Tuesday, 22 December 2009


Delicate and like the finger bones of long drowned mariners are the broken pieces of the stems of clay pipes that are still to be found among the shingle on the beaches of the Estuary. Once there was such a remarkable number of these that they cried out for an explanation. Very occasionally the bowl of a pipe was found entire and sometimes with an elaborate moulding of grapes and vines or some other such conceit but mostly it was short lengths of tide abraded stem that were found. But why so many?

In my Liverpool childhood the pipes were for sale in every corner shop. I remember this because my mum used to buy them for us to use for bubbleblowing. They are probably still being made and sold somewhere but I, with my seventy years, can never remember seeing anyone smoking out of one of these clay pipes. It is,of course, the short stubby pipes, no more than a hand's breadth, of which I am thinking, not the long elegant "curlew" pipes that churchwardens are said to favour.

Somehow I associate these clay pipes particularly with the fishermen and sailors and longshoremen of Edwardian England. This may be because of all the wonderful Will Owen illustrations in the W.W.Jacobs books where a stubby pipe is never far away. It seems likely that the stems among the shingle were largely the legacy of generations of hard smoking mariners gaily tossing broken pipes overboard. But I have another vision which is of the armies of labourers who built the railways that run along both sides of the Estuary, sitting in rows and in a peaceful moment, did they ever have one?, gazing across the waters and smoking and whenever a pipe broke, casting the parts into the tide with a healthy navvy's curse. The railways came in the eighteen sixties which would have been a peak pipe smoking era.

When fishermen went sunrising over the bar a short length of pipestem was the certain bait with which to catch the first mackerel After that the fisherman could rely on the mackerels' cannibalistic appetite. In the Estuary the same lure served to catch the bass. These days two inches of white plastic electric cable answer the same purpose.

But lost fishing lures cannot much have accounted for the great Exe Estuary Clay Pipestem Phenomenon.

Friday, 11 December 2009


Seagulls mourn the day.
The winter light drains away,
so too tide and time.

Lovelorn curlews call.
So sad is the rise and fall
the fish weep salt tears.

Had I wings I might
flap off into this good night
with the silly ducks.

Thursday, 10 December 2009


The fishermen I knew in my youth often spoke of moots, 'moot' here being their idiom for something, anything, that might tangle the net. 'Can't fish here! Too many moots!' Drift nets in particular were in danger of snagging moots. I don't know how general the term is.

A most likely moot to snag the net is the stump of a tree and this, I think, is what Devon farmers call a moot. The word is clearly Old English and must surely be connected to the other kinds of 'moot' that all have to do with meeting, hence the moot halls in Keswick and elsewhere. Perhaps this Devon dialect moot is simply 'something one meets with'. Your ploughshare or your net meets with a moot and you wish it hadn't. You might even curse or swear at the moot.

There is always a fair selection of tree stumps and tree skeletons along the beaches of the Estuary. Some float in with the tide but the more dramatic ones have tumbled from the red cliffs. Where the trees at the cliff top have had their roots stripped bare by the wind and weather they have a wonderful gnarled and windswept look to them but sooner of later they fall below the tideline to float about a bit and to become moots for a generation.

Monday, 7 December 2009


There is strong evidence that, centuries before the Romans came to Caerwysc, which is thought to be the name Exeter then bore, the ancient British who were living there were trading with Continental merchants. Seaworthy merchant ships were carrying cargo up and down the channels of the Estuary a hundred years or more before the year dot.

Professor Hoskins, in his "Two Thousand Years in Exeter", describes the exciting find of coin in the city two hundred years ago which still provides the best evidence for this ancient trading:

"In the year 1810, a considerable number of Hellenistic coins - that is, coins of ancient Greek types from the eastern Mediterranean- were found in the Broadgate while workmen were digging at a depth of twenty feet. These coins, the largest discovery of their kind yet made in this country, could be dated as belonging to the third, second and first centuries before Christ.

"This discovery was so remarkable and unexpected that many scholars refused to believe the evidence. Two distinguished numismatists in 1907, examining them again, decided that the coins had been planted on the site to cause confusion, or that some private collection had been lost there. In any event, they decided that the coins were not evidence for the existence of a trading settlement on the site of Exeter at that early date.

"Since they wrote, however, two things have happened to alter the picture. In the first place, other Hellenistic coins have been found in Exeter, and secondly, many more have been found at various places along the south coast of England - for example, at Penzance, at Mount Batten (now part of Plymouth), and near Poole Harbour in Dorset. We must therefore accept the conclusion that there was considerable trading between the Mediterranean countries and southern Britain a century or two before the birth of Christ, and that Exeter (under some other name,) was one of the places engaged in this trade."

Professor Hoskins believed that cattle and hides were the goods most likely to have been shipped from Exeter to the Continent and that the ships came from'such places as Rouen in Normandy'.

For some hundreds of years then local men watched from the high land and from the Estuary's bogs and banks and reed beds as these trading ships came and went with the tides. And only then came the Romans!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009


The Estuary port of Exmouth was busy in the year 1814. Below are listed just some of the cargoes reported in the Exeter Flying Post that were unladen in the spring of that year.

From Newport,coals; from Liverpool,salt; from London and Bristol,groceries ; from Teignmouth, slate and pipe clay; from Neath, culm; from Plymouth old junk; from Guernsey,cork and passengers; from Milford, stone; from Stockholm, deals and pitch tar; from Oporto, wine; from Lisbon, bale goods; from Portsmouth, potatoes; from Bridport, timber; from Portland, household furniture. And more, much more!

Culm, as well as being the river on which Culompton stands, is a secondrate coal. Junk is old rope, the hemp to be reworked, not smoked! Each of these many cargoes argues a business enterprise. And imagine, O glory, the tarry crews ashore!: the proud captains and the happygolucky sailors, Scots and Welshmen, Spaniards and Swedes. Not too many Frenchmen and Americans because we were still at war with them. Most of the ships that came to Exmouth sailed in convoy under the protection of the Royal Navy's gun brigs and therefore arrived in port at much the same time. The harbour must have been a lively, busy place with tall ships jostling for a place to land their cargoes.

Meanwhile at Topsham on 27th April 1814, Mr Pridham informed the nobility, gentry and others that his TEPID and COLD sea baths were ready for their Accommodation, and that he had the addition of a Pump, for such as required Warm or Cold bathing.

Now what was all that about? Rolling about in Topsham mud? Ugh!