Monday, 30 November 2009


"'I'nt that sunset nice?" she said
"Lovely!" said her man.
No one can pat that fiery head
But don't we just think we can.

Saturday, 28 November 2009


When we lived in a waterside cottage, where occasionally the tide came uninvited to our threshold, we would come down in the morning or whenever to find a multitude of sandhoppers dancing about on the kitchen floor. Their dancing is remarkable. It beats the Royal Ballet. They spring in all directions and in such a fine, demoniac frenzy that it seemed a pity to take the sweeping brush to them. These sandhoppers were refugees fleeing the tide because, like some of our neighbours, although they liked living by the water, they did ot want to drown and had no wish to venture away from the firm land.

Normally the sandhoppers try to hide away but they are to be found everywhere in the Estuary's sands and shingles and can be discovered beneath stones and within bunches of seaweed. They are related to the shrimps and the lobsters and should therefore be good to eat if enough of them were collected. It sounds like something that the Japanese ought to know about.

I imagine they must form an essential link in some creatures' foodchains. It must be sandhoppers that bring the crows and starlings to the shingle although the former also relish the carrion of the tideline. Sandhoppers are said to be 'amphipods' which means they have feet on both sides, whatever that might mean. Both sides of what? They hop, says my AA Book of the Countryside, "by using the abdomen and last three pairs of legs as a spring."

Bless you little amphipod
How prettily you're prancing
To use your abdomen is odd!
Could this be belly dancing?

Thursday, 26 November 2009


O hack, aren't you the clever fish?
But soon I'll see you in my dish
for here's the barb shall hitch your flesh
and draw you from your socket.

O hack, you think you're safe and sound
inside your shell deep in the ground
but just you wait until I've found
the salt that's in my pocket.

A dash of salt to make you swell
and teaze you from your razor shell
and when you leap, hack I shall kill
you with my spiky snagger

and with a twist I'll hitch your flesh
and you shall end up in my dish.
I'll wash you down, you tasty fish,
with half a pint of lager.

T0morrow: Sandhoppers

Wednesday, 25 November 2009


The razor shell is a curious fish. It lives vertically, buried in the sand, and the sea brings it its food, tide by tide. Dawlish Warren is a great place for the shells of razor shells. Whether the fish are there I have not yet discovered.

John Cremer Bellamy was a young doctor in Plymouth, he died when he was only 29, who took an interest in the fisheries of Devon and Cornwall and who wrote a book, published in 1843, the year after the year of his death, entitled "The Housekeeper's Guide to the Fish Market for each month of the year; and an account of the fishes and fisheries of Devon and Cornwall, in respect of commerce, economy, natural history, and statistics." The little book with the big title is full of good things but nothing better than the account of how to catch a hack. "Hack" is the name John Bellamy gives to the razor shell.

Here is John Bellamy's account:

"Hacks or Razor fish can only be secured at low water of spring tides; the fisher provides himself with a pocket full of salt and an iron rod about two feet long with a barb at one end; finding a hole where a Hack is lodged, he drops in some salt, on which the creature, a few inches below, thrusts forth its body (in all likelihood from pain) and, as it advances upwards, he drives the spear perpendicularly through it and then, with a slight turn of the instrument, to effect a hitch in the creature's flesh, he drags it out of its habitation."

Happy hunting!

Tomorrow: a pretty poem about catching a hack.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009


One sunny day last June I sailed within a yard of a pretty tern, a juvenile, as smart as paint, who was sitting on a buoy in the moorings. She was so confident and happy there that she did not so much as flutter a feather when I sailed past her and I was so pleased to find so unperturbed a wild thing that I put "Poppy" about and sailed past her again. The unflappable tern stood to her buoy as firm as a sentry and I sailed away and left her in her unruffled peace.

One expects a bird to flap but one is happy when the flapping doesn't happen. O you beautiful unflappable tern!. I hope some day to see your like again. After all, one good tern deserves another.

Friday, 20 November 2009


Celia Fiennes who famously travelled side-saddle throughout England in the seventeenth century had a glimpse of the Estuary in the year 1698. She was thirty-six and had been travelling and writing the account of her travels for some thirteen years already. Celia had stayed with friends in Exeter and had noted how the Exonians slew the leaping salmon on the river there with spears. I suspect that this already seemed to her to be archaic but in fact fishing spears were still being used in the estuaries well into the nineteenth century.

From Exeter she went to Topsham, “which is a little market place a very good key; hither they (the Exonians) convey their serges and so load their shipps which comes to this place all for London, thence I saw Starre Cross where the great shipps ride and there they build shipps, this was up the river, 5 or 6 miles up the river, but the tide being out could not goe and it was ten mile by land and their miles are soe long here I would not goe it, seeing almost as well the shipps that lay there as if at the place.”

What a heroine was Celia! She may not have known her uprivers from her downrivers but she was a noble noblewoman nonetheless.

Sunday, 15 November 2009


‘Lovers’, decreed the melancholy Austrian poet, Nikolaus Lenau, ‘should never venture farther apart than the westwind can carry the sweet song of the nightingale.’ But of course these days lone lovers venture to the very ends of the earth.

In the late summer of 1964 I was alone and melancholy and lodging in the attic of the Passage Inn at Topsham. To cheer myself up, I, who had never sailed before, bought, for thirty pounds and at the Cherry and Cherry, Shaldon boat auction, a little boat without a name. I called the boat ‘Bärbel’ after my distant beloved. She was a lovely little sprucebuilt, twelvefoot, lugsail dinghy, straight out of Arthur Ransome.

Anyway the first outing I made with ‘Bärbel, the boat’ was to that part of the river where now the motorway crosses the Exe. I rowed, I did not attempt to sail, among the reed beds and and was enchanted by what I found there. On every reed, or so it seemed, sat a starling. The reeds were bending beneath their weight and there was a noise of chatter and singing everywhere. A few birds, but only a few, allowed me to disturb them but they soon settled again as I passed among them like a Pharoah.

The reed beds are still there and, despite the motorway, the starlings still visit. In that neck of the Estuary I have seen murmurations of starlings since. Sometimes they fly so as to darken the skies. But that first progress of mine, paddling among the reeds nearly fifty years ago to be welcomed to the Estuary by happy starlings, is still one of the most cherished of my memories.

Friday, 6 November 2009


Eden Phillpotts writes about George Bernard Shaw in his Memoir 'From the Angle of 88':

"Bernard Shaw was fond of the West Country and visited it sometimes. I can see him at Sidmouth scattering scraps for the seagulls while the great silver birds swooped round him."

What an image! The greatest playwright in the English language of the twentieth century, bearded and blown on Sidmouth front and the beautiful gulls flying shrieking about him.

Visitors to Sidmouth, go on feeding the gulls! You are in the company of the great!

Thursday, 5 November 2009


Sooner or later Captain George Peacock FRGS must be introduced. He was born in Exmouth in 1805 and he settled at Starcross in his retirement. He is the Estuary’s most distinguished son, though neither in his lifetime nor since his death has he been given the attention he merits. There are many tales to tell of Captain Peacock but here by way of an introduction is an excerpt from the Western Times for Friday June 23rd 1882, the year before the year he died.:

“It was not long ago that we had the pleasure of recording the fact that the President of the Republic of Columbia had presented a decoration to Capt. George Peacock of Starcross, in acknowledgement of his services to the State of Columbia as the first modern surveyor of the Isthmus of Panama. It will be recollected that, last year, in the month of June, in a public meeting at Liverpool, Count Ferdinand de Lesseps declared that he was grateful to Captain Peacock for showing how to make the Canal which is in due time to cut through the neck that separates the two oceans. This scientific navigator of Devon has now, we learn with pleasure, received another mark of distinction, which reaches him from the classic shores of Greece. The cutting of the isthmuses seems to have much occupied the gallant Captain’s mind. Among other tasks of his busy life he undertook to survey the Bay of Salamis and explored the Isthmus of Corinth with the view of joining the Gulfs of Aegina and Lepanto. This was done in the time of King Otho, some thirty years ago. Captain Peacock presented his chart and plans to his Majesty, who, in return, presented him with a richly-embossed gold snuff-box which is to be a family heirloom. A quarter of a century or more having passed since these incidents occurred , we now see the work of the cutting of the Corinth isthmus actually taken in hand, and the opportunity has been embraced by his Majesty King George to give further marks of the esteem in which Captain Peacock’s scientific plans are held in testimony whereof the King has created him a Chevalier of the Royal Order of the Saviour. Intimation of this fact was conveyed to the worthy Captain at his residence, Starcross, by a letter from the Greek Minister in London who encloses therewith the diploma bearing the royal signature and countersigned by the Foreign Minister of Greece and also a letter from the Foreign Minister felicitating Captain Peacock on the honour which the King had conferred upon him. It is needless to say how great a source of gratification to him is this well deserved honour so graciously bestowed on the veteran and much respected officer. With the official document was transmitted the golden crown, cross and ribbon of the Order. The cross has in its centre the head of Our Saviour.”

Well done Captain Peacock! Without you no Panama Canal nor no Corinth Canal neither.

And well done the writer of this piece!

Tuesday, 3 November 2009


I had always been tempted to discount the tales of smuggling in the Estuary. In my village there are tales of hidy holes and tunnels and sliding panels galore. It seemed to me that no one would make a landing up the Estuary when it was so much easier to land contraband on the seacoast. At Exmouth was a gallant naval officer commanding a preventive cutter and it seemed unthinkable that contraband goods would come up the channels of the Exe.

Well I was sort of right but I was very wrong. I was reading Mr H J Trump’s book about Teignmouth when the following quote leapt from the seventy third page:

Coombe Cellars had always offered a safe and easy means of Transit for Tobacco and Tubs landed anywhere west, the smugglers passing over Lower Haldon… and from thence by bye roads to Powderham, where Boats have been in readiness to tow the Goods…to Lympstone on the River Exe at any time after dusk, tide permitting. Lympstone is as free and open from Contrabandists as any smuggler could wish… consequently a notorious haunt of Smugglers who are in constant communication with groups at…. Teignmouth, Coombe Cellars, Bishopsteighnton and even the Bristol Channel.

It was an eureka moment! The sbove was written in 1857, towards the end of the days when smuggling was rife. The Inspecting Commander for the Exmouth District was writing to the Board in London. No goods were being landed up the Exe but they were certainly being given a safe conduct across the Estuary by way of the ancient passages from Powderham to Parsonage Style and to Sowden End, thence on their way up country.. The hidy holes and sliding panels and perhaps even tunnels of Lympstone, that NOTORIOUS HAUNT OF SMUGGLERS, helped them on their way.