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." 

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."