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.

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