Friday, 26 February 2010


Beachcombing on the Estuary is an ancient occupation. It was going on in the time of King Edward I. Ursula Brighouse in A View from the Beacon tells the story:

“In the summer of 1301 a ship carrying a cargo of wine from France to Exeter was wrecked off Teignmouth and 10 casks, each holding 240 gallons, were washed ashore at Lympstone where they came into Geoffrey’s (Geoffrey de Albemarle’s) hands. The crew of the vessel survived to report the loss to the owners in Exeter and Geoffrey was asked to hand them back. One may suppose that by this time the casks were no longer intact. At any rate Geoffrey had no intention of handing them over and in September of that year, after the owners had failed to get any compensation, the King ordered the Sheriff to distrain on Geoffrey’s goods without delay to satisfy the merchants for the price of the ten casks - valued at 4 marks each – ‘so that the King may not hear renewed complaints for lack of justice’.”

And I have heard it said that after the Spanish Armada, and in the days when bullion ships were forever being wrecked, the beaches of the South West were strewn with gold pieces. But no one has to believe this and I have yet to hear of anyone finding gold in the Estuary.

After his death my father’s shed had to be emptied of ‘things he had found on the beach’. He had a saying: “If you keep a thing for seven years there will be a use for it.” It didn’t always work.

The age of miracles seems to have passed. These days the Estuary beachcombing is tame compared to beachcombing on the coast but now and again someone finds something on the beaches that is well worth taking home.

Beachcombing was traditionally a serious occupation for fishermen and longshoremen. Rough seas robbed them of their livelihood both by keeping them from fishing and by smashing standing gear like crabpots and longlines but they could hope for some small return from the sea by way of a buoy here, a length of rope there. At the very least the seas were a sure provider of firewood.

March is always a good month for rough weather. If the weather is wild enough I might just give beachcombing another whirl. A cask of wine or a few doubloons would come in handy.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010


It would seem that the intrepid divers who in 1966 visited the wreck of the S.S. Bretagne also known as the Teignmouth Coal Boat were not the first to take an interest in her. On the 11th June 1921 this all too brief paragraph, under the headings: LYMPSTONE / COAL FROM THE SEA, appeared in the Exmouth Journal:

A few of the fishermen have had some remarkably good luck in ‘discovering’ or rather removing coal from the sea. A good many people will remember a vessel being mined off Teignmouth during the war. The cargo consisted of a large quantity of coal and other things. By inventions of their own some of the men have been able to recover a good quantity which they have generously shared with others not so fortunate.

This report raises many questions. It would seem clear that the Lympstone men were removing coal from the Bretagne. There was, as far as I know no other coal boat sunk off Teignmouth between 1914 and 1918. If so they had been plundering a wreck six miles offshore but how did they do it? At high water her deck is some eighteen metres below the surface and the cargo is even now said to be shut up in the holds of the vessel. What were the ‘inventions of their own’? Were they the only fishermen taking coal from the Bretagne? Was 1921 the only year coal was taken from her?

I have no answers. It is fun though to think of those little Lympstone fishing boats, laden with Welsh coal, chugging or sailing back into the Estuary. 1921 was a bad year in the village. The mussel industry had come to a standstill. The free fuel must have been very welcome. There was clearly enough of it to fill the fishermen’s own coal holes and those of their neighbours. I like to think that during the winter of 1921/1922 there were many fireside grins at the thought of the coal plundered from the sea.

Monday, 22 February 2010


The morning after the great storm
the old man creaked along the unkempt beach
keeping his dim eyes skinned
for that chest of gold,
the log to keep him warm.

The kestrel he neither saw nor envied
how like a spark she flew out from the fiery cliff,
her shadow skimming the littered water’s edge,
her bright eyes missing nothing.

Sunday, 21 February 2010


The Estuary is seldom mentioned in the literary pages of national newspapers so when, yesterday, the celebrated novelist Jane Gardam, gave it and my village of Lympstone a brief mention in the Saturday Guardian Review I thought it might be a good idea that her few golden words should be discoursed upon in my blog.

In fact her article was about posting poems, something that she has been doing in Sandwich where she lives. She was inspired, and she says so, by her friend, and mine, Harland Walshaw, who has been posting poems in Lympstone to good effect, hence the mention. She wrote no more than this but her words brought back to me memories of train journeys along the west bank of the estuary which many must share:

I haven't been to Lympstone. It is the string of lights you watch across the estuary of the River Exe from the train as you travel to Exeter from London.

When I, with my Mum and Dad and my big brother, travelled from Liverpool to Padstow on the steam train for our wartime/post war summer holidays, the Exe was the first decent stretch of water we encountered and to look across to Lympstone nestling between its red cliffs , the name was unknown to us, was to share a magic moment to be followed by more magic: the dramatic tunnels at Dawlish and then, emerging at last, the sea, the sea, the open sea.

Well it is a grand thing to see one's name in the paper. I have always thought so and I am sure the Estuary does too.

Saturday, 20 February 2010


It was the tenth of August 1918 and the sea was calm but the fog was pea soup. The S.S. Bretagne was creeping along past Hopes Nose. She was bound for Rouen carrying 2000 tons of Welsh coal. Suddenly from out of the fog came the bow of a French steamer which cut into the Bretagne and very soon she was foundering and the water was lapping over her deck. The noise of the collision had been heard by the crew of the Torbay Boom Defence Vessel which found the Bretagne and took off all hands except the Skipper, the First Mate and Dick Pym. Dick Pym from Torquay was a Navy gunner who was attached to the Bretagne. He, in 1972, was to be reunited with his twelve pounder gun after it was raised by the Bristol Aerospace Sub-Aqua Club who towed it to the door of his house. After fifty four years he is quoted as saying: "I never thought I'd see that bugger again."

The First Mate, Mr Watterson, was below when a wave slammed the door shut behind him. He was trapped and he sank with the ship. He was the only one to die. The Skipper and Dick Pym stepped onto a lifeboat just as the ship went down.

Very soon the name of the vessel was forgotten and the wreck was known locally as the Teignmouth Coal Boat. It was believed, there had after all been a war on, that she had met with a mine. The Navy removed the superstructure so that she would not be a hazard to shipping and for fifty odd years she was left in peace.

But not altogether! See this blog next Wednesday.

Thursday, 18 February 2010


I have long been acquainted with the story of Pliny, truth or legend, that the Greek playwright, Aeschylus, was killed, two and a half millennia ago, by an eagle who mistook his big bald head for the kind of rock upon which , if one happens to be such an eagle, one can drop tortoises from a great height. Lammergeiers, which look a lot like eagles, are reported to be dropping tortoises onto rocks every day of the week and thereby they smash the shells and get at the flesh.

So I was not in the least surprised a couple of years ago to see that the clever gulls at Orcombe Point had learned the same game. They were dropping mussels and other shellfish onto the road from a great height and immediately zooming down to bag the flesh. It is a sight worth seeing. Stan Davies remarked on this phenomenon in his 1987 book, Wildlife of the Exe Estuary .

There are quite a few gulls around here and they sometimes use the road and footpath to drop crabs and razor shells in order to break them open. Surprisingly, even turnstones have discovered the behaviour of the gulls and can be found on the footpath of Queen's Drive pecking morsels from the shells

I have never noticed the turnstones but the gulls are always at it. I too am beginning to bald in an interesting sort of way. When I walk that way I put on my hat.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010


Pretty, my pretty swan,
bright on the tide,
bride of the night, becalmed,
gently you glide,
deaf to my song.

Wait! Aren't you she who hissed
these hands that fed,
hunched your prized wing as fist
to punch my head?
Yes, you're the one.

Never mind! Where's the care?
Life's but a dream!
To hell with what you are
if you but seem
pretty, my swan!

Pretty, my pretty swan,
bright on the tide,
bride of the night, becalmed,
gently you glide,
deaf to my song.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010


In the Exeter Flying Post for the tenth of August 1814 was reported the hanging of William Vincent, a smuggler who, with other smugglers, had murdered an exciseman. The murder had taken place nine years before on the beach near Churston Ferrers. The exciseman was called Thomas Wills. The news of William Vincent’s grisly execution must have made chilling reading for the many in Lympstone and Kenton and elsewhere on the Estuary who were working hand in glove with the free traders of the coast ferrying the contraband goods across the Exe on their way up country.

The evidence against William Vincent was strong enough for him to be found guilty at the Exeter Assizes and he was sentenced to be hung by the neck at the Devon Gaol Drop on Saturday the third of August. The prisoner, however, had a knife with which, very early in the morning of the fatal day, he tried to cut his own throat, “but not so effectually as to deprive him of existence.” He was carried to the execution platform on a bed and with not much life left in him. When the hangman turned him off, “the blood gushed from his wound, flowing over his body and arms which rendered it a most shocking sight to the spectators.” After his bleeding corpse had dangled for the prescribed time it was taken to the Devon and Exeter Hospital for dissection.

The parson sighed, put down his paper and reached for the brandy.


Monday, 15 February 2010


I first read about clotting for eels more than twenty years ago in young Doctor Bellamy’s book published in 1843. For details about him and his book see my blog for 25th November 2009. Since then I have asked around but nobody seems to know much about clots and clotting. So I was very pleased to read Emily, née Howard, Irish’s brief eel-statement in Talking about Topsham:

We’d catch eels with a clat of worms and drop them into a tin bath through a hole in a cut-open sack. They’d slither through the hole and they couldn’t get out again.

And another memory is there for I remember eels being handled with sackcloth.

Emily was born in 1889 and the six Howard children lived at Lock Cottage, across the Exe from Topsham. Emily would have been clotting or clatting for eels at about the turn of the century.

John Bellamy gives a full and fulsome description about how to make a clot. You take, I’m working from memory now, a quantity of nice fat earthworms and with a needle you thread them end to end, right down the middle, using a length of rough worsted. When you have sufficient you roll them into a ball and attach this, the clot, to a line. Then you let it lie where eels abound and the eels snag their teeth in the worsted and so are hauled in to their doom.

Is there, I wonder, a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Earthworms?

Saturday, 13 February 2010


With last night’s tide came three ghost boats,
three spectral skippers’ grinning skulls.
They hailed the night with grisly jokes
and raised a laugh among the gulls.

The first boat was The Good Intent
who broke her back off Portland Bill.
Her skipper laughed a bitter laugh:
The Good Intent, her's ended ill.”

The second was The Pride of Exe,
she who was wrecked this side of Beer.
Her skipper waved his bony hand:
“See how we’m humbled now, my dear.”

The third boat was The Safe Return,
she who was lost in Exmouth Bay,
“That were her name.” her skipper grinned
and that was all he had to say.

Friday, 12 February 2010


In the late third century Saxon pirates were harrying settlements on both sides of the English Channel. If they came into the Exe Estuary they found that the Romans had organised a system of counter attack, a rapid response. Invaders coming from the sea could be spotted from High Peak above Sidmouth and from there the signal was passed , perhaps relayed by Woodbury Beacon, to alert the Roman Signal Station on Stoke Hill two miles to the north of Exeter . From Stoke Hill it is likely that messengers were sent galloping into Exeter and, by signal, the Roman port at Topsham was alerted directly, men shaken from their sleep, ships packed with soldiers sent away down the channels of the Estuary, by day or by night, to meet the foe.

Imagine those day and night watches, guards posted, called out, changed, flogged if they fell asleep. Imagine too those scrambled settings forth from Topsham, oarsmen pulling hard against the tide, soldiers packed on deck and wondering what kind of wild barbarians they had to deal with this time. Imagine the clashes in mid channel, the boarding parties, men dead and dying, swords clashing, blood on the mud.

I'm glad there's not too much of that sort of thing on the Estuary these days.

Thursday, 11 February 2010


She was a big boat and had been an Exmouth boat and was named The Saucy Sam until, a Topsham man, Joseph Newman, bought her. He changed her name to Sarah Ann Fanny and she brought him no luck. In the season of the year 1925 she brought home all too few herring but Joseph Newman pinned his hopes on the new season. On Friday 15th January 1926 a fleet of motor drifters set out in the afternoon and came home at night. The Sarah Ann Fanny sailed with them. The catch was disappointing. The fleet brought home only a few hundred herring between them.

The next day, the Saturday, the weather was unsettled and most of the skippers chose not to venture out to sea. Five boats, however, set out in squally weather and one of these was the Sarah Ann Fanny, her owner desperate to make a good catch. In the late afternoon they found good sized shoals and each of the boats netted some ten thousand herring before making for home. Four of the boats came home before midnight but the Sarah Ann Fanny stayed longer in the fishing grounds and all the time the tide was turning against her. By the time she reached the channel the night was as black as pitch and the ebb was running against her bows. Just opposite Conger Rocks she struck the channel side of the Pole Sand. The tide was falling rapidly now and the breeze was freshening. There were four of them on board, Joseph Newman, George Pym, Jim Bowers and Isaac Perry, all experienced fishermen. For a desperate half hour they tried to move the Sarah Ann Fanny off the bank but there was nothing they could do to float their boat. Cold and wet they saved themselves by climbing into their dinghy and rowing through the choppy waters to land near the Coastguard station. Then they rowed hard against the tide as far as the dock in search of help. Four men were prepared to risk their lives in a bid to save the drifter, George and Abe Edworthy of the motor drifter, Quartette, Bruce Pym, the pilot, and Percy Bradford. At about half past two in the morning these eight men rowed back to where the Sarah Ann Fanny was lying. Around the stranded vessel was now a seething turmoil of broken water. The wind was blowing at gale force and had brought with it a blinding rainstorm. It was soon clear that there was nothing that the eight could do but return and wait for the dawn.

When dawn came at last Joseph Newman saw that his boat had been smashed to matchwood by the force of the sea. His thirteen drift nets, his ten thousand herring and all his gear had been washed out to sea. The notorious Pole Sand had broken yet another boat and yet another boatowner

The loss of the Sarah Ann Fanny was reported in the Exmouth Journal of 23rd January 1926.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010


Throughout the 1920s, Albert Ash Allen and "R I P" wrote consistently bad verses for the readers of the Exmouth Journal. I am allowed to say this. I have written plenty of bad verses myself. These though by "R I P" , squeezed in between advertisements for Miller's Motor Coach Tours and Grey Flannels for Town or Country in the newspaper of 23rd April 1927, in all their innocence, almost work. From the evidence of his verses "R.I.P." sounds like he might have come from Salcombe, (Does anybody know?) But one Devon estuary is as good as another I suppose.

Up to a point, I sort of know how the old chap felt. I never do seem to see anyone I recognise in Exmouth these days.


One spot alone in all the earth .
comes back to me where'er I roam,
my little town, my place of birth,
that bears for me the name of home.

For often will the fancy stray
amid the scenes of long ago,
the same old rocks are there today,
I see them like a passing show.

There stands the Bolt, whose grim old head
though aged yet is still unbent,
whose rocks were there when sea o'erspread
the chalky downs and cliffs of Kent.

I see the Bar, now gleaming white
where relics of the drowned lie
whose voice lone widows hear at night
nor ever hear without a sigh.

And there the harbour where the tide
lays bare the flats where shrimpers go
and likely spots where cockles hide
or wily prawns dart to and fro.

Then up the creeks at harbour head
where now the tidal waters flow,
each one an ancient river bed,
but who can say how long ago?

I see the schooners as of yore,
swing slowly with the ebb and flow
and I can hear the sailors roar
their chanty when to sea they go.

There too, the boys, young sailor men,
companions in adventures bold;
the years are shed 'twixt now and then,
and I forget that I am old.

But now that I am home again
no well known voices do I hear,
for friends of old I look in vain
and I am but a stranger here.

And some within God's Acre lie,
for some the legend,"Lost at sea,"
and yet, for me, they cannot die
while they come back to memory.


Tuesday, 9 February 2010


For some forgotten reason we, a salmon crew, were wading ashore in our long boots one evening at the Sowden end of Lympstone Cove and the raw sewage was floating past our knees. I still remember,after forty years, the banter, the disrespectful pretending to recognise whose were the stools that were floating past our knees. I was reminded of this by Jim Voysey's, of the famous Voyseys of Topsham, testimony recorded in that treasure of a book Talking about Topsham by Sara Vernon: "The sewage went straight into the river then, but we were always allowed to swim in it. There was an old barge out in the middle of the river with a wire going along the side of it and a strap hanging down and that was where you learned to swim"

He was talking about the years of the First World War when he had been a boy. One day in about 1917, three young boys, Jim Voysey and Fred Mills and Tom Pym, were being chased by an older boy called Wills along the old, even then, pier that stood beneath Church Steps. Planks were missing from the pier and JimVoysey and Fred Mills leapt across the gap. Tom Pym tried to follow but he fell between and was drowned. "A lot of people got drowned in the river in those days," said Jim Voysey "mostly young boys playing around."

The pier at Topsham is long gone and forgotten. The Estuary is happily cleaner now and on hot summer days boys and girls swim there still. But remember poor Tom Pym!

Monday, 8 February 2010


This, the patient heron.
I thought once I knew him.
so straightfaced and solemn,
upstanding, almost grim,

stilted, yes, and studied,
a good mind: set on fish,
as stately and as formal
as any stick might wish

or if walking, stalking,
high stepping, sure and slow,
placing those great splayfeet
just where they need to go.

So I thought I knew him.
Yet see, where now he flings
legs high in abandon
and plays tag with his wings;

he romps with his fellows,
and teases until they
catch from this one prankster
the madness of the day.

The heavens are falling;
the sun has rolled aside;
the herons are dancing
at the edge of the tide.

Sunday, 7 February 2010


When William E H Pidsley's book The Birds of Devonshire was published 1n 1891 he reported that:

"Several fine Heronries exist in the county. At Powderham Park, the seat of the Earl of Devon, the herons nest in some ancient oak trees close to the castle."

The heronry is still there and is said to be the largest in the county. So the herons have been nesting there for at least one century . They may well have been there as long as the Earls of Devon. The Powderham herons regularly fish the channels at low water but at high tide they fly far afield often flapping across the wide Estuary to travel East and eat rats and toads and whatever they can find in the fields and ditches. They regularly pass over my house and, when we had them, would drop in for a goldfish by way of antipasto.

When, in the early years of the last century, Richard Jefferies was sojourning on the higher reaches of the Exe he found the local people calling the herons "cranes" and heronries "craneries". And Coward writing of the heron in 1920 tells us "In many parts it is still called the 'Crane'." Of course they look like cranes when they are jerking up and down on the mud flats. They also look like siege engines. The collective term for them is 'a siege of heron.'

Saturday, 6 February 2010


There is, the sublime Dante devised it, an especially unpleasant place in hell for the "authorities" who stick up signs and notices all over the Estuary to advise, warn, command and inform their fellow men.

Apart from anything else the people who frame these dismal notices are generally unable to handle the English language, our most precious jewel. My pet hates of the moment are those little signs which mar the rails near the sluice gates at Lympstone and which dictate: BOATS MUST NOT BE TETHERED TO THESE RAILS or words to that effect. Nor does there seem sufficient reason why boats should not be 'made fast' there or even, if you must, 'tied up'.

I have been tempted to sneak down there one moonlit night - but the weather has been so cold lately - and neatly transliterate so that 'boats' reads 'goats'. A passing goatherd would be a more likely target for this particular daft diktat.

Fortunately nobody takes much notice of notices but they are an eyesore just the same.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010


This airy world, so fine and free
now suckles me; Nature the bless’d,
so sweet, so kind a nurse is she,
She clasps me gently to her breast.

The waves are rocking our small boat,
the oars strike out and keep the beat,
the clouded hills rise where we float
and bow before us when we meet.

What’s this, my eyes, why are you weeping?
Has that vain golden dream come creeping?
Away false dream, gold though you be!
Here too are love and life for me.

High above are sparkling
stars without number,
the gentle mists are guarding
the hills in their slumber;
a morning breeze is stealing
around the shaded bay,
the new dawn is revealing
a glorious new day.

Freely (very!) translated by Wayland Wordsmith from the German of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Auf dem See”

Tuesday, 2 February 2010


This innocent little gem is from E R Delderfield's book "Exmouth Yesterdays" published in Exmouth in 1952. It is a story of the first years of the twentieth century.

There was the occasion when five or six Exmouth youths decided to spend a day at the Dawlish Races. The wealthy among them had a shilling each. At the docks they spent twopence each to be rowed over to the Warren. They walked to Dawlish and at the Races spent a whole sixpence on a luscious dinner. A bun and a bottle of ginger beer for twopence satisfied them for tea and what a wonderful day they had! The outing concluded with the walk back to the Warren where they adopted the usual method of calling the boatman over by lighting a fire on the beach. Their last two pennies were spent on the return journey across the strip of water.

As a story I find this somewhat inconclusive and less than satisfying. It would have been more fun if they had drunk too much ginger beer and fallen out of the boat and been attacked by a disoriented shark or something but that's all we get. I like, however, the bit about lighting the fire on the beach to attract the ferryman. And that's another thing that is forbidden these days, lighting fires on Dawlish Warren. It says so on all those dismal notice boards.

Monday, 1 February 2010


The actor and writer of detective stories Victor Clinton Baddeley brother of Angela and Hermione Baddeley, was born in Budleigh Salterton in 1900. He died in 1970. When he was in his twenties he wrote a book about his natal county, "Devon", which was prettily produced by A & C Black in 1925. On a Thursday in summer he, with his 'push-bike', took the ferry from Exmouth to Starcross This was his diary description of the Estuary:

I never saw waters more subject to magical changes than the waters of the Exe. That day, (ten days before) passing the river in the morning, the Exe had been sheeny and misty, like a lagoon at daybreak. Coming across it that evening it was radiantly bright - around the boat an oily blue, like petrol in a puddle, and where the slanting sun fell upon it, like thousands of mackerel dancing. Exmouth glittered over the water Mediterranean-wise. The little boats were all like birds upon the river, dissolving in mists by Powderham.

A week later I was passing again by the Exe. the river was full and ruffled, and blue as steel. and now today the water was bright and mirror-like, reflecting only the gold rays of the sun. It is amusing to reflect that Exmouth, the fashionable seaside watering place, with its villas and shops, its amusements and populous sands, was once sacked and burned by the Danes. The Danes were up the estuary several times. I wonder how the river looked that day when Alfred the Great raised the siege of Exeter and the Vikings fled down the river to the sea. Was it the soft grey mists of morning? Or the sunset when the water glows so brightly? Or was the tide beginning to retreat, and did the mud flats shine mysteriously on either hand.

Well, young Victor was right to stress the changeability of the Estuary. It never wears the same face twice. When I, for some years, commuted between Lympstone and Exeter on the little trains that run along the banks I took great pleasure from its infinite variety.