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.


1 comment:

  1. I heard the Exe Estuary mussels get a great endorsement today on Radio 4's Food Programme. The Exmouth Mussel Company was chosen as runner up for Best Food Producer at the BBC Food & Farming Awards... great to know some fishermen are still getting it right!