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