It is nice to find some sunshine between the rains, it feels as if it has poured continuously for the entire length of March but now brief glimpses of spring sun are occasionally making very welcome appearances. It’s that time of year when everything happens, windows are cleaned, gardens reclaimed, shops dust away the winter webs, sweep out the blown in leaves, slap around a brush of emulsion and open once more to the world. The harbour washed by January and February gales welcomes the quieter tides as the booted fishermen start looking at their long-neglected pots, and seagulls circle hopeful as it will soon be time for sea once more.
I lay on my back beneath the barnacled and weeded hull of my old wooden boat, scraping, brushing, and preparing for more anti-fouling. How many years have I scrubbed this bottom? How many layers of paint have I applied? When I started she was still my father’s boat, over 35 years ago. Why I got the job I can’t remember but I do remember the mess I made, paint dripping off the brush, running down my wrist, sprawling along on my back trying to cover every inch, every plank, every land.
It seems such a long time ago now, some things have hardly changed, the cobbled street still welcomes the tourists that the shops and hotels cater for, a Land Rover still carries the weary back up to the top, but there are changes, inevitable changes. As boys my brother and I would help the boatmen load the passengers aboard, holding the boats at the steps while they clambered down. I remember Billy Braund and his boat ‘Saucy Lass’, and Charlie Shackson with the’ Silver Spray’, “Don’t send down all big ones” he’d say as his boat was only 18ft long with a Stuart Turner engine and always immaculately turned out. Si and Norman Headon, father and son, and ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Sunrise’, their two 18ft picarooners with buzzing seagull engines, the distinctive sound of our childhood summers; there was bobble-hatted John Glover with the newest built boat, ‘Kingfisher’, who would come alongside the quay to go boating if he wasn’t hauling lobster pots, and then there was my eldest brother Barry with ‘Viking’ and my father with ‘Neptune.’ I especially enjoyed the slower days when I would sit near the men as they chatted away telling their old stories and having a good moan.
One of my first summer jobs was helping Si Headon when he was working his boats off the beach on the low tide; he paid me £1 a day but always gave the promise of more if the trade ever improved. Si had the advantage over the other boatmen as his son Norman had a Land Rover that could push and pull his boats into the sea or back out. When the day was done, he could work the low tide where it was more difficult for the larger boats; during the busiest days of the summer his boats were rarely quiet.
Looking up at the street all you’d see would be faces, as acres of people thronged down around the winding staircase. There would be queues of people coming out of the bars meeting the people on their way down and the Land Rover service to the top never stopped. To us boat trips were the summer, along with the occasional trip up the shore to help haul the lobster pots, with my father pointing out the names of the rocks, “Remember it” he’d say, “no one else knows it!” and so I remember it. If it wasn’t lobster pots it would be longlines, fishing for skate or ray. The longer lines he’d call a spiller, and a shorter line was a bolter, sometimes he would haul up over the stern of ‘Neptune,’ other times he would leave me on board made fast to one end while he hauled along in his little grey punt; the catch of Thornback, small eye or blonde ray, dogfish and bounce, would be cleaned and winged out, put into a fish box and then driven to Hartland where it was soon all sold; everyone liked fresh fish.When we weren’t helping with the boats or out with our father fishing, we would be swimming in the harbour or out in the rowing boats trying for mackerel; the ones that were unlucky enough to get caught were sold wrapped in newspaper, 10 pence each, from our father’s cellar step. The profit quickly lost on ice-cream, coke and cherryade from the little sweet shop on the quay.
I’ve painted ‘Neptune’ many times since then, we’ve spent many long, happy hours together. As the new season begins to wake the flowers and trees, I often think of those days and those old men. They may be gone but the tide still comes in.