Wednesday, 28 December 2011


It was a bitter winter’s night,
the goddess rose up beaming,
a twinkle frost creaked underfoot,
the silver stars were gleaming.
The flood slipped in like beaten light
while all but they were sleeping;
the tide was mirror to the night
it came so calmly creeping.

Chill to the water's edge they came;
she trembled at his shoulder
but when they kissed they burst aflame,
their whole world was asmoulder;
their eyes were furnaces of love
that blazed with youth and yearning;
the very stars looked pale above
the brightness of their burning.

Orion from his post peeped round
and could not mind his duty.
The lady from her chair looked down
and sighed for fatal beauty.
The great bear grinned to gaze upon
a kiss that warmed for ever.
Even the sacred moon smiled on
these lovers in their fever.


Monday, 26 December 2011


In the year 1888 there lived at Topsham a villainous reprobate who spread falsehoods blackening the name of a young woman called Harriet Louisa Finch Pearce. Harriet was the daughter of a market gardener who lived on the High Street. She was thirty three and engaged to be married to a Topsham baker called Louis Ware.

The scandal was so foul that poor Harriet could find no better solution than to drown herself in the Estuary. She told her brother that rather than see her name in the paper she would 'make a hole in the water' but he could not believe that she was serious in her intention.

On the morning of June 18th she rose up early and this time told her brother she was off to Devonport because she could not bear to stay in Topsham to hear the awful scandal which had been circulated about her. Her journey that day should have been by way of the ferry across the Exe, there to catch the early train to Plymouth but events proved that Harriet had been planning a longer and a sadder journey.

A passing stranger found some of her clothes and jewellery on the public footpath opposite the stable yard of the Retreat. Later a fisherman called Edward Hall found her corpse below the summer house and brought her home.

'Touchstone' who in those days wrote up the local news for 'Trewman's Exeter Flying Post' reported as follows:

"The spirit of the poor young girl at Topsham who has gone down to her death will surely haunt those who started against her the foul slander which was the cause of her broken heart and unhinged reason. She was, as Shakespeare says:
'slandered to death by villains,...
boys, apes, braggarts, Jacks, milksops!'
I need scarcely say that I would not stand in the shoes nor feel the remorse of the individual who aspersed the good name and fame of Miss Pearce for all the gold that could be gathered together within the limits of the little town on the Exe."

Touchstone's 'only regret' was:

"that the name of the creeping snake in human form who first assailed her character should be kept from the eyes and ears of the outside public."

I don't think there are many young women in Topsham these days who would 'make a hole in the water' if they were libelled. More 'suing' than 'suicidal' perhaps. Nor these days are there many local reporters quoting from Shakespeare, more's the pity.

But shed a tear with me for unhappy Harriet Pearce!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011


The Victorian poet, Coventry Patmore, wrote a poem called 'The Rosy Bosom’d Hours' in which he describes an August rail journey to Dawlish and the rosy bosomed hours that he and his second wife spent there. Below is the poem in full.

The Rosy bosom'd Hours.

A florin to the willing Guard
Secured, for half the way,
(He lock'd us in, ah, lucky-starr'd,)
A curtain'd, front coupé.
The sparkling sun of August shone;
The wind was in the West;
Your gown and all that you had on
Was what became you best;
And we were in that seldom mood
When soul with soul agrees,
Mingling, like flood with equal flood,
In agitated ease.
Far round, each blade of harvest bare
Its little load of bread;
Each furlong of that journey fair
With separate sweetness sped.
The calm of use was coming o'er
The wonder of our wealth,
And now, maybe, 'twas not much more
Than Eden's common health.
We paced the sunny platform, while
The train at Havant changed:
What made the people kindly smile,
Or stare with looks estranged?
Too radiant for a wife you seem'd,
Serener than a bride;
Me happiest born of men I deem'd,
And show'd perchance my pride.
I loved that girl, so gaunt and tall,
Who whispered loud, ‘Sweet Thing!’
Scanning your figure, slight yet all
Round as your own gold ring.
At Salisbury you stray'd alone
Within the shafted glooms,
Whilst I was by the Verger shown
The brasses and the tombs.
At tea we talk'd of matters deep,
Of joy that never dies;
We laugh'd, till love was mix'd with sleep
Within your great sweet eyes.
The next day, sweet with luck no less
And sense of sweetness past,
The full tide of our happiness
Rose higher than the last.
At Dawlish, 'mid the pools of brine,
You stept from rock to rock,
One hand quick tightening upon mine,
One holding up your frock.
On starfish and on weeds alone
You seem'd intent to be:
Flash'd those great gleams of hope unknown
From you, or from the sea?
Ne'er came before, ah, when again
Shall come two days like these:
Such quick delight within the brain,
Within the heart such peace?
I thought, indeed, by magic chance,
A third from Heaven to win,
But as, at dusk, we reach'd Penzance,
A drizzling rain set in.

He was, I think, travelling soon after 1865 with his second wife from the estate that he had purchased in East Grinstead. His rail journey involved changes at Havant, Salisbury and so to Dawlish for a couple of days where the happy couple stepped hand in hand over the same rock pools John and Tom Keats had known some forty or fifty years earlier. Then the Patmores made the mistake of pressing on to Penzance where, as so often, it was raining.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011


There is a sign outside the Methodist Chapel in Sidmouth at the moment that reads “Jesus is what Christmas is all about!” and the same maxim is big on the internet. The argument of this too true statement is as circular as a holly wreath and therefore signifies nothing. If you call Christmas, Christmas, then it clearly has everything to do with Jesus Christ but if you call the Winter Solstice, the Winter Solstice, then there have been many hundreds of gods claiming this space and competing with the Christians’ 'Nativity' and, I dare say, there are still a few competing gods about.

As every schoolboy and schoolgirl knows, the magic of the winter solstice is that the sun stops its apparent run along the horizon, bobs up and down in the same place for three days and then starts moving back the way it came. After this magic time when the sun ‘stands still’, the days, which were getting uncomfortably shorter, start once again to lengthen and everyone breathes a sigh of relief and congratulates the priests and wisemen who have predicted the happy outcome.

Few places allow a better view of the march of the sun than the East bank of the Exe Estuary. The Western hills provide a stage where this oldest of dramas is played out year after year. For thousands of pre Christian years the many different pagan races who lived on the high ground towards Woodbury would have kept a close eye on the setting sun as, day by day, he sank dramatically behind the Haldon Hills ever further to the South, across the wide Estuary. They would have followed his slow apparent journey from his midsummer position on the high moors behind the Turf Lock Hotel (which pub of course they all knew well!) to the seacoast at Dawlish, and they probably prayed to the gods of the age to encourage the sun to fight, fight against the dying of the light which, in the end he always did and, which,as yet, he has never failed to do.

And then, at last, ‘Phew,!’ just in time for Christmas, the sun stops slipping away into the ocean, and, ‘Wowee!, what an excuse for a party!

Midsummer Sunset.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011



Not for us the Sailing Club,
the racing and the craning in,
we lived up the village
far away from the river;

but there were occasional signs;
the fisherman who sold his fish
at the back door, the ships' sirens
on New Year's Eve;

and when I was in bed
the hollow sound of trains
floated across the river
as I faded into sleep;

the hollow sound of trains
across the river
as I faded into sleep...

Stephanie Jupp

Thursday, 1 December 2011


"To the Editor of the EXMOUTH JOURNAL

SIR,- We have all, I am sure, heard with pleasure of the proposed 'Sailor's Rest', which seems in a way to become one of the Institutions of the place.  We all sympathise with sailors and fishermen, and nearly every one in the community is, I imagine, willing to help, according to their power, in this effort for their comfort and well-being.  

But, while we help them,  does it not seem a little too bad that of all the nice fresh fish these men bring ashore so small a portion, if any, is available for the people of Exmouth - and that it must be sent off to different parts of the kingdom and come back to us from London and elsewhere, not improved by the journey?  Sailors and fishermen,  as a rule, like fair play,  and if the good people of Exmouth do their best to provide a Sailors' and Fishermen's Shelter, ought we not to have the chance of buying such fish as is brought in daily by the fishermen?

Fresh fish is a palatable and wholesome food and a plentiful and cheap supply would be a great boon to all classes in Exmouth.

Yours truly,

Exmouth,  January 3rd  1898."

"Housekeeper" wrote this  trenchant  but patronising letter almost one hundred and fourteen years ago but it has been revealed to me, by way of extra sensory perception, that she, yes definitely 'she' , was in fact a mean old biddy,  an Exmouth landlady,  who contributed not so much as a mite to the Flying Angel charity that set up the Exmouth Seaman's Mission  in Victoria Road and who did not give a shrimp's whisker for the comfort and wellbeing of seafarers.  She was rather one who dreamed nightly of serving, cheap, cheap, cheap, boiled fish every 'teatime' to her suffering Victorian holiday guests.   If  I'm wrong in this , may her shade forgive me!

It is no doubt true that the fishermen sold their catch regularly to the London buyers but I don't believe that there was not, in 1898, a local supply of fresh fish available to those Exmothians who were prepared to pay the market price for it.

Friday, 25 November 2011


 From the novel, 'Redcliff' by Eden Phillpotts.

"Dusk was down and the tide just upon the turn.  The still waters of the estuary, subdued to a dim silver,  flickered wan and wide in the last of the light and extended to the vague outlines of the distant shore, where earth again arose- an amorphous, undulating ridge of darkness between the water and the fading sky.  A railway train flung a feather of steam to break the gloom afar off and a gaggle of geese flew aloft, heard but not seen.  The shore did not reflect this peace, however, for the boats were sailing with the tide and not a few fishermen stood upon the little breakwater with their dingheys waiting below.  The fishing fleet rode at anchor a quarter of a mile from land.  They were set blackly on the still waters, and a boat or two from the haven had already started for them.  Women and landsmen stood about among the departing fishers.  Little groups talked, moved, mingled;  lanterns twinkled and one by one the shore boats carried their crews to sea."

What a glorious ampleness of alliteration is here! :  'dusk/down',  tide/turn', 'subued/silver', 'wan/wide' 'last/light'.  I have loved this passage for many years despite the fact that here, as so often, Phillpotts shows himself to be a somewhat careless prose writer.   I admit to being a pedant but  'fleet' is singular and can't carry a plural verb and 'however' serves better at the beginning of a sentence than half way through and geese surely are only a 'gaggle' when they are earthbound; when they fly they are a 'skein'.   Perhaps this carelessness,  he wrote at such speed, is one reason why Eden Phillpotts, despite his amazing productivity never received the critical acclaim he desired.   The picture, however, that he paints is very convincing.  The old man,  he was sixty when he came to live in Lympstone, to write 'Redcliff' and to flirt with the young cousin who became his second wife, must surely have stood, notebook in hand, in Lympstone cove and watched the fleet putting out to sea.  His use of the word 'dingheys' is odd.   The word is of Hindi and/or Bengali origin and is given by Eric Partridge as 'dingi'.  It means a small boat.  My Lloyd's 'Encyclopaedic Dictionary ' of 1895 gives 'dinghy', dinghi,' 'dinghee', and 'dingey' but not Eden's, he was born in India, 'dinghey'.  Lloyd's gives as a first definition: "A row-boat of the Hoogly, which probably gave the name to the little jolly-boat of the merchant service."   But who the Hoogly?

Those Estuary fishermen would have called their 'dingheys' 'punts'.  'Punt' is a very proper name for such a boat. It relates closely to ancient words meaning bridge or ferryboat.   A punt is a boat of passage which takes one from here to there and back again.

But, oh my friends,  those 'twinkling lanterns'!

Friday, 11 November 2011


In a bright and jolly book, 'Seaside Resorts', recently published by the 'Oldie' and written by that journal's 'Unwrecked England columnist', Candida Lycett Green, is this perfectly smooth paragraph about Budleigh pebbles.

"There is a clarity and neatness about Budleigh beach. But everything about Budleigh is neat - even its perfectly smooth, soft-to-the-touch pebbles, which can be traced back 440 million years. In shades of mauvish and pinkish grey, some of them are as big as goose eggs. They are composed of a hard quartzite brought here from Brittany by one of the giant rivers flowing into the Triassic desert."

Some years ago a Budleigh man was brought before the local magistrates for stealing a couple of these elegant pebbles from the beach. This court case seemed to me at the time to be more than a little dogberryish. Four hundred and forty million years, however, is quite an age! The next time I steal a Budleigh pebble for my garden I shall treat it with all the respect due to its years as well as to its essential smoothness.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011



As I walk out on Saturday,
on Saturday and late,
the clouds are monstrous birds of prey,
the wind is holy hate.
The gale that roars in from the sea
grows darker with the night.
A savage tide is fighting free
from Topsham to the Bight.

When I walk out on Sunday though
all other is the story.
The clouds are doves with breasts of snow.
The sun climbs high in glory.
The breeze is dreaming and the tide
drinks from the morning's light.
The Exe sleeps gentle as a bride
from Topsham to the Bight.


Friday, 14 October 2011



For the moment I am a watcher.
From the quayside I watch the sun rise and travel the day,
watch its flare set into the hills beyond the flood and the ebb,
the swing of boats and the arrows of geese that fly into dusk.

On a new morning five swans drift by the quay.
Colours are cut in crystal. A woman wanders,
city clothed and somewhere in her dream.
At the church bell, she stirs and is away.
A dog bounds into the morning, scattering the swans,
but somehow the woman stays with me.
I roll her dream on my tongue, seeking its flavour.

In November, storm winds lash the quay,
drive the tide high in pitch black night.
Figures emerge from the streets, hoods over wet faces.
There are quick voices, torches. She moves among them easily,
feeling ropes, shifting sandbags into doorways.
She calls to me and her laughter is woven
into the wind, softening the night.

On a fine Sunday, I am among the cracking sails,
Thrilled by the breeze and cooled by frisking spray.
On the quay, five summer children dangle hooks.
There is bait and buckets, mud on brown skin.
She is there, reaching for a crab that scuttles to freedom,
A man is with her and I see the look between them. I turn away.
I can only remind myself that I watch and wait.

Over months they walk this quay, sometimes in love,
Sometimes apart. Come winter and she is always alone.
There is a day when snow follows a purple dawn.
Some snow is fallen; some feathers an icy breeze over black water.
She is there, buried in fleece, looking towards the hills.
Suddenly she is the song and all that is warm in this winter
And I walk out in her footprints, carrying my dream to her.


(More Jenny Moon)

Saturday, 8 October 2011


In February 1821 the mate of the revenue cutter 'Scourge' , at anchor in Lyme Bay, managed to lure the notorious and seasoned smuggler 'Jack Rattenbury', then 42 years of age, aboard his vessel by telling him that there was a spyglass of his on board the cutter which Jack might like to collect by rowing out.

Jack Rattenbury should have known better but he rowed out to the cutter to collect his spyglass. He took with him his two little boys, one five, the other nine years of age. Once aboard he found not only the mate of the 'Scourge' but also the captain of the 'Lyme Packet', who was a fellow smuggler turned informant, and a deputation officer waiting there to arrest him.

Jack Rattenbury later wrote:

"It is impossible for me to describe my feelings on finding myself trepanned in such a manner and when the deputation officer desired me to go below I positively declared that I would not; and when one of the men asked me what I was going to do with the boys... being goaded to madness by the question, I replied in a rage, 'Throw them overboard if you like, and drown them, for you might as well do so as to take their father from them in such a clandestine manner.'"

But the officers did not drown the young Rattenburys. They set the boys ashore and half an hour later the 'Scourge' made sail for Exmouth with Jack aboard. At Exmouth a coach was waiting to carry him under guard to Exeter and so to prison.

Sunday, 2 October 2011


(image courtesy of

From the Exmouth Journal January 15th 1910:

"The herring fishermen of Exmouth have met with very little success this season, poor catches having been the order throughout, while many men have been working their boats at a loss. This is most serious because the majority of local fishermen depend to a very great extent on the proceeds of the herring fishery to tide them over the lean period of the year.

"It is suggested that the heavy gun practice which is indulged in by warships in the neighbourhood is responsible for the absence of the fish and there appears to be something in the idea. The vibration caused by the firing of a heavy capital gun can be felt for miles on the water and would naturally affect herrings coming into the bay to spawn and, while it would drive the majority away, the spawn of those which remained would, in all probability be broken up by the vibration."

Across the century one hears the rumblings of war and of the great guns and the grumblings at the bar of the Volunteer.

Friday, 23 September 2011


On my evening walk tonight I was lucky enough to see the Estuary's only living monster, Marmaduke, our 69 foot sea serpent, swimming down river with the falling tide, his coils clearly visible above the surface of the Exe. Luckily I had my camera with me. Otherwise I dare say nobody would believe me.

Monday, 19 September 2011




I am wrapped in you and your jacket
and the sound of the tide running out.
A flow along the harbour wall
pulls at buoys, sweeps the eroding rock.
There is the slapping stay,
A squabble of ducks, the suck
of mud on hull. Far is the city
and its cathedral tower, far off its roar
as dusk settles across a big sky.

Wrapped in you and your jacket,
we are somewhere between
our first meeting and what might be;
somewhere in the order of things.
Reflections shatter and remake.
In the wispy breeze the image of a boat,
mirrored exactly, can break at a whim.
We watch the swans pair, glide
and preen, group. They may part,

- but for now we weave our way
Between life’s events, the turn
of tides, the incessant roll of hours
measured out by the harbour bell
Now, to the north, the night
takes its ease over the hills,
while up and down the estuary
the port lights begin to mark
the channel through the dark waters


Thursday, 15 September 2011


This weekend the Sydney Smith Association will hold their AGM in Sidmouth, choosing this 'little marine paradise' as Sydney called it because the great man brought his family to holiday here year after year from about 1830 to about 1845. This seems a good excuse to quote from his pro Reform Bill speech at Taunton in 1831 in which he remembered the great floods of 1824 that brought that stalwalt Sidmothian, Mrs Partington, to the nation's attention. He said:

"I do not mean to be disrespectful but the attempt of the Lords to stop the progress of reform reminds me very forcibly of the great storm of Sidmouth and of the conduct of the excellent Mrs Partington on that occasion.

"In the winter of 1824, there set in a great flood upon that town - the tide rose to an incredible height - the waves rushed in upon the houses, and everything was threatened with destruction. In the midst of this sublime and terrible storm, Dame Partington, who lived upon the beach, was seen at the door of her house with mop and pattens, trundling her mop, squeezing out the sea water and vigorously punching away the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic was roused.

"Mrs Partington's spirit was up; but I need not tell you that the contest was unequal. The Atlantic Ocean beat Mrs Partington. She was excellent with a slop or a puddle , but she should not have meddled with a tempest."

Friday, 26 August 2011


In the spring of 1910 the salmon fishing on the Estuary was slack with only two or three fish per tide being taken at Topsham but the fishermen were further frustrated by 'porpoises' making an appearance in the river and chasing the salmon, scaring them upriver. Moreover many of the salmon taken in the seines had savage bites on them. It would seem they were being porpoisely blemished.

'Porpoise' is a jolly word, being a contraction of the Latin porcus pisces, a pig fish.

There is, I learn, not a lot of difference between porpoises and dolphins. Sailors and fishermen tended not to discriminate between the species. It would seem they were all porpoises to most people. I wonder, therefore, if these reported porpoises of a century ago were in fact bottlenose dolphins like the ones who still draw an audience by leaping about and playing with the salmon off the Scottish coasts. If so it must have been fun watching them chasing the salmon up the Exe. I also wonder how far upriver they came and until how recently they were to be seen in the Estuary. More questions than answers I fear! Nowadays they do not seem to visit us.

Still, much though they are fun to watch, I don't suppose the poor, struggling Exe salmon fishermen were greatly amused by them.

Sunday, 21 August 2011


In one respect Exmouth cannot be faulted. It has the finest charity shops in the South West. There is no end to the treasures to be unearthed in the Exeter Road and elsewhere. A charity shopper in Exmouth is a prince of Serendip.

Last Friday I bought the original copper line engraving here illustrated for six pounds only. It is one of the illustrations to "The Beauties of England & Wales", a series of books published between 1801 and 1815 and the print is entitled "Powderham Castle. &c. Devonshire". It was engraved by W. Angus from a drawing by W M Craig.

Mr Craig,the artist, is sitting on a sand dune at Dawlish Warren and the windmill in the middle ground is on the Point at Exmouth. This is a rare glimpse of this windmill which did not survive the middle of the nineteenth century. It is high water and calm and the Warren is busy. Then as now it is a grand place to beach boats and to attend to them. The mariner in the foreground sitting on a barrel is holding a bumkin or bumpkin. 'Bumkin' is a lovely word from the Dutch boomken , a little boom. He has been working no doubt but like most boatmen he has time to listen to a tale, today from the knock kneed mariner in the tarred hat. To the left is a fishing party setting out. If my eyes don't deceive me the standing figure in the boat is handling a net.

The western bank of the Exe looks as deserted as any African riverbank. Haldon is bald, a wild tract of common rather than a forest. That lone building at the end of the Point must surely be a boatyard. This corner of Exmouth would appear to boast only four boats where now are a hundred and these few boats are not moored but pulled up on the beach. There are no boats shown to be moored on the Estuary but we cannot see the Bight where the big ships ride. Powderham Castle and its new Belvedere are not for me the most interesting things in this picture. I prefer the &c. But the magnificent castle walls are gleaming in the sun.

Thursday, 18 August 2011


I have thought that the Cornish family name Quiller, as in the great Quiller-Couch, might have something to do with the large strong feathers of swans and geese, a 'quiller' being either a supplier of quill pens or, perhaps, a writer of glorious mediaeval gothic. It would, however, seem more likely that the name has to do with operating weaving machines, with spools and bobbins. A 'quill' says the OED is first and foremost 'a hollow stem or stalk, as that of a reed' and by extension other hollow things. The word 'pen' of course means since ancient times a feather and only by transference does it mean a writing tool.

In the first weeks of July the Estuary tideline was punctuated by swans' feathers. The swans must have been scattering plumage like our post riot politicians have been scattering platitude.

My little granddaughters wanted some pens from which to make quills, or perhaps they wanted some quills from which to make pens. A good neighbour found a dozen fine swans' feathers for their experiments between Lympstone and Nutwell, the best of them a good eighteen inches long.

One wonders how the mediaeval scribes and illuminators went about finding the ultimate writing tool. There would have been flocks of geese no doubt honking around the monastery at Exeter but the image I am nursing is of a couple of twelfth century, holy hoodies wandering along the banks of the Exe on a day in July and keeping their eyes open for the whopping great writing instrument that will shock the vestiments off their brethren.

(In the photo are, left to right: Lily Rochester, Ines McDonald, Charlotte Rochester.)

Friday, 12 August 2011


(Taken freely from the Norwegian of Arnulf Ǿverland)

The blades dip. The blades ride high.
The shining drops that fall are silent tears.
Around my sleepy boat the ripples sigh.
The shining drops that fall are silent tears.

My boat drifts. She drifts and dreams.
All things are drowsy on this lazy tide.
Nothing I see or hear is what it seems.
All things are drowsy on this lazy tide.

My boat glides. She skims along.
We’re bound for golden joys and heart’s desire.
The sea sings softly, sings a sleepy song.
We’re bound for golden joys and heart’s desire.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011


The name Morrison Bell is remembered here if only because of the 'Morrison Bell Cup' which is competed for by the Devon and Exeter Football League. In 1910 Major Morrison Bell was elected Conservative Member of Parliament for Honiton. He was a character straight out of John Buchan, the younger son of a Northumbrian baronet, educated at Eton and Sandhurst, then commissioned into the Scots Guards, resigning his commission to become a Member of Parliament but returning to the Army at the age of 44 to fight in the First War. He was buried in rubble by a shell that killed three of his fellow officers but was dug out by the Germans and taken prisoner. After the war he returned to be the Member for Honiton until 1931 and, in 1923,was created the first and only Baronet, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir (Arthur) Clive Morrison Bell, of Harpford.

Anyway, "the Major" loved the Estuary and in June 1910, only a few months after he entered Parliament, he had a seventeen foot Canadian canoe delivered to Exmouth. He kept it in Mr W. T. Holman's boathouse at the Dock. The Exmouth Journal for June 25th 1910 has the following:

"Our popular representative, Major A. C. Morrison Bell is an expert canoeist, and recently purchased a Canadian canoe, which he has had brought to Exmouth, and in which he has made several excursions on the Exe. During one of his trips it came on to blow, the voyageur being compelled to retreat. A unique experience, illustrative of the general popularity and esteem in which the Major is held, befell him as he was commencing one of these trips.

"At the back of the houses at the Point, a number of children were paddling, and had their attention arrested by the queer-looking boat, and the strange manner of its propulsion. Suddenly one of them recognised the occupant and called for 'Three cheers for Major Morrison Bell.' which were heartily accorded, the Major waving back a smiling acknowledgment....

"Major Morrison Bell intends making another trip up the river in a week or so and will, if possible, do the double journey to Exeter and back in one day."

They don't make Members of Parliament like that any more!

Sunday, 17 July 2011


In 1930 the Exmouth Swimming Club were still using the Dock as a place to teach people to swim.

Pressure was growing for the town to have a swimming bath but many voices were raised against it. The reluctance to spend money on a pool was partly due to the perception that there was something perverse about a town that boasted two miles of golden beach needing anywhere other to swim than in the sea. But,as teachers of swimming were keen to point out, the beach is seldom a good place to teach or to learn. The sea with its wayward ways and wild waves invited none but the boldest to learn to swim there and the remarkable number of local people who drowned in the Bay and the Estuary was of concern to many.

The Dock as a swimming pool was also less than satisfactory. The Exmouth Journal of March 16th 1930 has the following:

"The amount of rubbish thoughtlessly thrown into the Club's corner of the Dock, though it has caused damage to the feet of swimmers, is really a minor nuisance. The chief trouble is that a sheet of enclosed water used by shipping must at all times be more or less polluted."

It seems amazing that a facility which nowadays we all take for granted was so slow coming to this seaside town.

Sunday, 10 July 2011


How all these dead things come and go
across this Estuary, its shining length and breadth!
Dead creatures, the wholes or parts of them,
that come in with the flood, that go out with the ebb
without asking anyone's leave.

(No last trump for them, then?
No! No more than for you or me, kiddo!)

Spineless, jellied things and twisted skeletal things,
flesh and bone and shell and feather,
remains of bird, beast, fish of the sea,
hanging about, but not for ever.

Where they float they are tugged by crabs and fishes,
where stranded, rent and plundered,
pecked by hungry rook and crow,
nibbled by the progeny of those happy rats
who ate the leather flaps
of Brunel's Atmospheric Railway,
sniffed by night by that dogfox we know
and devoured from within by tiny, salty bugs:

dead things crawling with life!

And even that proud and noble buzzard
resting on her splayed wings,
black on the wind, above Sowden's cliff,
does not distain these dead things.

Saturday, 9 July 2011


I like the entry on 'venery' in Fowler's Modern English Usage: "The existence of homonyms, one synonomous with hunting, the other with sexual indulgence, make it necessary to provide against ambiguity in using either." Well, here, let us be clear, we mean the former and not the latter. The 'venery game' is the game of finding the right collective for beasts, primarily those which lend themselves to being hunted. If T H White is to be believed, which mostly he isn't, learning the correct venery terms constituted about fifty per cent of a mediaeval education.

Anyway, last Friday there were nineteen swans swimming together on the western side of the Estuary near the stone steps upriver from Starcross. This is the time of year when swans group and there have been much larger groupings in past years. Nevertheless nineteen is a goodly number. They were in grand procession which is how they mostly appear to be.

Swans have always been a challenge to players of the venery game. In the air it is, of course, a 'skein' of swans but there is no consensus when it comes to swans on the water. There are many suggestions on the internet as elsewhere but I am happiest with my own contribution to the game, "a pomp of swans".
'Pomp' is a fine word. Its roots would have it mean first and foremost a grand procession. What could be closer to the vision in which I was delighting upriver of Starcross last Friday? "A pomp of swans" : that's what it was and don't forget that it was I who coined this particular collective! Or are we being pompous again?

Saturday, 2 July 2011


Yesterday, Friday, I went off with 'Poppy' on the ebb tide at half past nine in the morning and came home with the flow of the tide at half past seven. It was a long day of glorious sunshine with light winds, first from the north and then from the south. For me it was a wonderfully aimless day of just messing about in the boat, than which, as every schoolboy knows, 'there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing.'

At lunchtime, however, I discovered that I had failed to pack the flask of coffee which I had carefully prepared so I went to see what the new 'River Exe Café' had to offer by way of libation. I had been keeping an eye on this amazing building rising from the Exe without knowing what it was about. It floats just off Starcross like the Ark, as though some latter day Noah was taking global warming very seriously.

The construction is somehow very pleasing. Everything is of timber. A deck about 80' by 60' has been laid on two canal barges and a sizeable hut has been built on it. A strip of landing stage is attached. It is such a fantastic project, so brilliantly conceived and executed that it deserves every success.

I was made fast alongside by a helpful hand and went aboard beneath a flutter of brave bunting. It was lucky for me that only last weekend the Café had received its licence to serve alcohol and I was able to enjoy a pint of cold Yellowhammer beer, brewed by O'Hanlon's in Whimple, with my lunch. It will be a great place for a party. I shall be going there again and taking friends and so, I hope, will many another.

Friday, 24 June 2011


I was tidying my attic when I found, I don't know how it came there, a copy of Pulman's Weekly dated Tuesday, October 15, 1907. It contained the following report under the title: "Russian Steamer(sic) wrecked near Exmouth":

"A Russian three-masted fore and aft schooner, name unknown, from the Baltic, with timber for Messrs Sharpe, Exmouth, went ashore on Thursday afternoon one and a half miles from Exmouth. She rolled badly, and the sea washing over her, the crew sought safety in the rigging.

The lifeboat was unable to rescue them owing to the blinding surf and sea but eventually the Teignmouth lifeboat, which put off, rode up on the windward side of the schooner and, to the great relief of anxious watchers on the shore, rescued the seamen from a perilous position. As soon as the ship had been abandoned the masts were washed away. The vessel is breaking up."

Despite the headline, the ship, "Viga", was no steamer. It must have been truly desperate for the seamen high in the shrouds looking down at their crippled ship and an angry sea. Messrs Sharpe of Exmouth, to whom they were carrying a cargo, were still selling timber from their vast dockside timber sheds twenty or thirty years ago when I was building my kitchen. B&Q is just not the same somehow. Later in the same newspaper is reported:

"LOOTING A WRECK- The Russian schooner, Viga, which went aground at Exmouth on Thursday, drove further in shore during Friday night and split in half. In the evening the crew boarded the vessel and discovered that she had been looted, two watches, a telescope, silver articles and some clothing being stolen."

Some lightfingered Exmothians got lucky. That Russian telescope will be turning up on the Antiques Roadshow one of these days, you mark my words.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011


In the nineteen forties when that classiest of all publishers, Batsford, wanted to add 'The West of England' to the 'British Heritage' series they commissioned the established writer of fairy stories and verses for children,Ruth Manning-Sanders, to write the book. It was an inspired choice.

Ruth Manning-Sanders faced a huge task and necessarily relied on the writings of others to complete it. Nevertheless she is spot on in her comments on Exmouth and she bears witness that, when it comes to the little town taking advantage of its natural glories, the place was as unhappy sixty years ago as it is today. She wrote:

"Exmouth, like Teignmouth, was a Georgian retreat for naval and army officers, but of this period only a few houses, on the Beacon facing the sea, now remain. Away from the sea-front Exmouth is a most depressing network of street after street of execrable buildings. In its busy and somewhat spiderish precoccupation with enlarging its holiday trade, the town has lost whatever native character it once possessed, and so is bound to be depressing, whether in season or out of season, whether its lodging houses are full or empty."

It was true then. It is true now.

When it comes to the Estuary Ruth Manning-Sanders took from that same vein which many a writer has mined before and since:

"From Topsham the estuary extends in a straight wide reach to Exmouth. If you look out from the windows of an ex-G.W.R. train, as it travels up or down the western bank, you may well regard this reach as flat, mud-coloured and uninteresting; but see it from the water-front at Exmouth, and you think very differently. Indeed quite the best thing about Exmouth is the view looking westward, up the grey-blue estuary, backed by the long, wooded heights of Great Haldon; especially at sundown when the waters burn, and the hills fuse their detail into a blue and shaggy silhouette, and day fades in glory behind Haldon's darkening ridge."

The italics are mine.

Saturday, 28 May 2011


When in, probably, 1933 that remarkable young man Raymond B Cattell came paddling down the Exe in his two seater, German, sailing canoe, Sandpiper, he and his bold companion, Hugh Crowther, spent the night at Lympstone.

"Lympstone, like many fishing villages, is in its material possessions a slum, but in this picturesque setting and with the sturdy independence of its inhabitants, to say nothing of their fine and handsome appearance, it might be a dwelling of kings."

The two young men walked by 'the ruined sea wall' where they met 'a tall dark girl, whose handsome face was as attractive as the lithe freedom of her carriage.' The boys passed themselves off as 'yachtsmen' and the tall dark girl and and Hugh took an instant fancy the one to the other. Raymond left them to flirt with each other while he 'sat on a tiny red cliff, watching the water ebbing from the estuary and dreaming of the magical nights he had spent with his lost girlfriend Monica on Dawlish Warren the previous summer.'

The next morning the two young men knocked on the door of the 'very tall, handsome and dignified fisherman' who had undertaken to look after their canoe.

"Lo, there appeared at the door the tall dark girl of the night before! She had a duster in her hand and a scarlet handkerchief about her dark hair, which accentuated her gypsy appearance...Her face wreathed itself in delicious smiles. "So you've come for the 'yacht' that father's keeping for you?" she laughed. We assented, blushing as red as her handkerchief. "You'd better get it before he comes," she said to Hugh. "He may be keeping something else for you because of my getting in late last night."

It would seem that the father was subsequently pacified and was paid a shilling for the mooring he had provided. The fisherman's daughter sent the boys off with one kiss for Raymond and two for Hugh and with a warning for both of them:

""The swell's grumbling on the bar a lot this morning, you oughtn't to go out" she added, her face suddenly grave and judicial. We listened with all our ears, but to us the still morning air told nothing of what was happening three miles away at the sea's edge. We had no senses to detect the ominous drone which meant so much to the professional sixth sense of the fisherman's daughter."

Long, long ago these innocents parted.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011


I was watching a ring ousel this afternoon on the shingle at Sowden End. It might have been a blackbird for all the fun it was, but it wasn't. It was a ring ousel and the female of the species. She was coming and going and feeding on the sandhoppers in the seaweed there. I was familiar with ring ousels in my youth when I lived and worked in the Lake District but had never seen one here on the Estuary before. It was a 'what's a bird like you doing in a joint like this?' experience.

The ring ousels have white gorgettes, which is what officer cadets have. Generals have red ones. The connection is that the 'tabs' of the military are the skeuomorphic suspenders of the crescent shaped throat armour that is properly the 'gorgette'. Anyway the whitish patch on the ring ousel's throat is the very same shape as this last worn chunk of plate armour. I suppose one might define a ring ousel as a blackbird that has winged its way through the Regular Commissions Board.

Friday, 20 May 2011


From The Exmouth Journal, Saturday February 8th, 1930:


To The Editor of The Exmouth Journal.


In your paper you always seem to encourage kindness to dumb creatures, so I send you the following.

Kindly residents at the bungalows throw food to the birds and a week ago two sportsmen (!) with their guns were seen to hide behind a boat on the sand in order to get shots at the birds as they hungrily fluttered in crowds on the beach.

I wonder if all the youths who are continually shooting at birds round the Point have paid for their gun licences.

Yours truly,


The Point, Exmouth, February 3rd."

I think this letter well defines the unbridgeable gulf between those of us who love and those who hate seagulls. Myself, as readers of this blog might know, I tend to side with the former. As for those Exmouth 'youths', they will be at least in their nineties by now but they know who they are, I hope they are still thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011


It was a grey morning last Monday. There was a cold breeze and I was standing once again at the end of the boat shelter wall at Lympstone and leaning on the rail. It was low water. The mud banks stretched away for a mile in front of me, a depressing sight to see. There was a dearth of birdlife.

Then I found myself watching a lone house martin. She, I had the impression she was a she, was the first martin I am conscious of seeing this spring although the birds must have been hereabouts for a few weeks. She was coming and going and landing twenty yards in front of me, collecting mud for nest building.

I had never thought of it before but estuarial mud must be a blessed convenience for house martins especially when, as now, there has been very little rain.

I imagined a conversation between two martlettes:

“The trouble these days, my dear, the mud just isn’t as wet as it used to be.”

“That's so, ma'am, everybody says so. My Martin thinks 'tis all this global warming. It makes things so difficult for first time home builders like us.”

“Well, my dear, if you’ll take my advice, don’t you even bother to go mud hunting inland. There’s plenty of wet mud out there on the Estuary, enough for everybody and for ever. 'Tis a bit salty mind, but…”

Sunday, 15 May 2011


When the Exmouth lifeboat, the Maria Noble, was called out on Christmas Day 1957 and Lifeboatman William Carder was washed overboard and drowned, the second coxwain, Jack Phillips, was also washed overboard into those raging seas. He lived to tell the tale to the coroner.

"There was nothing I could do. I caught hold of a rope of some sort but I could not hold on, and it would not have done me any good if I had. I was conscious all the time I was in the water and I was washed up on the beach. I felt the ground under my feet and tried to to get up but another wave took me back. I told myself, 'I'm not going to be had this time' so I crawled the rest of it."

The coroner said "You were both swept overboard. You were lucky and Mr Carder was unlucky; that is really what it comes to."

Jack Phillips had crawled onto the beach near Orcombe Point. He was then able to stagger homewards in the howling gale and through blinding rain. Coastguard Tutton and members of the lifesaving team from Budleigh Salterton were already on the beach and saw the staggering figure of Jack Phillips by the light of their torches. Mr Tutton told the coroner, "We were very surprised to see him I can assure you." They supported him for a while and then handed him over to other members of the search party and went on to find poor William Carder who had not been lucky.

Sunday, 1 May 2011


Take my word for it, there is too much light,
up poles, down holes, from bulbs and tubes it pours
and too much noise; the world shouts ev'ry night,
clanging, jangling, piercing my limp ears.

So to be lighted is to lose one's sight,
to miss the comet with his fiery train,
to miss the countless stars that grace the night,
to miss the sacred moon, her wax and wane.

And we are deafened 'til we hear the singing
of these dark waters where the salmon leap
and sea birds pass like ghosts silently winging
over the shallows where the shadows creep.

Come, why should we be blind? We'll sail beneath
stars in their glory, there we'll see the bright
road to eternity; shall we be deaf?
Hush!, you shall hear the silence of the night.

Light Pollution?

Saturday, 30 April 2011


Last night, at a party to celebrate the wedding of Will and Kate, I heard for the first time the story that Anthony Farrar-Hockley, the charismatic general and hero of the battle of the Imjin River which took place sixty years ago this month, had lived for a while in Lympstone and had joined the sea scout troop here. The Lympstone scouts were a plucky bunch who went summer camping from aboard their whaler and the story I heard was how the fourteen year old Anthony Farrar-Hockley turned up for one of these expeditions carrying his golf clubs and his typewriter and needed to be persuaded that these were inappropriate items to stow aboard.

He was going to Exeter School and when he was fifteen, at the outbreak of war, he ran away and lied about his age to sign up as a Gloster. His trespass was discovered and he was returned to (I suppose) Lympstone, Exeter School and the scouts. In 1942 he enlisted again.

I met General Farrar-Hockley in the Army of the Rhine and, in so far as a junior officer can converse with a general, had conversation with him. I dined at the same table. I wish I had known then of his Lympstone scouting and his boyhood connection to the Estuary.

It's a thought worth recording, however, that TFH cut some at least of his teeth arms teeth on the waters of the Exe.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011


The unprecedented fine weather we have enjoyed this April has meant that Poppy and I have been moved to spend more time floating up and down the Estuary than in any April before.

At midday on Maundy Thursday we slipped off down river with the tide and did not come back to our mooring until eight o'clock in the evening. I watched the turn of the racing tide from the safety of the sandhills of Dawlish Warren where the sun shone and the skylarks were pouring their full hearts from heaven,or near it!

On the way home I landed on the Cockle Sand which still lives up to its name although the cockles are`far fewer and much smaller than heretofore. It took me twenty minutes to find two handfuls of cockles for my Good Friday tea.

I observed once again the curious way in which the cockles, who had opened up a millimetre or two to observe the great and glorious world beyond their shells, snap tight the moment they are picked from the sand and how sometimes they spit as though disgusted with their fate, as though making their comment on the capture that dooms them to being boiled alive.

There is a notice where I tie up my dinghy on the Green at Lympstone telling the world that all shellfish taken from the Estuary must be boiled for at least three minutes. This seems a small precaution to take considering the history of poisoning attributed to the Exe shellfish. I boiled mine for six minutes just to make doubly sure. I did not want this to be my Last Supper! The boiling perhaps makes them taste a tad more wersh but pepper and salt and a drop of white wine and a little fresh thyme soon puts enough joy into them.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011


Yesterday I did something that I have been wanting to do for some years. I sailed again to ‘The Bridge Inn’ on the River Clyst. We used to sail there at the least once a year but it is a couple of decades since I last sailed that way. My father and I liked to motor there in his punt, tie up at the bridge, drink our pints and motor home again.

‘The Bridge’ claims to be Topsham’s oldest pub, a claim made because, as I believe, there is some record of a hostelry being there at the time the cathedral was being built in Exeter and of masons being entertained and accommodated there.

But there is also the contention that in the eighteenth century it was the home of Mr Meekin the salt boiler, so perhaps its record as a pub has not been unbroken. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

To sail to ‘The Bridge’ from Lympstone you need a high tide. Yesterday the evening high water was 4.24m. The wind was from the south east, the perfect wind to sail to the mouth of the Clyst. The sail had to be dropped to pass under the railway bridge but when made again I was able to sail most of the way along the little tributary. No one can hope to sail all the way up the Clyst to the bridge because the river is too serpentine but the rising tide spins you along.

It is a delightful sail past Tremlett’s old shipyard where so many amazing hullaballoo boats were built. Thereabouts I found again my black swans, cob and pen, swimming happily together in that imperfect symmetry that seems to be part of their annual courtship. Despite the fact that I was sailing through RSPB lands there was not much other wildlife to be seen.

It seems odd to tie up near the busy A376 but there is a convenient corner to leave a boat and an iron picket to tie to, (or tether to, as we say in Lympstone.) Nor is is difficult to hop over the wall.

‘The Bridge’ is a most satisfying pub. I have been drinking there off and on for 47 years and wonderfully nothing has changed. Predicatably, by the time I had drunk my pint of Branoc at the fireside in the snug and in the company of a couple who had lost their home in Christchurch NZ in the recent earthquake, the breeze had dropped. There was, however, plenty of water and it was an easy starlit row home falling with the tide down the Clyst, along the reed beds, past Exton, past the Marine Camp, along the wall past Nutwell Court and so to Lympstone, there to see the biggest full moon I have ever seen rising gloriously from the commons.

Sunday, 17 April 2011


Ghosting they call this
when there is just breeze enough to fill the sail
and not a puff more

and the boats move silently
like spirits over the water, like phantoms drifting
between the far banks.

Alongside, unseen, who knows?, perhaps are ghosts
of some who drowned here by ill chance, others who drowned
to end their hurt.

For now might be just the time for them
and tide, this brimming evening lull
and the half light

when there is just breeze enough
to fill the sail and not a puff more.

Ghosting they call this.

Saturday, 16 April 2011


Arthur Ransome readers will know that the Sea Bear in Great Northern? was once a Norwegian pilot cutter. As far as I know Arthur Ransome never visited this Estuary but his account below perhaps describes something of the lives of pilots in the age of sail, here on the Exe as elsewhere.

"The cabin had been little changed since the days when the Sea Bear had been a working pilot cutter. There were still the six berths of the pilots, built as it were in the walls of the ship, above the long settees. Going to bed...was like getting into a rabbit hutch. But, once you were in, you could shut yourself off from everybody else by pulling a curtain across. Many a tired pilot must have slept in one of those bunks while the other pilots, only a yard or two away, were playing cards with each other under the cabin lamp. Further aft were two more bunks, one on each side, close to the companion ladder, handy for going on deck. They had been used in old days by the men whose business it was to take the cutter to sea to meet the big ships coming in, put pilots aboard them and pick up other pilots from the big ships outward bound."

Once upon a time Exmouth and Topsham were busy ports and the ships were lining up at sea waiting to sail up the Exe's tricky channels. In those days the pilot cutters must have been busy, sailing to and fro, from ship to ship, day and night, according to the tides.

Saturday, 9 April 2011




"This (low water) is the hour when the cockle-rakers of Starcross sally forth armed with rakes and baskets, intent on the same purpose as that which animates their feathered companions. Strange looking figures these cockle-rakers are as they move slowly about the mud flats on the lookout for cockles, winkles, and other shellfish of a similar kind."

(like mussels perhaps?)


"The wide estuary of the river Exe, that forms a natural and well-defined boundary between the eastern and the western portions of South Devon, is, at high tide, a fine expanse of water; but when the tide is out little is visible but a stretch of mud whose slimy surface is enlivened here and there by patches of green and crimson seaweeds and by the numerous sea-fowl taking advantage of the absence of water to seek for whatever dainties may have been left stranded by the outflowing tide."

(Nothing new here! 'Dainties' exposed, yes, but for the most part not 'stranded')

Sidney Heath was an artist as well as an author. Perhaps he was better with the pencil than the pen. His water colour illustrations are very charming. His book is full of inaccuracies and evidence of slight ignorances and he didn't spend much time on research. He happily tells his readers that the Elizabethan/Jacobean adventurer Captain Richard Whidbourne, or Whitbourne, was born "either here (Exmouth) or in the adjoining parish of Withycombe." In fact Whidbourne was born and baptised in Bishopsteignton. Not that it matters. He married (?) and lived in Exmouth and styled himself ' Captain Sir Richard Whidbourne of Exmouth.'

More Shellfish gatherers.

Monday, 4 April 2011


My first sail of the new season was, as tradition demands, on April 1st, the day I launched 'Poppy'. She was glad to escape from the gravel patch in front of my house. This first sail was an uneventful spin barring the inevitable (for me) wrinkles which needed to be unwrinkled.

My second sail was last night. I planned to take one of my sons in law for a quiet float up river to the Turf Hotel, there to drink a beer, as in my beautiful verses, and so to drift happy home. I 'phoned the Turf to make sure they were open and was told, from the mouth of the landlord himself, that they would be serving beer until ten, no food though!

We set off with a lively breeze blowing on our nose. With some difficulty we inched up towards Turf as best we could but our thirst made us impatient with sail so we took to the oars and rowed turn and turn about to the Turf against the wind.

It was an unsatisfactory landing. The moment we landed, the breeze which would have taken us trimly home died the death. Moreover the landing stage had disappeared and the path was littered with engineering plant over which I nearly broke my ancient neck. The promontory was deserted. The pub had closed. This was at half past eight!

We rowed home as sober as Mormons and by now the tide had started to ebb so we had an easy enough time of it. We made 'Poppy' fast to her mooring and paddled to Lympstone's Green.

As we went ashore lights flashed and a voice from the dark informed us that the coastguard had been called out to search for us. Why? you might well ask. Because an imaginative neighbour had thought we MIGHT have got into trouble. Why should he have thought that? Because it WAS DARK. I shall not describe the ensuing nonsense of having to dismiss zealous inshore lifeboatmen and coastguards.

You might think that, what with contrary winds, equivocating landlords, over imaginative neighbours and lack of beer, this expedition is to be classed as a failure but that would be to take too narrow a view . It was a wonderful spring tide. Our outward voyage was under one of those glorious Exe sunsets, not of the obvious blood dripping kind but of the subtler golden kind. For a while, for some reason unknown, the sky above us was full of swirling arabesques of shrieking gulls. Then the curlew flew South high overhead and a lone heron flapped from Topsham to Powderham. Our return was under the most brilliant starlight. We sailed beneath Charles's Wain, surely the loveliest name of the many for that constellation, and Orion stood to his post nobly in the West. Apart from the rumble of traffic over the motorway bridge at Topsham the Estuary was silent. Such evenings are rare and to be treasured.

Sunday, 3 April 2011


The afternoon of Saturday the seventh of January, 1956, was foggy. Henry Rowland, a forty two year old Council lorry driver who liked to go duck shooting of a weekend, said goodbye to his wife, left his home in Moorfield Road, Exmouth, and pedalled off with his twelve bore shotgun to the wasteground near the mudflats. There he left his bicycle and wandered towards Lympstone along the shingle. What happened next is conjecture but it would seem that he shot a duck on Mudbank opposite the George V Recreation Grounds and walked out onto the foggy Estuary to retrieve it. The mud trapped him and the tide rose. He cried out for help. For many minutes his shouting was heard through the gloom. A witness described hearing 'pitiful cries for help'. Then there was silence.

His wife had expected Henry Rowland back in time to say goodnight to the babies but he did not come. For a long week search parties were out on the Estuary looking for the missing man. On the Sunday, his body was found by his brother, Arthur, out on Mudbank about half a mile from the brickworks. His Wellington boots were missing.

It must have been a horrific death, trapped by mud on the foggy Estuary and with the icy tide creeping in. He was, no doubt, unable to break free because of his filled boots and his heavy, wet, winter clothing. He was shouting for his life but no one ventured out onto those foggy banks.

"God send us all good ending."

More horrific death!

Friday, 1 April 2011


Every blue moon a discovery is made that revolutionizes the way in which we think about the fishermen who worked the Estuary in the nineteenth century and perhaps in earlier centuries. Such a discovery has been unearthed in a hitherto disregarded slim volume brought to light by today's, indeed this morning's, J S BLOG. Our not so rude forefathers seem to have developed a highly sophisticated vocabulary to describe the Estuary mud upon which and from which they earned their living. As Risdon put it:

"The mudde of Ex is of such precious stuffe
An hundred names for it were not enuff."

Sunday, 27 March 2011


In the August of 1883 J B Davidson MA FSA gave a paper to a meeting of the Devonshire Association at Exmouth on the History of Exmouth. Among other good things he knew the story of the stair cross. In the thirteenth century, according to Mr Davidson, ...

"...amongst the other privileges conferred upon Sherborne Abbey by these grants was the right of ferry from Exmouth to the opposite shore of the mouth of the river. The starting-place of this ferry was at a place called Pratteshide, which is spoken of by Dr. Oliver as an ancient name of Exmouth. At any rate it was a place of resort for the purposes of the ferry, and of some commercial importance. The actual point of departure must have shifted from time to time with the changes brought about by waves and storms. On the other side of the river the ferry terminated at a place formerly called Woolcomb's Island, where there was a flight of stone stairs ; and near this ferry-house was set up by the bishop of Sherborne a stone cross, whence was derived the name Stair, now Starcross."

Presumably Woolcomb's Island was properly an island connected to the main by bridge or ford. Another source, Sidney Heath's book "The South Devon and Dorset Coast" published by T Fisher Unwin in 1910 has the following|

"On November 26, 1703, in the same storm that wrecked Winstanley's Lighthouse on the Eddystone Rock, the houses on Woolcomb's Island, as the district was then called, were washed away by the overflowing waters of the Exe. In order to guard against a similar disaster in the future, the Courtenays of Powderham Castle built a strong embankment all along the shore from Powderham Point to Eastdon, a short distance below Starcross, and some years later this embankment was completed by the construction of a wall to keep out the tides, but provided with sluices for the outlet of the water of the little River Kenn. Up to this time the Kenn was navigable as far as Powderham Castle, and a contemporary painting shows the castle with the river at high tide.

"Where Exe meets curled Kenne, with kind embrace,
Betwixt their arms they clip fair Powderham's place."

Well, there's a lot to be commented on here had I not already written my quota. But I must say before I go that "Pratteshide" seems to me a very apt name for the Exmouth of today, especially at the weekends.

Sunday, 20 March 2011


There was, in the early eighteenth century, a craft plying the Estuary called the ‘Water Tin Quart’. This is according to a thin book about Topsham by D.M. Bradbeer called ‘The Story of the Manor and Port of Topsham’ and published by Town and Country Press in 1968. Mr Broadbeer doesn’t reveal his source but he must have found one.

The business of the ‘Water Tin Quart’ was no less curious than its name. It sailed up and down the Estuary from Topsham to Exmouth Bar where it laded a cargo of sea water which it carried back to a salthouse in Topsham. (Meekin's salt manufactory at Riversmeet which gets a mention under 'Saltworking' in the Topsham-Exton Cycle Walkway Environmental Statement.) At the saltworks the sea water was transferred into a huge cauldron. There it was boiled until salt granulated.

The name ‘Water Tin Quart’ must have been a Georgian joke. Perhaps there was something about the lines of the vessel that reminded its owner, the salt boiler John Meacham, more often known as John Meekin, of a tin quart measure. She must have made the trip more or less every navigable tide to keep the business going. She would have been a familiar sight on the river.

Salt, of course, was much in demand in the eighteenth century on the Estuary because of the cod fishing off the Newfoundland coast. The ships that carried the fishermen across the Atlantic could not set off without a hold full of salt. The enterprising Mr Meekin, according to D.M. Bradbeer, went on to bring in rock salt by sea from Liverpool, to take his business to what is now the Bridge Inn, and to make a small fortune.

Friday, 11 March 2011


On Saturday 29th December 1957 was buried William John Carder, 53, lifeboatman and landlord of the Volunteer Inn in Exmouth. He was a volunteer and his father had been a volunteer before him and he had been called out in the evening of Christmas Day 1956 to be one of the crew of the Maria Noble. She launched to go to the aid of the Dutch motor vessel, Minerva. The lifeboatmen would hardly have enjoyed their Christmas puddings when they received the call. Between them they would have had a drink or two. It was a wicked wind blowing from the southeast. “It was,” said Coxwain ‘Dido’ Bradford later, “the biggest gale I have ever known in my life.” Before the Maria Noble reached the channel buoy, William Carder had been washed overboard. The lifeboat could not turn. His body was recovered from Orcombe the same day.

Another gale was howling and raging and the rain was lashing down when, four days later, William Carder’s funeral cortège left Chapel Street bound for the old church at Littleham. Silent crowds gathered in the raindrenched streets to watch the procession go by. Men took off their hats. The police sergeant on point duty solemnly saluted the dead man. At Littleham, William Carder’s coffin was carried into church by blue jerseyed, red capped lifeboatmen. The church was packed with lifeboat crewmen, launchers, rocket men, fishermen, sailors, boat builders, dockers, shipowners and their agents and representatives of all the people of Exmouth and of the Estuary. Naturally William’s fellow publicans were there too and no doubt a few sinners.

The parson did his best, as parsons do, and Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” was read and the salty congregation sang the old hymns “O God, our Help in Ages Past” and:

“Eternal Father! strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep:
O, hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea.

“Here in Exmouth,” said the parson of William, “We shall remember him for all time to come.”

Well, there is a plaque to his memory on the wall of the new lifeboathouse but, although little more than half a century has passed, not only is he mostly forgotten but the Exmouth in which he lived has mostly been forgotten too.

Sunday, 6 March 2011


There are some birds that are easily recognised from their names. The wheatear is one because of his white arse and the redshank is another because of his bright orange legs. Well , there are no whitearses on the Estuary at the moment but there is an abundance of orangelegs. I have just been watching many of them, not in a flock you understand but spread out along the mudbanks. They stride about pecking at sandhoppers and seaweed hardly slackening their pace. They turn out in large numbers for the month of March.

Shank for leg has an ancient Middle English ring to it. In the Thirteenth Century it was standard English. Edward I had the nickname Longshanks and the word has persisted to describe the 'leg' of an anchor, a fish hook, a wine glass and so on.

The "noisy, restless, redshank" is the master of silly walks. He makes John Cleese look as though he needs some practice. His flight is pretty crazy too, "swift and erratic," says Mr T A Coward. He makes a lot of noise which the birders consistently write as tewk. In some localities, not here I think, he is said to answer to the echoic name of Tewk or Tewkie but Redshank is such a good name he hardly needs another.

Saturday, 12 February 2011


Last Wednesday I went for a midnight walk along the shingle beaches of the Estuary. It had been a beastly day, cold, cloudy, damp, but the night was warm and pleasant. Everywhere there was cloud except over the Estuary. Even out at sea it was cloudy but over the Estuary there was a circle of clear sky. Above Exeter was low cloud and the lights of the city were reflected by the cloud bank which glowed golden. In the circle of light over the river the stars shone brightly. Orion dominated. There was a moon, at its first quarter. There was a planet, Jupiter?, to the South. Orion was not lying up and down the Estuary as in my scurrilous verses. He was lying aslant, across the water, his head towards the East.

This clear sky over the Estuary is such a regular phenomenon there must be some reason for it. Day and night it occurs and sometimes the pattern of cloud and clear seems to mirror the geography of the coastline. For this reason the Estuary is often a grand place from which to gaze at stars. For another reason too! There is a lot written these days about light pollution. There is too much light and we do not see the stars. The Estuary, however, a mile wide and many miles long bestows a dark sky to all who care to look. The stars shine brighter . The moon and the planets shine brighter. One is never nearer the night sky than when one is in a small boat, without lights, in the middle of the Estuary.

Saturday, 5 February 2011


The Topsham names for the Exe salmon hauls, “salmoning holes”, are well documented by Sara Vernon in ‘Talking about Topsham.’ On page 99 there is even a chart of the Estuary mapping some of them. Bill Pym tells Sara Vernon:

“ These are the names of the salmoning holes, starting from Church Causee on the right hand side: West Mud, under the Drifters; The Bightway; Black Oar Mud; Ting Tong; The Cupboard just above the Turf; Jan’s Cove; Range Banks; Out Over the Neck; the Drain of the Neck; Scot’s Pool; Pool Mud; Canal Hard and down to the Warren.

Then if you start the other side, from Shapter Street and the Goat Walk, the first one is Withies Mud, then Black Oar Hard; The Reach; The Spit; The Nob; then Eastern Side; the Sands; the Hookers and down to Bull Hill.”

There’s poetry for you!

In ‘Devon Life’ for January 1979, some ten years before Sara Vernon’s book was first published, Marc Millon wrote about his day out with a salmon crew. The skipper is called Pym:

“Undaunted, the long net is regathered into the boat, and Pym heads further downstream, through the main channel to one of the many bends in the river where the salmon range – bends which have strange names centuries old – Black Ore , Ting Tong, the Spit, the Stile, In through the Mud, Out through the Drain, the Clock, and many others.”

Strange names indeed, but centuries old? That’s a guess. Some of them might yield to research. Scot and Jan and Withie would appear to be men's names. I doubt if the names of the hauls were ever written down before 1979 but would like to be proved wrong.

To me “Ting Tong” is the strangest name of all. There is of course the hamlet up on the commons near Budleigh Salterton. The name would seem to be ancient and to do with parliaments, but then it would have to be Danish, wouldn’t it?, and that seems unlikely..

When I was young and foolish I used to say that I hoped one day to live in one of the big houses at Ting Tong and rename it ‘Far Ting’.

I think I prefer Ore to Oar, but am not sure why. 'Black Haw' would make more sense, the Old English 'haw' being a fence, hedge or enclosure.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011


From 'The Exmouth Journal', Saturday, August 6th 1938:

On Thursday last:

"Slight murmurs of a distant thunder in the early hours gave warning of the apprehending storm, and at 4.30 a.m. when the peals became louder and aroused numbers of the townspeople, the sky was of a curious lemon hue, with flickers of lightning playing over the whole area, from the horizon to the zenith.....

.....With the tide rising in the estuary, there came a succession of rainstorms of growing intensity, the climax coming right on top of the tide just after 1 p.m. when for nearly an hour rain simply lashed down and filled the whole of the sewers of the town to overflowing. Roof gutters were unable to cope with the rush of water, which cascaded into the streets like miniature Niagaras.

Chapel Street and the Parade for the third time became impassable, water flowed into the houses in Stables Buildings almost to the height of the dining tables, and residents and summer visitors had to make their escape to the upper rooms, where they endured as best they could the abominable stench from the sewage."

Sunday, 30 January 2011




On Station Hill I stare astonished -
deep water lies below; the brook
angry at the clogged up sluice gates
has roared and tumbled through houses and shops -

the estuary has kept out of it, being neapish
and near low tide; a man hands me
into a boat and rows me along
the street at window level; a schoolgirl

Cleopatra in her barge; but unlike
the Nile Queen, I have to step out
and trudge homewards, navy hatted
and black stockinged up and up

the village, wondering if an asp
would be preferable to Science prep.

Stephanie Jupp


Sunday, 23 January 2011


Upon the broad estuary of the Exe lies Redcliff” - so writes Eden Phillpotts as the first line of his novel set in Lympstone in the 1920s, “ and the fishermen’s quarters thrust so near its brink that at spring tides, under push of an equinoctial gale, the highways are invaded and ducks swim in the little streets.”

Flooding has always come to the Estuary’s towns and villages at a time of spring tides and the Estuary seems to be making a visit and takes the blame for it. In fact there are never floods without heavy rainfall and our floods tend to come to us at the same time that there is also extensive flooding inland At least when the floods come to the banks of the Estuary there are boats to float in the streets and spare people from getting their feet wet.

We have not had bad flooding for many years. Much engineering work has been done. Time was the Council used to send sandbags so that householders could block their doors against the tide. Before that every house had its floodboards. These were caulked with clay and were surprisingly effective. The fittings for them can still be seen at many cottage doors.

On Thursday 4th August 1938, 1.97 inches of rain fell on the Estuary. The tides were at their highest and there was extensive flooding. Dead sheep and tree trunks floated ashore along the Exe and in Exmouth, Lympstone and elsewhere boats were busy in the streets.

“There was a comic side to the flooding on the Parade, “ thus the ‘Exmouth Journal , “and it was caused by the Council’s traffic sign, “To the Sea,” which was on a veritable island in the middle of the flood.”

The floods of 1960 caused equal chaos. At Exmouth barefooted barmen served drinks at the London Inn while women at the hairdressers' suddenly found themselves sitting in rising, stinking water. There is a photo in the Journal that shows three shopkeepers trying to sweep away the invading waters with brooms and brushes. The spirit of the famous Dame Partington of Sidmouth lives on in these parts!

Sunday, 16 January 2011


Followers of this blog will have noticed that of late I have been reading ancient copies of 'Devon Life'. By and large coverage of the Estuary is disappointing. The 'Devon Life' fisherman generally is one who seems to have an unhealthy interest in flies. But now and again there is a gem of an article for lovers of these waters. One such, in August 1979, is another splendid article by Cyril G Tuckfield entitled "Over the Bar" It starts like this:

"When I was growing up in a small Devonshire fishing village in the early 20’s it was the ambition of every boy to be taken out over the bar. The bar in this case was the sand bank which crosses the mouth of the River Exe at about the latitude of Orcombe and is, I suppose the physical boundary between the estuary of the Exe and the English Channel, or more specifically Lyme Bay. But to us boys it had a much deeper significance.

To go over the bar was in itself an adventure but it was also a landmark in growing up. From our earliest days we had heard the fishermen speak of going “out over”; one didn’t know exactly what it meant but it sounded exciting and adventurous. Part of its attraction for us stemmed from the fact that it took place at night. Certainly it was the ambition of every Lympstone boy in those days to go.”

See also:

Monday, 10 January 2011


In the July./August 1969 edition of ‘Devon Life’ a Mr Roland Richardson wrote about Budleigh Salterton. His article is entitled ‘Eighty Years On’. He remembers seeing the bathing machines on the beach in his early years which would have been well before the turn of the century.

“The beach has altered little, indeed if at all, except for the manner in which those enjoying themselves there have changed. In my youth people coming down to bathe disappeared as soon as they reached the beach, fully dressed, into the shelter of the curious hutments on wheels, painted in blue and white stripes. I never remember seeing these “bathing machines”, as they were known, actually driven down to the water, which no doubt had originally been the procedure, but after the disappearance of the bather, carrying the appropriate roll of towels, he or she would presently emerge, heavily clad in dark navy apparel, to bob up and down in the waves a few times before climbing back again into the shelter of the machine to redress. There indeed is a change from the beach of today with its throng of near naked sunbathers, the more venturesome swimmers boldly striking out for the diving raft moored at a convenient distance from the shore.

How astonished, and not a little shocked, my mother would have been, sitting on the pebbles dressed in her “neat blouse” with stiff collar and cuffs, her long serge skirt well down to her ankles and on her head a hard wide-brimmed “boater”, as she kept an eye on me while I paddled, and saw that I did not venture far enough for the water to wet my rolled up serge knickers.”

In the same article Mr Richardson quotes a ‘West country poet describing the red cliffs of East Devon as being like “anchovy sauce spread upon toast.’ Who was this poet? Does anybody out there know?

More on bathing machines.

Monday, 3 January 2011


We know that smuggled goods that had been landed in Babbacombe Bay regularly came overland from Combe Cellars on the Teign to Lympstone on the Exe. This was a distance of some ten miles, across two rivers and over hilly country. The journey was made at night.

Looking at the map the route they took seems pretty clear. The goods would have been rowed across the Teign to Luxton’s Step and there strapped to ponies that the smugglers led through Bishopsteignton and up across the side of Little Haldon to join the ancient Dort Way that leads by way of Greenaway Lane and so by deep and narrow paths to Kenton. It is hard to see how Kenton could have been circumvented and no doubt there was a good measure of:”Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by.” in that place.

Then somehow the goods were brought to the shores of the Estuary on or near the Powderham estate and there they were loaded into boats and rowed across the tide to Lympstone where, tradition has it, they were offloaded either at Sowden End or Parsonage Stile depending on which route seemed the safer. The smugglers signalled to each other across the river , so it is said, by lanterns shone, on the Eastern side, from the tops of the cliffs. From Lympstone, 'that notorious haunt of smugglers' the goods were carried, with ever more confidence, up-country.

It must have been exciting work, travelling through the night with smuggled goods , over hills and through dark woods, but it would seem these midnight folk carried on their trade largely undisturbed by the Excisemen.