Thursday, 30 September 2010


All philosophers eventually go mad but, you can believe your Uncle Wayland when he tells you that not all swans are white. I was standing on Odhams Quay looking on the River Clyst yesterday and watching the black swans. And if they are not swans then I'm a cuckoo. A three year old child could have told you that they were swans!

The black swans have been off and on the Estuary for many years. I first saw them, three of them, maybe ten years ago, swimming by the steps at Powderham where the River Kenn enters the Channel. They are said to escape from Dawlish Brook where, since Edwardian times, they have been kept pinioned to be wondered at by the visitors. These four swans yesterday on the Clyst looked happier and healthier for having got away. I am told cob and pen had hatched three cygnets of which two survive. The third was probably scrobbled up by a fox.

There is an Exmouth Quay Residents' account of doomed black swans coming to the Estuary in January 2008. It tells of the Dawlish harbourmaster swanning about the Exe trying to get his birds back. I hope these Clyst swans will be left in peace. They looked to me as though they had come to stay. They were not lacking in confidence. In fact the pen was humming the old black swansong as she glided along among the reedbeds:

"I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem,
as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon."

Thursday, 23 September 2010


There are a number of limekilns fronting the Estuary. They produced lime in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, primarily for local farmers. They are where they are for two reasons. First, such kilns needed to be built into the side of a hill or into a cliff because of the nature of the limeburning process. A very high temperature was required to heat the limestone. The soft red sandstone cliffs of the banks of the Exe were ideal for the purpose. Secondly the limestone had somehow to be delivered to the limekiln and this could best be done by sea. For centuries heavy ‘stone boats’ plied back and forth between Torbay and the Exe carrying suitable stone for burning.

These stone boats needed to be substantial vessels. One built for Lord Rolle in 1802 and called ‘the Bicton’ was of 74 tons. She was ‘a square sterned sloop’ over fifty feet long and carrying a square sail in addition to main, fore and jibs.

The best remaining lime kilns on the Exe are at Lympstone where there are two fine examples of such building. These were supplied with limestone by a stone boat that needed to lie off shore. The stone had then to be transferred to lighters and so brought ashore and offloaded again. Even by the best tides it must have been an arduous task. By 'dead' tides the stone was left beyond the tideline in piles and needed to be fetched in by cart.

The limekilns with their gracious barrelled arches have now a rather romantic look about them but in their time time they were the worst kind of polluting industrial intrusion. The noise of the furnaces was thundering. The gases were foulsmelling and poisonous. The warmth, however, of the area around limekilns attracted the homeless. It seemed a good place to sleep on a cold night. All too many vagabonds were found dead, poisoned by the carbon dioxide that spewed out of the top of the kilns.

The Lympstone kilns and those at Countess Weir and Topsham were for many years owned by the Topsham shipbuilder, Daniel Bishop Davy and his family. I don’t imagine he or his kin or his kilns were very popular with the neighbours.

More from Segal Books.

Monday, 20 September 2010


Sometimes we pull up and sometimes we pull down.
Sometimes we pull over from this to that side,
but as often as not we don't pull much at all.
We just dip with the paddles and ride with the tide.

Upriver is handsome. Downriver’s the sea.
The sea's quite a swell. Well, we know about that;
'tis best to defer to the oceans, my dear,
magnificent, infinite. Take off your hat!

But here, where the two of them meet it is rare,
for here the tide rises and here the tide falls
and here screaks the sea pie while tides tap away
and the sandpiper pipes and the sad curlew calls.

Upriver’s a rushing. Downriver’s a lop
but here on the lake it is sometimes so calm
your soul can glide off like a white winter swan
and paddle back home with a beakful of balm.

And the grey herons stalk and the white herons squawk
and the cormorants hang out their dark wings to dry
and the bright gulls line up as they wait for the ebb
and the wild geese come honking, low down in the sky.

Upriver’s a green and a beautiful land.
Downriver’s the bay and the wide open sea.
There's nought to be said against either, my dear,
But here where they meet is the rare place to be.

Sometimes we pull up and sometimes we pull down.
Sometimes we pull over from this to that side.
But as often as not we don't pull much at all.
We just dip with the paddles and ride on the tide.


Friday, 17 September 2010


I have heard it said , I don’t know on what authority, that the name Starcross is a corruption of Stair Cross and that it is an ancient name dating from a time when passengers landing there climbed an actual stair to an actual cross where, on their knees, they devoutly gave thanks for a safe crossing, presumably from Exmouth.

This is not as fanciful as at first it might appear. The ferries from Exmouth were a salient fact of mediaeval life on the Estuary and for many years up until 1267 they were in the possession of the Abbot and monks of Sherborne who may well have demanded a little piety, as well as a little money, from the people who were carried across to Starcross.

I have lately dipped into a book called ‘The South Devon Coast’ by the ‘Historian of British Highways’ Charles G Harper. He too had heard the ‘Stair Cross’ story, though not the ‘giving thanks’ bit. Unlike many travel writers he does not hesitate to disparage where he thinks disparagement is due. I find that healthy. I like his irony and his style. His writing is refreshingly unaffected for the times. His book was published by Chapman and Hall in 1907. Here is a sample:

“Starcross itself has been described as ‘a melancholy attempt at a watering-place’, probably by some person who regards Exmouth as a cheerful and successful effort in that direction; but ‘there is no accounting for tastes’ as the old woman said when she kissed her cow. As sheer matter of fact, Starcross never attempted anything in that way, but just like Topsy – ‘grew’ and so became what it is; a large village of one long, single-sided street, looking once uninterruptedly upon the`shore and the water, but since the railway came, commanding first-class views of expresses, locals and goods-trains; and more or less identified by strangers with a singular Italianate tall red tower, sole relic of the atmospheric system with which the then South Devon Railway was opened in 1846. This survival of one of the old engine-houses completes a conspicuously beautiful view along the Exe, raised thereby to the likeness of an Italian lake. The one other remarkable feature of Starcross is the curious little steamship, modelled like a swan, that for fifty of more years past has been moored off Starcross jetty: to the huge amazement of travellers coming this way for the first time.”

Well, ‘The Swan of the Exe’ was never a steamship but it stands to reason that it must have been something amazing to look out for from the trains for all those little boys and girls bound for West Country holidays. In those days children gazed out at the world. Nowadays the little monsters are encouraged to gaze into electronic toys on their laps, missing so much and so much.

And what fun to have the Estuary compared to an Italian lake as well as to the Bosporous.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010


We are invited to believe, by the Leeds Mercury of 1st August 1738, ( Mine is the secondary source: Volume 36 of the Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries,) that a Mr Robert Heath caught ‘a strange fish’ supposed by many to be a Triton, just over Exmouth bar on 6th May 1737. It conformed to the following description:

It had “a Body much resembling that of a Man with a Genital Member of considerable Size, together with jointed Legs and Feet extending from his Belly 12 or 13 Inches with Fins at his Thighs, and larger ones, like Wings, in the Form of which those of Angles (sic) are often painted, at his Shoulders, with a broad Head of a very uncommon Form, a Mouth six inches wide, Smellers or Kind of Whiskers, at his Nostrils, and two Spout Holes behind his Eyes through which he ejected Water, when taken, 30 or 40 Feet high.”

‘Smeller’ as a synonym for ‘whisker’ is a fun word. According to the Shorter Oxford it is a name for, especially, the whiskers of a cat. Assuming Robert Heath was not just hornswoggling, what kind of fish or mammal did he catch?

The Exmouth Mermaid

The Exeter Mermaid.

The Mermaid's Wedding, (Verses)

The Sleeping Mermaids

Sunday, 12 September 2010


Ah me! I’ll sit me down and write
A mournful tale: One luckless night
My brothers how they went away,
And left us to lament their stay.

Have you not heard the dreadful sound,
That eight dear souls that night were drowned;
Over the ferry just across,
Without wind or sail were lost?

Four of whom my brothers were,
Ah me how sad, oh, how severe!
None were there to see their grief,
None to give them swift relief!

How then were the youths adrowned?
None to hear a single sound;
How was it done? Ah, where was I,
Not to see, or hear their cry?

Oh, Robert was it hard to sink?
Thou’rt gone! Thou’rt gone! I’m left to think.
My James and Francis, did you see
The danger, and still could not flee?

Ah John, did you look round on them,
And see the flowers plucked from the stem?
Ah no! Ah no! Thou did’st not so,
Thou too art gone! Thou, too, did’st go!

Ah me! had one been left to tell
The tender sorrow, how they fell;
The more I think, it seems more hard,
Angels! were you not on your guard?

In the garden oft that night I went,
At last I weary went to bed;
I thought not of that sad event,
I never dreamed that they were dead.

The youths are flown,- the youths are flown,-
To dwell beneath another sky;
Their life, alas! on earth is done,
And we are left below to sigh!

Eliza Jane Pine, Exmouth, January 1837

Thursday, 9 September 2010


Eliza Jane Pine was the daughter of a mariner of Exmouth. In 1837 she was nineteen years old and she had four brothers, John and James and Bob and Frank. One day, it was the 24th January, her two older brothers, John and James, were invited to take tea with the Captain of the brig Hinde which had just arrived home and was lying in the Bight. In the evening at about seven o clock, Eliza’s two younger brothers, Bob who was twelve and Frank who was only ten, rowed out in calm waters to fetch their big brothers home. Meanwhile, on board the Hinde, John and James Pine had met with a Mr Pring of Exmouth and his two daughters. Mr Pring was on board with his girls to welcome home his son who was one of the ship’s crew. When Bob and Frank reached the Hinde the Pines offered to ferry the Prings, father, son and two girls, home to Exmouth.

There were thus eight people in too small a boat and although the waters were smooth and there was no wind the boat was swamped and all eight were drowned.

Eliza Jane had lost four brothers at a stroke but soon after the event, like a well-conducted person, she sat down and wrote some verses about it which were printed in the Western Times.

Later in her life, in 1863, Eliza Jane was to suffer further bereavement through drowning when her husband William Hall, captain of the sail steamer Ruby, drowned at Bluff Harbour, New Zealand, but she probably did not suffer too much because by then William was a bigamist who had set up home in Australia with his new woman.

Next week, the Fates willing, I shall publish Eliza Jane’s 1837 verses.

My source for this melancholy tale is the Reverend William Webb.

Monday, 6 September 2010


In the second chapter of ‘Redcliff’ young Joe Parable, wanting to find out about the life of the village to which he has come, pops into ‘The Cat and Canary’ for a quick pint. A local fisherman, James Blaker, tells him about his work.

“As for fishing,” he said, “there’s all sorts and some be good fun – like seining for salmon in the estuary – and some be infernal hard work, like going to sea in bad weather. We fish with hooks and lines, with drift nets and with trawls according to what we’re after. Drift nets be for herring and sprat only and trawl nets for the bottom. We catch dabs and plaice and ray and brill and soles in them – ground fish. Mackerel, which we’re after now, we catch with hook and line on a bobbin pale. Then, when we’re after salmon in the tidal waters, our net is a heavier mesh and stronger than herring net. That’s the fishing I like, though it’s harder work than just sailing with your lines running astern.”

‘Redcliff’ is Eden Phillpotts' name for Lympstone and the above is an example of his writing at its most journalistic. In the year 1922 he literally did wander around the village with a notebook and pencil and put people into his books.

But what was a 'bobbin pale'?

Sunday, 5 September 2010



And the boy –

Like delicate dawn to the sunset was the child to his father –
A sturdy slight figure, as straight as the mast,
A grey and more gently coloured figure, glancing round with the father’s self-same gestures softened and with childish trustful sea-blue eyes;
Pattering with naked feet on the stern-sheets, and hauling the fish with a wary cat-like motion….

O splendid and beautiful pair!
O man of the sea! O child growing up to the sea,’tis the likeness of your souls,
And I know that as I love you, I am loving also the sea –
O splendid and beautiful portions of the sea!

From: 'A Poor Man's House'' Stephen Reynolds, 1908

Part 1 (The Father)