Wednesday, 18 July 2012


In  July 1643, when Admiral the Earl of Warwick and his Parliamentary fleet came sailing up the Estuary, cannon blazing to starboard and larboard, hoping to relieve the Parliamentary forces in Exeter, the Royalist besiegers under the command of Sir John Berkley managed to prevent the ships reaching the city and held them in battle at Topsham until the tide was running out from under the ships' keels and the fleet had to chase back down channel and out to sea.   (This is the same John Berkley who was soon to be the Governor of Exeter and the recipient of laudatory lines from the Cavalier parson poet at Dean Prior, Robert Herrick, viz:.

"Stand forth, brave man, since fate has made thee here
The Hector over Aged Exeter;
Who for a long sad time has weeping stood
like a poore Lady lost in Widowhood:   &c.

 This then is Clarendon's (Royalist) account of the action on the Estuary:

    "The Parliament commended the Relief of this place (Exeter), by special instructions, to their Admiral, the Earl of Warwick;  after whose having made show of Landing Men in several places upon the Coast, and thereby compelling Sr John Berkley to make quick and wearisome marches with Horse and Dragoons from place to place, the wind coming fair the Fleet left those who attended their Landing about Totnes, turned about, and with a fresh Gale made towards the River that leads to the Walls of Exeter, and having the Command of both sides of the River, upon a flat, by their Cannon, the Earl presumed that way he should be able to send Relief into the City, but the diligence and providence of Sr John Berkley had fortunately cast up some slight Works upon the advantageous Nookes of the River in which his Men might be in some security from the Cannon of the Ships; and make great haste with his Horse to hinder their Landing;  and so the Attempt was not only without success, but so unfortunate that it discouraged the Sea-men from endevouring the like again.  For after three or four hours pouring their great shot, from their Ships upon the Land Forces, the Tide falling,  the Earl of Warwick fell off with his Fleet, leaving three Ships behind him, of which one was burnt, and the other two were taken from the Land, in view of his whole Fleet,  which no more look'd after the Relief of Exeter in that way."

Saturday, 14 July 2012


Unique, somehow evocative, and yet a new sound.
Not sleigh bells ringing but merry,
their promise already half conjectured when I wake
in this lumpy bed puzzling, taking bearings, the bumpy journey
having been wondrous strange.

Yesterday I came, the weather fine but poring,
by train and ship and train from the North West German plain,
over the one inch to the mile map of unknown Exeter
which should have been my goal
had it not been for the bright blue eye of the mapped river,
tempting, hinting, promising all the way
until the train lands me at Exter!
(Exter Sin Davids! is the cry all platform long, and Exter 'tis!)

I beach on my America, my new found land.
The cabbie knows,  of course he knows, Topsham.
'O yes, my boy, I knows Topsam, course I does.

And the 'Inn' fulfils the map's prophesy.  The Passage.
Its old board swings as it might be The Sign of the Spyglass or The Admiral Benbow
and on the river, already my sweetheart, I feast my eyes
while on the board a painted boat, a painted arm pulling upon a painted paddle,
ferries, beneath the painted raging of the skies, this bright Exe.

See me now paying off the cab, setting down my bags,,
an overdressed young arrival,
impressed and for one whole minute soul deep
in peace and wonder
on a desert cobbled apron and the bright tide rising and nothing stirring,
the inn, ancient, crooked, gabled, black and tan,
all that my inn should be.

But now a boat,  a wooden boat, tipped upside down and in the sun
and,  from her side protruding, a pair of boots
which do not answer questions put
but are caught in the stillness of that anchored summer evening,
a memory of boots and the echo of a grunt beneath the boat.

Slowly: thighs, backside, shoulders, tousled head,
the landlord of The Passage
appears before me, looks me up and down, scratches his ear.

Well now, if it's lodgings I'm after, I'm in luck!
All I need do is squeeze up a cramped staircase
to view his flat in the twin gables,  two pound a week to perch above The Passage Inn.
I make my bargain,  a bargain even then, and make my lumpy bed
and, after celebrating the golden glory
of living over a pub,  I lie in it
and lie in late  and wake to this new sound,
not sleigh bells but merry.
And from my garret window I look out on the river, bright in the morning sun
where the breeze is rattling the rigging of many a fine boat.

And to this jingle the singing river adds her welcome:
"Here friend,  here begins our love affair!  Here it begins!"
she sings.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012


This month and last the execrable weather  and my necessary commitments have meant that I have hardly visited my boat, Poppy, except to bail her out.   Today early,  just before the morning tide crept in,  I once again carried my plastic bucket along a line of curlew tracks the short distance to my dried out mooring and took out enough water to float a stranded whale.  

I mused to myself the while, being a dabbler in wordsmithery, whether the two words 'pail' and 'bail' were related.  It seemed to me, bailing with my pail, that they had to be.

'Bail' is one of those words that can be spelled in two ways, 'bail' and 'bale',  'bail' being the older form and therefore, perhaps, to be preferred.   Bs and Ps are sometimes confused and I was confident that the two words must be variant forms from the same stock but, once back with my books, I was to be disabused.

According to Eric Partridge's Origins , 'bail' comes from the French word 'baille' meaning a bucket whereas 'pail' has to do with pegs and pegging and derives from an Old English word paegel meaning a wine measure.

Well,  there you are now!

A neighbour whom I bored with my false etymological reflections this morning parted from me with the words:  "Carry on pailing!"

The which no doubt I must.