Brixham: Fishstock and the FishMish

On the 13th September the 6th Fishstock event was held in Brixham. This annual one-day food and music festival goes from strength to strength.

It takes place within the newly-enlarged premises of our fish market. This year we had two music stages (with twelve hours of music on each), two demonstration kitchens featuring top chefs preparing fish dishes, about fifty trade stands, a beer tent, a wine bar and for the youngsters a bouncy castle and children’s entertainers. Tied up at the quay were a crabber, a beamer, the lifeboat, a sailing trawler and a sailing lugger, and visitors could take a tour over each. Those last two are treasured members of Brixham’s Heritage Fleet of restored fishing boats from a bygone age.

Maggie Duffy and Mike Weed on the acoustic stage

Maggie Duffy and Mike Weed on the acoustic stage

We were blessed with perfect weather. The gates opened at 10am and thousands of people poured in to enjoy a great day. This isn’t just an event for us locals; it draws in visitors from a wide area as evidenced by the fact that the organisers have just been contacted by Exeter City Council with a request that in setting the date for Fishstock 2015 they take into account the dates of the Rugby World Cup games scheduled to take place at Exeter Chiefs new stadium during next September/October.

I’ve blogged about Fishstock before, posting it under Folk Music as it’s that stage that usually attracts me. This time I want to look at the background to the event: how it comes about – and why.

It wouldn’t happen at all if it wasn’t for the enthusiastic support of two organisations, their staff and a large team of volunteers. The organisations are the fishmarket landlord, Torbay Harbour Authority, and the tenants, Brixham Trawler Agents. The new fishmarket occupies a large site and the market operates normally on the Friday morning with the catches landed during the previous 24-hours sold at the early morning auction then collected by vans and lorries for distribution around the country.

I must just break off to mention something that always makes me smile. There among the huge refrigerated lorries you’ll see Simone Cook with her little trolley. Every morning Simone is there, carefully selecting small quantities of prime fish that she loads into her trolley and trundles along the quay to where she prepares and serves it in Beamers Restaurant that she runs with her husband and daughter.

One of the demonstration kitchens.

One of the demonstration kitchens.

The huge effort then begins to get the fishmarket activity wrapped up by 10am on Friday, the floors cleared of ice, washed down, disinfected and dried by 2pm when the task begins of erecting marquees, stages, kitchens, sound systems, trade stands and exhibitions, getting everything ready to open at 10am on Saturday. The last visitors have left the site by midnight when the whole operation goes into reverse so that the fishmarket can be handed back to Brixham Trawler Agents by Sunday lunchtime.

That’s how it comes about – but why are so many people prepared to put in such effort to make it happen? Not just physical effort either, but also generous contributions including the fish used in the demonstrations. This year Morrison’s supermarket (and we don’t have one in Brixham) donated 1000 bread rolls that were all used in making fishburgers. The answer is that it raises thousands of pounds for a charity that is close to the heart of the Brixham community, the Fishermen’s Mission – affectionately known as FishMish.

I’d like to take you back, a long, long way back, to see how it all began.

From the early 1800s it became commonplace for ports to have a shore-based Mission to provide faith-based (usually Methodist) facilities to seamen. In 1881 a giant step forward was taken, courtesy of Ebenezer Mather who was then responsible for the Thames ChurchMission that served seamen using the Port of London.

Ebenezer Mather

Ebenezer Mather

Mather accepted a challenge to go on a 5-day voyage on a ship called Supply whose role was to sail to the at-sea North Sea fishing fleet taking empty fish boxes and ice, collect the catch, and return with it to Billingsgate Market.

The weather was awful throughout his 600-mile trip. Mather witnessed the appalling conditions that the fishermen endured. He realised that the fleet was effectively a floating village with a population of around 1500 people living without any of the basic comforts available to those ashore.

On his return he set about acquiring a 56-ton fishing smack that he converted to provide services to the fishing fleet. She was renamed Ensign and was equipped with medical supplies, warm clothing, food, reading materials and Bibles. Mather changed the principle of his Mission to have the theme, ‘Rendering service, not just Services.’

He wrote a book about the lives of deep sea fishermen that, using the fishermen’s terminology, he titled, ‘Nar’ard of the Dagger’ (north of Dogger Bank).

Queen Victoria read it, sent a donation to his mission and then agreed to become patron of what became known as, ‘The Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fisherman.’

FishMish still operates in accordance with the basic principle of providing a full range of practical support services to fishermen and their families. That support is needed in what is the most dangerous peacetime occupation.

The Brixham branch opened in 1901 and demand for its services is as high as ever. Fishermen face the daily danger of death or serious injury at sea and financial insecurity onshore. FishMish provides comfort and support to the bereaved and injured, and helps those in need steer a course through the complex benefits system. The need for the financial support shouldn’t be under estimated. At the start of 2014, for example, the weather was so bad that for six weeks most of the Brixham fleet couldn’t put to sea. The organisation is also involved in the development and supply of improved safety equipment for the fishing industry.

Some years ago the chap in charge of the Brixham branch (known as the Port Missioner) had the bright idea of asking Jim Portus to help with fund-raising. I imagine he was following the maxim that if you want something doing you should ask a busy person to do it.

Jim is one of those people who appear to have more than 24 hours in their day. He is employed as chief executive of the South Western Fish Producer Organisation Ltd and elected chairman of the UK Association of Fish Producer Organisations. He is also a Minister’s appointee on the Devon and Severn Inshore and Fisheries Conservation Authority; an appointed member of the Seafish Industry Authority Domestic and Export Panel and a Fellow of the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology. As a result of his involvement with the FishMish he is a member of council and trustee of the charity. He spends much of his time lobbying European ministers about fish quotas. The fact that the Westcountry ports of Brixham, Plymouth and Newlyn have coped so well with the upheavals of the European fisheries policies is largely down to the work of Jim and his team.

Since 2000 Jim has completed eighteen marathons. Together with his wife, Margaret, (who also runs marathons) he has walked across France and Spain, and from John O’Groats to Land’s End. By doing so they have raised well over £40,000 in sponsorship for FishMish. Fishstock is Jim’s brainchild; he even came up with the name, and he has been the driving force behind it. The latest Fishstock will bring the total raised by that event to over £50,000.

Just in case you are picturing a pair of young human dynamos, I should point out that in a couple of months Jim and Margaret will be celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary.

In 2012 our regional newspaper, The Western Morning News, awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Seafood festivals are becoming very popular. The National Holidays blog recently listed a number here taking place in Wales and the Southwest. No doubt there are more in other parts of the country. Behind every one of them there will be someone like Jim Portus. Without people like him the country would feel a lot poorer.

Jim Portus. Picture taken fromthe Herald Express

Jim Portus.
Picture taken from the Herald Express


T E Lawrence: an extraordinary man.

We recently visited Clouds Hill, the tiny woodland cottage in Dorset once owned by T E Lawrence and now owned by the National Trust. He acquired it from relatives as a bolt-hole to escape the pressures his fame had brought. The material that the National Trust has on display, together with standing in the tiny room where he spent so much time with friends such as George Bernard Shaw, Robert Graves and Henry Williamson, made me want to find out more about this extraordinary man. It didn’t take me long to realise that a man about whom ninety books have been written (one of which is described as an encyclopaedia) is an impractical subject for a single blog post – but I’ll give it a go anyway.

Clouds Hill

Clouds Hill

His fame derived from his exploits during WWI. He wrote about those experiences in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom that formed the basis of the 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia. I doubt if I can tell you anything about that part of his life that you don’t already know, so I’ll concentrate on his interesting personal life.

His father, Sir Thomas Chapman, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat with an estate in Ireland had four daughters and employed Sarah Junner as their governess. Chapman had an affair with Sarah. She became pregnant, left the household and gave birth to a son, Robert. So far that’s not an unusual story, but Chapman then left his wife, daughters and estate to run away with Sarah and Robert. They seemed to find it hard to settle, with brief spells in Wales, Scotland, France, Jersey, the Isle of Wight and Hampshire before moving to Oxford in 1896. Continue reading

A day out at Widecombe Fair.

Dartmoor_WidecombeWidecombe-in-the-Moor is a tiny village that nestles in a hollow in the heart of Dartmoor. It has one church, two pubs, two tea shops, three shops (catering mainly for tourists) and a dozen cottages clustered around the village green. Having said that, the village is bigger than it looks at first glance as dwellings are dotted along the lanes out of the village for some distance. The church (St Pancras) is huge for a village of this size. It is often referred to as the cathedral of the moor. The Church House and Sexton’s House are owned by the National Trust.

If you’ve been following the Tour of Britain you’ll know that in yesterday’s Devon stage the route crossed Dartmoor, passing through Widecombe. Unfortunately, they’d completed that bit before the live television coverage began, so the nation didn’t get to see the riders plunging down the terrifyingly steep lane that drops from the high moorland into the middle of the village.

Widecombe may be small, but it has long been an important agricultural centre. For hundreds of years it has hosted an autumn fair. Farmers on the high moor, who knew that they wouldn’t have enough winter fodder for all their stock, brought their surplus animals to the fair to sell them to farmers from the more lush lowland areas who could fatten them on through the mild Devon winter.

Nowadays, the fair is not about the sale of stock, but more a celebration of Dartmoor life. Animals still play a large part, but they are present either for judging in the show ring or to take part in displays and light-hearted events.

Not all the trade stands were traditional

Not all the trade stands were traditional

This year we went by coach which, apart from dodging traffic jams and avoiding long queues at the park-and-ride, allowed me to sample the beers and ciders on offer without inhibition. I admire coach drivers who manage to cope with our narrow roads, heavy traffic and disorganised passengers while retaining a sense of humour. Our driver happened to know the first lady to get aboard and greeted her with a kiss. He then cheerfully repeated the service for any female passenger who requested it. Before we set off he apologised for the lack of air conditioning and said he’d open the skylights which would let in a draught powerful enough to blow our hair about – “I can see that won’t matter this morning as none of you have bothered.” Continue reading