In the stunning Devon village of Clovelly lives Joy James, singer in the Fishwives Choir, lifeboat volunteer, trainee doctor and wife of Stephen, a sixth generation fisherman and the last here to use traditional methods. When Regula Ysewijn met her last year, she discovered a fascinating tale of everyday courage, dedication and pride.
Fishing villages don’t come much prettier than Clovelly. Surrounded by woodland along a rocky cleft on a steep hillside, its cobbled High Street, built from pebbles hauled up from the beach, drops and winds down to a neat little harbour. It’s so precipitous, there’s never been any wheeled transport here: loads have always been carried up and down on sleds, traditionally pulled by donkeys.
The quaint, listed houses are privately owned by a single family, and have passed through the hands of just three families since the Norman Conquest. Not surprisingly it’s a major tourist attractions, and it’s the only village I’ve ever come across that visitors have to pay just to get into.
Yet it still has a life of its own – and a fishing life at that, although the days when it was a bustling herring and mackerel port are long gone. It’s home to Joy James, who is proud to call herself a fishwife, partly because she sings in the Fishwives Choir, which we’ve written about before, but particularly because she’s married to Clovelly fisherman and harbour master Stephen. “I call myself a fishwife, and for all the worry Stephen brings me, I’d not change it for the world,” she says. “I am so very proud of all he does.”
Currently studying to be a doctor, Joy takes every opportunity to go fishing with Stephen and enjoys cooking up the catch. She is a courageous RNLI lifeboat crew member too. I first met her on a rather chilly summer’s day. I had been watching her and Stephen from my hotel window, early in the morning far out at sea in their little rowing boat. When they came into the harbour with their catch of mackerel, we got chatting – and we’ve been talking online ever since. I’m intrigued by her life by the sea and the way that all fishwives live with their husband’s occupation, which is one of the most dangerous jobs there is.
When I started writing for Fish on Friday, it struck me that I wanted to find out and tell Joy’s story; to learn more about her fishing community; and, particularly, how she lives with this constant worry. Is the sea in a fishwife’s veins as much as it is in her husband’s?
Joy, did you grow up by the sea – and do you feel drawn to it?
I didn’t grow up in Clovelly, I grew up in another North Devon coastal village 30 miles away, called Combe Martin. I moved to Clovelly about six years ago. Having always lived by the sea, it plays a special part in my life.
I think once you are fortunate enough to be near the sea for a time, you will always be drawn back to it. I joined the Clovelly lifeboat crew as soon as I was able to and would cadge the occasional trip in other people’s boats just to get out on to the waves.
I was always aware of the fishermen working from the harbour, though I didn’t know them until a few years later when Stephen and I started our relationship. I knew that they worked long hard days but it was only after moving down to the harbour and getting to know Stephen better that I began to understand just how hard and dangerous it can be. A fisherman’s work is dictated by weather and tide, meaning that there are many very early mornings and making plans can be difficult!
How dangerous is fishing today?
It’s the most dangerous job in peacetime [fishermen are 115 times more likely to suffer a fatal accident than the rest of the workforce, according to the Fishermen’s Mission]. Naturally, I worry a lot about Stephen when he’s out, especially when the wind freshens. He is sensible and hugely knowledgeable about our coastline, with a whole lifetime of experience, but still I worry! It only takes one moment for terrible things to happen.
Every fisherman I know can tell you of people they knew who have been lost to the sea. Because of this first-hand understanding of the dangers of fishing, I joined the Fishwives Choir and we recorded a single to raise money for the Fishermen’s Mission. They are invaluable in helping fishermen and their families. The support they provide, both emotional and financial, for the families of fishermen who have been injured or died is absolutely essential. It was a wonderful experience to meet so many other women who go through the same things that I do as the partner of a fisherman.
How much did the storms of the past winter affect your family and the fishing families around you?
This winter was particularly stormy and many fishermen lost gear and were unable to head to sea. No fishing means no income, and so people can be pushed into dangerous situations, heading out when they probably shouldn’t because they can’t see any choice.
The Fishermen’s Mission were able to provide some grants to help tide people over who were in need, and to help replace damaged and lost gear. Without their help, I suspect many of the fishermen might have put themselves into even more danger than normal to pay the bills.
The fishermen I know, while having a healthy respect for the sea, don’t seem to consider it a dangerous place. In Stephen’s case, it’s what he’s always known – it’s his comfort zone!
Having said that, the fishermen look out for one another, and they do worry about those who do the job without much experience. At any given moment, Stephen can tell me who is at sea, which direction they went and how long they’ve been out.
How often do you go out on the boat with Stephen?
Whenever I can when I’m not away studying: the coastline that he fishes is stunningly beautiful and I enjoy it from that respect. I also love being able to help him, even if it’s just baiting the lobster pots or picking out the nets. Stephen is the sixth generation of his family to fish from Clovelly, and the last Clovelly fisherman to catch herring in the traditional sustainable way: in drift nets, using only sail or oars for propulsion. He has a boat called a Picarooner (pictured above). It’s a traditional Clovelly herring boat, the only one left in the harbour, of a type that was used in the days when 100 boats fished for herring from here. It was small and fast so was able to reach the shoals before the larger boats.
I consider helping him an honour. I will qualify as a doctor in two years’ time, but I’ll go to sea with Stephen on my days off for as long as he continues to fish. I am hugely proud of him and supporting him is very important to me.
What does Stephen fish for?
Stephen fishes for lobster in the summer, mackerel if they make an appearance (some years they don’t come in) and herring from Michaelmas to Christmas. He hasn’t missed a single herring season in 31 years, ever since the herring ban was lifted. While the ban was still in place, Stephen’s father taught him the marks and techniques by drawing in the salt on the windows of their house.
The herring fishery in Clovelly is much reduced now. Stephen is the only fisherman using the old methods and the only one who sells his catch. That which can’t be sold is salted down for bait for the lobster pots. Though the herring are in bountiful supply, the market for them has also decreased. It’s one of the healthiest fish you can eat, and delicious too, but so few people know how to prepare or cook fresh fish nowadays.
However, this year may well herald the end of hundreds of years of herring fishing in Clovelly. There is a proposed EU-wide ban on drift netting, which may come into effect next year. It’s designed to reduce tuna by-catch in the Mediterranean – but there is no tuna caught here! If it goes through as planned, it would mean a blanket ban on all drift netting. [For more on this, click here.] It would be a tragedy for so many years of traditional, sustainable fishing to be destroyed by such a cumbersome bit of legislation, not least because future generations would never get to taste the wonder of a sweet Clovelly herring!
I love to eat the fish that Stephen brings home. It’s the freshest and tastiest you can find. If you think you don’t like fish, try buying some straight from a fisherman. You’ll find it’s so much nicer and you’ll also be supporting the people who work night and day, rain or shine, for limited money in dangerous conditions, just to put it on to your plate.
This piece was first published in July 2014. Joy James is still crewing on the Clovelly Lifeboat, but is taking a break from singing with the Fishwives Choir, while she commits to her fifth and final year studying medicine. The proposed drift net ban is still in discussion.
Regula Ysewijn is a graphic designer turned food photographer and writer. She is the editor of the acclaimed blog Miss Foodwise where she celebrates her passion for British food and culture, and she has just finished her first book. All the pictures on this page are by her.
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