Thoughts on Writing About the Past – Long Lost and Otherwise

by martinhesp

Times change and ways of life disappear along with the traditions and skills that went with them. Eventually, entire cultures vanish almost without trace.
Those words haunt me increasingly as years turn into decades and I keep tramping around the region working as a paid observer of all things Westcountry for a daily newspaper. Now I am about to capture some of those walks of life in a new series about ancient crafts and pastimes.
And as I prepare to do so I recall, as a boy, watching seine-netters on the Teign pull teeming nets ashore. In recent times I have seen the few that are left catch hardly anything at all. I remember shepherds who did nothing but mind sheep, hedge-layers who spent their lives creating the windbreaks of the Brendon Hills, and rabbit-catchers who moonlighted as mole-catchers.
I have witnessed the passing of the peat-diggers down on the Levels and the slow demise of the farmer-huntsmen high on Exmoor. I knew men who spent lifetimes in sylvan gloom coppicing the nut trees for thatcher’s spars. I have observed the last of the laver pickers on the shores of the Bristol Channel. And I well remember that hardy breed of gentleman known as the farm labourer.
There are still a few, you’ll argue. Indeed there are living vestiges here and there representing all of the above.
I recall interviewing a man who opened a long-closed window upon a British world that has become forgotten. It was while he was talking of his long life in the isles that Scillonian Brian Jenkins used a word which jolted me.
Crofting is not a term often used in conjunction with this region, but it does describe a way of life that existed in places like the Scillies and along the south coast.
It’s a vague term: “A croft is a fenced or enclosed area of land, usually small and arable with a crofter’s dwelling thereon.” So says the dictionary, but I’d extend its meaning to include the idea that a crofter gleaned a living from the sea and the beach, as well as from his small chunk of marginal land.
Such was the case in Scilly – and such was the case along the south coast where you can still see the remains of tiny fields dotted along the undercliffs perched on difficult-to-reach south facing shelves of land.
I spotted these relics of a lost world a lot while exploring the Westcountry’s dramatic coastal headlands for a Western Morning News series – and envying the old crofters their salty way of life. Which was daft, of course, because it was gruelling work.
In West Cornwall the miniature, cliff-hugging paddocks were known as “quinnells”, in South Devon they were called “plats”, but wherever they were located they once groaned with new potatoes, beans and other early edibles, not to mention swathes of flowers.
“Early” was the key to their pre-plastic poly-tunnel success. Only along the sheltered zones of south facing coastal slopes could you hope to harvest such luxurious and rare things in February or March, and collect the premium.
That’s why you see traces of quinnells and plats around headlands – capes often have south-east-facing slopes that enjoy some protection from prevailing winds. Prawle Point, Rame Head, the Dodman, the stretch between Mousehole and Lamorna are just a few areas that come to mind.
At Branscombe the fisher-farmers became renown not only for their early spuds, but for broad beans, strawberries, daffodils, crocuses and tulips. They would spend all week living out along the Undercliff in simple sheds with thatched roofs made from water-flags – and would till their steep raps, fertilising them with seaweed which they’d bring up from the beach by donkey.
“Seaweed is the best thing there is that you can put on your land,” declares Brian Jenkins – and he should know – he’d put over 100 tons a year on his few Bryher acres in days gone by.
Sun and seaweed: they were the two essential elements along with one other “s” word… That was seasonality. The annual cycle of the Westcountry crofter or fisher-farmer dovetailed perfectly with the seasons.
In the good weather of summer, they’d go fishing and plunder the big shoals of mackerel, herring, sprats, pilchard and other species that would migrate up Channel, then they’d beach their boats and wait for autumn storms to cast carpets of seaweed upon the shore. During winter they’d dress the small fields with the stuff and plant whatever, and in spring they’d harvest.
The last stronghold of this lifestyle is to be found on Scilly where a (very) small handful still both fish and farm. But along the south coast the quinnell-keepers and plat-ploughers have disappeared entirely.
I wonder, though… With oil prices escalating, with the buy local ethos becoming mainstream, might we one day see the Westcountry crofter tilling tiny seaweed-pungent fields again? From a greedy, food obsessed standpoint, I dearly hope so – I have tasted the delights of the early, salty, Scillonian spud and no tuber in the world can beat it.
Whichever way things go, I think these long lost worlds offer writers a vast scope of interest. The hidden demesnes of the crofters, the forgotten toils of the quinnell-gardeners, the boundless horizons of the moorland hunters… All speak quietly of romance and possibility.