Everyone in Bideford will have watched the shipping on the quay but I wonder who knows what history lies in the collection of ‘old wrecks’ on the other side.
Walking downstream along the waterfront on the East side, after passing the Kathleen and May you can see a beautifully converted oil tanker and a baby coaster (look for the yellow funnel) lying up at rest. The coaster, the John Adams, was owned by Captain Peter Herbert, who had been around the world by the time he was 17 and famously brought a 90 footer in over the bar single- handed in a force 10 with a broken leg. The John Adams was passed on to Long John Vicary, whose 6’7” figure in piratical thigh boots was to be seen in Bideford for many years, hurling scrap metal around in his tidal scrap yard or the bottom of the river bed. Sadly, Long John went down to Davy Jones locker last year to join the other good seamen there. He then passed the boat on to Cecilia Vaughan, long term resident of the river bank, who aims to turn in into a museum of local seafaring people; it would be a great loss if the Peter Herberts, John Vicaries and Tommy Ryans of this world were to be forgotten.
Continuing along down the bank, you can catch a glimpse of the “Two Sisters” nestled in the mud, a barge identifiable by her upright stem. Sadly she is unlikely ever to float again, unless one of you reading this article fancies doing a rescue job. The “Marie” – one of our oldest sailing barges – almost unidentifiable now, but you can just discern her 54-foot bulwarks rising from the mud. She will be there till the end of time.
Just past the end of Ethelwynne Brown Close – on the Tarka trail now – you will find Tommy Ryan’s ex-coal-barge, now converted into a houseboat. Mr Ryan first used her as a trawler while he lived in her – the other fishermen used to joke that he was the only one who could run a trawl net from his “kitchen balcony”. Look for the stained glass window of a mermaid in the door.
Further down, where the little cliff runs down to the shingle beaches, you can see the skeletons of three of the old coal barges like beached whale ribs, made hard as iron by the salt. Although some of these were over 70 feet, in the day when sail first gave way to power they were installed with engines of a mere 9 horsepower. This was considered easily adequate then. Indeed, it is only in the last couple of decades that the fishing boats opposite put a nought on their horsepower levels.
And while you’re down there, if there’s been an Easterly blowing on a big tide, don’t miss the collection of buoys and floats that usually wash up, sometimes from as far as Spain. They make lovely garden ornaments – give your place a nautical slant!