Tuesday, 31 December 2013


(New Year's Eve 2013)

So bright the day
it's hard to say
where sky meets sparkling wave.
How full of hope a world can seem,
how peaceful and how brave!

Storms there have been;
and storms to be
are surely on their way
but here and now? - The shining sea!
How brave and bright the day!

Thursday, 29 August 2013


Andrew Brice was an eighteenth century newspaperman at Exeter. There is a very good article about him among the Exeter Memories.   This snippet,  I suppose from his major work,  the Grand Gazeteer or Topographical Dictionary (1759)  and quoted by Powhele, tells us that  Exmouth is situated  at the mouth of the Exe,  "about ten miles from Exeter.  Here,  over the bar, hath the Exe its influx into the sea and here dwell the pilots who take charge of bringing ships over the bar,  as far up as Topsham.

No doubt this is obvious but only when I read this did I consider that when we  read of  eighteenth and nineteenth century 'Topsham pilots' we are probably reading about boats and men based at Exmouth.

And, as we have already noted, a 'Topsham pilot'  could also be a cormorant.

Thursday, 11 July 2013


This blog brings you below another truly excruciating Victorian poem from the pen of another bad and anonymous Victorian poet.   These verses appeared in Trewman's Exeter Flying Post.  21st October 1868.


Stay now thine hand!
Proclaim not man's dominion
Over God's works by strewing rocks and sand
with sea-birds' blood-stained plumes and broken pinion.

Oh stay thy hand!
Spend not thy days of leisure
In scattering death along the peaceful strand
for very wantonness,  or pride,  or pleasure.

For bird's sake spare!
Leave it in happy motion
to wheel its easy circles in the air
or rest and rock upon the shining ocean.

For man's sake spare!
Leave him this 'thing of beauty'
To glance and glide before him everywhere
And throw a gleam on after days of duty.

For God's sake spare!
He notes each sea-bird falling
And in Creation's groans marks its sad share
Its dying cry - for retribution calling.

Oh stay thy hand!
Cease from this useless slaughter;
For though kind Nature from the rocks and sand
Washes the stains each day with briny water

Yet on thine hand
Raised against God's fair creature
Beware lest there be found a crimson brand
Indelible by any force of Nature.

'Thy hand'  or 'thine hand'?    I suppose it depends on whether you say ' 'and' or 'hand'.

There must,  in 1868,  have been a great number of happy shooters wandering along the beaches taking pot shots at 'sea-birds' for this fervent plea to have been written.  Fortunately we live in gentler times and the sea-birds know it.  A herring gull flew off with my MarksandSpencers' prime Angus beef sandwich the other day,  snatched it out of my hand,(mine 'and)  all on the Cathedral Green in Exeter.   Still , I wouldn't have wanted to shoot him.  No briny water there to wash away the blood!   Moreover he was a giant, snow white, gleaming 'thing of beauty'  and a joy for ever.  

Tuesday, 9 July 2013


In September 1868 a monster of a fish was caught and brought into Dawlish.   It was a tunny or tuna (thymnus vulgaris)    Whoever caught it,  I know no further details of the catch,  must have got the shock of his life.   It must have been 'Old Man and the Sea' stuff!     The fish was eight foot, seven inches long.   Its greatest circumference was five foot, two inches and it needed six strong men to carry it.    We know these facts because the fish was bought and caused to be taken to London by the celebrated Victorian naturalist,  Frank Buckland,, who made a  model of the fish for display in his Museum of Economic Fish Culture at the Horticultural Gardens in Kensington.

I hope the Dawlish fisherman or men had a good price for it.   It arrived in London 'anything but sweet smelling' and, after Frank Buckland had made his plaster cast, Mr Jerrard of the British Museum 'made a skeleton' of it.   No doubt its bones are still to be found there.

My source:   Trewman's EFP 23rd September 1868.

Thursday, 30 May 2013


Towards the end of August 1836 a Mr A Brown was driving his gig back to Exmouth along the Estuary foreshore near where the riverside lodge of Courtlands House stood and still stands.   It was common, before the coming of the railway, for carts and carriages to use the foreshore as a carriageway.   It must have been a bumpy journey and an additional challenge to the driver would be a correct judgement of the state of the tide.  There was at least one case of a carter coming from Exmouth and drowning on the beach under the cliffs while trying to avoid Lympstone Hill but I have, temporarily I hope,  lost my reference to this sad event.   Mr Brown and the unnamed lady who was with him in the gig did not drown but they nevertheless made the columns of the Exeter Flying Post of September 11th 1836 because  "in endeavouring to avoid the tide which was coming in,  he drove onto a bank and upset.    They were both thrown out, but,"  says the Flying Post, "we are happy to add that neither was materially injured though Mr Brown received some bruises on his face.   The horse being a spirited animal,  after much plunging,  freed himself from the vehicle by breaking the shafts,  with which he ran rapidly for upwards of a mile into and through the town of Exmouth,  to its stable."

Courtlands at this time was the home of Sir Walter Roberts the banker who founded the short lived Fowey Bank and who was sometime Sheriff of Devonshire and one who espoused the cause of the cruelly treated climbing boys.  The fact that there was a Lodge to the Estuary argues that there was some considerable coming and going by boat as well as by coach and carriage when the tide was at a safe distance.

Sunday, 14 April 2013


There are summer nights when the Estuary waters glitter.
The boat leaves a wake of sparkling light.
Water burns where the oars dip
And fingers trailed are fireworks.

(One knows one is witnessing a chemical reaction.
Bioluminescence would seem to be the word.
Something to do with living organisms,
Something to do with the Science we were never that good at!)

But look!  I have put all that in parenthesis.
What is outside the brackets is a dazzling miracle.
What is left is light in the water.
Dip your fingers and gasp at the show!

Saturday, 13 April 2013


On October 8th 1797 a Topsham pilot-boat was out at sea plying for trade when she was signalled by a Prussian ship,  some accounts say Russian, some five miles off Bolt Head  but the Prussian ship did not want a pilot, she wanted to offload fourteen British seamen,  two of them grievously wounded,  who had been taken off the frigate 'Quebec'.  On 6th October,  the 'Quebec' had been in a desperate sea battle off Ushant  with the French frigate 'Surveillante'  and the Prussian ship had found 'Quebec' burning and had brought these few survivors back to British waters.  The Topsham pilot must have been dangerously overloaded but she brought the fourteen sailors safely into Salcombe  and into the hands of the principal customs house officer there,  Richard Valentine,  who found doctors and all necessary comforts for the 'poor souls' who had survived.

Just another day's work for a Topsham pilot!!!

Saturday, 30 March 2013


On Tuesday 26th August 1930 there was a sea mist on the South Devon coast.  This didn't deter the Exmouth holidaymakers who crowded aboard those two famous old paddle steamers, 'the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire'.  Both ships had been built in the nineteenth century and,  although nobody on board knew it, they had only a few more years to serve the struggling Devon Dock, Pier and Steamship Company.    The ships arrived safely in Torquay and the visitors had their trip ashore but in the evening  the mist became thick fog.   The ships steamed off and tried to bring their passengers home to Exmouth.  The 'Duchess' left Torquay first and she reached Teignmouth but by then the fog had become so dense the captain decided to sail no farther.   The 'Duke' left Torquay and came round Hope's Nose only to find conditions worsening.  There was a heavy tide running so the captain decided to take his ship back to Torquay to keep out of harm's way.

This left the Dock Company with the challenge of how to return the passengers to their beds in Exmouth.  The decision was made to send them by train to Starcross and then across the foggy Estuary by the Starcross steam ferry.  The little steam launch ferry butted to and fro through the fog,  not once but several times,  and brought nearly all the passengers safely home across the Exe.   The tide prevented the steam launch making her last  journey and the unlucky passengers who were still in Starcross then came home by train via Exeter. It was said to have been the thickest fog on the river for eight years.

I like to think that the trippers, especially the children, enjoyed the adventure.   No doubt there was something of a Dunkirk  (still ten years away!) spirit as they escaped from the beaches of Starcross.

Saturday, 23 March 2013


Boots have legs and and long boots have long legs.   In my early days as a casual part time fisherman on the Estuary,  that is to say some forty five years ago, I was not paid in money but, after my long day or night's work,  which I was glad to do for the fun of it,  I would be invited to take a few fish home 'for my tea'.   These, generally, were undersized fish which should have been thrown back but which my skipper said would not survive,  not after they had been in the net,  and also damaged fish or fish which were of a protected species,  like perhaps one of the beautiful speckled salmon trout that now and then tore its gills in the net.   To take these home was to risk fines and confiscations and the invariable caution was, 'Take this one, Wayland, but stick it down your boot.'

It was thus that I became a bootlegger and I recall walking ashore with some difficulty at the Lympstone boat shelter, past the eyes of curious neighbours who could not know that a forbidden fish or two was stuffed down the leg of my Dunlop seaboot squashed against the length of my calf.  Being young and foolish,  I rejoiced in this delinquency which seemed to me to be rather dashing.  At home we rejoiced again in eating the freshly caught, ill gotten fish.

The Americans would have us believe that 'bootlegger' is a word first used in the American West when traders sold liquor to the Indians illegally by putting flat bottles down the legs of their boots.  The word is thus first recorded only in 1855 but the upper part of a tall boot has been called a bootleg since long before the Pilgrim Fathers sailed from Plymouth and it seems to me altogether unlikely that throughout those several centuries before the West was won, no English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish thief or poacher ever had the wit to talk about  'bootleggers' and 'bootlegging' with reference to this particular way to move and hide illicit goods

Wednesday, 27 February 2013


In the Spring of 1919 there were experiments being carried out at Beer to see if the East Devon fishing fleets could benefit from fishing boats being fitted with motors.   The Devon Sea Fisheries Committee reported on these trials and the 'Fish Trade Gazette' commented on the Committee's report.   The Gazette was not convinced  that the trials had been necessary.   It seemed pretty obvious to the Gazette that fishermen would want to use motors.

"To praise and point to the greater efficiency of motor power should be superfluous now;  it is like painting the lily and gilding refined gold  -   it is a 'ridiculous excess'    The fisherman with brains is converted.   But the problem is how to get the cash for the engine. Here the Government can help through various channels....    If the Government is slow to act,  why should not the makers of the motors develop the hire purchase scheme on a large scale?   As we know the risk of bad debts is small and the profits should be sufficient to discount such as there may be.   Fishermen are slow to learn;   they are intensely conservative;  but they are as honest as they are brave,  and no class of men could ask for a higher testimony."

Here on the Estuary it was some years before the honest, brave fishermen had their engines.  Whether from slowness, conservatism or shortage of cash, the fishing fleets were still under sail well into the nineteen twenties.   The boats were still constrained to lie at sea for days and nights when the breezes were unfavourable.   In due time all that was to change  and the sight of boats with  tan sails passing silently across the bar, out to sea and back again and up and down the Estuary would be lost for ever.  

Tuesday, 12 February 2013


From: 'Devonshire,  containing historical, biographical and descriptive Notices of Exmouth and its Neighbourhood  &c. by W. Everitt  and published by S Drayton and Sons,  Exeter,  1867:

"The Exmouth boat is on the improved model of Peake and Washington, with air-tight compartments at both ends; air-tight boxes along the sides;  and with copper tubes in the centre, passing quite through the boat, with downward opening valves; so that when a sea is shipped, the weight and impetus of it open the valves and give it an outlet, whilst the water seeking to ascend keeps them usually closed.   Ample appliances of ropes, grapnels, anchors, hatchets, lifebuoys, and cork jackets provide for varied emergency;  and ingeniously constructed rowlocks make the oars self-protecting.  The keel is of iron, with well-adjusted wood and cork ballast,  and the boat is much higher at the air-tight poop ends than along the sides;  so that, in case of capsizing,  she floats on the high ends,  and being free in the middle and heaviest along the keel,-  momentarily her top, - she rolls over by mere gravitation, and so rights herself.   The boat is at all times kept ready mounted on a four wheel truck;  and the "Wreck and Salvage Act" provides ample power to get horses,  wherever horses are to be had."

This was the lifeboat which Charles Dickens wrote up in 1862 and to the cost of which Lady Rolle contributed, and not with two fingers!   It sounds a bit alarming that someone had to go looking for horses before the boat could put to sea


Saturday, 9 February 2013


"Musopolus" is the pen name of a truly awful Victorian poet who was collected by William Everitt in his anthology of Devon verses.  William  Everitt is our old friend William John Wesley Webb under another name.   The last three stanzas here are perhaps of interest giving evidence of stone boats sailing to and from  Budleigh kilns at the time that this fulsome work was composed which seems to have been the eighteen sixties.


By Musopolus

By river marge and rushy fen
The lights proclaim 'tis evensong;
And woods grow darker to the ken,
While swift and swallow dart along.

Across the timber bridge I see
Long files of bleating sheep go by;
Now scattering here and there they flee,
And now the sloping fields reply.

A gloomy furnace seems to glow
Behind yon western hills of fir
Methinks a blacksmith wind should blow
Heaven's lazy smouldering fires to stir.

But lo!  that edge of golden gleam
Eating the vapours as they rise,
And now before the setting beam
Splits the piled carbon of the skies.

The stream was falling as I went
'tis falling now as I return;
With ebb and flow alike content
From eve to eve, and morn by morn.

In this remote and silent scene
Of pasture, flats and oozy lake,
What common sights are hailed, I ween,
A flagging fantasy to wake.

Here weeds have virtues of their own,
Here thistles rank as purple kings
And sandy cliffs with beech o'ergrown
Are grand indeed 'mid humbler things.

The dusty kiln in this dim light
Some ruinous old fort appears
E'en yon red bluff's unnoticed height
A mystery on its forehead wears.

The heavy lime boats are away-
Their sails were flapping at the shore
An hour ago.  With parting day
They hasten now the gray seas o'er..

The stream pours back its borrowed salt,
The barges push across the foam,
They have a task that does not halt,
And I the gazer, - I've my home.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013


I was out walking yesterday,  a country walk not an estuarial one, when I suddenly remembered a letter I once , some years ago, read in an ancient Exmouth Journal and failed to take a note of it and now do not even know in which century it was that this particular newsheet was printed.  The letter in question was from an Exmothian who wanted the world to know something to the effect that his great grandfather, or whatever, had held the horse of William of Orange in 1688 while that personage popped into The Mount Pleasant Inn on Dawlish Warren, no doubt for a quick pint, while on his way from Brixham to Exeter. Thence, it was implied, making his way up river by ship to Exeter where he was famously acclaimed king of England.   This letter was shortly followed by another from a second correspondant claiming that the ancestor in question had too few 'greats' before his name for this to be possible and I imagine I dismissed the whole story as a great silliness.

But now I wish I had made a record of it.   These old lies and legends sometimes have something unexpected to tell us.  Perhaps one day I shall get back to it.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013


Now, what I like about my broad Estuary is this:
she doesn't encourage me to be petty.

She has never offered me two for one
not even three for two,
not five per cent cashback on all my purchases
nor a thousand points.
She has not yet competed with my home insurer
nor offered me a good deal on my balance transfer.
She would never invite me to fill in questionnaires
or compare prices.
She does not expect me to eat five a day
nor to drink units of alcohol.
She leaves politics to the barnacles
and the economy to the sandhoppers.
She doesn't godbother me.

She neither asks me to make funeral plans
nor to consider my nearest and dearest when I am gone.

She lies here tonight, essential,  in all her beauty.
Under a lover's moon she casts her ancient spell.
What she has to tell
Is worth  the listening.

Saturday, 19 January 2013


From The Western Times 17th January 1879:

"Never within the memory of the oldest man have so many starlings been seen as were observed here last week.   The plantation and the cliffs, so far out as they were covered with scrub and thorn, offered a capital shelter for them,  but they were worried all day long by hundreds of boys.   Then,  extending from the Coastguard Station to the Black Battery,  especially on Wednesday and Thursday of last week, there were thousands of these birds stretching along in a line with high water mark hunting for anything in the shape of garbage they could find among the seaweed.  So cowed and weakened did they seem with the cold East wind that they could easily be run down as a great many of them were,  as were also grey and black birds.   But on Friday their fear got the better of their judgement, and instead of stopping within the shelter of our cliffs they flew across the river in large flocks,  in the direction of Starcross, where exposed to the full blast of the East wind,  they must have perished in large numbers."

Nowadays the great murmurations are to be seen, and heard, in the reedbeds above Topsham.   What did the writer mean by 'grey and black birds'?   Did he mean blackbirds?  How times have changed!  These days all the boys of  a January Exmouth are indoors gazing at television or other screens instead of being in pursuit of cowed and weakened birds.   Which activity is the most pernicious I wonder?   Did anybody eat starlings?  It wouldn't have been 'garbage', a nice word with a first meaning of the entrails of animals, that the starlings were finding in the seaweed on the tideline.  And did they fare that much worse in the reedbeds of Starcross to which they fled?   More questions than answers!  

Wednesday, 16 January 2013


In the summer of 1773,  the twenty-one year old Fanny Burney famously came to stay in  Teignmouth and  kept up her journal there.  To her young eyes one of the wonders of the place was the shocking dress of the women employed at pulling in the seine.  "Their dress,"  she writes,  " is barbarous,  they have stays half-laced and something by way of handkerchiefs about their necks;  they wear one coloured flannel or stuff petticoat; no shoes or stockings,  notwithstanding the hard pebbles and stones all along the beach;  and their coat is pinned up in the shape of a pair of (trousers) leaving them wholly naked to the knee."

She also recorded that there was a rowing match that summer between the women of Teignmouth and the women of Shaldon.

This lively sketch of  bare footed women working at the nets and the evidence that women were rowing the Teignmouth fishing boats  leads one to conclude that in the eighteenth century the women of East Devon were a particularly hardy and independent sisterhood prepared to tackle anything.   There is also to be considered William Maton's account of girls ploughing at Starcross some twenty years later.    These 'mannish' activities were probably the consequence of  many men being away for long months with the Fleet or with the Newfoundland fishery .  

Saturday, 5 January 2013


From Woolmer's Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, February 25th 1815.


"On Saturday last,  as some sailors were strolling in the path-fields leading from Budleigh Salterton to the Signal-house near that place,  they observed a pretty large fish,  called a hake,  washed in by the waves upon the beach below,  and though a fish of little value,  each felt an emulation to secure the prize.   The spot on which they stood was nearly a hundred feet in height above the level of the beach,  from which the cliff rises in an almost perpendicular direction.   Several of them instantly ran to a point from which steps are cut in the cliff,  but one of them,  resolving to reach the beach sooner than the rest,  and setting one hand on the edge of the cliff, turned himself round with his back to the sea and actually precipitated himself down the side of the cliff:;   about five and twenty feet from the bottom, providentially his foot struck against a small ledge of rock,  when his body turned round,  and rebounding with velocity,  he was thrown upon his face and hands, on the beach,  at a few feet distance (sic) from the base of the declivity.   Instead of being killed with the tremendous fall,  he instantly sprang up,  to the utter astonishment of his companions and ran off in pursuit of the fish."

The Gazette does not tell us if the bouncing sailor managed to catch his hake!