Monday, 25 June 2012


The thought is perhaps amazing that for maybe three hundred years the Estuary was much visited by sailing ships carrying coal.   Throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries more coal was shipped into the Exe than any other cargo.    Most of the coal needed by the people of  South Devon came sailing up the Estuary.     

Coal was offloaded at Exmouth and Starcross and Topsham and at Exeter Quay.    Coal was transhipped into lighters and barges and taken  to the Estuary ports and  up the canal to Exeter.  Coal came from Sunderland and Newcastle and Milford  and Swansea and Tenby and Newport and Neath.

A favourite place for the ‘colliers’ to ride was the Bight.   In Victorian times most ships were too large to venture further up channel.   Transhipping at high water must have been a day and night business that provided a regular livelihood for many men of the Estuary.

The Estuary limekilns needed coal and received direct shipments by lighter and barge.  So did the saltworks at Riversmeet and elsewhere.  In Lympstone the coal, like the limestone, was sometimes dumped overboard below the tide line.   It must have been a grimy trade and all the quays and landings of the Estuary would have had something of coal dust about them.   The men who worked the lighters would have had a decidedly sooty look when they came ashore.

Only in the second half of the nineteenth century, after the railways came to provide  cheaper and easier  transport,  did the coastwise traffic fade away although the docks at Exmouth and Teignmouth with their railway terminals went on importing coal well into the twentieth century.

The time had come to clean up the Exe for the tourists

Friday, 22 June 2012


This amateur watercolour of uncertain date shows what appears to be a firing range with targets ranged against the red cliffs of Orcombe Point .   I can find no written record of butts on the beach but the targets, if  there to be engaged by the rifle volunteers or indeed the yeomanry, seem pretty antique.   My guess is that the picture was painted between 1890 and 1910 but I might be way out.

The little salmon boat in the foreground with her two man crew seems to be prepared to shoot a seine from the beach into the river,  something that has not been done for many a year although it was common enough to take salmon across the channel from the Pole Sand.  Is that the polestaff projecting from the stern?

There is more ledge and less cliff at Orcombe now.  

I am curious to know more about those butts.  

Sunday, 17 June 2012


I had often wondered if 'seines',  the nets which have been used on the Estuary at least since the Middle Ages, took their name from, or shared an etymology with,the River Seine.   Eric Partridge is clear on this point:  "seine, a large fishing net, comes from Old English segne, Latin sagena... The River Seine is of a very different origin, for it derives,  like Italian Senna from the Latin Sequenna."  

There are local references to sagenae as long ago as the twelfth century.   No doubt they were very different to the seines we know today but the essential principle,  that they were nets to be taken in an arc in order to enclose the fish and then hauled in,  has remained the same

'Haknetts' were snaring devices.   They were  nets set in such a way that fish would tangle in them when the tides ebbed away.   Harold Fox records:  "Fixed nets are frequently referred to in the sources,  an early reference, from 1296,  being to a rent paid on Kenton manor for permission to 'fix up' nets on a mudbank in the Exe estuary."  This method of fishing was known as 'haking' in mediaeval Devon.  

The name, haking, has been said to derive from the 'hooking' of the nets to fixed poles but it seems to me it might just as well refer to the fish being hooked in the net because that's what would have happened.   It seems a delightfully easy way to catch fish.   I remember seeing models of fixed nets in the museum on the Ijssel Meer and wondering why nobody at home fished that way.   They were common on the old Zuider Zee.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the Reverend John Swete observed what he called  'poles for fixing nets to take fish at high water' at Sidmouth.  So it would seem that there was a long tradition of 'haking' in these parts.  These days no one is haking and not too many are seineing.