Tuesday, 31 August 2010



As I pulled the boat across a loppy sea –
The bumping and splashing boat,
With the sail flapping round my head,
And the pile of mackerel amidships ever growing larger and lovelier in the light –
And the sun rose behind the cliffs to eastward, and the sky became lemon-yellow
(A graciously coloured veil twixt the earth and all mystery beyond),
And the wavelets sparkled and darted like ten thousand fishes at play in the ambient dawn, –
It seemed that the sky and the sea and the earth gathered themselves together,
And became one vast kind eye, looking into the stern of the boat,
At the father and boy.

Navy blue guernsey, and trousers stained by the sea, scarce hiding the ribbed muscles;
Tan-red face, the fresh blood showing through;
Blue eyes all of a flash with fishing and the joy of hauling ’em in; now on the luff of the sail (out of habit. There being hardly a sail-full of air), now to wind’ard, and again smiling on the child;
Big pendulous russet hands, white in the palms from salt water, and splashed with scales –
Hands that seem implements rather, appearing strangely no part of the man, but something, like the child, that has grown away from him and has taken a life of its own –
Strong for a sixteen foot sweep, delicate to handle the silken snood of a line –
A man that the winds and spray have blown on, gnarled and bent to the sea’s own liking,
The Father!

From ‘A Poor Man’s House’ Stephen Reynolds, 1908.
Next Monday: Part 2. (The Child)

Friday, 27 August 2010


The stacks between Teignmouth and Dawlish are called Parson and Clerk. Some blogs ago we looked at the so called legend of the Parson and the Clerk which I do not love. The ‘legend’ is of the ‘how did the stacks get their name?’ variety. In short a parson and a clerk lose their way and find a house in the mist and drop in on the devil and a few dead friends. There they wine and dine but when they leave the party they drop over the cliff and are never seen again except, so to speak, stoned for eternity. And so the stacks got their name.

Yes, I know it’s only a story but the silliness of it still niggles me! Let me state the obvious that these splendid stacks were named from their appearance and not from the landward but from the open sea. The wit , the humour and bright inventiveness of the name lie with the mariners of yore. It’s a great name for a great image and it dates from a tithepaying age before state registrars when few could escape the church and the clergy. From the sea when the stacks line up one sees quite clearly how the parson is sermonising the waves from his high pulpit and below him the clerk is sat at his desk where he should be, ready to make the responses. And perhaps there is space between them for some pious parishoner to read the lesson. Generations of fishermen and other seafarers, church, chapel and freethinkers, immediately recognised that double or triple decker pulpit from their own Devon churches and they recognised its occupants and saluted them in passing. 'Hello Passon, my dear! Hello Clerk! ' And if some touched their hats no doubt others shook their fists or thumbed their noses.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010


A serious young ‘gentleman’ by the name of Stephen Reynolds who aspired to be a writer of books came to live and work as a fisherman in Sidmouth in the very early years of the twentieth century. He took lodgings in the house of a fishing family called Woolley. Reynolds was a graduate of Manchester University and was only twenty two or so when he started this adventure. In 1908 was published his successful book, A Poor Man’s House, in which he wrote about the Woolleys and their hard lives.

Thankfully in this book he confirms and preserves many of the words that were part of the everyday language of the fishing community here in the Estuary as well as along these coasts at that time. ‘Wrinkling’ for ‘periwinkle gathering’ we have discoursed upon before. “Taking out frights” for the taking to sea of pleasure parties,’frights’ being a corruption of ‘freights’, is new to me. Below is Stephen Reynold’s description of the Woolley’s mackerel lines:

“…the upper part consists of 2 – 3 fathoms of stoutish conger line, to take the friction over the gunwale,and 5 – 6 fathoms of finer line, to the end of which a conical ‘sugarloaf’ lead is attached by a clove hitch, the short end being laid up around the standing part for an inch or so and then finished off with the strong neat difficue (corruption of difficult?) knot. A swivel, or better still simply an eyelet cut from an old boot, runs free just above the lead, between the clove hitch and the difficue knot. To the eyelet is attached the ‘sid’ – i.e. two or three fathoms of fine snooding; - to the sid a length of gut on which half an inch of clay pipe stem is threaded, and to the gut a rather large hook, The bait is a ‘lask’, or long three-cornered strip of skin cut from the tail of a mackerel…”

Now ‘snoods’ are the shorter lines attached at regular intervals to a long line and ‘snooding’ is the appropriate thickness of line for snoods. ‘Sid’ and ‘lask’ are, I suspect, forgotten words. They both seem to defy etymology but every word must be supposed to have one, just as every man must be supposed to have a mother.

Saturday, 21 August 2010


By last night’s ebb the swans sailed past in line.
How many? Ten? A dozen? Maybe more.
Their liquid world moved them, but I in mine
was fixed. I watched from the too solid shore.

The rain clouds which had leadened the long day
still lowered, but an amber from the West
brightened the moorings where their passage lay,
gilded the waters where these swans progressed.

No doubt it wondered as it slipped along,
this pomp of swans advancing through the night,
that other beasts live in a world so wrong
whereas the swan lives in a world so right.

Another Swan

And another

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


The image is of a gallant, young, Josiah Nisbet more or less saving Horatio Nelson's life at Santa Cruz.

Yesterday my eye was caught by a memorandum concerning a yacht called the ‘blank’ and listed as No 13 and for the year 1818, in the Memoranda Book of the famous Topsham shipbuilder Daniel Bishop Davy, as published by the Devon and Cornwall Record Society’s Shipbuilding on the Exe, 1988, with an introduction by Clive N Ponsford. Mr Davy had written:

“A yacht built at Topsham called the [blank] for Captn Nesbitt R.N. of Exmouth, composed by myself. She was a foot to(o) narrow and a foot to(o) low to have any accommodations. She was a very good model but very sharp. She had an alteration from the drawing which was a quarter deck aft 18 inches higher then [than] the other part of the deck & 8 feet long from the fore part of the stern post.”

Then are listed the measurements which would seem to indicate that she was a thirtyfooter with a ten foot beam and a mast height of thirty foot and with six foot depth in the hold.

The connection that sprang to my mind, and I like to think no one else has spotted it, is that this is the yacht of Josiah Nisbet, Nelson’s stepson, who is buried at Littleham and who regularly sailed to France out of Exmouth in his own boat, sometimes, ‘accommodations’ or not, taking his wife, Fanny, with him. Irregular spellings, of course, were commonplace in the Age of Orthographic Chaos.

So, at Topsham in 1818 was built a yacht for Lady Nelson’s son. Is this a significant footnote to history? Well, maybe not. But I am still feeling pleased with myself and, if they don’t know already, I shall let the armies of Nelson scholars know about it.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010


“The observant stranger will soon discover that the whole country around Exmouth on both sides of the Exe is full of objects of interest, and intersected with innumerable lanes and paths which will conduct him through scenes of ever-varying beauty. The sheltered waters of the Passage-way and the Estuary afford very good boating, and delightful excursions by water may be had in fine weather to such places as TURF, TOPSHAM and LYMPSTONE. But the favourite water-excursions are to Dawlish, Teignmouth, and POWDERHAM CASTLE. Cards to view the Castle and grounds can easily be obtained by application to the Steward at Starcross. Pic-nic parties are not allowed to bivouac in the Park, but they are permitted to refresh themselves on the green sward in front of the boat house, and no better place for the purpose could be selected. The good people of the Cottage are ready to spread the board and lay out all the necessary paraphernalia of the tea-table. Powderham Church. a little beyond the landing-place , should not be forgotten.”

This is from William Webb’s Memorials, published in 1872. I like the term ‘Passage-way’ used here to mean the long Channel between Exmouth beach and the Pole Sand.

The railway which had opened in 1846 clearly had made no difference to the Victorian visitors’ water excursions to Powderham. Presumably there was then a crossing over the railway line. Nowadays arriving by boat to visit the Castle is not possible. Perhaps the idea should be revived. For the price of a bridge and a turnstile it could be. In any case the Estuary is everywhere scandalously short of welcoming landing places but that is a fit subject for some other day’s blog.

Saturday, 14 August 2010


This is the story of the horrific death of Mr John Radford of Exmouth who, in the first half of the nineteenth century, was a brewer of beer and a maltster. When he was not brewing and malting his passion was to visit the Bight and to shoot wild fowl from his duck punt. His gun was mounted to his punt by a swivel. It was a veritable ‘goose cannon’ which generally carried three quarters of a pound of shot and one ounce of powder. It would have looked much like a length of drain pipe. He no doubt discharged it so as to blast ducks and geese sitting on the water which is not very sportsmanlike but very effective. The explosion would have been deafening and the punt would have shot backwards in the water like the proverbial bat.

One day, it was Saturday 13th October 1837, both Mr Radford and his gun were ashore at Exmouth. He wanted to withdraw the wad and the charge from his giant muzzleloader. To do this he used an iron rod with a worm at each end. Such a rod was the traditional tool for the job, a ‘worm’ being a screw or spiral, so called because that was the way earthworms were supposed to move through the ground. This gun, however, was too big for one person both to hold it steady and to poke about down the barrel so he placed it across a block of wood and asked the boy who was with him to lean on the gun and hold it firm.

While Mr Radford was wrenching away, trying to worm the charge out of the barrel, the gun slipped and fell and went off and three quarters of a pound of shot together with the iron rod with its two worms lodged in his body. He cried out, “Christ have mercy!”, reeled once or twice and fell flat on his face, dead. When his body was raised it was found that his bowels were splattered all over the pavement and his chest was riddled with shot. The boy who was with him must have had quite a shock. The ducks and geese might not have known it but they were fearfully avenged.

Mr Radford left a wife and five young children. Mrs Radford was just about to produce their sixth.

The details of this gory story are taken from that splendid book, Memorials of Exmouth, compiled by the Reverend William Webb, B.A. Curate of Littleham-cum-Exmouth and published at Exmouth in 1872 by T.Freeman, Baring Place. I am grateful to that indefatigable researcher Ray Girvan for drawing my attention to Mr Webb’s wonderful compilation.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010


Here in Lympstone in my time there was only ever one duck punt. It was maybe fourteen foot long, heavily constructed and was painted warship grey. It lay low on a mooring off the Green, squat and sinister, the more so because it was fitted to carry a heavy swivel gun. It was owned by a man whom I can only remember as someone I disliked. He is most likely dead by now. The cause of this dislike is forgotten but it was probably as much due to my prejudices, I have grown sweeter since then, as to any fault of his. It was not, however, that I was against the idea of wildfowling, which in those days was not frowned upon. Indeed the thought of lying in wait to ambush the winter geese flying into the Estuary, at dawn perhaps, fascinated me. I itched to kill my goose but never got around to it. These days of course one thinks more correctly.

The geese have started flying low over my house again. I see or hear them every now and again. They fly by the tide and not by the clock. There seem to be more of them every year. It is as though they could smell the protection that the Estuary affords. I love their crazy flight and the wild noise they make.

This menacing gun punt was regularly put to use but I never heard tell of any quantity of ducks or geese coming home. Traditionally the place to shoot wildfowl was on the Bight but to judge by the number of empty shotgun cartridges, red and green, that one found on the shingle beaches there was quite a procession of hunters trooping up and down the banks between Lympstone and Exmouth.

There are said still to be thirty acres of marshland on the Exe, I don’t know where, where the Devon Wildfowlers Association enjoy their over controlled sport. I somehow doubt that they venture out in grey punts mounted with kingsize swivel guns.

Sunday, 8 August 2010


If you tie a fish head
to a length of string,
dangle it from a wall
into the tide
you can catch the green crab.

The green crab is good for little.
Nobody wants him
to eat,
for bait,
as the family pet.

But you can watch him
scuttle about for a while,
shuffle home to his muddy depths.
That’s about it
with the green crab.

Beyond, however, any doubt
catching the green crab is something for you.
Go to it!
Get feckless!
Let’s face it, lately there has been
altogether too much purpose in your life.

All you need is a fish head
and a length of string.
Perhaps take some child with you
By way of pretext.

Thursday, 5 August 2010


In 1865 Henry Baird, under the pen name Nathan Hogg, published a second book of poems in the Devon dialect. Henry Baird was born in Starcross in 1829 and for much of his life he worked in Exeter as a lawyer’s clerk. He often travelled the line between Starcross and Exeter. In one of the poems published in ‘Poetical Letters tu es brither Jan, 1865’ Nathan Hogg’ in a poem called ‘A Turrabul ride bee Rayl’ thus records seeing Captain Peacock’s ‘Swan of the Exe’ sailing up the Estuary beside the railway:

Wul, then ess luk’d owt pin tha zay,
(Zich thing wiz niver yer’d,)
Vur bigger thin a rick a hay
Thare zwim’d a wackin burd,
And ez ess raud, ha turn’d es bayk,
Thort I “now hang on varm,
Vur ef he com’th and vind’th thur wayk,
He’ll ait thur like a warm.

No, you don’t need a translation! You do? Well okay then:

Well, then we looked out upon the sea/ (Such a thing was never heard,)/ For bigger than a rick of hay/ A very large bird was swimming there./And as we rode, he turned his beak. / I thought, “Now, hang on firmly,/ For should he come and find you weak/ He’ll eat you as though you were a worm.

The funnest thing about Henry Baird aka Nathan Hogg is that through the dialect poems that he started writing as a teenager he attracted the friendship of His Highness Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte, a man sixteen years his senior who was passionate in his study of English dialects. The Prince came to Exeter to spend time with Henry Baird and ‘Nathan Hogg’ wrote a poem about it. The ‘Poetical Letters’ is dedicated to Prince Louis.

Monday, 2 August 2010



Sowden End

No, World's end,
a place to run away to,
where the dark lane's elbow
nudges away the tide
and a thin moon shivers eerily
over the fleeing water;

yet an hour ago
sunset viewers came
over the village's left shoulder
to the waiting seats
as high tide trickled up the slipway
and blushing cliffs blushed deeper.