Tuesday, 28 February 2012


There is a gentle and pleasing video made by Alexandra Mattholie in 2009 about the then ferryman at Topsham, Mike Stevens. The ferry is said in the film to be 500 years old but it is probably much older. The less likely ferry from Pratteshythe (Exmouth) to Starcross was busy in the twelfth century. As I remember, the Topsham ferryman was traditionally also the landlord of the Passage Inn, hence the name. It was an obligation that came with the license. I recall George Leach(?) in the sixties grumbling about being called out to row, in those days it was a rowing boat, passengers across the Exe, but Mr Stevens and his predecessor, Mr Pym, were fulltime ferrymen with an outboard motor. Mr Steven's other claim to fame is that he is in the Guinness Book of Records for his 1986 feat of Underwater Endurance. Alexandra Mattholie has caught a moment in the history of the Estuary in a film that has some lovely shots of that corner of Topsham, its slipways, hulks, reedbeds. and its glorious mud. This calm account of the eternal to and fro of the ferry reflects the steady pace of the lives of those who work the tides.

Sunday, 26 February 2012


On Friday I walked from Lympstone to Exmouth along the new cycle track and found myself watching wigeon. They were a cricket pitch away,  on the mud , just by Lower Halsdown farm. I counted them. They were nineteen. They were bunched up and in line, shuffling and wobbling comically one behind another with their heads down and their beaks dipping in and out of the wet mud and the puddles. They made me think of Peter Breughel’s painting ‘The Blind leading the Blind.’

I thought to myself as I stood watching wigeon that the words ‘watching wigeon’ were so wonderfully euphonious that they ought to be gracing the verse of a song, something like:

“When we were watching wigeon
A weary while ago
A wintry world was turning
A wicked wind did blow.
The sun was waning in the west
The warning was for snow
When we were watching wigeon,
A weary while ago.”

That perhaps is quite enough to be going on with!   The wigeon gave a welcome touch of colour, - those delightful heads like so many polished conkers -, to a very grey day on the Estuary for which I was truly grateful to them. Thank you wigeon!

Friday, 24 February 2012


In the spring of 1814 the little ports of the Exe Estuary celebrated wildly the coming of peace. They celebrated prematurely because less than a year later Bonaparte had escaped from Elba and the genie had to be put back in the bottle.

Exmouth put on the biggest and best show of all but I am partisan enough to write up the parallel, but naturally more genteel, festivity that took place at Lympstone on Thursday 9th June 1814 as recorded in Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette:


On Thursday last the inhabitants of the town of Lympstone celebrated the return of the blessings of peace; on which joyous occasion the populace assembled at ten o clock and the procession marched to the Rectory in the following order:-

20 Children with baskets of flowers.
10 Young Suitors with their Lasses.
Vulcan preceded by two Cyclops with hammers.
Duke of Wellington and Field Marshal Bl├╝cher.
Count Platow and a Cassock (sic) as Aid de Camp.
Neptune in a car, arranged in a green mantle.
Two English Admirals with a flag bearer.
Peace, Virtue and Plenty, in a car, wilh a guardian.
The Mayor of Lympstone with Mace Bearer, attendants in office &c.

They proceeded to a delightful field suitable for the festivity, where a handsome and profuse entertainment of roast beef and plum pudding was provided. The town was decorated with garlands, and also with colours from His Majesty’s brig Cracker, by the courtesy of the Officers who afterwards dined with the Rector (the Reverend J.P. Gidoin). The day concluded with the utmost hilarity and sobriety prevailed to the latest hour.”

This is a puzzling reference to a ‘Mayor of Lympstone’ and with a mace! Was he perhaps just ‘mayor’ for the day?

Starcross had already celebrated but not quite so successfully. Woolmer’s reports on the 30th April:


On Wednesday last, during a festivity at Starcross, to celebrate the prospect of returning peace, a vessel near the shore, on giving a salute, fired (by accident) two shots, three pounders, which penetrated Mr Buckley’s house, passed close to Lord Courtney’s waggoner and a fine horse, and but a short distance from Mrs Newcombe, the Lady of the High Sheriff of this county. The Captain of the vessel was immediately summoned on shore to explain the cause of the accident.”

Saturday, 18 February 2012


It was a summer of the seventies,
this story by the bye is gospel true,
a pink flamingo took off with the breeze
and found the Exe. She came from Paignton Zoo.

She made our smoky heron look quite frumpy.
She curtsied to them but they looked elsewhere
and made the cormorant seem dull and dumpy
but cormorant are not the birds to care.

She flurried human hearts at Exton station
of all who travelled up and down the line.
There she appeared like some high born relation
among the muddied birds who peck the brine.

Sometimes we'd catch her trying to be clever,
standing on one thin leg, a haulm of straw.
We marvelled and we hoped she'd stay for ever
to brighten up the estuarial shore.

For these her vivid ways, her shows diurnal,
we estuary dwellers gave her thanks.
A picture of her in The Exmouth Journal,showed her flamenco-dancing on the banks.

For weeks this stranger stayed here suavely feeding,
her gorgeous plumage caught the summer sun.
She graced the river with her noble breeding
but come one Monday morning she was gone.

I’d like to think she made it back to Paignton
to tell her babes about the birds she’d met
and, though the notion is a somewhat quaint one,
I’d like to think they talk about it yet.

Thursday, 16 February 2012


Text from "The Book of Fair Devon" United Devon Association, 1899

("This book is the official invitation of the United Devon Association to visitors and others who desire to become more thoroughly acquainted with this beautiful county so full of historical associations and romance of delightful scenes and unsurpassable variety and excellence of climate")

"Even when the tide is out, the estuary of the Exe is not to be despised. "There are reaches of golden sand bars, tinted with green and crimson patches of seaweed, which it is refreshing for the jaded toiler in cities to look upon.

Mysterious forms are moving to and fro over these sandy flats - whether of men or women it is next to impossible to decide, so weird and wonderful is the costume. It is as though the skirts of a woman were tucked into the garment peculiarly belonging to men,and which it is a reproach for women to wear. These mysterious figures are gathering into their baskets cockles , or shrimps, or winkles or whatsoever treasures the retreating tide has left high and dry."

Our supposed 'tourist', the 'jaded toiler' of the cities, is travelling on the South Devon line 'now, 1899, part of the Great Western system.' He has been advised to 'choose a seat on the left side of the carriage facing the engine on leaving Exeter for the South. 'Most of the beauties of the line are on this side.'

There is no mystery to the 'forms' he sees on the banks. They are the honest working women of the Estuary, none of whom is ever daft enough to try to gather a shrimp into a basket.

Monday, 6 February 2012


It would be nice to believe that this old, naive oil painting was of the Estuary, viz. the estuary of the Exe. If it is not an altogether imaginary scene existing solely in the mind of its creator then where is it? It was bought in Exeter a quarter of a century ago and there are no further clues to its provenance. One feels that one is looking up river to commons and moorland rather than out to sea, perhaps looking across to the Clyst. That would put it on the western bank of the river and perhaps, if on the Exe, Powderham is the only likely spot. But could Powderham ever have looked like this, and if so, when?

The 'creel' or fisherman's basket is very convincing. ('Creel' is a jolly word but too Norman to be an estuary word. There is no doubt a splendid Anglo Saxon word for it lurking somewhere.) Convincing too is the boy in the punt poking with a paddle and the man in the lugger who it seems has anchored off on two, what we would now call 'fishermen's,' anchors.

The Exe or not, this painting gives the feel of what the shores of the Estuary would have been like before the railways came and straightened things out for us.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012


In the little Hamlyn "Sailing Handbook" under the heading "Other channel markings" is the following:: "Minor channels in creeks, rivers and so on are usually marked with sticks or branches of trees, called withies, stuck into shallow water on either side."

There are still a few such sticks to be found on the Estuary mostly in the channels leading across Greenbank into the Clyst and  "withies" is or was the local  fishermen's name for them.  

"Withy" is the country name in Devon and elsewhere for the willow tree and therefrom for the wands of the willow.   Withycombe Raleigh,  a neighbouring parish to Lympstone, was presumably once a valley of the willows. 'Withy' is an  Anglo Saxon word with Old Norse cognates,  closely related to the modern German word for a willow, 'die Weide'.   Is Widecombe In the Moor perhaps another Willowdale?

Once, for many hundreds of years, perhaps back to prehistoric times, before the coming of  buoys and the International Buoyage System, the channels of the estuary would have been marked only by such withies.   They stand to their places on the banks remarkably well.  Wind and tide seem to find it difficult to shift them.  They are, however, hard to find by day and impossible by night.

The few surviving examples of such sticks on the Exe seem not to be from the willow but they are 'withies' none the less.  "A good man steers between the withies."  should be a proverb.   "He sailed between the withies." - a fitting epitaph for one who always managed to steer clear of trouble.