Monday, 27 December 2010


These verses were first published in Devon Life in October 1977. They were also runners up, we was robbed, for the Gladys Hunkin Poetry Prize of the University of Exeter. They are reprinted here by permission of the author. For the record, the Mr Bell of the fifth scene was Mr John Clapp of this pish who lived opposite The Green and who died some thirty years ago.

With noises borrowed from the old men's throats,
the raucous rooks about the chimney pots
are croaking out the old year, in the new.
Though January looks both ways, the old
look only back. The black rooks have foretold
this new year's cipher on the headstones too.
At the twilight calm when the smoke soars lazily,
out of the winter haze drift evening swans,
ghosts on the polished edge of the filling tide,
five white souls and two grey little ones.
Five hard working, chapel going fellows
and two, alas, who had their peccadillos.
Across the water, field and winter tree
sketched with a bamboo pen.
Like the shadow of Azrael's wing, the pewter sea
draws back and leaves old men
creaking for one tide more
in their long sea boots.
At low tide the banks wrinkle and fold like an old skin
and under the long abandoned limekiln
old anchors, links of chain,
rusted and forgotten,
rest in the mud.
Here too the old men
who stand and gaze with dimming eyes,
dreaming of wild green years and wild green seas.
As sure of resurrection as a Wesleyan
the winter sun goes down in fierce glory.
Old Mr. Bell has set aside his Bible
and tottered out to watch the setting sun.
The glowing banks are golden backed Leviathans.
And Mr. Bell, who fears the Lord's good name,
reminds the Lord his prophet has predicted
a rising sun with healing in its wings
and Mr Bell shall frisk like any calf.

Thursday, 2 December 2010


From: The Coasts of Devon and Lundy Island, John Lloyd Warden Page. (Horace Cox 1895)

"It is a long, desolate piece of waste, this warren, and I recommend no one who is a stranger to attempt to cross it after dark. For at high water parts of are covered by the sea, which leaves as it retires pools and slimy streams that are unpleasant if not absolutely dangerous to encounter. Most of it is covered with grass or rushes. Except as a rifle range, it is apparently of little use. At one time an attempt was made to lay down oyster beds at the broad end near the 'Bight', the name given to that part of the estuary that lies, a calm sheet of water along the inner slope. But I do not think the projectors of this enterprise ever made much of it, and I fancy the most valuable product of the Warren nowadays is the rabbit."

There are splendid verses about Dartmoor by John Lloyd Warden Page at the touch of a button and a likeness of him with glorious mustachios.

Sunday, 28 November 2010


In the British Library the other day, waiting for my books to turn up, I reached for a Devonshire volume of the Victorian County Studies published in 1906 and found therein a wonderful account of the birds of Victorian South Devon. (Yes, I know the volume was published in Edwardian times.) Most fascinating of all is the attention given there to the local names for birds.

For example the Herring Gull is said to have been known on the Exe as the Ladram Gull because it nests or nested on the stacks in Ladram Cove.

The Fulmar was called in South Devon the Mollymew or the Mollymauk and the Great Shearwater was called the Hackbolt .

The local name for the Great Northern Diver was, interestingly I thought, the Loon which, as every schoolboy knows, is how it is called in Canada and New England . Presumably the North American name was the gift of Westcountrymen.

The Great Skua was for some reason known locally as Tom Harry.

The Knot, on the Exe had the name Silver Plover and the Cormorant, so says the good book, was once known here as the Topsham Pilot.

One day I mean to go back and make a complete list.

What is sad is that the list makes it clear that the Victorians' attitude to birds was to hunt them and kill them. Killing was the only way they knew to make scientific observations of the birds. A typical reading is this about the Fulmar: "One killed with an oar on the Exe had a calcereous concretion in the vent. Very interesting but what a shame! And how on earth does anyone get close enough to a Fulmar to kill it with an oar?

There are some comprehensive lists of the old North Devon names for birds here.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


In the year 1909 a Mr Joseph Reeves held a position of responsiblity at the New Avonmouth Dock. He and his family lived comfortably at Avon Villa, Avonmouth. That year he planned to take his family to Exmouth for a fortnight's holiday and one of his workmen suggested to him he should get in touch with a brother of his who lived there and who was Charles Carnell, one of the Exmouth pilots. Charles, said the brother, would be pleased to take the family sailing in his boat, the 'Bona' if they so wished.

The family came to Exmouth and lodged in Bicton Place. There were four children but the oldest, a boy of ten, stayed in Avonmouth with his aunt, Miss Reeves. He could not go on holiday because he had to finish his school term. He must have been disappointed to see his family leave for the golden beaches.

Throughout the first week the children played happily on the beach. There was Harold, aged 6, and Bryan, a 'sturdy little chap' aged 4, and 3 year old Gwenneth who had long golden hair and who, said Mrs Green, their landlady, 'was like a little angel. '

On the Tuesday of the second week Mr Carnell sailed the family in the 'Bona' up the Estuary to the Turf Hotel . The trip pleased them all , except for young Bryan. On the Wednesday they set sail for Teignmouth. Little Bryan wanted to stay at home with Mrs Green but his mother persuaded him to sail with them.

On the return journey the boat capsized. The family was trapped beneath the sail and all were drowned. Charles Carnell and a friend of his, a solicitor's clerk, Henry Norton, were also drowned.

The little boy who had been left behind in Avonmouth had lost his father,his mother, his two brothers and his pretty sister.

Sunday, 21 November 2010


It's goodbye to our summer suns.
Farewell, the skies of blue.
The balmy nights have left us.
The birds are far and few.

The boats have left their moorings.
The fish are God knows where.
A sigh of loss sings in the breeze.
There's sorrow in the air.

But beauty has not left us.
I trust she never will.
Along the fiery banks of Exe
her glories glimmer still.

There's beauty in our blackest cloud
and in our coldest light,
in all the winter waves that chase
from Topsham to the Bight.

Friday, 19 November 2010


A Sheffield History site refers to a "curious theory expressed by experts when in February 1912 Sheffield, Derby and Leicester were afflicted by a scourge of typhoid." These experts concluded that the typhoid fever was caused by the mussels that were being eaten by the hundred in the happy homes of these towns. The mussels in question came from the estuaries of the Teign and the Exe.

It is an alarming thought that mussel fanciers, men women and children, were retching and suffering and no doubt dying because they had eaten mussels gathered on the Exe.

By 17th February the matter had come to the attention of the General Purposes Committee of Devon County Council and Lympstone had been pinpointed as the main offender. Under the heading: EXE SHELLFISH CONDEMNED, the Exeter Flying Post reported that:

"As a result of complaints from Derby of typhoid supposed to be due to mussels collected at Lympstone, Dr Adkins has reported... that the mussels and the river water contain large quantities of the micro organisms found in sewage."

It seems odd though that there was no typhoid in Lympstone at a time where every second family had mussels for tea and often for breakfast as well. I wonder if the supposed connection between mussels and typhoid was ever proved. The typhoid in distant Derby was to have dire consequences for the fisherfolk of this village.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010


On 23rd February 1918 the ever investigative Exmouth Journal sent its 'representive' to the Imperial Hotel to interview the wealthy and somewhat eccentric Australian inventor, Thomas Mills, then resident in Exmouth. He spoke about his plans to 'train' seagulls to detect submarines. "I have been at work," said Mr Mills, "for the last few months, with my invention at Exmouth."

What Mr Mills was doing was trailing a 'dummy' submarine behind his own boat all around Exmouth Bay. His cunning apparatus was so devised that it rose from the depths and showed its dummy periscope to the seagulls while at the same time distributing food to them.

In time, it was Mr Mill's belief, the birds would associate periscopes with free and easy food and any German submarine breaking the surface would be immediately identified by the flock of gulls that would descend on it.

All that was necessary to beat the submarine threat was to have a thousand or so of these dummies being towed around the coasts of Britain and very soon the seagulls would be doing their bit in the Great War for Civilization.

Mr Mills spent some time observing the coming and going of ships in the Docks here. From his observations he concluded: "... seagulls can be trained in the same way as a sportsman would train a dog or any other animal or in the same way that a St Bernard might be trained to find people lost in the snow."

Somehow the BBC recently made Mr Mill's acquaintance and somebody called Neil Oliver who is famous, spent a few licence fees replicating the experiment in Scotland. I don't know if the Exe got a mention on TV but here is where it all happened first. (or maybe second. See Comment below!)

Thursday, 30 September 2010


All philosophers eventually go mad but, you can believe your Uncle Wayland when he tells you that not all swans are white. I was standing on Odhams Quay looking on the River Clyst yesterday and watching the black swans. And if they are not swans then I'm a cuckoo. A three year old child could have told you that they were swans!

The black swans have been off and on the Estuary for many years. I first saw them, three of them, maybe ten years ago, swimming by the steps at Powderham where the River Kenn enters the Channel. They are said to escape from Dawlish Brook where, since Edwardian times, they have been kept pinioned to be wondered at by the visitors. These four swans yesterday on the Clyst looked happier and healthier for having got away. I am told cob and pen had hatched three cygnets of which two survive. The third was probably scrobbled up by a fox.

There is an Exmouth Quay Residents' account of doomed black swans coming to the Estuary in January 2008. It tells of the Dawlish harbourmaster swanning about the Exe trying to get his birds back. I hope these Clyst swans will be left in peace. They looked to me as though they had come to stay. They were not lacking in confidence. In fact the pen was humming the old black swansong as she glided along among the reedbeds:

"I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem,
as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon."

Thursday, 23 September 2010


There are a number of limekilns fronting the Estuary. They produced lime in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, primarily for local farmers. They are where they are for two reasons. First, such kilns needed to be built into the side of a hill or into a cliff because of the nature of the limeburning process. A very high temperature was required to heat the limestone. The soft red sandstone cliffs of the banks of the Exe were ideal for the purpose. Secondly the limestone had somehow to be delivered to the limekiln and this could best be done by sea. For centuries heavy ‘stone boats’ plied back and forth between Torbay and the Exe carrying suitable stone for burning.

These stone boats needed to be substantial vessels. One built for Lord Rolle in 1802 and called ‘the Bicton’ was of 74 tons. She was ‘a square sterned sloop’ over fifty feet long and carrying a square sail in addition to main, fore and jibs.

The best remaining lime kilns on the Exe are at Lympstone where there are two fine examples of such building. These were supplied with limestone by a stone boat that needed to lie off shore. The stone had then to be transferred to lighters and so brought ashore and offloaded again. Even by the best tides it must have been an arduous task. By 'dead' tides the stone was left beyond the tideline in piles and needed to be fetched in by cart.

The limekilns with their gracious barrelled arches have now a rather romantic look about them but in their time time they were the worst kind of polluting industrial intrusion. The noise of the furnaces was thundering. The gases were foulsmelling and poisonous. The warmth, however, of the area around limekilns attracted the homeless. It seemed a good place to sleep on a cold night. All too many vagabonds were found dead, poisoned by the carbon dioxide that spewed out of the top of the kilns.

The Lympstone kilns and those at Countess Weir and Topsham were for many years owned by the Topsham shipbuilder, Daniel Bishop Davy and his family. I don’t imagine he or his kin or his kilns were very popular with the neighbours.

More from Segal Books.

Monday, 20 September 2010


Sometimes we pull up and sometimes we pull down.
Sometimes we pull over from this to that side,
but as often as not we don't pull much at all.
We just dip with the paddles and ride with the tide.

Upriver is handsome. Downriver’s the sea.
The sea's quite a swell. Well, we know about that;
'tis best to defer to the oceans, my dear,
magnificent, infinite. Take off your hat!

But here, where the two of them meet it is rare,
for here the tide rises and here the tide falls
and here screaks the sea pie while tides tap away
and the sandpiper pipes and the sad curlew calls.

Upriver’s a rushing. Downriver’s a lop
but here on the lake it is sometimes so calm
your soul can glide off like a white winter swan
and paddle back home with a beakful of balm.

And the grey herons stalk and the white herons squawk
and the cormorants hang out their dark wings to dry
and the bright gulls line up as they wait for the ebb
and the wild geese come honking, low down in the sky.

Upriver’s a green and a beautiful land.
Downriver’s the bay and the wide open sea.
There's nought to be said against either, my dear,
But here where they meet is the rare place to be.

Sometimes we pull up and sometimes we pull down.
Sometimes we pull over from this to that side.
But as often as not we don't pull much at all.
We just dip with the paddles and ride on the tide.


Friday, 17 September 2010


I have heard it said , I don’t know on what authority, that the name Starcross is a corruption of Stair Cross and that it is an ancient name dating from a time when passengers landing there climbed an actual stair to an actual cross where, on their knees, they devoutly gave thanks for a safe crossing, presumably from Exmouth.

This is not as fanciful as at first it might appear. The ferries from Exmouth were a salient fact of mediaeval life on the Estuary and for many years up until 1267 they were in the possession of the Abbot and monks of Sherborne who may well have demanded a little piety, as well as a little money, from the people who were carried across to Starcross.

I have lately dipped into a book called ‘The South Devon Coast’ by the ‘Historian of British Highways’ Charles G Harper. He too had heard the ‘Stair Cross’ story, though not the ‘giving thanks’ bit. Unlike many travel writers he does not hesitate to disparage where he thinks disparagement is due. I find that healthy. I like his irony and his style. His writing is refreshingly unaffected for the times. His book was published by Chapman and Hall in 1907. Here is a sample:

“Starcross itself has been described as ‘a melancholy attempt at a watering-place’, probably by some person who regards Exmouth as a cheerful and successful effort in that direction; but ‘there is no accounting for tastes’ as the old woman said when she kissed her cow. As sheer matter of fact, Starcross never attempted anything in that way, but just like Topsy – ‘grew’ and so became what it is; a large village of one long, single-sided street, looking once uninterruptedly upon the`shore and the water, but since the railway came, commanding first-class views of expresses, locals and goods-trains; and more or less identified by strangers with a singular Italianate tall red tower, sole relic of the atmospheric system with which the then South Devon Railway was opened in 1846. This survival of one of the old engine-houses completes a conspicuously beautiful view along the Exe, raised thereby to the likeness of an Italian lake. The one other remarkable feature of Starcross is the curious little steamship, modelled like a swan, that for fifty of more years past has been moored off Starcross jetty: to the huge amazement of travellers coming this way for the first time.”

Well, ‘The Swan of the Exe’ was never a steamship but it stands to reason that it must have been something amazing to look out for from the trains for all those little boys and girls bound for West Country holidays. In those days children gazed out at the world. Nowadays the little monsters are encouraged to gaze into electronic toys on their laps, missing so much and so much.

And what fun to have the Estuary compared to an Italian lake as well as to the Bosporous.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010


We are invited to believe, by the Leeds Mercury of 1st August 1738, ( Mine is the secondary source: Volume 36 of the Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries,) that a Mr Robert Heath caught ‘a strange fish’ supposed by many to be a Triton, just over Exmouth bar on 6th May 1737. It conformed to the following description:

It had “a Body much resembling that of a Man with a Genital Member of considerable Size, together with jointed Legs and Feet extending from his Belly 12 or 13 Inches with Fins at his Thighs, and larger ones, like Wings, in the Form of which those of Angles (sic) are often painted, at his Shoulders, with a broad Head of a very uncommon Form, a Mouth six inches wide, Smellers or Kind of Whiskers, at his Nostrils, and two Spout Holes behind his Eyes through which he ejected Water, when taken, 30 or 40 Feet high.”

‘Smeller’ as a synonym for ‘whisker’ is a fun word. According to the Shorter Oxford it is a name for, especially, the whiskers of a cat. Assuming Robert Heath was not just hornswoggling, what kind of fish or mammal did he catch?

The Exmouth Mermaid

The Exeter Mermaid.

The Mermaid's Wedding, (Verses)

The Sleeping Mermaids

Sunday, 12 September 2010


Ah me! I’ll sit me down and write
A mournful tale: One luckless night
My brothers how they went away,
And left us to lament their stay.

Have you not heard the dreadful sound,
That eight dear souls that night were drowned;
Over the ferry just across,
Without wind or sail were lost?

Four of whom my brothers were,
Ah me how sad, oh, how severe!
None were there to see their grief,
None to give them swift relief!

How then were the youths adrowned?
None to hear a single sound;
How was it done? Ah, where was I,
Not to see, or hear their cry?

Oh, Robert was it hard to sink?
Thou’rt gone! Thou’rt gone! I’m left to think.
My James and Francis, did you see
The danger, and still could not flee?

Ah John, did you look round on them,
And see the flowers plucked from the stem?
Ah no! Ah no! Thou did’st not so,
Thou too art gone! Thou, too, did’st go!

Ah me! had one been left to tell
The tender sorrow, how they fell;
The more I think, it seems more hard,
Angels! were you not on your guard?

In the garden oft that night I went,
At last I weary went to bed;
I thought not of that sad event,
I never dreamed that they were dead.

The youths are flown,- the youths are flown,-
To dwell beneath another sky;
Their life, alas! on earth is done,
And we are left below to sigh!

Eliza Jane Pine, Exmouth, January 1837

Thursday, 9 September 2010


Eliza Jane Pine was the daughter of a mariner of Exmouth. In 1837 she was nineteen years old and she had four brothers, John and James and Bob and Frank. One day, it was the 24th January, her two older brothers, John and James, were invited to take tea with the Captain of the brig Hinde which had just arrived home and was lying in the Bight. In the evening at about seven o clock, Eliza’s two younger brothers, Bob who was twelve and Frank who was only ten, rowed out in calm waters to fetch their big brothers home. Meanwhile, on board the Hinde, John and James Pine had met with a Mr Pring of Exmouth and his two daughters. Mr Pring was on board with his girls to welcome home his son who was one of the ship’s crew. When Bob and Frank reached the Hinde the Pines offered to ferry the Prings, father, son and two girls, home to Exmouth.

There were thus eight people in too small a boat and although the waters were smooth and there was no wind the boat was swamped and all eight were drowned.

Eliza Jane had lost four brothers at a stroke but soon after the event, like a well-conducted person, she sat down and wrote some verses about it which were printed in the Western Times.

Later in her life, in 1863, Eliza Jane was to suffer further bereavement through drowning when her husband William Hall, captain of the sail steamer Ruby, drowned at Bluff Harbour, New Zealand, but she probably did not suffer too much because by then William was a bigamist who had set up home in Australia with his new woman.

Next week, the Fates willing, I shall publish Eliza Jane’s 1837 verses.

My source for this melancholy tale is the Reverend William Webb.

Monday, 6 September 2010


In the second chapter of ‘Redcliff’ young Joe Parable, wanting to find out about the life of the village to which he has come, pops into ‘The Cat and Canary’ for a quick pint. A local fisherman, James Blaker, tells him about his work.

“As for fishing,” he said, “there’s all sorts and some be good fun – like seining for salmon in the estuary – and some be infernal hard work, like going to sea in bad weather. We fish with hooks and lines, with drift nets and with trawls according to what we’re after. Drift nets be for herring and sprat only and trawl nets for the bottom. We catch dabs and plaice and ray and brill and soles in them – ground fish. Mackerel, which we’re after now, we catch with hook and line on a bobbin pale. Then, when we’re after salmon in the tidal waters, our net is a heavier mesh and stronger than herring net. That’s the fishing I like, though it’s harder work than just sailing with your lines running astern.”

‘Redcliff’ is Eden Phillpotts' name for Lympstone and the above is an example of his writing at its most journalistic. In the year 1922 he literally did wander around the village with a notebook and pencil and put people into his books.

But what was a 'bobbin pale'?

Sunday, 5 September 2010



And the boy –

Like delicate dawn to the sunset was the child to his father –
A sturdy slight figure, as straight as the mast,
A grey and more gently coloured figure, glancing round with the father’s self-same gestures softened and with childish trustful sea-blue eyes;
Pattering with naked feet on the stern-sheets, and hauling the fish with a wary cat-like motion….

O splendid and beautiful pair!
O man of the sea! O child growing up to the sea,’tis the likeness of your souls,
And I know that as I love you, I am loving also the sea –
O splendid and beautiful portions of the sea!

From: 'A Poor Man's House'' Stephen Reynolds, 1908

Part 1 (The Father)

Tuesday, 31 August 2010



As I pulled the boat across a loppy sea –
The bumping and splashing boat,
With the sail flapping round my head,
And the pile of mackerel amidships ever growing larger and lovelier in the light –
And the sun rose behind the cliffs to eastward, and the sky became lemon-yellow
(A graciously coloured veil twixt the earth and all mystery beyond),
And the wavelets sparkled and darted like ten thousand fishes at play in the ambient dawn, –
It seemed that the sky and the sea and the earth gathered themselves together,
And became one vast kind eye, looking into the stern of the boat,
At the father and boy.

Navy blue guernsey, and trousers stained by the sea, scarce hiding the ribbed muscles;
Tan-red face, the fresh blood showing through;
Blue eyes all of a flash with fishing and the joy of hauling ’em in; now on the luff of the sail (out of habit. There being hardly a sail-full of air), now to wind’ard, and again smiling on the child;
Big pendulous russet hands, white in the palms from salt water, and splashed with scales –
Hands that seem implements rather, appearing strangely no part of the man, but something, like the child, that has grown away from him and has taken a life of its own –
Strong for a sixteen foot sweep, delicate to handle the silken snood of a line –
A man that the winds and spray have blown on, gnarled and bent to the sea’s own liking,
The Father!

From ‘A Poor Man’s House’ Stephen Reynolds, 1908.
Next Monday: Part 2. (The Child)

Friday, 27 August 2010


The stacks between Teignmouth and Dawlish are called Parson and Clerk. Some blogs ago we looked at the so called legend of the Parson and the Clerk which I do not love. The ‘legend’ is of the ‘how did the stacks get their name?’ variety. In short a parson and a clerk lose their way and find a house in the mist and drop in on the devil and a few dead friends. There they wine and dine but when they leave the party they drop over the cliff and are never seen again except, so to speak, stoned for eternity. And so the stacks got their name.

Yes, I know it’s only a story but the silliness of it still niggles me! Let me state the obvious that these splendid stacks were named from their appearance and not from the landward but from the open sea. The wit , the humour and bright inventiveness of the name lie with the mariners of yore. It’s a great name for a great image and it dates from a tithepaying age before state registrars when few could escape the church and the clergy. From the sea when the stacks line up one sees quite clearly how the parson is sermonising the waves from his high pulpit and below him the clerk is sat at his desk where he should be, ready to make the responses. And perhaps there is space between them for some pious parishoner to read the lesson. Generations of fishermen and other seafarers, church, chapel and freethinkers, immediately recognised that double or triple decker pulpit from their own Devon churches and they recognised its occupants and saluted them in passing. 'Hello Passon, my dear! Hello Clerk! ' And if some touched their hats no doubt others shook their fists or thumbed their noses.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010


A serious young ‘gentleman’ by the name of Stephen Reynolds who aspired to be a writer of books came to live and work as a fisherman in Sidmouth in the very early years of the twentieth century. He took lodgings in the house of a fishing family called Woolley. Reynolds was a graduate of Manchester University and was only twenty two or so when he started this adventure. In 1908 was published his successful book, A Poor Man’s House, in which he wrote about the Woolleys and their hard lives.

Thankfully in this book he confirms and preserves many of the words that were part of the everyday language of the fishing community here in the Estuary as well as along these coasts at that time. ‘Wrinkling’ for ‘periwinkle gathering’ we have discoursed upon before. “Taking out frights” for the taking to sea of pleasure parties,’frights’ being a corruption of ‘freights’, is new to me. Below is Stephen Reynold’s description of the Woolley’s mackerel lines:

“…the upper part consists of 2 – 3 fathoms of stoutish conger line, to take the friction over the gunwale,and 5 – 6 fathoms of finer line, to the end of which a conical ‘sugarloaf’ lead is attached by a clove hitch, the short end being laid up around the standing part for an inch or so and then finished off with the strong neat difficue (corruption of difficult?) knot. A swivel, or better still simply an eyelet cut from an old boot, runs free just above the lead, between the clove hitch and the difficue knot. To the eyelet is attached the ‘sid’ – i.e. two or three fathoms of fine snooding; - to the sid a length of gut on which half an inch of clay pipe stem is threaded, and to the gut a rather large hook, The bait is a ‘lask’, or long three-cornered strip of skin cut from the tail of a mackerel…”

Now ‘snoods’ are the shorter lines attached at regular intervals to a long line and ‘snooding’ is the appropriate thickness of line for snoods. ‘Sid’ and ‘lask’ are, I suspect, forgotten words. They both seem to defy etymology but every word must be supposed to have one, just as every man must be supposed to have a mother.

Saturday, 21 August 2010


By last night’s ebb the swans sailed past in line.
How many? Ten? A dozen? Maybe more.
Their liquid world moved them, but I in mine
was fixed. I watched from the too solid shore.

The rain clouds which had leadened the long day
still lowered, but an amber from the West
brightened the moorings where their passage lay,
gilded the waters where these swans progressed.

No doubt it wondered as it slipped along,
this pomp of swans advancing through the night,
that other beasts live in a world so wrong
whereas the swan lives in a world so right.

Another Swan

And another

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


The image is of a gallant, young, Josiah Nisbet more or less saving Horatio Nelson's life at Santa Cruz.

Yesterday my eye was caught by a memorandum concerning a yacht called the ‘blank’ and listed as No 13 and for the year 1818, in the Memoranda Book of the famous Topsham shipbuilder Daniel Bishop Davy, as published by the Devon and Cornwall Record Society’s Shipbuilding on the Exe, 1988, with an introduction by Clive N Ponsford. Mr Davy had written:

“A yacht built at Topsham called the [blank] for Captn Nesbitt R.N. of Exmouth, composed by myself. She was a foot to(o) narrow and a foot to(o) low to have any accommodations. She was a very good model but very sharp. She had an alteration from the drawing which was a quarter deck aft 18 inches higher then [than] the other part of the deck & 8 feet long from the fore part of the stern post.”

Then are listed the measurements which would seem to indicate that she was a thirtyfooter with a ten foot beam and a mast height of thirty foot and with six foot depth in the hold.

The connection that sprang to my mind, and I like to think no one else has spotted it, is that this is the yacht of Josiah Nisbet, Nelson’s stepson, who is buried at Littleham and who regularly sailed to France out of Exmouth in his own boat, sometimes, ‘accommodations’ or not, taking his wife, Fanny, with him. Irregular spellings, of course, were commonplace in the Age of Orthographic Chaos.

So, at Topsham in 1818 was built a yacht for Lady Nelson’s son. Is this a significant footnote to history? Well, maybe not. But I am still feeling pleased with myself and, if they don’t know already, I shall let the armies of Nelson scholars know about it.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010


“The observant stranger will soon discover that the whole country around Exmouth on both sides of the Exe is full of objects of interest, and intersected with innumerable lanes and paths which will conduct him through scenes of ever-varying beauty. The sheltered waters of the Passage-way and the Estuary afford very good boating, and delightful excursions by water may be had in fine weather to such places as TURF, TOPSHAM and LYMPSTONE. But the favourite water-excursions are to Dawlish, Teignmouth, and POWDERHAM CASTLE. Cards to view the Castle and grounds can easily be obtained by application to the Steward at Starcross. Pic-nic parties are not allowed to bivouac in the Park, but they are permitted to refresh themselves on the green sward in front of the boat house, and no better place for the purpose could be selected. The good people of the Cottage are ready to spread the board and lay out all the necessary paraphernalia of the tea-table. Powderham Church. a little beyond the landing-place , should not be forgotten.”

This is from William Webb’s Memorials, published in 1872. I like the term ‘Passage-way’ used here to mean the long Channel between Exmouth beach and the Pole Sand.

The railway which had opened in 1846 clearly had made no difference to the Victorian visitors’ water excursions to Powderham. Presumably there was then a crossing over the railway line. Nowadays arriving by boat to visit the Castle is not possible. Perhaps the idea should be revived. For the price of a bridge and a turnstile it could be. In any case the Estuary is everywhere scandalously short of welcoming landing places but that is a fit subject for some other day’s blog.

Saturday, 14 August 2010


This is the story of the horrific death of Mr John Radford of Exmouth who, in the first half of the nineteenth century, was a brewer of beer and a maltster. When he was not brewing and malting his passion was to visit the Bight and to shoot wild fowl from his duck punt. His gun was mounted to his punt by a swivel. It was a veritable ‘goose cannon’ which generally carried three quarters of a pound of shot and one ounce of powder. It would have looked much like a length of drain pipe. He no doubt discharged it so as to blast ducks and geese sitting on the water which is not very sportsmanlike but very effective. The explosion would have been deafening and the punt would have shot backwards in the water like the proverbial bat.

One day, it was Saturday 13th October 1837, both Mr Radford and his gun were ashore at Exmouth. He wanted to withdraw the wad and the charge from his giant muzzleloader. To do this he used an iron rod with a worm at each end. Such a rod was the traditional tool for the job, a ‘worm’ being a screw or spiral, so called because that was the way earthworms were supposed to move through the ground. This gun, however, was too big for one person both to hold it steady and to poke about down the barrel so he placed it across a block of wood and asked the boy who was with him to lean on the gun and hold it firm.

While Mr Radford was wrenching away, trying to worm the charge out of the barrel, the gun slipped and fell and went off and three quarters of a pound of shot together with the iron rod with its two worms lodged in his body. He cried out, “Christ have mercy!”, reeled once or twice and fell flat on his face, dead. When his body was raised it was found that his bowels were splattered all over the pavement and his chest was riddled with shot. The boy who was with him must have had quite a shock. The ducks and geese might not have known it but they were fearfully avenged.

Mr Radford left a wife and five young children. Mrs Radford was just about to produce their sixth.

The details of this gory story are taken from that splendid book, Memorials of Exmouth, compiled by the Reverend William Webb, B.A. Curate of Littleham-cum-Exmouth and published at Exmouth in 1872 by T.Freeman, Baring Place. I am grateful to that indefatigable researcher Ray Girvan for drawing my attention to Mr Webb’s wonderful compilation.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010


Here in Lympstone in my time there was only ever one duck punt. It was maybe fourteen foot long, heavily constructed and was painted warship grey. It lay low on a mooring off the Green, squat and sinister, the more so because it was fitted to carry a heavy swivel gun. It was owned by a man whom I can only remember as someone I disliked. He is most likely dead by now. The cause of this dislike is forgotten but it was probably as much due to my prejudices, I have grown sweeter since then, as to any fault of his. It was not, however, that I was against the idea of wildfowling, which in those days was not frowned upon. Indeed the thought of lying in wait to ambush the winter geese flying into the Estuary, at dawn perhaps, fascinated me. I itched to kill my goose but never got around to it. These days of course one thinks more correctly.

The geese have started flying low over my house again. I see or hear them every now and again. They fly by the tide and not by the clock. There seem to be more of them every year. It is as though they could smell the protection that the Estuary affords. I love their crazy flight and the wild noise they make.

This menacing gun punt was regularly put to use but I never heard tell of any quantity of ducks or geese coming home. Traditionally the place to shoot wildfowl was on the Bight but to judge by the number of empty shotgun cartridges, red and green, that one found on the shingle beaches there was quite a procession of hunters trooping up and down the banks between Lympstone and Exmouth.

There are said still to be thirty acres of marshland on the Exe, I don’t know where, where the Devon Wildfowlers Association enjoy their over controlled sport. I somehow doubt that they venture out in grey punts mounted with kingsize swivel guns.

Sunday, 8 August 2010


If you tie a fish head
to a length of string,
dangle it from a wall
into the tide
you can catch the green crab.

The green crab is good for little.
Nobody wants him
to eat,
for bait,
as the family pet.

But you can watch him
scuttle about for a while,
shuffle home to his muddy depths.
That’s about it
with the green crab.

Beyond, however, any doubt
catching the green crab is something for you.
Go to it!
Get feckless!
Let’s face it, lately there has been
altogether too much purpose in your life.

All you need is a fish head
and a length of string.
Perhaps take some child with you
By way of pretext.

Thursday, 5 August 2010


In 1865 Henry Baird, under the pen name Nathan Hogg, published a second book of poems in the Devon dialect. Henry Baird was born in Starcross in 1829 and for much of his life he worked in Exeter as a lawyer’s clerk. He often travelled the line between Starcross and Exeter. In one of the poems published in ‘Poetical Letters tu es brither Jan, 1865’ Nathan Hogg’ in a poem called ‘A Turrabul ride bee Rayl’ thus records seeing Captain Peacock’s ‘Swan of the Exe’ sailing up the Estuary beside the railway:

Wul, then ess luk’d owt pin tha zay,
(Zich thing wiz niver yer’d,)
Vur bigger thin a rick a hay
Thare zwim’d a wackin burd,
And ez ess raud, ha turn’d es bayk,
Thort I “now hang on varm,
Vur ef he com’th and vind’th thur wayk,
He’ll ait thur like a warm.

No, you don’t need a translation! You do? Well okay then:

Well, then we looked out upon the sea/ (Such a thing was never heard,)/ For bigger than a rick of hay/ A very large bird was swimming there./And as we rode, he turned his beak. / I thought, “Now, hang on firmly,/ For should he come and find you weak/ He’ll eat you as though you were a worm.

The funnest thing about Henry Baird aka Nathan Hogg is that through the dialect poems that he started writing as a teenager he attracted the friendship of His Highness Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte, a man sixteen years his senior who was passionate in his study of English dialects. The Prince came to Exeter to spend time with Henry Baird and ‘Nathan Hogg’ wrote a poem about it. The ‘Poetical Letters’ is dedicated to Prince Louis.

Monday, 2 August 2010



Sowden End

No, World's end,
a place to run away to,
where the dark lane's elbow
nudges away the tide
and a thin moon shivers eerily
over the fleeing water;

yet an hour ago
sunset viewers came
over the village's left shoulder
to the waiting seats
as high tide trickled up the slipway
and blushing cliffs blushed deeper.


Thursday, 29 July 2010


Sometime the snippets I find in old books and newspapers leave me wonderstruck and greedy for further information. This, of May 28th 1845, from Woolmer’s Gazette is a good example. “A singular attempt was made at Exmouth which may prove a step to the long-coveted art of flying. At day-break, a man singularly clad was observed to leave the beach, near the sea wall, and, by a series of motions with his apparel, almost similar to those of a bird attempting to fly, he crossed the water and landed safely on the Warren The time occupied was about ten minutes. On his landing, he was observed to make some alterations to his dress, and he then proceeded across the Warren, so that no more was seen of him." Now what is to be made of this curiously worded report? Was it a bird? Was it a plane?  Was it an April Fool?

Tuesday, 27 July 2010


The fourth of the Exeter City Council’s Exe Estuary Navigation Byelaws, and the first published in my tide table, seeks to restrict the speed of vessels in the Estuary to ten knots an hour ‘through the water’. There are certain exceptions where the byelaw does not apply and boats are permitted to travel at eleven knots or more but these exceptions are minimal. For most of the Estuary most of the time, ten knots is supposed to be the maximum speed permitted. I suppose some lawyer is paid good money to write byelaws. I doubt if byelaws come cheap.

Ten knots is a reasonable speed to drive a boat. It equates to eleven and a half statute miles per hour. There is, however, hardly a speedboat roaring up and down the channels of a weekend that keeps to this limit and the Exeter City Council which made this byelaw does little or nothing to enforce it. Some offenders not only speed, they seek to break the world water speed record and more than once I have found myself wishing such aspirants the same sad fate as the late lamented Donald Campbell.

I suppose it is difficult to measure the speed at which a boat is travelling. I don’t know if anything that equates to the policeman’s roadside speed camera could or should be fitted on the banks of the Exe. In any case even as I write our coalition government is promising to get rid of speed cameras on the roads. I also suppose that not too many people care who speeds on the Estuary. I care because the Estuary is my escape from a world which I find moves too quickly, a world which I find too noisy. It is the peace and freedom and openess of the waters that I think we should treasure most, first and foremost the peace.

But I find myself in something of a quandary here. I dislike unnecessary regulation. The older I get the more I lean towards anarchy. Where a society has to police, to make rules, to put up notices, it seems to me it is admitting some lesser or greater failure of alternative communication, of culture and of education. At the same time I hate the noise and the apparent mindlessness of the speedboats and ribs and scooters and the trawlers of waterskiers that screech across the Estuary at high speed making waves and frightening the fish. I just wish they would not.

Edward Fitzgerald, who gave the English speaking world the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, kept a fine boat on the Deben and in one of his letters famously wrote: ‘I get to the water where no friends are buried nor Pathways stopt up.’ For my part I get to the water where there are neither lawnmowers nor chainsaws nor drills nor sanders nor strimmers nor discos, except when Powderham Castle offends, nor ghettoblasters nor mobile telephoners nor fast cars nor motorbikes nor televisions nor supermarkets nor garden centres nor wheel clamps. Most of the time I find on the river the peace and quiet I seek but every season there are more, faster and noisier boats.

It would all be a lot better if everyone kept to the ten knot speed limit. Perhaps it really is time the City Council showed its teeth and took the worst offenders to court and punished them adequately, let us say to be hung by the neck until dead and then for their rotting corpses to swing in chains from gibbets for a summer or two. A good place would be the Exmouth Quay Development Marina where they could dangle high above the assorted ‘Private, Keep Out, Go Away!’ signs

Just to discourage the others.

Sunday, 25 July 2010


The man who was a Jonah
I remember him well,
how like a crab he would scuttle sideways
so as not to see his neighbours.

He had put his jinx,
this Jonah,
on whatever boat he had been in
before the village got wise,
before it smelled a rat.

The calamities were rehearsed
that this Jonah had inflicted:
one boat touching bottom where none should have been;
another, against an ill wind from an unlikely quarter,
making no way;
a third, snagging nets where moots never were known

and hardly a boat ever,
with this Jonah,
had taken fish worth taking:

sick salmon, stunted bass,
horse mackerel, green crabs,
catches, if any,
slight like the sharings.

Bad luck clung to this Jonah like his own crumped shadow
and who would want to cumber a good boat with bad luck?

And all of this, all of thirty years before ever I knew him,
thirty years of crabwise scuttling

not that anyone had forgotten.

Friday, 23 July 2010


In a small open boat the sheet should never be made fast, says G Christopher Davies in Boat Sailing for Amateurs, and it is a good plan not to have any cleats handy as the temptation to belay it is almost irresistable…. This seems to me to be pretty sound advice and one of the first rules of safe sailing.

The boatsman of a hundred years ago had a clever way to belay his main sheet safely, or so he thought, and thereby save himself the tedium of hanging on to a straining sail. This was to make the sheet fast with a bow hitch. (pronounced bō not bow) His boat had a small hole or thimble bored through the main thwart down through which he could pass a loop of the sheet. Then he took a bight of the free line through the eye that appeared below the thwart and allowed the sheet to pull tight against this second loop. He could now hold the slack of the sheet in his hand. When he wanted, perhaps in an emergency, he could always give the sheet a sharp pull and the hitch under the thwart would fall away, much like a highwayman’s hitch, and the sail was free to shake. This was how the Exmouth pilot, Charles Carnell belayed the main sheet when he took a party of seven for a pleasure trip from Exmouth to Teignmouth on a blustery day in June 1909.

His boat was the fifteen foot pilot boat Bona, with lugsails fore and aft. She was said to be a safe vessel. On the return trip the Bona met with squally weather off the Parson and Clerk rocks. Pilot Carnell tugged at his bow hitch but somehow it had jammed in the hole and would not give. The boat heeled and took in water and keeled over and Carnell and six passengers, three of them little children, drowned. One man Frederick Hunt, an Exmouth carpenter, was rescued from the sea.

When, days later, the Bona was raised and brought ashore the main sheet was found still to be made fast, jammed tight below the thwart by the treacherous bow hitch.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010


This is from the Exmouth Journal of 19th June 2009 with the somewhat bizarre original punctuation. (All those commas!!!) This is,however, the best telling that I have found of this rather silly ‘legend’ and now that it is over a hundred years old I suppose it must be considered a genuine antique. It is, at the least, much better told here than in the late Llywelyn Maddock’s ‘West Country Folk Tales.’

“A curious legend attaches to the Parson and Clerk Rock,. It runs as follows:-

The Rector of Dunchideock was a parson of the old type; he loved wine, he loved good living, and he loved the Chase. He had ambition, too, and thought that the Bishopric of Exeter was not out of his reach. In both his serious and lighter purposes his clerk was always present, and shared all his carouses, as well as his clerical duties. Dunchideock lies at the foot of Haldon, the hills separating the Exe from the Teign, and here runs the road between Holcolmbe and Dawlish. On a dark night it was difficult to keep the track, but the parson and clerk knew every foot of the road between Exeter and the Warren. The Bishop of Exeter was dying in Dawlish and three days in every week the horses were saddled at Dunchideock, and the parson, with his faithful clerk, galloped over the heath to Dawlish.

One afternoon the news reached them that the Bishop had suddenly become worse, and was on the point of death. “Hurrah!” roared the parson, and he and his clerk set off to be, as they said, “in at the death,” and “I’ll be Bishop of Exeter.” The horses were brought and the parson and clerk rode off. “Confound it”, said the former, “it will be dark in half an hour.” As he spoke thick, dark clouds rose up over the moor. The mist rose from the Exe, and hid the valley. The clouds spread murky blackness, and a moan came from the moor. Again they cursed the darkness, and drops of rain fell. The parson beat his horse; the clerk did likewise. The wind howled and the darkness increased. In vain they endeavoured to find their way; the lightning flashed, the thunder re-echoed, and the air was black as pitch. “May Satan take us to Dawlish,” cried both the riders, “for we shall never get there by ourselves.” A furious roar of thunder followed this expression, followed by the galloping of a horse. The parson and clerk reined in their horses – they were plucky fellows – and waited for the rider, who came up close to them, but so black were both that they could hardly be distinguished from the blackness of the night. The parson roared out his trouble, and asked the way to Dawlish.

The black stranger told him to follow the sound of his horse, and trotted off. The parson and clerk followed close behind. On they rode unril they could hear the sea dashing against the cliffs, and judged they were near. Suddenly their guide stopped before a large house, and invited them to enter. When they had done so they found a brilliantly-lighted saloon, and a splendid supper laid out, and a large queer-looking party assembled. Thanking their host they sat down, without noticing the grins and leers of the other guests. Black-jacks began to circulate freely. The parson sang songs with decidedly profane choruses. The night wore away in revelry, when one of the party said that the old Bishop was dead. Up jumped the parson and clerk, with many curses, and called for their horses. They went out. The waves were dashing furiously against the cliff, and the very ground shook with the violence of the wind and sea. They mounted their horses, and the supper party gave a diabolical shout of laughter.

The parson struck his horse, but it would not move. The horses of clerk and parson stood motionless. At last they gave one fearful plunge. The house disappeared; the guests dashed away with yells of mirth; there was a dreadful shock, and neither parson nor clerk were again seen alive. The good people of Dawlish, coming out next morning early to see what damage had been done by the storm, saw that the sea had dashed down part of their red cliff, which had broken in two as it fell; on the larger portion the dead body of the parson was found, on the smaller that of the clerk.”

Sunday, 11 July 2010


This night tide was to be,
we had been warned,
the highest for forty years.

All alarm, however, was unwarranted.
There was neither wind nor wave, only the pulse of tide,
the heartbeat of an ancient world.

Brimming slowly, calmly, inch by inch,
the flood came to our sandbagged doors.
The dark waters were coming to call
but would not cross our thresholds.

From the famous sandstone cliffs
the weathered trees bending low
marvelled at so much water and so calm.

While all along the tide’s cutting edge
the cottages, the forsaken limekilns,
even the admiral’s high clock tower
reflected on the splendour of the night.

Towards midnight
the whole village came out to see
the dazzle of diamonds,
emeralds, rubies rocked by this jet black, polished tide
and the pale swans, like parish ghosts
yearning for hearth and home,
that drifted high up our lanes and slipways
to peck at stars and planets.

Children, fetched from bed for this grand occasion,
splashed along the drowned sea wall in rubber boots
to envy a wild few, whose parents knew no better,
dipping like midnight mermaids in the flood.

Boats rode high on their cables
rising up from the depths of their shelter
to loom gondola black and proud
and fond fathers took their families for a float
poking an oar where oar was never poked before.

Our cup was full to the brim
with not one drop spilled
and when the gracious moon,
she who worked all this magic,
rode by and smiled down on lucky Lympstone
we older ones, remembering the goddess,
spoke in temple whispers
while the great tide fell back.

So then only goodnight, goodnight!
When shall we see such a tide again?
Shuffle and squelch home all,
and so to bed.

Friday, 9 July 2010


There was no moon on the Tuesday night of 5th October 1926 and the four Squire brothers of Lympstone were seineing at Dawlish Warren. They were two crews in two boats. Francis (Frank) Squire and his brother William were in one boat and William’s son Reginald was with them. At eleven o’ clock these three decided to shoot the net at ‘the Gutter’ which is to say at the very Point of the Warren.

Frank was the shoreman and William and his son were in the boat, one of them rowing and the other paying out the net. The net was halfway out when they heard Frank shouting from the shore that there was too much tide and he could not hold. William and Reginald started to boat the net and to return to land. They could not see Frank but they heard him shout, “Quick, quick!” and then silence. “

Are you all right Frank?” William shouted back into the darkness, but there came no reply.

They left off boating the net and rowed for the shore as quickly as they could and within minutes they had landed on the sand but Frank Squire had disappeared. When they pulled in the shore line they found one of Frank's seaboots tangled there.

The next morning practically every fisherman in Lympstone turned out to look for the body but it was a Topsham boat that first saw Frank where the tide had left him. He was on the sandbank called Bull Hill lying with one boot on and one boot off. He was rowed home to his widow. He was just forty four years old.

Fifty years later, my skipper, Dick Squire, would say to the shoreman, by way of cautioning him to keep his feet out of the line: “Remember Uncle Frank!”

Thursday, 8 July 2010


Arthur Munby who lived from 1828 to 1910 was a man of many parts: diarist, civil servant, barrister, poet, artist and photographer. Some people thought he was also Jack the Ripper but he wasn't. He is now remembered chiefly for his diaries, his sketches, his photographs and his clandestine marriage to Hannah Cullwork, a working class woman who was also for many years his servant.

He was obsessed with working class women and he sketched and photographed them wherever he found them but on 19th August 1861 he was in Lympstone, sitting on the shingle and making sketches of the women who, at low tide, collected mussels on the Estuary. There are two of his Lympstone sketches among his papers at Trinity College Cambridge. The sketches are in black ink and the first of them is a full length figure of a woman holding her basket over her right arm and her rake in her left hand. She is wearing a muffler around her head and neck and a longsleeved jersey , patched trousers and boots. She could be one of the Lympstone mussel gatherers Eden Phillpotts describes sixty years later.

The second sketch shows a woman stooping forward. Her bare feet are in the mud and her hands are on the ground collecting mussels. She wears a bonnet and shawl and her skirt is tucked up above the knee.

Munby was thirty three when he came to the Estuary. He was looking to find working women, the rougher, dirtier and more ragged the better. The Estuary shellfish gatherers working in the Lympstone mud would not have disappointed him.

Saturday, 3 July 2010


No one these days
at least I have not seen it,
so much as shakes his fist across the river.

Well, perhaps when Powderham Castle, night and day,
gigs or raves or rocks, whatever the verb might be,
and vulgar discord fills the wide basin of the Exe.

But nothing as of yore
when an amplitude of hatred flew
back and forth across the tides,
sometimes borne by cannonballs.

For banks are such opposites that they will confront
and wide rivers make deep divisions.

Celts defied Romans across these channels,
Britons hated Saxons,
Roundheads cursed Cavaliers roundly.

Even today perhaps, a legacy of ancient loathings,
sometimes arising like a miasma,
poisons the thinking of peaceable men
so that they, for no good reason, mumble to themselves,
squinting westwards across our broad and beautiful waters,
something like:

‘fucking Teignbridge fucking District Council!’

Thursday, 1 July 2010


In the cold winter of the year 1645, ‘loyal’ Exeter was still a royalist stronghold holding out against a now confident parliamentarian army. General Fairfax, the parliamentarians’ supreme commander, had his headquarters in Ottery and Lieutenant General Oliver Cromwell had turned up with his forces. The Estuary demanded their attention because supplies and reinforcements were reaching besieged Exeter up river by ship and boat.

The parliamentarians controlled the length of the eastern bank and there must have been armed men everywhere. There were garrisons at Topsham, Nutwell and at the Fort in Exmouth. Troops stared across to the western bank of the Exe which was in royalist hands and fired at suspect shipping passing up to Exeter. Then came the parliamentarian attack across the river on Powderham Castle. With both Powderham and Nutwell in their hands, the parliamentarians hoped to prevent help reaching Exeter up river. Professor Hoskins takes up the story:

“Under cover of darkness – it was nine o’clock on Sunday night, December 14 – Captain Dean with two hundred foot and dragoons , moved across the river from Nutwell in boats and reached the Powderham side. But they found the house more strongly defended than they had imagined and they did not, in fact, attack it.

Not wishing to return without doing anything, they occupied the church, not far from the Castle. The next morning they brought provisions across the river from Nutwell into the church and began to fortify it. The royalists up at Exeter feared that the river would be blocked by these manoeuvres. On Monday night they sent down a party of five hundred soldiers to join the two hundred in the Castle. Together they attacked Fairfax’s men who were barricaded inside the church, throwing in many hand-grenades. For three hours the siege of Powderham church went on until the royalists withdrew, leaving the snow stained with their blood. However, it was bitterly cold in the church. There was no means of warming it, and the parliamentary forces were glad to be withdrawn in a day or two from this unpleasant situation.”

For more on Exeter in the Civil War link to Exeter Memories.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010


It was the dark evening of Thursday 27th November 1872 and Mr Matthew, the chief officer of Customs for the port of Exmouth was working at the dock. Helping him to measure a stack of timber were his two sons, George and Joseph. At half past five Mr Matthew told his son, Joseph, to scoot off home and tell mother that he and George would be home shortly looking for their tea.

Joseph needed to take the narrow path that ran by the dock edge. There were no lights and there was no fence and by now all was black as pitch. Young Joseph felt his way forward but somehow he slipped and fell into the dock. His head struck timber and, although he was a strong swimmer, he sank and drowned.

A half hour later Mr Matthew and George arrived home unaware of Joseph’s fate. When they did not find him at home they immediately suspected what had happened and went back to the dock and spent the night searching for the lost boy but to no avail. Before dawn others joined the search. The dock was dragged and the body was found in thirteen foot of water at the dock gates. There were two dreadful bruises to the face.

On many occasions previously Mr Matthew had pointed out the danger of the dock having no lighting and no fencing. Only after Joseph’s death were steps taken to make the docks safer.

Sunday, 27 June 2010


(Kiseljak 1995.)

Some weary ev'nings here I stash away
my scribblings for the Queen for good or ill
and close my eyes and see great Haldon hill
cradling the sun. This fancy, clear as day,
is my ideal and here in dream I stray
beside bright waters and high cliffs until
the tide glows red beneath the sun's last ray
and then - reality! - I'm stuck here still.

But what's with here and there? All places charm,
well, most at least, and blessed spots abound
in ev'ry land. - That's true but where's the harm
in thinking best of one small chunk of ground?

For me, the Exe where winds and hearts are warm,
the Exe, where sweet content is to be found.

Friday, 25 June 2010


It would seem that we are to have a summer worthy of the name. Last Tuesday, all of a sunny afternoon, I sailed Poppy up and down the tide just for the fun of it.

When we set out there was a steady breeze blowing from the sea and the tide was flooding fast so I sailed her closehauled and took on both wind and tide and we made what progress she and I could. 'Us against them'.

Now, to tell the truth, my lovely Scaffie, with her one loosefooted lugsail, is not the best in the world at sailing against the wind and some might think we made sad progress. But why should we care? There is a pure joy in going nowhere elegantly and Robert Louis Stevenson was right when he wrote, ‘to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive and the true success is to labour.’

Poppy was labouring right enough and it was with difficulty that we crept down river until we were clear beyond Powderham castle. It was a hard won advance but what glorious wide sweeps we made across the whole width of the shining river and how sweetly the sun shone on us both! Next though we allowed ourselves the luxury of gliding with the wind on our beam and with the tide in our favour until we were way up river under the Royal Marine Camp. By now the tide was considering turning and the wind had shifted slightly in our favour and it was already time to think about tacking home.

I had trolled a handline over the side in no great hope of catching my fish. There is always too much seaweed floating about the Exe these days. Every time I pulled up the line to clear it of weed I told myself that I was wasting my time because of the weed and because I was sailing far too speedily. The lure, I told myself, must be positively skidding along and too near the surface for any fish to take but a superfish. Nevertheless I persevered. There was nothing to be lost beyond a fishhook and two inches of electric cable.

Then I caught my sea bass. It fought nobly. They always do. But soon it was aboard, all silver scales and spines and shining in the sun. I rejoiced. I only hope to catch two or three sizeable bass in a summer and here was the first.

I cooked the superbass à la Vendangeuse according to a 1970's Jane Grigson recipe that required half a pint of white wine in the cooking and the rest of the bottle in the drinking. It had been a triumphant day.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010


On Friday se’nnight, four children, the eldest about six years old, went out under the rocks, a little distance from Budleigh Salterton to gather periwinkles; the tide coming in, they were unexpectedly surrounded by the sea, when providentially some fishermen, observing them in motion, took them for birds, and rowed towards the rocks with the intention of shooting them, but to their surprise, discovered their mistake, and rescued them from a watery grave.

There are three things about this short report from Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post of the nineteenth of June, 1816 that I find of interest. The first is the use of the word se’nnight, OED has sennight, meaning a week or in this case of a week ago. It is a word of great antiquity but now more or less lost to us.

The second is the image the passage gives of these four feral infants of the Regency, ‘the eldest about six years old’, scampering abandoned along the summer beaches of East Devon and foraging for their own suppers.

The third is the piratical nature of the boatload of Devon fishermen armed with fowling pieces, or whatever. I wonder what kind of birds they hoped to kill under the rocks and to what end. There are not many sea birds you can eat.

What was that great Tom Lehrer line?: “I just stand there looking cute/and when something moves I shoot.”

It’s a nice story, not least in that it has a happy ending. I do like a happy ending.

Monday, 21 June 2010


With pagan eyes,
with a pagan heart,
even maybe with a pang of pagan anguish,
wonder at this sunset
turning the tide to blood.

For this is midsummer
when the potent sun
rides highest
and bounces straight up and down
on the horizon
like a celestial yoyo.

If we keep out of mischief ,
the calculating priests have told it,
he will, after,
but only approximately,
twelve moons,
be back this way again.

O great inseminator,
father of the waters,
of forests and fields,
of fiveaday flora
and fauna
and fishes great and small,
hear our fervent prayer.

Stray not too far,
be not too cold, too cruel,
ride never too low,
carry us through winter.
and deliver us from ice and snow.

Friday, 18 June 2010


Francis Danby, the Irish painter, came to live in Exmouth in 1847. He was already fifty four years old but he was to spend fourteen productive years in a grand house down by the beach overlooking the sea. This was the first house built on the Maer and it was called Shell House. Danby died here in 1861. The house was demolished in 1925 to make way for a sports ground.

His had been a chequered career but he was well liked in Exmouth. His kindness to young artists won him many friends. He had moreover learned the secret of eternal youth. He wrote to George Petrie “Let us exult in the confidence that we belong to that class of our fellow-men who by the elixir you describe, ‘the true enjoyment of nature’ retain the heart of youth though the eye grow dim, the hand tremble and the hair turn grey.”

Danby, I am sure, truly enjoyed the Estuary. He painted a great variety of subjects in his lifetime but he often painted the setting sun and he was a dab hand at painting tall ships at anchor. One of his early triumphs, in 1824, had been when the great Sir Thomas Lawrence, the favourite portrait painter of the age, bought, at a great price, his painting ‘Sunset at Sea after a Storm.’ No doubt one thing that brought him to Exmouth was the grandeur of the sunsets across the Estuary which he painted again and again.

We who live on the eastern bank of the Exe enjoy wonderful sunsets. Every time I see the sun set in glory across the wide Estuary and behind the Haldon hills I think of the paintings of Francis Danby.

Say then, friend, is it Art that copies Nature or does Nature copy Art?

Wednesday, 16 June 2010


The talented Misses Strickland of Reydon Hall near Southwold in Suffolk, there were a few of them but in this case Agnes and Susanna, published a book of Patriotic Songs in 1831. What’s more the sailor king, William IV, graciously permitted them to dedicate it to him. These young women knew about lifeboats. There was not yet one at Southwold but perhaps at Cromer and elsewhere on that cold coast. They wrote a song and set it to music. It became what might be called a hit.

Forty years on, on Wednesday January 6th 1871, the tempests were dark over Exmouth. The lyrics of the Misses Strickland’s song were published in the Exmouth Journal. The authors were not acknowledged. The paper reported, “Yesterday it blew a complete hurricane,…. windows were completely blown away… and many people were so frightened as to be compelled to leave their beds and call for assistance.” It was clearly time to remember “The Lifeboat!”. Dig it out, Henry!


The lifeboat! the lifeboat! When tempests are dark,
She’s the beacon of hope to the foundering barque!
When midst the wild roar of the hurricane’s sweep,
The minute-guns boom like a knell on the deep.

The lifeboat! the lifeboat! the whirlwind and rain,
And white-crested breakers, oppose her in vain;
Her crew are resolved and her timbers are staunch,
She’s the vessel of mercy - God speed to her launch!

The lifeboat! the lifeboat! how fearless and free
She wins her bold course o’er the wide-roaming sea!
She bounds o’er the surges with gallant distain;
She has stemm’d them before and she’ll stem them again.

The lifeboat! the lifeboat! she’s manned by the brave,
In the noblest of causes commissioned to save;
What heart but has thrilled in the seaman’s distress,
At the lifeboat’s endeavours, the lifeboat’s success!

The lifeboat! the lifeboat! no vessel that sails
Has stemm’d such rough billows and weather’d such gales;
Not e’en Nelson’s proud ship, when his death-strife was won,
Such true glory achiev’d as the lifeboat has done.

What a song! We should all sing it every National Lifeboat Day. I wonder how the tune goes!

Sunday, 13 June 2010


"Barnacles have the largest penis to body size ratio of the animal kingdom." Wikipedia.

The barnacle’s a simple fish.
He finds a rock and sticks around.
Once he’s at home his only wish
Is not to leave the spot he’s found.

He does not crave a roomy place.
He does not seem to mind a throng.
A thousand brothers share his space.
A thousand sisters string along.

He eats all day and grows and grows.
He waves his pretty legs about.
He gathers plankton with his toes
and never thinks to venture out.

His sex life is amazing and
he has no need to rise and roam.
He sends his quite enormous gland
out hunting while he stays at home.

I’m glad I’m not the barnacle.
Though home’s a sweet and pleasant place,
I’d miss the fun of eating out,
the joy of mating face to face.

Thursday, 10 June 2010


Of the many curiosities of the Victorian age the bathing machine must rank as one of the most curious. At Exmouth in 1872 there were many of them and they were set down in the sea at shallow depths so that ladies and gentlemen might enter them to landward, change in them, and leave them paddling to seaward.

As upholders of public modesty these local machines seem to have been unsatisfactory. There was of course a strict segregation of the sexes. The ladies’ machines were distant from the gentlemen’s but in some people’s estimation they were still far too close for comfort. One anonymous Exmothian wrote to the local paper calling the beach “ a scene of disgusting exposure and gross indecency.” He, or possibly she, wrote, ‘It seems to me that the men’s machines ought to be further away from those set apart for ladies, and that boatmen should not be allowed to pass close in front of machines where ladies are bathing.” For me this last comment conjures up a pretty, Gilbertian image of a summer’s day and a flotilla of rowing boats crewed by wicked, mustachioed young men intent on causing flutter after flutter among the bathing belles of the age.

Another correspondent wrote, “The bathing machines are only just put down to the water’s edge, and the gentlemen wear for the most part no bathing dress of any description. The result is an unblushing exposure which is disgraceful . The indecency of the thing before numbers of little girls playing right in front on the sand is shocking; and it is a virtual prohibition of all modest women walking that way…”

The amazing fact is that it was only social convention and constraint that made anyone queue for these ridiculous machines in the first place. People were free, then as now, to change on the beach and to swim anywhere they wished and many freely did so. It was the fear of appearing not ladylike or gentlemanly that drove the respectable classes into these dark, poky boxes on wheels.

The disreputable and the poor just stripped off and swam.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010


I have hesitated to write about the Exe Estuary Trail which here on the eastern bank has been welcomed, with much celebration. In Lympstone it has destroyed one of my favourite woodland corners where an owl roosted and that is hard to forgive. But it has now arrived to the extent that a cyclist can pedal all the way from Exmouth to Exton and back again. I have walked the length of it and have cycled along it. It is a good way to get from Lympstone to Exmouth or to Exton.

It is one small part of the National Cycle Network, a worthy initiative launched by Sustrans and very welcome in many parts of the kingdom, but, despite its name and its claims, the Exe Estuary Trail doesn’t offer much of the Estuary that was not already there to be enjoyed. Indeed in some ways the Trail distances the Estuary and excludes people. This of course is the fault of the railway that lies like a forbidding No Man’s Land between the Trail and the foreshore. At its worst the Trail with its too many fences and padlocks reminds me of the old Iron Curtain dividing Germany that once we patrolled.

After the decision had been made to keep the cyclists to landward of the railway there was no way that they could be given the Estuary. They were necessarily to be fobbed off with a tasteful rat run and, except at the approved stopping places, denied the greatest gift the Estuary has to offer, the sense of wildness, freedom and openness. Without the freedom to explore, the Estuary loses much of its charm.

It has always been possible to take the footpath from Lympstone to Exmouth to seaward of the railway line and it still is. Against all common sense, we even used to cycle that way. It made for an exciting ride. I don’t suppose anyone will ever do that again. It is also possible, with perhaps a little trespassing on railway property and a pair of short boots, to walk from Lympstone to Exton along the foreshore. There a walker really feels that he is on an estuary trail! He is treading the same territory as the herons and if he is not careful the tide will fill his boots up.

The Trail, of course, will bring much happiness to a great number of people. It is already doing so. I expect the Royal Marines will make good use of it. It allows people to stop and stare at a country inland that was only to be glimpsed from the train. Where the gulag fencing drops below the level of the lane there are some good views to be had of the Exe that few have enjoyed since the Exeter road ran that way two hundred years ago. Before the autumn that cleansed owl will no doubt have found another dusky corner. What has been gained is more substantial than what has been lost.

Come friends, we shall try not let the best be the enemy of the good.

Sunday, 6 June 2010


That cheerful house, we love it well!
There we must put ashore once more
to sit out by the old canal
not too far from the taproom door,

to knock back, with a beer or three,
our cares and ev’ry thought of strife,
to turn tail on the restless sea
and all the sorrows of this life.

There we can talk the sun to bed,
many the mellow, merry tale,
and not till stars dance overhead
need we to set our single sail.

Then off to ride the falling tide
into a calm and balmy night,
to catch a breeze, homeward to glide
beneath a fair moon’s gentle light.

Friday, 4 June 2010


In 1862 Charles Dickens was in these parts. He heard tales of death at sea for the want of lifeboats along the coast. At Exmouth he found one. He wrote in his weekly periodical “Household Words”:

“I walked sadly by the ripple of a placid sea and came by accident upon the lifeboat house. It was a neat stone building with some show of architecture in it, with a verandah east and west sheltering forms upon which pilots and others might sit under cover in foul weather. I had been told that , at this town, boathouse and boat were the gift of a lady of fortune and it was evident that she was one who did not give with two fingers.”

After 1860 Exmouth was one of the most complete lifeboat stations in the kingdom and the town was justly proud of the fact. The ‘lady of fortune’ ‘who did not give with two fingers” was the sixty six year old Lady Rolle. Lady Rolle was formidable. 'There had been no such woman in England since the famous Duchess of Marlborough' said that reactionary toady Bishop Henry Phillpotts of Exeter. She had been the Honourable Louisa Trefusis, Baron Clinton’s daughter and was trained to benevolent despotism from an early age. When she was twenty eight she married a fat and wealthy slaveowning parliamentarian forty years her senior of whom it was written “Nature had denied him of all pretension to grace or elegance.” Lord Rolle’s most famous role was at the coronation of 1838 when he, in all his finery, fell backwards and rolled down the steps to the throne away from the young Queen Victoria. Thus R.H. Barham:

Then the trumpets braying and the organ playing
And the sweet trombones, with their silvery tones;
But Lord Rolle was rolling; - t’was mighty consoling
To think his Lordship did not break his bones!

After his death in 1842, Lady Rolle had fun spending her husband’s revenue of seventy thousand a year for another forty three years mostly on unworthy causes such as the Anti Reform party and the Church of England but she also gave Exmouth its lifeboat and lifeboat house and thereby saved sailors' lives and for that may we be truly grateful.

I hope Lady Rolle deigned to pick up “Household Words”, it was considered somewhat low, perhaps though with two fingers, and to read Charles Dickens’ tribute to her. I hope it warmed her aristocratic old heart

Wednesday, 2 June 2010


It was a cold January day in 1909 and it should have been an unlucky day for two reasons. It was the thirteenth day of the month and it was a Sunday. Nevertheless the small herring fleet, with boats from Exmouth, Lympstone and Budleigh Salterton, came home with seventy five thousand herring. Some boats had made such hauls of herring that they could not ship them. Many nets were torn by the sheer weight of the fish. The following Tuesday one Lympstone boat alone shipped thirty thousand fish. A Budleigh boat caught twenty five thousand. “It reminds us of old times in Exmouth” said one of the fishermen.

Crowds of spectators gathered at Exmouth dock to see the mountains of silver fish that had been lifted from the boats. They were sold by the thousand to buyers who packed them into barrels on the spot and sent them by the waggonload to the railway station, thence to London where the commission agents were waiting for them. The fishermen acted as their own auctioneers and took turns at the selling. The earnings were good. The boatowners took their cut of a third and the crew members took their shares of two thirds. There was general rejoicing.

A hundred years on and there is not so much as the smell of a herring in these waters.

Monday, 31 May 2010


Sunlight on the flood
and a sharp breeze chops ripples
into emeralds,
diamonds, sapphires, rubies;
but not for plump princesses.

Midnight and the flood
and the flashing buoys tumble
jewels brighter yet
deep into our dark channels
where no thief can come to them.

Gems of the river,
the more precious not to have
served time round the necks
of ritzy women or in
some sound and safe deposit.

Friday, 28 May 2010


In 1922 the salmon season began on the first of March. There were two boats fishing from Exmouth, fifteen from Topsham and six from Lympstone. Between them these boats took five hundred salmon in the first week of the season.

The largest single catch was made by a Lympstone boat. There were thirty nine fish leaping in the bunt of the net. The next best catch was made by a Topsham boat, a poor second with sixteen salmon. The record catch, remembered from the April of a few years before, was of fifty six fish in one haul. I would like to have seen that!

The Exmouth Journal reported: “…It is a great advantage that the fish this seaon are being taken and marketed, thus assisting the exchequers of many a poor household, making possible the payment of tradesmen’s bills long overdue … For some months past the salmon fishermen of the Exe have had an exceedingly lean time, and the present abundance of fish is a veritable godsend to them.”

How precarious they must have been in those workhouse days, the 'exchequers' of the Estuary's fishing families!

Wednesday, 26 May 2010


On a March day in 1909 the water-bailiff in the employ of the Exe Board of Conservators, Thomas Robert Luxon, was walking along the banks of the Exe between Turf and Powderham when he saw a dead baby in the mud about five feet from the bank. Mr Luxon fetched Police Constable Acland from Starcross who picked the child out of the Estuary. She was a little girl.

The tiny muddied corpse was carried to the doctor at Starcross, Mr John Hyde Iles, surgeon. John Iles was thirty three years old and at the beginning of his long working life in Starcross which was to last for another forty years. He was no stranger to death. After Cambridge, he had served as a volunteer in the war against the Boers and he had come to Starcross having been for some years the house surgeon at the Victoria Hospital for Children, Chelsea.

There needed to be an inquest even for so slight a person as this dead baby. It was held at the Church House, Powderham. John Iles told the Coroner and the jury that the body had probably been in the water for a couple of days. There was a mark on the left chin, caused by a fish bite. He had concluded that the child had been prematurely born and there was no evidence that she had ever had a separate existence. The baby had been stillborn.

No one had any idea whose child this might be and there seems to have been very little curiosity. The jury returned a verdict in accordance with the medical evidence.

I find it strangely moving, this inconsequential tale of the baby in the mud and the fish that bit the infant chin.

Monday, 24 May 2010


The morning sun looks over a green field,
Over a ragged hedgerow then a yellow field,
A hedgerow, then a brown field with a barn,
A hedgerow, then a golden field and a wood high on the hill.

At each field’s southern margin, stunted trees
Scribble the invitation in black line
With here and there the red cliff’s underlining.
For this is where the land ends.
Beyond this limit the deep blue sea
Beckons to a calm horizon under a better sky.

For those who would read it
These margins still spell out their weasel promises,
Promises that have drawn so many sanguine souls
Across big seas in small boats.

The many who ventured forth to fight foreign wars,
The many who ended their days captive in distant ports,
The many who sailed to settle empty lands,
Some to fortune, more to fever,
A few to swing in chains.

This sea has drowned enough of them
Whose bones still wander and wash with the pull of the moon.

Me, I’ll have none of it. I’ll look away
To the wheatfield, gold in the sun,
And the woods high on the hill.

Friday, 21 May 2010


Not only did the rhymster Vicar of Salcombe Regis, Philip Avant, (See, if you so wish, this blog for 6th May,) witness the coming of the French Fleet in 1690 but he was also joyful witness to William of Orange’s arrival in Torbay on 5th November 1688 and his triumphant progress to Exeter.

The ships, Philip Avant tells us, left Torbay as soon as they had disembarked the troops and then, with the cannon still on board, they came up the Exe. There were three hundred of them. Their skeely skippers sailed them in convoy around Exmouth Point and into the channels of the Exe and what a sight that must have been, three hundred transports, sailing up with the tide, gliding before an onshore breeze. “Three hundred Sail here safe arriv’d, and brought/ That Comfort which poor England long had sought.”

That November day must surely rate as one of the Estuary’s most glorious.

“When Orange with his Host, Batavians and
Other brave Hero’s gain’d Torbaia’s Strand,
The Fleet weighs Anchor thence, to Topsham bends
Her Course and soon obtains what she intends.
The Wind her Favours, through the mouth of Ex
She safely enters in despight of Styx:
Topsham receives the Cannon at her key;
And thence to Exon doth them soon convey,
The Prince mean while, welcome on land proceeds,
Whilst Dev’n o’erjoy’d admires his pious deeds.”

Wednesday, 19 May 2010


Scouting for Boys was first published in six fortnightly parts between January and March 1908. In no time at all there were Scout troops at Dawlish, Newton Abbot, Ashburton and Exmouth. In those days they were referred to as the Baden-Powell Scouts and as well as Scoutmasters there were Quartermasters. The Dawlish Troop was called ‘the Haldon Troop’ and the Newton Abbot troop was called ‘the Haytor Troop’. All these scouts planned a Field Day together on Dawlish Warren in the first week of June 1909.

The business of the day was to play a Wide Game called ‘Flag Raiding’. This game is described by Baden-Powell in Scouting for Boys. It requires some scouts to hide and defend their flags while other scouts creep about and try to capture them. The rules are quite complex.

The Warren must have been the best place in the world. Where better for little lads to wriggle around than in and out of those glorious sand hills between the river and the sea? In the event the Ashburton troop were not able to turn up but the others must have had fun galore creeping about, finding ‘enemy’ positions, attacking, writing reports, sketching and mapmaking, snatching flags.

The dark thought though is that these same little lads, crawling about in the sunshine, had a Great War looming over them like a giant’s boot.