BRANSCOMBE PARISH

Fishing and Farming


In the sixteenth century, the Exeter historian John Hooker wrote of the great variety of fish caught off the Devon coast. He said whiting were always in season and that there were also haddock, colefish, cod, millwell (another type of cod), ling, hake, mackerel, gurnard, piper, millet, bass, plaice of many kinds, sole and others, among which he named "holy book flounders" and "millers' thumbs". Last, but by no means least, there were herrings and pilchards, `which of all others must be most beneficial to the good of this country at home and to the like of all foreign nations abroad.' The range of fish which Hooker found in Tudor Devon continued into the seventeenth century, when other commentators likewise enthused about the variety of local fish. A survey of fishing nets in Devon taken at about this time noted Branscombe was possessed of 3 seine nets and 3 mariners with, presumably, 3 boats.

There was a lucrative seine-fishing industry along the east Devon coast as late as the 1880s. A huer was on watch all day on the clifftop during the season. If a shoal of mackerel began to "play", springing out of the water, a cry of "A Haul!" would echo up the valleys. Men would drop what they were doing and rush to their boats, which were always ready. Up to 10,000 fish could be caught in one net, which was hauled to shore.

In 1911 it was reported that 300,000 herring were brought ashore in Beer in one day. Lobster, skate, mackerel, crab, sole, brill, and conger were also plentiful.

But fishing from Branscombe's steep and unsheltered beach is impracticable at many times during the year, so a tradition of cliff farming developed, to keep fishermen occupied within sight of the water, and to provide some extra income. The south-facing cliff plots, or "plats" are almost immune from frosts, and were hand-cultivated. They can still be seen today, with their steep access paths, wicket gates and stiles. The rough sheds where the cliff-farmers would stay, sometimes for a week at a time, have now been converted into holiday chalets. Originally, they would have had a thatched roof made from water flags, felt or sacking. Manure for the plats was carried from the nearest farmyard or hauled up from the beach in the form of seaweed. Ponies and donkeys were used to carry in the manure and carry away the produce. The prize crop was the Branscombe early potato, which achieved a fame in far-off London markets rivalling that of the better-known Jersey variety. Like the Channel Islands, Branscombe's plats could also produce early daffodils, crocuses and tulips, fetching premium prices. Other early crops included broad beans and strawberries.

Branscombe's last cliff-farmer was "Cliffie" Gosling, born in 1889. Spent his whole life working his plats. His donkeys, Edward, Jenny and Smart, were well known to Branscombe's children. He planted his potatoes in February, ready for digging at Whitsun, in mid-May. They were sold at Sidmouth market on Saturdays and Tuesdays. Cliffie made his last journey in 1966, aged 76.


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