Dear Uncle Harry.
I’m on a short break in the English Riviera – a grand name embracing the likes of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham.
And what better way to spend my first day than a boat trip from Torquay? With the weather set fair, mackerel fishing seemed a good idea, and from the fierce competition for a two-hour trip I picked a vessel called Wave Rider – rather romantic I thought.
A mile out, my suspicions were aroused when the captain – called Ahab according to the name emblazoned across his stained tee shirt – began layering up with woolly sweaters and oilskins and removing the component parts of what looked like harpoon equipment from a box near the bow.
‘Are we looking for giant octopus too?’ I asked, feigning interest.
‘No-o mate,’ he said, with gnarly know-how. ‘Whales – if we can find the migration path.’
‘Oh,’ I said, going along with a joke that was clearly part of his patter, especially for soft southern targets like me. ‘That’s all right then.’
I looked around at the twenty or so other passengers. Worryingly, half of them were now also kitted out with cold weather gear and heavy duty waterproofs, while the rest of us were in flimsy summer clothes, skin gleaming with Factor 50 Nivea Sun Lotion to protect against the strong midday sun and brisk sea air.
‘How about some coloured feathers to catch the mackerel?’ I said, uncertain of my ground and aware that my short shorts and white Matalan tee shirt with “COOL AT 65” on the back might be inadequate for whaling on the high seas.
‘Aa-rr, this is all you need,’ said Ahab, tapping the harpoon affectionately. ‘People don’t read the small print, you see. It’s Silver Flash for mackerel. This is Wave Rider – we’re whaling.’
Other mackerel fishers overheard our conversation, some vigorously contesting the legality of the small print, others cowering on their slatted seats, muttering about never seeing their loved-ones again.
‘Don’t worry,’ Ahab said, after keeping us on tenterhooks another hour. ‘A mackerel relief boat will be along later.’
By the time the mackerel transfer arrived, Wave Rider was plunging into the troughs and surging to the peaks of a strong Atlantic swell. Land had long since disappeared and Ahab’s assistant, Ishmael, was in a raised basket on top of the cabin looking out to sea with a brass telescope.
From time to time he’d cry, ‘Thar she blows!’ making us rush to one side before he invariably added, ‘Sorry, just an iceberg,’ or, ‘Only kidding,’ staring at us madly with what we later found out was a glass eye – which being the one he used for the telescope didn’t bode well for serious whale catching at the business end of the trip.
Back on the quayside, having finally tamed a few mackerel, I was ready for supper and a pint of Doombar. Set on the harbour front, Wetherspoons seemed a good bet. Outside, all seemed well as I passed the cordoned area where people were tucking into spicy chicken wings and breaded Camembert bites washed down with, perhaps, San Miguel or spritzer.
Inside was different. Unlike the usual dominant clusters of men with thinning hair and agitated stammering, I found the entire seating and bar areas occupied by stocky, bearded gentlemen in yellow oilskins and black sou’westers.
‘Aa-rr, DOOMbaa-rr!’ went the call down the length of a bar where staff must have had the dickens of a job remembering who they were serving.
‘Aa-rr, DOOmbaa-rr!’ echoed the seated many, as they clinked pints to celebrate another day at sea. ‘Aa-rr DOOMbaa-rr!’
Having bought a pint of the pub’s favourite beer and ordered a Right Whale Fillet with Seaweed Sauce I sat in the corner, feeling underdressed yet fascinated by what I saw unfolding. Several yellow people stood up alongside each other forming a line with outstretched arms resting on their neighbours’ shoulders. Others joined in, pushing back chairs to make space, and eventually there were forty in the row, with the men at the two extremities stretching out their free arm in an exaggerated fashion. Then at a given signal, in unison, the forty shouted:
‘And it was THIS long!’
No wonder Wetherspoon’s Tim Martin, ever the man to spot a perfect tag, had called this former trading exchange The Giant Sperm!
Now, back in the B&B, I’m planning the rest of my stay. I might try Paignton Pier tomorrow. According to the leaflet, this was once popular with anglers, but with local Councils seeking to increase revenue, fishing was banned and the staging at the end adapted for carrying out sentences imposed by local magistrates. Apparently, for minor offences a lesser sentence of being strapped to the stanchions at low tide and freed when the sea reaches neck height is common; whilst for more serious cases there are boards that extend over the sea electronically at high tide, with individuals ‘walking the plank’ or, for gang crimes, several villains jumping at the same time – a sort of synchronised sentencing. Hopefully there are still tickets on sale for the ten o’clock (high tide) sitting. I’m told the two grandstands fill quite quickly.
And on Friday I shall check out the Golden Hind in Brixham harbour. Whereas this replica of Sir Francis Drake’s galleon was once at a fixed mooring for day trippers to pore over, it now offers full day excursions to the French coastline, where passengers in period costume can fire live ammo from the ship’s refurbished cannons, and give the residents of Brest and St Malo something to think about. I really fancy this! It sounds so much more hands-on (and probably warmer!) than the whaling trip I got caught up in.
Uncle, I’m SO impressed by the locals’ willingness to diversify, and make use of the rich maritime resources that endow this area. It’s the kind of initiative the Tory government would be proud of in these troubled times. But sadly, I fear it won’t live up to some of your tales about the merchant navy!
Best wishes – Paul
UTTERLY UNDISCOVERED by Paul Costello
Available through bookshops (ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2) or direct from Fineleaf Editions
A fabulous holiday read!