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.