“What they call a minor industry , ” says Arthur, her wimpish, grocer boyfriend visiting from the city of Exeter who just doesn’t get it. “I suppose only the lowest of the low do such messy work; and only the lowest type of people eat them anyway.”

“Your quite wrong there,”
answers his sweetheart, Milly. “There’s nothing messy about it. Our mud’s clean—very different from Exeter mud.”

This messy or not so messy, minor industry of the harvesting of shellfish is lovingly described in Eden Phillpotts’ 1922 novel, Redcliff. Later in his story Miss Jane Shears, feisty cockle gatherer extraordinary, puts the unloveable Arthur right:

“You speak out of your Exeter ignorance; but cockles is our bread and cheese here, just like tying up parcels of bread and cheese for other people to eat is your bread and cheese……All our women – even our sempstresses and such like- go down to the tide off and on, to earn a bit of the cash God puts in the mud. Cockles be the sugar in our tea and the butter on our bread, my dear man.”

Tide after tide the cockles and mussels were raked out of the mud by the women and children of Lympstone village and the mussels were taken by the basketful to be cleansed at the local cleansing tanks before being sent off by rail to the mussel-eating factory workers of the Midlands. The story I have heard is that the cleansing tanks at Sowden End were a consequence of the unregulated years which came to an end when shellfish from the Estuary poisoned a couple of streets of some Midland town or other. I would like to know if anyone else knows more of this story. In any case the cleansing project failed finally because it became too expensive for the local shellfish gatherers to use the tanks and in the 1930s the shellfish industry collapsed.

In the sixties and early seventies it was still possible to spend a happy day on the banks and to bring home many buckets full of cockles. My father and my mother regularly went a cockling, mostly not in the mud but on the Cockle Sand and their only bathtub was often full of cockles bubbling away cleansing themselves in brine. They supplemented their fried breakfasts with them, crisping them in butter. Delicious!

Tomorrow: an introduction to my Poppy entitled A Boat for the Estuary.


Tuesday, 1 September 2009


When the tide is out my boat, Poppy, lies on her side happily enough on the black mud at Lympstone. This Exe mud has a distinctive smell which I find not altogether unpleasant. Once it was even believed to be wholesome and beneficial and visitors came to the Exe to enthuse about the mud and to smell it for the sake of their health. But the wind of change has blown and these days visitors tend to say only rude things about our mud and the smell of it. When someone has been working on the mud, laying a mooring or checking a mooring or scraping off a few midseason barnacles, the smell follows him wherever he might go and, despite scrubbing, it hangs about for a few days.

To walk for any distance across this mud in long boots requires practicing a simple skill., a description of which is in danger of sounding like the truly odious Augustus Carp’s description of how, soon after he was sixteen, he learned how to descend from an omnibus in motion without the sacrifice of an erect position. Here, however, goes! The serious mudwalker must stride or slide confidently and flatfootedly forward and then withdraw his rear foot from the mud exaggerating the pointing of the toe of the foot downwards into the ooze before pulling the boot out in such a way that leg and foot are as near as possible aligned. Moreover the walker must walk somewhat bowlegged and so that he places his feet a goodly distance apart. Once this knack has been mastered it is there for life. The mudbanks of the kingdom become the healthy playground of the intrepid, bow legged mudwalker.

To stand still on the mud for more than a few seconds is to invite disaster. If stopping and staring is absolutely necessary then great care must be taken before moving off . It is at this point that many a man loses his balance much to the amusement of those that witness the fall. I might have written ‘man or woman’ except in all my years of mudwalking I have not yet met a woman walking on the mudbanks. There is, however, hardly a square foot of mud where a woman’s foot has never trod. A century ago these mudbanks were wandered over by an army of women and children who went down to the tide dressed fantastically and clutching rakes and baskets to collect the shellfish.

Coming soon: More mud.