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


Westcountry storms – the hidden damage.

DSC_0013Today we have blue sky, warm sunshine and very little wind. The daffodils and snowdrops have been out for weeks; my fruit trees are in blossom and hyacinths are filling the air with their scent. Spring is well underway and it is tempting to try to forget the battering we have had this winter, but there are reminders everywhere. A few yards from the blossom-covered Victoria plum stands what’s left of my greenhouse. I’ve been lucky. I’ll repair the greenhouse in a day, but many people in the Southwest will never recover from the damage they’ve suffered.

Our local news reports have given the storm damage intensive coverage, but I’m not sure how much reporting there has been at a national level. Eventually, after homes had been under water for weeks, the Prime Minister noticed the Somerset Levels and put in a belated appearance, although as soon as the Thames valley showed signs of flooding attention switched to that much more important area, the Thames flowing through the PM’s own constituency.

I’m sure the destruction of the railway through Dawlish made the national news, simply because of the dramatic images of the rails swinging in mid-air, but did the landslip that closed the line at Crewkerne, the floods that closed the line between Exeter and Tiverton, or the lightning strikes that destroyed signalling, get the same coverage?

Storms created a damaging tidal surge that hit the east coast and North Wales in early December, but for us the problems began over the Christmas/New Year period. On 5th January The Western Morning News carried this coverage. The storms didn’t stop, rolling in across the Atlantic in a succession that began to feel never-ending. Record rainfall combined with storm-force winds (that coincided with high tides) brought chaos to inland and coastal areas alike. On Valentine’s Day the local news site, ‘This is the Westcountry’, carried this diary of the day’s events, including dramatic video clips – and that was just one day among many. On that day we were supposed to be heading into Cornwall for a family get-together, but every road from here to the A38 was blocked by fallen trees, floods or, in one case, by a fatal accident. We were cut off, and it felt rather strange.

Harbour walls have been breached and historic buildings destroyed. The battle to save the clocktower in picturesque Kingsand continues.

Some of the physical damage isn’t obvious. A visitor to Brixham could easily think that we’d escaped damage, and to an extent they’d be correct. The town is tucked into the south-west corner of Torbay in the shelter of the high cliffs of Berry Head and is further protected by the Breakwater, a kilometre long stone-built pier.

IMG_1818As a result there is little obvious damage, but damage there is. Breakwater beach, which lies to the east of the Breakwater, was a shingle beach of small stones. Those stones have disappeared revealing much larger stones, the bedrock and old concrete pillars that have been covered for many years. This photo of one of the pillars shows the depth of stones that have gone.

IMG_1817The Breakwater looks undamaged from on top and from the harbour side, but from the beach it is clear that the stone-filled rough seas have scoured out a large hole that goes under much of the width of the Breakwater leaving it unsupported.

What is now the town centre car park was once a fresh water reservoir. Sailing ships of the Royal Navy put into Brixham to take on food and water. Some 200 years ago that activity switched to Plymouth, the reservoir was drained and the streams that fed it were led to the harbour via underground tunnels. Those tunnels have been unable to cope with the extraordinary levels of rainfall. Water has been coming up through the floors of properties and those along The Strand have had their cellars full of water.

All of which is very trivial compared to what other towns such as Porthleven, Penzance and Newquay have suffered. The real damage to Brixham has been financial. Our economy is largely based on two industries – fishing and tourism. For six weeks the fishing fleet coudn’t put to sea. The value of the catches lost was in the order of one million pounds. That’s one million pounds that would have passed through Brixham fishmarket into the hands of the boat owners, the crews and the fishmarket staff, and much of it then spent around the town. That’s a lot of money for a small town. The spell between Christmas and Easter is always a grim time for the tourist trade. The school half-term holiday in February usually provides a little bright spot, but this year it was a complete washout. The rail line was closed and driving difficult. The tourists didn’t come – and who can blame them. The problem now is that Easter is very late this year. The hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions have another month to survive before the traditional start of the season.

Well, the sun is shining, the sky is blue, the sea is blue and the spring flowers are breathtaking. Jump in your cars, drive down to Brixham and spend some money. You’ll love it!