Monday, 29 March 2010


A funny sort of word elision and, well, I think I’m using it correctly. The place names of the Estuary seem to attract it starting with Exter. Then there are Topsam and Limson. A seventeenth century token actually has Limson stamped upon it and the nineteenth century penny token commentator writes that the residents of the place still use the form. Exmouth is predictably Exmuff and Starcross seem unassailable but Cockwood next door is the most curious of all.

The Wart, the future King Arthur, and Kay, the future Sir Kay, were in the woods when they met with Little John. “ ‘Oh!’ cried the Wart in delight. ‘I have heard of you, often , when they tell Saxon stories in the evening, of you and Robin Hood’

‘Not Hood,’ said Little John reprovingly. ‘That bain’t the way to name ‘un, measter, not in the ’ood.’”

Robin’s name, Little John goes on to tell the boys, should be Robin Wood…

“‘Aye Robin ’ood. What else should un be, seeing as he rules ’em. They’m free pleaces the ‘oods, and fine pleaces’….”

It all seems a bit contrived but this suppression of the ‘W’ is recorded as common in Kentspeak. T. H. White, the author of The Once and Future King, was possibly just having his fun but it looks to me like he must have heard or read about ’ood’ being a form of ‘wood’. But was it known here in the West? There are parallels. For example‘will’ becomes ‘ull’ as in ‘us ull see.’ and there are other marvellously suppressed or at least transposed first letters in Devonspeak like ‘urd’ for ‘red’ and ‘urdgment’ for regiment. Did anyone round here ever talk about ‘the ’oods’? It sounds a bit unlikely.

All of which brings us back to Cockwood, the village on the west bank of the Estuary, which, by ancient tradition, is to be pronounced, and sometimes written, ‘Cockood’. This suppression of the ‘W’ must have been a matter of a local usage but where are the other examples of it?

The harbour at Cockwood is called ‘the Sod,’ perhaps only because where now is harbour there once was marshland. The Cockwood marshes are also called ‘sod’. It is not easy getting in and out of Cockwood harbour under the twin Brunel railway arches. It’s not too bad in my little boat where you simply unstep the mast, but if you have to mess about with stays or shrouds it’s a bit of a sod.

Friday, 26 March 2010


John Carder was an Exmouth ferryman. As ‘John the Ferryman’ he became something of a local character, loved and remembered by visitors. Shortly before he died he was portrayed, standing in his little rowing boat, in a wonderful Murduck postcard. He had a bushy white beard and he mostly wore his famous, very jolly, bowler hat. He rowed passengers to and from the Outer Warren. In 1913 he fell into Exmouth dock after a happy night on the cider and drowned. The morning light showed only his bowler hat floating over his watery grave.

In the days when Exmouth welcomed careful drovers, there was a beast market where now is Market Street. Exmouth men would get up early and walk out sometimes as far as Exeter to drive sheep and cattle and other beasts back to market. For centuries, however, some of the beasts also came across the Estuary from Dawlish carried by ferry from the Outer Warren to the Point.

John Carder had started work as a ferry crewman in 1861. Up until his death he was still ferrying. He was rowing holidaymakers and the numerous Warren bungalowdwellers back and forth across the race. But in his early years he had worked on a ferry that must have been a sizeable vessel. In the Exmouth Journal of August 29th 1908, he is reported as telling how on market days in Exmouth the ferryboat would regularly carry over sheep and horses from Dawlish and would bring even carriages across. There must once have been a considerable traffic between Dawlish and Exmouth with sheep being herded and horses being ridden and carriages being driven over the sandy dunes and levels.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010


Daniel Charles Trout was the Harbour Master at Topsham Quay from 1902 to 1918. In May, 1918 he fell to his death while working in the hold of a three masted schooner. In the words of his grandson, Daniel, as recorded by Sara Vernon in the nineteen-eighties, “he was killed alongside the Quay, fitting new beams into the Leader, standing on a twelve-inch wide beam to drive the top one in with a bittle. They think there must have been a bit of rope hanging out over and it hitched in the bittle so that he lost his balance and fell six feet and broke his back. He died twenty-four hours later.”

Jim Voysey, then eleven years old, witnessed this tragedy. He remembered walking home from school on that fatal day with Daniel’s son Les, and seeing the broken man being carried from the hold. They were “bringing him in on a plank of wood.”

‘Bittle’ ,or perhaps better ‘bittel’, is another word of the Estuary not to be found in dictionaries and in danger of being lost. It means a wooden mallet. Standard English has the word as ‘beetle’ but this kind of beetle is a rare species. A few trades still recognise beetles and the tautologous ‘beetle mallet’ but the word ‘bittel’ was until recently the preferred word for a mallet in these parts.

Shakespeare uses ‘beetle’ once, but only once: “fillip me with a three man beetle.” exclaims Falstaff. And the groundlings would have laughed at the image of that great tun of a man on his back and being battered by the Elizabethan equivalent to a tamping rammer! But the Devon word is more recognisably descended from a standard Anglo Saxon word for hammer, bÄ«tel. As so often, the Devon word more closely echoes the meanings and the language of the Old English.

The Leader ended up, like many another vessel, stranded and left to rot in the mud on the far side of the river from Topsham. Some think of her as being Daniel Charles Trout’s memorial.

Monday, 22 March 2010


It is the top of a calm night tide on the Estuary. Two people are necessary and sufficient. One plies the oars gently to pull the boat across the tide. The other lets the drift net slip out over the stern. A moonlit night is favoured. The spring tide of the full moon promises a depth of water under the net and a good light. When the length of the net is a shadowy line stretching across the glinting waters, the oarsman keeps it so by lazily dipping his oars and pulling across. Only once in a while does he need to pull hard. The night is suffused with light and peace. If any words are spoken they are spoken quietly. The Estuary is a temple.

The net drifts with the tide and the boat drifts with the tide. The netsman, with his fingers on the line, can feel the subtle tugging when a fish tangles in the mesh. But when a salmon comes his way he can cry with Osric, ‘A hit, a very palpable hit’. The drift lasts for so long as there is no fear of moots or moorings. Then the net is hauled aboard and cleared. The leaping, moonlit fish are disentangled. They delight the eye. The tide is falling now and the boat has just about taken herself home.

Nothing more can be done tonight. The village is dark and deserted. A bed would be a fine thing.

But first, of course, there is just time to return that magnificent salmon to the river.

Friday, 19 March 2010


When we went drifting down the night,
while our tide filled to its brim,
the net ran out, the line set tight
when we went drifting down the night,
working by the moon’s green light.
The long oars creaked, the boat rode trim
when we went drifting down the night
while our tide filled to its brim.

Now we go drifting down the years,
tide by tide and moon by moon,
we run our hopes out and our fears
now we go drifting down the years.
Pleasure, pain and joy and tears,
all will be as nothing soon,
now we go drifting down the years
tide by tide and moon by moon.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010


I like the Rock Pipit. He’s another bird that stands still long enough for you to admire him. Despite his essential pipitiness he is well qualified as a bird of the Estuary. He, in his habits, as T. A. Coward tells us, “more nearly approaches the shore-haunting waders than any ‘land bird’.” At this time of the year I see him or his mate or both of them every time I walk beneath the red cliffs and along the shingle from Lympstone’s Green to Sowden End.

The Rock Pipit gives me the impression that he likes my company. I think I’ve seen the last of him and then he flutters past me and perches on the cliffs ahead and waits. He is a fearless climber on the cliff face but then I suppose we would all be pretty fearless climbers if we had wings to our backs! Nevertheless the way he keeps his balance without a flutter and hops about and shuffles sideways on the stormsculpted sandstone is remarkable. He is a very chamois among birds.

How he can skip it
that pretty Rock Pipit!

When the tide is falling he ventures out onto the mud flats and finds good things to eat in the rock crevices and in the seaweed. The cold breeze ruffles his Royal Marine olive plumage but like a bold booty he feels not a thing. There are plenty of birds scuttling about on the mud pecking at things but the Rock Pipit more or less has the whole length of the cliff wall to himself. The kestrel that used to hover and hunt there I haven’t seen for a couple of years. He is probably hovering above a motorway these days. There have been winter days when I have glimpsed a kingfisher along these cliffs but not lately. Most days there are fat woodpigeons perched high in the bushes but they don’t do a lot.

Monday, 15 March 2010


The Illustrated London News of October 13, 1860 described her as ‘an elegant yacht , the very similitude of a gigantic white swan which may now often be seen sunning its wings on the shining waters of the estuary of the river whence it derives its appellation.’

Captain Peacock’s ‘Swan of the Exe’was the strangest vessel that ever sailed these waters. This fantastic 'pleasure yacht' was designed by Captain Peacock of Starcross and built by Dixons of Exmouth. She was launched in September 1860 and every inch of her lived up to her glorious name.

See now where the famous inventor, Captain Peacock, peruses Bewick’s ‘History of British Birds’ and takes the measurements of the mute swan that he finds there and scales them up fourfold.

This gives Captain Peacock a yacht only seventeen feet six inches in length but so broad in the beam that he has room for a table in the saloon large enough for ten persons to dine in comfort. While his guests sit at table they can dangle fishing lines through small oval apertures in the table which open to the water beneath. When a fish is caught it can instantly be cooked in a ‘multum in parvo cooking apparatus’. The smoke from this stove is drawn up the neck of the swan and is breathed out through the swan’s nostrils.

Imagine! It is a sunny afternoon on the Estuary. Captain Peacock’s ‘Swan’ is bearing down on us. Her vicious head rides sixteen feet above the dancing wavelets. Her wicked, beady, black eyes are looking straight at us. She is now so near that we can read, worked in letters of gold upon a silken azure banner, pendent from a brass rod which the bird carries in her bill, the proud name: ‘Swan of the Exe.’ Someone at the dinner table must have got lucky for as the great bird looms towards us she is breathing smoke.

Quick! Out of the way before the bugger pecks us!

Friday, 12 March 2010


In the August of the year 1908, Mrs Alice Fildew of Estuary View, Exton, had the gratification of seeing her verses printed in the local paper, ‘The Exmouth Journal’. It was not the first time she had tasted literary success. In 1890 she had sent verses to the great and famous soprano, Adelina Patti, who had replied by sending to her a signed photograph inscribed ‘to Mrs Alice Fildew with many thanks for charming verses. – Adelina Patti Nicolini.’ In 1901 her verses on the death of Queen Victoria, ‘Victoria, sweet mother, name peerless through ages.. &co.’ appeared in ‘The Devon Express’ and no doubt Alice enjoyed many other triumphs of which I am not aware. As a poet and songwriter Mrs F. clearly shared a Muse with the great Sir Walter Scott. The century that interposed itself between her work and his was to her as nothing. What follows is the third stanza of her four stanza work ,‘To the Vale of Lympstone’:

And yon – there, how pleasant in rich, pastoral beauty,
Stands ‘Nutwell’ the Court of fam’d Drake’s glory’d name,
Where, hard by, I’ve watched the last gleam of rare sunset
Expire mid refulgence of sky-glow aflame.
Whilst o’er the calm Est’ry floats stately yon pennant
From Powderham’s old castle and Church as of yore!
Where near sleeps that good Earl - of Devon’s best (lineage)
’Neath the dear, hallow’d spot by the wavelet-kissed shore.

Is ‘yon – there’ preferable to ‘yonder’? I wonder. The word at the end of the penultimate line is obscured. It’s not ‘lineage’ but I’m blessed if I can work out what it is.

Well, another century has passed and ‘yon pennant’ is still to be seen floating from Powderham Castle across the ‘Est’ry’ ‘as of yore’, at least it floats whenever the Earl is at home. Rumour has it he hides in cramped quarters and dark passages at the back of the house while the trippers scuttle about. And we still have plenty of ‘refulgence of sky-glow aflame’. You should have seen it last night.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010


The poet, Patricia Beer, (1919 - 1999) imagines her mother's first coming to Exmouth from Torquay. Patricia's mother, Harriet Jeffery, came to work in Exmouth as a young school teacher in the early years of the First War. There she married Andrew Beer, grandson of Andrew Alexander Beer. master of the Exmouth brig Magyar who died when his vessel was cut in half by a steamer off Hartlepool. The excerpt is from Patricia Beer's autobiography of childhood,'Mrs Beer's House' (Macmillan 1968)

I sometimes try to enter into my mother’s feelings as she approached Exmouth for the first time. She must have come across the estuary on the Starcross ferry, which was the recognised route from Torquay, as it saved going up to Exeter and down again on the Exmouth line…It is impossible for me to recreate her impression of coming into exile or to think of Exmouth as a hated, hostile town; I feel too differently. But I admit that the estuary could look cheerless on its worst days, and this may have been one of them. Wet sand is a very depressing sight, and the ferry-boat would have got a long, uninterrupted view of Dawlish Warren, which stretched half-way across the mouth of the river as well as the two-mile line of beach from Exmouth Harbour to Orcombe Point.

The estuary was hardly ever blue. It varied from silver at its brightest to pewter at its dullest, and always tarnished with currents, which seized the ferry-boat with some violence as it left the shelter of Dawlish Warren at the last stage of the crossing.

As the boat entered the harbour, swinging awkwardly in the current and hardly ever head-on, the passengers , I suppose, would have been as conscious of the residents’ shoes as they waited on the jetty above as the residents were of the passengers’ hats. My mother may have looked into the inner harbour, where the boats tended to huddle up in corners like sheep and where a few swans and a great many rotten apples were usually swilling about. She would have been too far away and perhaps in no mood to enjoy the smell of cut wood from the saw-mill just beyond. The boards and planks of the landing-stage and the steps were slimy and green, with every corner worn off. It may have been raining and she certainly suffered from seasickness. Perhaps it was one of those terrible first impressions from which people never wholly recover.

Monday, 8 March 2010


On October 12th 1922 the evening was breezy and Samuel Squire, fisherman of Lympstone, had been trawling out at sea and had not had much luck. He had caught only enough fish to cover the bottom of his basket. Ten minutes before he passed the line which the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee had fixed as the limit for fishing with trawl or trammel he put out his trawl again. It was his last hope.

This was the kind of dusky, blowy October evening when Exmouth front looks deserted. No doubt Sam was keeping his eye out for anyone who might be watching. He did not see Fishery Officer Pym, who was employed by the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee and who was probably lying low and squinting at him through a pair of binoculars.

The bye-law had been passed in 1904 but the Committee knew their law was being flouted. They wanted to make an example of some poor fisherman to encourage the others to observe the limit and Sam was in the wrong place at the wrong time. When he was still trawling well over the line Fishery Officer Pym was rowed out by boatman Thomas Thomson towards Sam's little trawler. At the last minute Sam saw him coming and the trawl was hauled in but by this time it was too late! The boat was by now between the Clock Tower and the pier.

The next month Sam was up before the Exmouth Magistrates' Bench. Richard Turner, fisherman of Topsham, was there too, charged with the same offence. Richard had been fishing in the channel earlier that same day and he too had fallen victim to Fishery Officer Pym. Both fishermen were found guilty of trawling inside the line and heavily fined.

Friday, 5 March 2010


What then did the announcement that was made in the middle of last month that marine archaeologists had been working on what is left of a Bronze Age vessel that was wrecked off Salcombe have to do with our Estuary? This wreck has been billed as ‘one of the world’s oldest’. The long boat, not a longboat, foundered, so they believe , three thousand years ago. She was big enough to have a crew of perhaps fifteen and to carry the 259 copper and 27 tin ingots that have been recovered. This has led to the usual ooh aahing to the effect that prehistoric men were so very much more ‘sophisticated’ than we thought. And so it would seem.

Of the vessel itself there is next to nothing to be salvaged and if she had not been laden with the vital ingredients for making bronze she would probably never have been ‘discovered’. Such a boat carrying fabrics or furniture or passengers or beasts would have left next to no trace. The metal on board had been collected from several different sources in Europe and, according to a Telegraph column, it ‘provides new evidence about the extent and sophistication of Britain’s links with Europe in the Bronze Age as well as the remarkable seafaring abilities of the people during the period.’

What has this to do with our Estuary? Well, if such trading boats were being paddled across the Channel into local waters it seems likely that the people of the Exe were in on the deal. Woodbury Castle was originally a Bronze Age fortress. A bronze axe head was found in Woodbury; a Bronze Age sword was found on Exmouth beach and there are a dozen tumuli or round barrows between the castle and the Estuary to establish that, here and then, many men were living and dying. No doubt they were also trading.

It would seem that Professor Hoskins’ much challenged idea that cross Channel traders came up the Exe three centuries before Christ might need to be set back a further six or seven hundred years.

Thursday, 4 March 2010


These verses by 'NN' of Lympstone were first published in the Exmouth Journal 0f 5th September 1925.

One fine day we resting lay
At noontide by the Exe,
A paradise which Nature
In lovely garb bedecks.

The bullfinch red sang overhead.
The sky of blue serene
With honeysuckle bright was hid,
A glorious scented scene.

Bathers in sunlit waters lazed.
A cool breeze murmured by.
The seagulls with their snowy breasts
Were wheeling in the sky.

Within our view the rich red cliffs
Of such tremendous height.
When the golden sun is sinking
'Tis such a wondrous sight.

The brilliance of the sunset sky
merges to glowing red.
The Lympstone fishing fleet sails out
Seeking for daily bread.

O but 'twas a glorious sight
For any eye to see,
The variegated boats and sails
All dancing on the sea.

So if you want to come and stay
Where hearts are blithe and free
You couldn't choose a better place
Than Exmouth by the sea.

Who was this NN? A young Norton perhaps. He or she, my bet is on she, did well. 'The seagulls with their snowy breasts' could be Yeats. Let's hope that the Lympstone fishing fleet came home with some bread.

Monday, 1 March 2010


I am no twitcher and in puckish moments have even been known gently to mock the more fanatic godwit seeking nitwits/ nitwits seeking godwits that haunt the Estuary but I do like to watch birds in the wild. I best like those birds who don't themselves twitch, who sometimes stand still and won’t allow themselves to be mistaken. The shelduck qualifies.

All this last week I have been watching the shelducks and drakes of the Estuary at Sowden End. There are four couples of them. At the start of the ebb they feed right under my nose, some swimming, some paddling at the water’s edge. Towards low water they spread out in their pairs along Lympstone Lake, two hundred feet away. When they swim they swim proudly, high in the water so that you can get a proper look at their glory. Like many birds I have met they don’t stop feeding for a minute. Their heads are down more often than they are up. At high water I see a pair of them flying down river low over the water.

The name, properly it is sheld duck, has nothing to do with shells and everything to do with the amazing black, white, chestnut colours of the plumage of both duck and drake. They are wonderfully ‘paint by numbers’. ‘Sheld’ is said somewhere in England to be a dialect word and derives from Low German and might mean pied or variegated or speckled or shimmering. Take your pick! The shelduck has beautifully defined patches of colour, you could quilt it, and a fiery red bill. The drake has a somewhat discomforting fiery red knob on his fiery red bill. The Germans call the shelduck Brandente, fire duck.

They are the most handsome of birds and well worth a watch or two.