Delicate and like the finger bones of long drowned mariners are the broken pieces of the stems of clay pipes that are still to be found among the shingle on the beaches of the Estuary. Once there was such a remarkable number of these that they cried out for an explanation. Very occasionally the bowl of a pipe was found entire and sometimes with an elaborate moulding of grapes and vines or some other such conceit but mostly it was short lengths of tide abraded stem that were found. But why so many?
In my Liverpool childhood the pipes were for sale in every corner shop. I remember this because my mum used to buy them for us to use for bubbleblowing. They are probably still being made and sold somewhere but I, with my seventy years, can never remember seeing anyone smoking out of one of these clay pipes. It is,of course, the short stubby pipes, no more than a hand's breadth, of which I am thinking, not the long elegant "curlew" pipes that churchwardens are said to favour.
Somehow I associate these clay pipes particularly with the fishermen and sailors and longshoremen of Edwardian England. This may be because of all the wonderful Will Owen illustrations in the W.W.Jacobs books where a stubby pipe is never far away. It seems likely that the stems among the shingle were largely the legacy of generations of hard smoking mariners gaily tossing broken pipes overboard. But I have another vision which is of the armies of labourers who built the railways that run along both sides of the Estuary, sitting in rows and in a peaceful moment, did they ever have one?, gazing across the waters and smoking and whenever a pipe broke, casting the parts into the tide with a healthy navvy's curse. The railways came in the eighteen sixties which would have been a peak pipe smoking era.
When fishermen went sunrising over the bar a short length of pipestem was the certain bait with which to catch the first mackerel After that the fisherman could rely on the mackerels' cannibalistic appetite. In the Estuary the same lure served to catch the bass. These days two inches of white plastic electric cable answer the same purpose.
But lost fishing lures cannot much have accounted for the great Exe Estuary Clay Pipestem Phenomenon.