Beesands is a community steeped in fishing history and tradition. For at least eight centuries men and women have hauled fishing boats, nets and pots onto the beach.
The main catch from Beesands is now crabs and lobsters which are caught in the pots that you can see stacked up by the sheds and outside local houses. Fresh scallops are also collected by divers. In the past fishing in Beesands required the cooperation of the entire community. Until the early 19th century shoals of pilchard were a regular sight off this coast. Later on mullet was a main catch. The tradition of a look out watching for fish goes back to the 13th Century. Perched up on the cliff-top, the ‘hill man’ or ‘huer’ would alert the village and a boat was launched with a ‘seine net’ aboard. A rope attached to one end of the net was left on the beach and the boat rowed around the fish and back to the beach setting the net as it went. The two ends were hauled in by everyone available.
The seine netting process is still used today to catch sand eels which are used as bait for bass fishing. The nets were boiled up in a ‘copper’ with tree bark as protection from corrosive salt water and fish oil. Rope was dipped in tar and dried on the beach to preserve it.
Up until the last few years fishermen used to mark their secret prime fishing spots and safe routes through the surf by lining up distinctive landmarks such as trees, hedge lines or local buildings. ‘Two chapels’, where Kellaton and Hallsands chapels lined up, marked a patch of safer deep water over the Skerries sandbank where waves are less likely to break.
Even before modern GPS technology was used pots would be ‘shot’ into the grey clay bottomed pits in the Skerries with extraordinary accuracy. Generations of locals know that pots placed on the top of the banks will be buried and lost. Though the best fishing spots are still not revealed, today there is a designated ‘inshore potting’ which protects the pots from being trawled up.
Crabs used to be kept fresh in large underwater store pots tethered to the beach, then taken by horse and cart, and later lorry, to Kingsbridge Railway Station for the London or Birmingham markets. To keep them alive the crabs were packed in barrels covered with ferns and sacking. Sometimes a telegram from the fish merchant arrived in Beesands saying “Crabs arrived dead” and the fishermen would not be paid but had no way of knowing whether this was true or not! Better transportation and storage methods have gradually led to the catch going to more distant markets. Today crabs are still sold live.
Most of the catch goes to a processing factory in Paignton but crabs are also exported to France and Spain and as far away as China.
Crabbing happens in the Bay from May through to December. Hen crabs (females) can only be caught once their berries (eggs) have hatched and they measure 140mm across the shell. Cock crabs (males) have to be a minimum of 160mm. Start Bay crabs are famously the best and biggest in Britain, a good crab can reach 8lbs (3 ½ kilos)! The closed season for scallops (when they can’t be caught locally) includes July, August and September.
Smaller boats based at Beesands have always been prevented from setting out when strong easterly winds cause large waves to break square onto the beach. Today the commercial fishermen of Beesands can launch all year round by basing their boats in Dartmouth harbour (look out for the ‘DH’ registration or ‘SE’ if they’re from Salcombe). The introduction of powered winches in the 1960’s also allowed crews to handle longer ‘strings’ of pots.
Up until the mid 60s pots were made from willows grown at Beesands and Hallsands. The different types of willow were used for different parts of the pots. Nowadays pots are still assembled by fisherman locally but from kits of frames and synthetic netting. The ‘inkwell’ shaped pots are for crabs and the rectangular ‘parlour’ pots are for catching lobsters.
The distinctive rack at Beesands is for drying out conger eels used as bait for crabs and lobster. This preserves the eels – crabs like their bait fresh and would be put off by the smell of rotten fish.
A benevolent 19th century landowner (Lord Mildmay), realising that fishermen were reliant on favourable wind direction and weather to launch and return to the beach, donated Newfoundland dogs. These were trained to swim out through the surf to grab the rope in their teeth and bring it back to shore. This tradition survived into the 20th century.
Picture credits: many thanks to Alan Steer, Robert May and the Cookworthy Museum, Kingsbridge for the kind use of their pictures