Friday, 29 January 2010


It was very early on a bright and shining morning in 1969 and in those days we lived at the water’s edge. The tide was creeping up our slipway and I was up and dressed and intent on getting to Exeter. From my doorstep I could see across the broad Exe. Coming up channel was a sight that made me forgo and forget my trip to Exeter. It was an historic two masted vessel gliding up the channel like a ghost ship with no sails set and too far away for me to hear the motor that she ought not to have had. As Coleridge might have put it:

She doth not tack from side to side-
hither to work us weal
withouten wind, withouten tide
she steadies with upright keel.

This was not, however, the Ancient Mariner’s spectre ship nor was it the ship of that Dutchman of Heinrich Heine’ invention who was condemned to sail the sea for ever. It was the replica of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s ketch, Nonsuch, which had been built in Appledore and was now on its way to the canal and so up to the Exeter Maritime Museum.

I leapt into my father’s punt and rowed acoss the tide to Turf. No other boat was moving on the Estuary that morning, only mine and this beautiful seventeenth century vessel. At the lockside I was the only curious visitor and the crew, who had been watching my furious paddling, invited me on board to admire their fine craft, her hiding cabins and her ornate carvings. It was, I felt, a glorious morning and an experience of rare privilege.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010


The edition I have of the very well devised Methuen ‘Little Guide to Devon’ is the tenth, rewritten in 1949 and, 1n 1959, reprinted with corrections. The original text, 1907, was supplied by that reverend old romancer, Sabine Baring Gould.

Of the Estuary the Little Guide says:

The estuary of the Exe below Topsham is very beautiful at high water, but when the tide is out presents a wide tract of mud. To the W. is Haldon. On both sides is rich woodland with stately mansions set in parks. Conspicuous among these is Powderham Castle, the seat of the Earls of Devon, and Nutwell Court. On the E. side is the village of Lympstone, famous for its oysters and whitebait, and at the mouth, on the same side, is Exmouth, a favourite watering place. The entrance to the river is obstructed by a sand-bar called the Warren.

Whitebait, in this country, are the young of the herring. Lympstone is now famous for neither oysters nor whitebait but, in the days of the great shoals of herring in Exmouth Bay, armies of whitebait used regularly to come rushing up the Estuary with the tide. The bass followed the whitebait and devoured them from below and a snowstorm of screaming tern came from the sea and devoured them from above.

In the sixties a neighbour of ours, an old Lympstone widower called John Clapp, creaked many a day to the slipway called the Green just when the cockle beds were tapping and gazed expectantly down river. What he was looking for was this cloud of tern. The tern, however, mostly disappointed him. They have put in ever fewer appearances over the years and today they seem never to have cause to muster in such great number. On the rare occasions that Mister Clapp, it was thus that I knew him, did see the tern he would wade out to his punt and motor off to troll beneath them and , as likely as not, come home with a basketful of bass. I only once took advantage of this phenomenon. Whether the birds were taking whitebait I doubt perhaps the sand eels were massing and on the move. In any case it was a rare delight to go fishing in among the piping, plunging birds.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Sunday, 24 January 2010


Every now and again I see a cluster of the birds called knot. They zoom up and down the Estuary swarming past like a cloud of gnats. Knot, gnat! Could there be a verbal connection? They put on a magnificent air display. They never stand still long enough for me to identify them as knot. Like an old man's days and hours they fly too fast. As they fly they turn in perfect harmony and the colour of their passing changes from dark to light, light to dark.

The popular notion that their name derives from King Canute who, like the knot, settled himself at the edge of the tide, is apparently false. Linnaeus fell for it and labelled them as canutus canutus but he was misled.

The name is somewhat wonderland:

"But what if they are not knot?" asked that heroine of our nation, Alice, of the Dormouse .

"Not knot, not knot, not knot, not knot." said the Dormouse, without opening its eyes, and fell asleep immediately. "

"You might have stayed awake, you know, at least long enough to answer my question" said Alice "Now I shall never know."

"The answer ," said the Mad Hatter, "is that if they are not knot they must be something else."

But, believe me! The birds I mean are not not knot. They are the real McCoy.

Friday, 22 January 2010


Reading, the way one does, the Dawlish Gazette for January the third, 1925, I found this notice of the "Old Maid Rock":

"In the sea a few yards off Lea Mount is a piece of solitary rock, the last vestige of what was once the mainland, which by its hardness resists all the unmerciful lashings of the waves. This rock at one time bore a different shape. Its cowl like head gave it the name of the "Old Maid Rock." Unfortunately in 1888 the upper portion became so unstable and unsafe, through the action of the sea, that the fiat went forth that it must be removed, and so a very interesting feature of the sea coast was destroyed."

The "Old Maid" is still to be found on the charts but she is nothing to write home about. The great sea stacks fall at last. Generations of lusty mariners sneaking into the Estuary the back way, after they had shouted a few insults at the Parson and his Clerk, greeted the old "Old Maid" and set her lonely heart a fluttering. "There's the Old Maid" they cried until one fine day in 1888 there she wasn't.

The "Darling Rock" at Lympstone is fading fast. I can remember when it towered above the flood tide. Now it lies flat as a pancake. Once, rumour has it, sheep grazed on its slope. Now you couldn't graze a goldfish. "The old order changeth yielding place to new."

Thursday, 14 January 2010


The writer, George Gissing, "poor harassed George Gissing, who had so little peace in his life" Professor Hoskins called him, came to live in Exeter from 1891 to 1893. He used to walk to Topsham from Exeter and he wrote of his feeling for the churchyard view in the largely autobiographical The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft

"A whole day's walk yesterday with no plan; just a long ramble of hour after hour, entirely enjoyable. It ended at Topsham, where I sat on the little churchyard terrace, and watched the evening tide come up the broad estuary. I have a great liking for Topsham, and that churchyard, overlooking what is not quite sea, yet more than river, is one of the most restful spots I know. Of course the association with old Chaucer who speaks of Topsham sailors, helps my mood."

The joke about this last sentence is that Chaucer never gave Topsham so much as a mention. George Gissing is thinking of the Shipman who hailed from Dartmouth. But neither Chaucer nor George would have minded. George was all for careless writing "scribbled as fast as pen could go." and with "the zest of life."

Professor Hoskins also enjoyed this view, "The view from the churchyard, set on a small cliff overhanging the river, is incomparably beautiful when the evening tide is coming in."

And I, Wayland Wordsmith, have loved it too, ebb and flow. When, in the sixties, we lived behind the Post Office in Topsham it was good for the soul to wander over to the churchyard in the evening and watch the sun set.

And there is a fine old wall to lean on.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010


The word 'oar' was seldom if ever used by the fishermen of the Estuary. All oars were either 'paddles' or 'sweeps' depending essentially on their length. The first and earliest meaning of 'paddle' is the spade of that name used by farmers to clean the ploughshare. The shape of the farmer's paddle explains why the canoeist's paddle used without a rowlock is so called. But here on the Estuary oars are called paddles. This could either be a late joke or an early adoption from the same farmer's fields. When a 'paddle' grows long enough it metamorphoses into a 'sweep'. The oar kept on board the little trawlers was always a sweep.

The long, eighteen foot or so, salmon boats had not rowlocks but tholes and tholes was another ancient Saxon word used and understood on the Estuary. Now there are few tholes to be found. The oaken tholepins were set into holes drilled in the gunwales and could easily and cheaply be replaced. Nowadays the rowlock, in the form of the rounded, metal fork, is universal.

There are people still about who once to order would cut you an oar by hand out of a single plank of timber.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010


I think my favourite view of the Estuary is from Sowden End in Lympstone parish where the road dips to the beach. To sit on one of the benches above the wall there and to look out at waters not too fussed by boats, moored or moving, is a great joy.

Thomson and Clark in their 1934 book The Devon Landscape suggest a few places from which to view the Estuary.

"Every tide and passing cloud seems to bring some fresh beauty to this fine estuary, whether viewed from the heights by the Belvedere on the Haldon ridge or from the riverside at Topsham, Lympstone or Starcross. We have already written of the commanding view of the river from Woodbury Common, but another, hardly less satisfying, is that from the Beacon at Exmouth looking westward across the silvery-blue waters of a full tide to the hilly background of Great Haldon."

Which last reminds me of the story, I found it in Burton, The South Devon Coast, that Frederick Temple, when he was Bishop of Exeter, stood on the steps of Exmouth vicarage and observed drily, "Exmouth is a good place to look - from."

Monday, 11 January 2010


Ursula Brighouse in her fascinating history of Woodbury, "A View from the Beacon" makes much of the mystery of how Woodbury Salterton came by its name. All the clues, and they are listed, seem to point to Woodbury Salterton being named after "salt-workers or salt-sellers engaged in some sort of storing and distributing business connected to the salt trade." and yet, "it is hard to see, looking at the map, how Woodbury Salterton could have been on a direct route leading from any of the known saltpans to an inland market."

But what if salt was being produced in quantity on the Exe estuary? Surely then Woodbury Salterton would be a likely place to store salt for onward distribution.

In Charles Vancouver's "General View of the Agriculture of the County of Devon" which was published in 1808, he writes the following:

"In the parish of Dawlish there is a large proportion of coarse, though improvable land. A large range of sand-hills extend south-westerly from the mouth of the river Axe:" (This a typographical error for Exe)" these are chiefly appropriated as a warren; some of their lower parts have been enclosed with a view to improvement, but the rank driving sand of which the surface is composed, defeated the undertaking. Among these sand-hills are some lagoons or lakes of salt water, where the making of salt has lately been renewed with the prospect of answering very well."

So there was at least one saltern on the Exe at Dawlish Warren. This is the only reference I have seen to it but there must be more about this nineteenth century initiative. Vancouver writes here of a renewal and salterns can be very ancient and it is not unthinkable that salt was being made on the Warren and/or elsewhere on the Estuary before ever Woodbury Salterton got its name.

Sunday, 10 January 2010


"WAYLAND was the smith god of the Anglo Saxons. The son of a sailor and a mermaid, he was renowned for making coats of mail and swords." ' Arthur Cotterell's Encyclopaedia of Mythology.

This little song, then, is dedicated to my all but namesake, WAYLAND SMITH, his mum and dad.

He carried his love down the aisle to the rails.
O what a wonderful, wonderful tail!
And the front of his tunic was covered in scales
And O what a wonderful tail!

His buttons were polished. They shone like the stars.
O what a wonderful, wonderful tail!
His left eye was Venus. His right eye was Mars.
And O what a wonderful tail!

He propped her beside him. She stood on her tips.
O what a wonderful, wonderful tail!
He planted a kiss on her bright coral lips.
And O what a wonderful tail!

"Heave to!" cried the sailor. "We've come for to splice."
O what a wonderful, wonderful tail!
"My, my!" said the parson and "Isn't that nice!"
And "O what a wonderful tail!"

"Who giveth this mermaid? Who giveth the bride?"
O what a wonderful, wonderful tail!
"Why, none but King Neptune." the sailor replied
And O what a wonderful tail!

"Do you take this mermaid to your wedded wife?"
O what a wonderful, wonderful tail!
"I do." said the sailor, "I'll love her for life."
And O what a wonderful tail!

And all of the fishes came up on the tide
O what a wonderful, wonderful tail!
to sing pretty songs to the groom and the bride.
And O what a wonderful tail!

Saturday, 9 January 2010


The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India and its Dependencies is the unlikely source of an article on 'Old and New Mermaids'. This article appears in Volume XV, which is to say the Journal for January to June of the year 1823. What follows is a passage from that article. Unfortunately the author does not reveal his source for this wonderfully sad story of an Exeter Mermaid.

"The River Ex and its vicinity is indeed remarkable, not only for the appearance of more than one Mermaid, but for that of more remarkable Mermaids than even all the rest of the world. It is not a century since a Mermaid was said to have been seen in the river just mentioned , close to the walls of the city of Exeter....Its humanity extended to the waist bore from the waist downwards a resemblance to a salmon. It had,however, two legs placed below the waist, and absolute novelties in the history of Mermaids. With these legs it left the shore of the river Ex, and ran before its pursuers, screaming with terror, till it was knocked down and killed."

I weep for this mermaid, or was this the tragedy of some poor deformed human? The story is just too desperate but I wish I knew more of its origins. It has a ring of truth about it.

There is a Mermaid Yard in Exeter not far from the old Water Gate. Did ever a creature emerge from the Exe and run screaming with terror to be knocked down and killed there?

Friday, 8 January 2010


Beneath the ocean's fall and lift
the mermaids find their tangly beds
where arrow shadowed guardians drift
above their glorious maiden heads.

Their thin arms tremble as they rest.
Sea quavers touch their golden hair,
discovering such pretty breasts
would bring the Navy to despair.

Like pirate guineas on the sand
dark rondles grace their lambent skin
and proud their coral nipples stand
carressed by flick'ring tail and fin

and pearls, the finest ever grown,
adorn their graceful waists where starts
the shimm'ring wonder of their own
peculiarly fishy parts.

Look once, look twice, but not again
on these false nymphs who smile in sleep,
for they have sung a world of men
to food for fishes in the deep.

Thursday, 7 January 2010


On the eleventh of August, 1812, Mr Toupin of Exmouth joined a party of ladies and gentlemen in a sailing excursion. When they were about a mile to the southeast of Exmouth bar they heard a noise. One of the ladies aboard described it as like "the wild melodies of the Aeolian harp combined with a noise similar to that made by a stream of water falling gently on the leaves of a tree."

According to Mr Toupin's account, the party then saw a mermaid which swam around the boat and ate the boiled fish which one of the boatmen threw to it. It wasn't the kind of mermaid that I would quite like to meet, not the comb and glass blonde with the delighful bosoms kind of mermaid. Here is Mr Toupin's description as published ten years after the event in the London 'Mirror' of Saturday, November 9th 1822:

"The head, from the crown to the chin, forms rather a long oval, and the face seems to resemble that of the seal, though at the same time , it is far more agreeable, possessing an ageeable softness, which renders the whole set of features very interesting. The upper and back parts of the head appeared to be furnished with something like hair, and the forepart of the body with something like down, between a very light fawn and a very pale pink colour, which at a distance, had the appearance of flesh, and may have given rise to the idea that the body of the Mermaid is, externally, like that of the human being. The creature has two arms, each of which terminates into a hand with four fingers, connected to each other by means of a very thin elastic membrane. The animal used its arms with great agility, and its motions in general were very graceful. From the waist it gradually tapered so as to form a tail, which had the appearance of being covered with strong, broad , polished scales, which occasionally reflected the rays of the sun in a very beautiful manner, and, from the back and upper part of the neck, down to the loins, the body also appeared covered with short round broad feathers, of the colour of the down on the fore-part of the body. the whole length of the animal, from the crown of the head to the extremity of the tail, was supposed to be about five feet, or five feet and a half. In about ten minutes, from the time we approached, the animal gave two or three plunges, in quick succession, as if it were at play. After this it gave a sudden spring, and swam away from us very rapidly, and in a few seconds we lost sight of it."

Well, it was hardly the Lorelei, was it? But what was it? My guess would be a harp playing offshore otter plus Mr Toupin's fertile imagination. Tomorrow I shall publish a beautiful verse about some 'real' mermaids.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010


A good century after Julius Caesar came to Britain the Romans came to the Estuary.

The legate,Titus Flavius Vespasianus aka Vespasian, whose legions maybe invested and captured Exeter in AD50, went on to be a Roman emperor and a good one too. Barbara Levick has written a biography of him, (Vespasian, Routledge, 2005) in which she writes that the campaign to conquer the South West was, "a combined land and sea operation with the troops being supplied by the fleet at such bases as Hamworthy in Poole Harbour and Topsham on the Exe."

If Dr Levick is right the Roman fleet, the Classis Britannica, was sailing, or rowing, up and down the Estuary from the earliest days of the conquest and Topsham was visited by Romans perhaps even before Exeter had been besieged. For three hundred and fifty years or so after this, Roman ships came and went to and from Topsham.

From the beginning Roman ships' captains must have needed pilots to guide them in and around the banks and channels of the Exe. By chance in York there survives an altar inscription that shows that a high ranking river pilot,gubernator, was employed by the VI Legion to bring ships up the Humber and the Ouse and no doubt the legions at Exeter too would have employed pilots to ensure that precious supplies reached the army.

At the time of Caesar's invasion the ships of the Roman fleet were famously ignorant of the movement of the tides. But by the time Roman ships were navigating the Exe they had probably got the hang of things.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010


Sacks of winkles have been taken from the Estuary for ever. There is still some winkling going on out there. In the nineteen seventies, Doctor Cyril G Tuckfield, local historian, wrote an article for 'Devon Life' entitled 'Inshore Fishing at Lympstone' and he mentioned the humble periwinkle. He wrote:

"Associated with mussel culture was the periwinkle (locally "wrinkle") industry. Westcote in 1630 wrote, "The wrinkle or sea-snail is common at Lympstone" so clearly the shell-fish industry is of some antiquity, as also is the local name."

Thomas Westcote Gent. was the author of 'A View of Devonshire in 1630'. He was a Devon man but not from East Devon which suggests that 'wrinkle' was not just local to this estuary. Curiously the two words would seem to be of quite separate derivation. Of course 'wrinkle' could be no more than a corruption of 'winkle' but I do not believe that. Four hundred year old, dialect words are not likely to have been born of and perpetuated by ignorance. 'Winkle' has to do with winches and 'wrinkle' to do with wrenches and etymologically the twain seem never to have met although both have a twisty history to them that makes one think of the winklewrinkle's shell. Interestingly, both words are, or were, used by fishermen on the Eastern seabord of the United States which implies that 'wrinkle' has its own history and its own legitimacy.

Where the peri comes from seems to be a mystery although I read that there are Old English forms 'winewincian' and 'pinewincian'. In some parts of England, but not here, there is a dialect form 'pennywinkle'.

But 'wrinkles' seems to be what, until recently, the people of the Estuary called them. I have never heard anyone speak of a 'periwrinkle'!