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?

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.