Thursday, 29 October 2009


When there were still men working full time and making a living from the fishing in my village there was a lot of net mending going on. On the foreshore some of the poles are still standing where the fishermen strung their nets between tides to mend them. Now they are used as washing lines. I suspect thay always had a secondary use as washing lines even in the busiest days of the fishing. They must have been a point of conflict between fishing man and washing woman. The one or two fishermen who were still mending nets here in the sixties were very deft. The needles, somebody somewhere must still be selling netting needles but I have not seen one for an age, flashed in and out of the net and the quickness of the hand deceived the eye. Before the nets were mended they had to be cleared. All manner of unwanted flesh and weed was plucked out of the mesh and left to rot in the sun. The flesh was mostly dead crab which on a summer’s day were soon reeking to heaven and smelling of death and corruption. Horse mackerel and other unwanted fish added to the stink on the shingle but the tides came and went and cleansed the beach and washed away all vile things so that the nets might be cleared once more.

To have a hole in a salmon seine is to court disaster. The salmon is a clever fish and he will find that hole and be away before you can pull in the net. He will even leap over the head lines or dive under the lead lines if there is any snag or irregularity to the net or if a crew is careless. It was a matter of pride with the old fishermen that all their nets should be without kinks, twists, gaps or holes,

Net mending was one of those activities that permitted a man to talk to his idle neighbours. I remember listening to my skipper’s old father while he worked away with his needle. He was in his seventies and had a good line in philosophy and would make a strong case for the quality of his life and work. He knew well enough that the age of the inshore fishermen like himself was coming to an end and that he had seen to best of it but he believed that his had been a good life, better than many lives that would be lived in the new age. He remembered when there had been a dozen men mending nets on the Hard in Lympstone, talking the tide up, but now he was the last of them. He had been working at the fishing day and night, ebb and flood, since he was a boy and he remembered going out to catch the herring in the days when they swarmed around the Devon coast. He remembered to a fish what catches they had made and to a penny what rewards they had enjoyed for their labours. He had sailed and motored in green seas and had netted more herring than the stars in the sky. I found him working at the nets in the evening of the day that his twin brother was buried and we talked while the tide crept in. He was philosophising about life and death and telling the history of the twin brother that he had lost and talking again of the weather that was coming and of the scarcity of salmon and the price of eels.

Monday, 26 October 2009



by Ogden Nash

I don't mind eels
Except as meals.

And while we're at it, Ogden Nash on the Seagull.

by Ogden Nash.
Hark to the whimper of the sea-gull;
He weeps because he's not an ea-gull.
Suppose you were, you silly sea-gull,
Could you explain it to your she-gull?

Next: Mending nets.

Sunday, 25 October 2009


What subliminal memory, what gene
causes these living, dying squirmers so to disquiet?
Why should corporal entwinings so unsettle,
fleshly twistings so disconcert,
bodily twirlings so disgust?

Worms and snakes are bad
but eels are worst.
Harmless, unless the snappy conger,
but I have seen
strong eyes shun, rugged faces blench,
appalled by these muddied writhings.

Atrocity lurks somewhere in the eel bucket
like a secret shame.
There brutally displaced,
now desperate in their poisoned chamber,
the doomed eels twitch, jerk, thresh ever the more
as round and round they go
in and about each others nakedness.
What ghastly convolutions!

A danse macabre!
Look away!

Thursday, 22 October 2009


The fishmonger who came to Lympstone in his battered van to buy my skipper's catch needed to find his eels alive. The day before his coming was the day to raise the eel keep. This keep, as I remember it, was a very simple home made contraption of rusty iron and chicken wire no bigger than a ferret cage. It was rowed out, attached to a buoy and sunk in the Lympstone lake at a depth where it would never dry out. Every time a sizable eel was taken in the nets or on the flounder lines it was delivered to this prison. the keep was raised and sunk again and the newly taken eels joined their fellow captives in the depths. By the time the fishmonger came to call, the often chock full keep of muddied, squirming eels, each wrapped around other, had been washed and bucketed ready for sale.

My father loved to catch and cook eels. He had a little Swedish oak smoker like an army mess tin which cooked an eel to perfection. What he, what any right minded person, could not enjoy was the skinning of them. Eels love life or at least are wonderfully tenacious of it. However dead you think your eel to be it will still squirm and twitch so as to surprise and disconcert you. An eel skinner has constantly to convince himself that the creatures feel no pain. (Ah! but can any man who has never been an eel in the skinning be sure of the matter?)

My father's way of skinning eels seemed to me to have been truly creative although I suppose he borrowed it from his more 'genuine' fishermen neighbours. He had in his shed a blacksmith's vice. This description by the way is not for the faint hearted. if in doubt look away now! He would clamp the head of the eel fast. Then with a Stanley knife he would cut a delicate line around the eel's neck and then with a pair of pliers would tug the skin downwards. The skin would come away, he would never tire of saying, like a silk stocking from a woman's leg.

The doomed eel would twitch to the last.

Next: A disturbing poems about eels.

Sunday, 18 October 2009



The smaller estuary salmon that were caught in the seine late in the season were called by the old fishermen: ‘lammies’. I don’t know who told me but I believe it, these lammies take their name from the Lammastide, one of those half forgotten festivals with roots reaching down to pagan times. Lammas is now disregarded almost everywhere but not forgotten in the city of Exeter where once a year a Lammas Fair is held, a grand occasion where the Lord Mayor leads a procession of rejoicing costumed schoolchildren to the Guildhall and, for the duration of the fair, a pole and a gilded glove stand in the market placeas a symbol of amnesty. The city claims that its ancient Lammas Fair is ‘at least nine hundred years old’ which is so much longer than anyone can remember that it might as well be a lot older.

It is therefore just possible that this fine word, lammie, which, in the context of salmon, is in danger of being lost for ever, has echoed around the banks and flats where men catch salmon for quite a while. The Exonians celebrate Lammas as and when they choose but the old festival was fixed to the first day of August in the old calendar, which, add eleven days, is about the time when the lammies run thickest in the channels. They are clean, pretty fish and they weigh between seven and nine pounds and tend to be relatively numerous. Even in the lean seventies it was not unknown to catch seven or eight of the fish in one haul and it was heartening to the weary seiner for once to see so many fine fish in the bunt of his net. It meant too that the precarious salmon season often ended on a high note.

The lammies of course, like all true salmon, are great leapers, that after all is what the word salmon means, but they do not only leap up weirs and falls. They leap for joy in the calm of the estuary. They leap for the fun of leaping and from time to time I still see the lammies at the lammastide, jumping clean out of the waters and glinting in the sun.
Next: Eels.

Thursday, 15 October 2009


I had meant to leave Eden Phillpotts and Dawlish Warren well alone for the time being. We have had more than enough of both of them. But then I discovered that there is a new (Copyright 2008) book, “From an Obtuse Angle, the Life and Work of Eden Phillpotts.” written by David Needham and available from Lulu Publishing, . It is by far the best account of Phillpott’s life and work available.

David Needham lived in Devon until 1972 when he moved to Tasmania. By coincidence he quotes the same passage that I quoted in my blog of 8th October but I am going to let him quote it again because of the wonderful comment that he subscribes to it:

“Many years later Phillpotts would recall these halcyon childhood days in one of his essays in My Devon Year (Methuen 1904 ) after he had revisited Dawlish Warren following an absence of over thirty years. Like many children his imagination was vivid: “these by sand hills were a procession of lion-coloured monsters, wandering in awful company by the waters and I imagined these gigantic and sinister things as leaping into the narrow channel where Exe flows to the sea, and crossing over it that they might devour a little town upon the other side”. The monsters that finally devoured the little town of Exmouth were not, however, the monsters of Phillpotts’ imagination but developers and contemporary town planners.” (my italics)

Which brings us neatly to the subject of Exmouth philistinism. There cannot be another place in the kingdom that is surrounded by so much natural beauty and yet has so little integrity or charm. To consider Exmouth’s relationship with the Estuary alone is to review a history of disasters. What a wonder the land between the railway and the beaches of the Estuary might be. Where now there are dismal carparks, coachparks, boatparks and general squalour there could have been tree lined avenues and promenades where lovers could walk; there could have been waterside inns where one could watch the sun go down in a blaze of glory over Haldon and a foaming pint; there could have been caf├ęs and restaurants with glorious estuary views. There could have been boat shelters and quays and quiet places where small boat owners might tie up and come ashore.

As for that monstrous development of today's tackiness and tomorrow’s slums where once were the docks, with the myriad signs of ‘bugger off this is private!” , "park and be clamped! & co. … but enough! ....I must consider my blood pressure.

Next: 'Lammies'

Tuesday, 13 October 2009


The day the sky turned green on Dawlish Warren
the trippers came in droves to Exmouth front
and some rejoiced to see a sight so foreign
and some dismissed it as a silly stunt.

The day the sky turned green there was no reason.
The sun was shining and there was no cloud.
It was a dog-day of the summer season.
It made a deep impression on the crowd.

The locals lowered and blamed the District Council,
the pious prayed and took it for a sign
and still the sun shone down on saint and scoundrel,
a golden grape upon an em’rald vine,

and swam its course as guileless as a goldfish,
gliding through the clearest, greenest seas,
until the day grew old, the air grew coldish
with the upspringing of the evening breeze.

The green drained from the sky and on the morrow
the heavens once again were welkin blue
and some expressed surprise and some their sorrow
and some went off to Paignton and the zoo.

And we were young and life and love were jolly
amid the sand dunes where we were not seen.
None but the summer sun remarked our folly
on Dawlish Warren when the sky was green.

Monday, 12 October 2009


“I have seen dawn upon the Exe,” writes Eden Phillpotts, “ and can remember how a great mist rolled down the river to meet the morning. In billows it came under a breeze from shore, hid all the heron-haunted flats and marshes, heather-ridges and sleepy dunes; then the risen sun touched it, and it waned gloriously in a rosy glow against the increasing blue of the sky; while from its depths stole Exe to the sea; and I saw red cliffs and marble beaches and fishers with bright sails setting forth into an ocean of light.”

This would have been the eighteen seventies. To have seen the dawn from the Warren, it argues that the boy Eden spent the night there. Did young adventurers camp there in Victorian days? A lot of families camped there a hundred years later in the nineteen seventies. We did, my wife and I and two infant children, on a wild night of thunder and lightning and were woken by the sea birds to our own desert island and a day of fine weather. Now, alas, there are ‘notices’ on the beach prohibiting all sorts of things, camping amongst them.

In his soap operatic novel “Redcliff”, Phillpotts sends two pairs of lovers to the Warren, not at the same time!, to experience the bliss of young love enhanced by the beauties of Nature.

“He took off his coat and spread it for her to sit on. Then he flung himself on the sand, smoked and looked at the evening light creeping down the estuary and burning on the flats till they shone like red gold. Mary heard the whispers of the dune, where breezes stirred its ragged, grassy crown; she listened to the ripple of the waves also and the cry of the marsh birds. The boats were returning to Redcliff on the tide, their little sails aglow.”

Eden Phillpotts was one of those men who had been ‘in love’ with some girl or other since his schooldays and I strongly suspect the Warren might have been the scene of one of the old womanizer’s first dalliances.

Be that as it may, tomorrow I shall post a love song entitled ‘The day the sky turned green on Dawlish Warren

Thursday, 8 October 2009


Eden Phillpotts in his essay on Sand Dunes in his 1903 book ‘My Devon Year’ writes of his childhood visits to Dawlish Warren:

“Then these sand-hills were a procession of lion-coloured monsters, wandering in awful company by the waters; and the scanty grasses served for bristling hair upon them; and I imagined these gigantic and sinister things as leaping into the narrow channel where Exe flows to the sea, and crossing over it that they might devour a little town upon the other side. Yet me they hurt not, and I would lie upon their hot breasts fearlessly, roll in thesoft sand, speculate on the purple of the sea-holly, prick my fingers with it, tumble and bask, and gazing upwards, build my secure kingdom, fortress, home in the pinnacles of a summer cloud.”

And again:

“These rolling dunes are a home of many good things: for flowers that are beautiful dwell among them, and flowers that are cheerful under stress of circumstances, and flowers that are merely rare. Hare’s-foot trefoil, whose pink blooms are hidden in a pearly mist, make a sort of manna scattered by the way; soldanella spreads little arrow-shaped leaves under the grey-green wheat-grass and opens her trumpets there; sea-rocket creeps to the very feet of the sea-horses that paw the beach at high tides, and the great gulls look into its mauve eyes as they strut on yellow feet in the harvest of the last wave.”

And so on. And so on. I find it all sounding just a little alarming. Those hotbreasted monsters are about to gobble up poor little Exmouth while the sea rocket keeps a mauve eye on the yellow legged gulls (not herring-gulls then!) and the sea horses. But he was a great observer of detail was Eden Phillpotts. He would have liked to have been remembered as “a man who used to notice such things.” The quotation is from the poem ‘Afterwards’ by the writer said to be Phillpott’s ‘god’, Thomas Hardy. But compared to Hardy old Phillpotts is hardly remembered at all.

Next: A little more of Phillpotts on the Exe.

Monday, 5 October 2009


I have misjudged the tide but that's no matter. My boat is still leaning awkwardly on the mud but I can soon walk out to her in my short boots and clamber aboard. Once one saw a lot of longbooted walkers and waders out to boats who did not want to waste a moment of the tide. My father used to wade out to his 'punt' relying on a boathook to give him a third leg. This word 'punt' in local usage was given to the open, estuary built, clinker fishing boats of fifteen or sixteen foot, such boats as , in the days of the fishing fleet, carried the men out to their moored craft.

I sit in my stranded boat as though I were a child playing some game of the imagination and for a moment I consider that there might be something ridiculous about sitting in a boat that is lying high and dry and on her side. I have, however, already pushed that thought to the back of my consciousness for there is much to do. I have carried a few unwelcome pints of Exe mud into the boat on my boots and the seagulls have left a spattering of lime on the thwarts and there is some bailing out to be done and fishing lines to be rewound and any amount of cleaning up and tidying ship and squaring things away. It is amazing how much can be found to be done in such a small boat

Meanwhile the water is already lapping around Poppy's keel and there is a breeze and the air is fresh and the banks are fast disappearing and the gulls are wailing, mourning the loss. A little more general boatkeeping and now the tide is under my boat and she has steadied and I can feel her waking from her slumber. I slip her mooring and set my one sail and my Poppy tries but fails to pull herself into the flood. I poke with an oar, usually too early, but eventually she slides and bumps into deeper water and catches the breeze and wings away to glory.

Tomorrow: Back to the Warren.

Saturday, 3 October 2009


In 1862 Eden Phillpotts was born in India. His father died when he was four and he and his mother and his brothers returned to England and it seems that they lived for some years at Dawlish with his grandfather and his mother’s sisters.

Anyway, one of his most precious memories was that as a boy he ran and rolled in the sand dunes on Dawlish Warren. He later wrote verses about it. Let me quote a stanza or two:

Oh naked-footed boy with the wild hair
And hopeful eyes, is it so long ago
Among these windy dunes you made your lair
Beside the immutable sea’s unwearied ebb and flow?

Above you sings the horrent bent; the sun
Finds you and burns your budding limbs to brown;
You race the waves and wade and leap and run
Then in the sweet, hot sand contented cuddle down.

You dream great dreams while all the upper air
Is musical with mews and round about
Upon the flats among the sea-ways there
The dim sea lavender spreads her purple fingers out.

I can report that the mews were still musical, at least in the spirit of our contemporary composers, and the horrent bent was still singing when I visited the Warren this summer: probably singing the same old song!

In a chapter of his book ‘My Devon Year’ of 1903 Phillpotts records a return visit to his beloved Dawlish Warren from which, in a day or two, I shall quote .

Tomorrow: Misjudging the tide.

Friday, 2 October 2009


There are in the world coasts where there is no tide. True, the moon still shows her power. She waxes and wanes and grows horns and loses them and swells to a golden orb. Men, women and beasts howl and whimper to the moon when she rises in her glory. Madmen run wild in the forests. All nature everywhere feels the influence of the goddess. There is, however, in many places no tide.

Here in the Estuary the tide comes and goes as prescribed by the moon and more or less as predicted by the Hydrographer of the Royal Navy and at the beginning of the year the boat owner buys a year’s worth of local tidetables from his Post Office or from the chandlers in town and thumbs it and bends it throughout the season until such time as he has no more use for it. He expects the information to be reliable.

In the Estuary a flood tide arrives more or less on time every half day and lifts my Poppy off her mooring and invites me to go for a sail.

But tides can have a will of their own. They often creep up on us when we are not looking and people like to complain about them in the same way that they like to complain about the weather. However much they are predicted they are yet unpredictable. There is either not enough water or there is too much. The tide floods either too early or too late.

But, as the poet has it, 'it ain't no use to grumble and complain It's jest as easy to rejoice.' Tides are for people who like surprises. The capricious tide adds zest to the boatman's day. Let us thank the Fates that our waters are tidal waters. Life on our coasts without tides would be decidedly dreary and dull.

Tomorrow: On Dawlish Warren.

Thursday, 1 October 2009


The skate really does have wings. It flies through its element. It is a beautiful olive colour when it comes up in the trawl. It can grow to be nine foot long but half of that is always tail. The phrase ‘as big as a dustbin lid’, which I used in my verses just posted, was a gift to me from a local fisherman describing an experience when he was seineing off Exmouth. He was, so runs the yarn, walking through the shallows off a sandbank when he stepped on the famous dustbinlidsized skate and was quick enough to grab it by the gills and add it to his catch.

My verses, ‘The Skate’, that I posted two days ago were written for a competition run by the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery maybe fifteen years ago. The Art Gallery had exhibited paintings by famous couples. Stanhope Forbes’great work was flanked by a wonderful painting by Elizabeth Forbes, his wife. To enter the competition, prize a fifty pound book token, one was invited to write a ‘poem’ inspired by a painting that had been exhibited. I don’t suppose too many people entered but I had the glory of winning joint first prize and was invited to the Gallery to receive my book token. At Plymouth I found that the enterprising gallerists had assembled an audience and I and my co-winner were invited to read our poems. The audience was made up of about twenty old Plymothian ladies and a couple of old Plymothian gentlemen. My opposite number read first and the audience responded with the gravity and applause that his work deserved and I then read my verses. .. Well! I thought I had written a funny poem and I expected at least half a smile from some of the listeners. No! They heard me out agape giving me the respect which they obviously thought that ‘poetry’ merited. Not the flicker of a smile. I somehow felt that I had earned my twentyfive quid.

A Hopeless Dawn, by the way, is a tremendous painting by Frank Bramley hung in the old Tate Gallery. It is a grim spoonful of social reality.

As we drove home I had much to say to my wife about the reception of my wonderful and amusing verses by the Plymothians but over that it might be a good idea for me to skate.

Tomorrow: Tides