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13 November 2014

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You are in: Devon > Places > Places features > Clovelly's 'Silver Darlings'

Herring fishing at Clovelly

An archive photo of Clovelly fishermen

Clovelly's 'Silver Darlings'

Clovelly once boasted 100 herring boats, but now the industry is being kept alive by two brothers.

For at least a thousand years, herring fishing has taken place out of Clovelly.

At the height of the herring trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, there were 100 boats based at the North Devon port, fishing for what were nicknamed 'Silver Darlings.'

In one year, 1814, more than 3.6 million herring were landed at Clovelly - quite a catch - and locals could buy five fish for a penny.

Virtually all the men in the village were employed in herring fishing right up until the 20th century.

Today, there are just two herring fishermen left in Clovelly - brothers Stephen and Tommy Perham, and once they retire, that will be the end of the trade which kept the village alive for centuries.

Stephen (left)

Stephen (left) with a catch of herring

Stephen, 44, is also the Clovelly harbourmaster, a post he took up in 2003. He and Tommy use traditional herring fishing methods on board 'Picarooners' - a boat which is unique to Clovelly.

"We are Clovelly born and bred," said Stephen. "We are fifth generation locals. My ancestors came to Clovelly in the 1830s, and they were all fishermen or master mariners.

"In the 1830s and '40s, the harbour would have been very busy. There would have been about 200 men from Clovelly working on the boats and many would have been herring fishermen."

The only problem with relying on herring for a living was they couldn't always be relied on.

Shoals were unpredictable, so a good year could easily be following by a bad one.

When times were good, they were very good. The 'Silver Darlings' would be measured by the 'maise,' which comprised 612 fish, and they'd be carried in two-handled baskets called mawns.

However, the real work of lugging the fish up the steep Clovelly hill was done by the Clovelly donkeys. On one day, a record 400 donkey loads were carried up to the top of the hill.

With so many men out at sea in small boats, tragedies were frequent. In 1821, a huge storm took the lives of 31 fishermen and in 1838, another 21 men died.

Donkeys with fish loads

Donkeys carried the baskets of fish up the hill

But it wasn't the weather or the unpredictability of the herring shoals which devastated the trade - it was the First World War.

"A lot of the men didn't come back," said Stephen. "So there were only 15 or 16 boats after the war, and that's how it remained until the 1950s and '60s.

"The final nail was when herring fishing was banned by the EEC in UK waters from 1976 to 1983, so all the fishermen had to pack up.

"Tommy and I were too young to learn herring fishing before the ban, and in the meantime our dad died. So we had to practice ourselves and we learned a lot by talking to some of the old herring fishermen.

"Then, when the ban was lifted, we started herring fishing. Tommy stopped for a while to go into building, but he has returned to his roots now, so to speak.

"We use the traditional, sustainable methods. We drift on the tide and we only catch what comes into the net. It's worked for over a thousand years, so there's no reason to stop using the method now.

"We go out in Picarooners, which were created here in Clovelly. They were made because they were quicker to get into the sea than the bigger boats.

"It meant the herring fishermen could respond more quickly whenever there was a shoal out there."

Herring is still much loved in kitchens in the Clovelly area, but there is no longer a market for the fish elsewhere: "The big markets like Brixham and Plymouth aren't interested in herring," said Stephen.


Picarooners lined up on the quay

"Yet herring is a lovely fish, tasty and full of omega 3, and you can fry it in seven minutes so you can have a nice tasty, healthy meal very quickly.

"We've had Rick Stein and Marco Pierre White here, pushing the virtues of herring, but basically, young families don't know how to cook fish and that's part of the problem which has affected the market.

"You can get £10 a stone up here, but you can't sell it at the big markets. It's viable because people come to the harbour and buy it off us, and I also deliver to my older customers' houses in Clovelly.

"That's lovely, going into their homes and having tea and biscuits with them."

Stephen has an exhibition at the second annual Clovelly Herring Festival, taking place on the quay on Sunday 16 November. The event is a celebration of Clovelly's herring history and it also promotes the local economy. There will be a demonstration of fishing skills and crafts.

It is organised by the private owners of Clovelly village, the Clovelly Estate Company.

For Stephen, it's one way of trying to keep the herring tradition alive in Clovelly - but he fears he and his brother could be the final herring fishermen in the village.

"There are still a few fishing boats in Clovelly, but Tommy and I are the only herring fishermen left here and I don't hold out much hope for our sons going into it.

"We know that herring fishing was taking place here in 1066, and we are pretty sure it goes back much further than that. Probably, as long as Clovelly has been here, there has been herring fishing here.

"But when we stop, that will be it - that will be the end of one thousand years of herring fishing in Clovelly."

*Find out more about the Clovelly Herring Festival at the Clovelly website which is linked from this page.

Archive photos on this page courtesy Clovelly Estate Company.

last updated: 05/11/2008 at 11:16
created: 04/11/2008

You are in: Devon > Places > Places features > Clovelly's 'Silver Darlings'

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