Fishing has always been the most important part of Brixham life, and even as far back as the Middle Ages it was the largest fishing port in South-West England, but by the 19th century the port was so influential that it became a victim of its own success.
Up until then, deep sea fishing had largely been done by long lining which, as its name suggests was a technique that used hundreds, if not thousands, of baited hooks. Although trawls had already been invented, a much better system was developed by Brixham boat builders and fishermen that allowed trawls to be towed from beams that not only caught more fish but could also do so in all kinds of weather.
These boats with their tall gaff rig had sails which were treated with a local red ochre dye to make them more durable, and a design that made them both fast and strong. Only a small number of these boats have survived, but six of them have been restored and at least two or three can usually be seen alongside the pontoon next to the Prince William pub on the far side of the harbour.
There were in excess of 200 of these boats that sailed from the harbour to places as far away as the North Sea, where demersal fish such as plaice, haddock, and cod were much more plentiful. To begin with they returned to Brixham with their catch but as time went on, they started to put down roots in places like Hull, Grimsby, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, and it wasn’t long before these ports became much bigger than Brixham itself.
Since those days, Brixham has fared somewhat better than the North Sea ports, and even though the industry isn’t quite what it once was, there are still a hundred or so boats that operate out of the port. The trawlers are far more sophisticated now of course and the old quay on the harbourside was replaced several years ago with a modern facility to handle the catch, which was great news for the town, but not such great news for the general public who were prohibited from entering the area thanks to ‘Health and Safety’ regulations.
There is however, a viewing platform that overlooks the new fish quay, which if you don’t mind clambering up some steps, offers some pretty decent views. The number of trawlers in port will obviously vary depending on the situation: It goes without saying that there are more boats in port when the weather is rough out at sea.
The Health and Safety police have also managed to scupper the annual Trawler Race, which until 2019, raised tens of thousands of pounds for local charities, as well as being a fun day out for the fishermen and their families – and everyone else for that matter.
Last year alone, £24,000 was raised, and when you consider the risks fishermen take on a daily basis, it makes you wonder why somebody in an office somewhere deems that it’s too dangerous for fishermen to let their hair down one day a year. Even though the day is a riot of colour and noise with more beer on board than fish, it was always well organised and the skippers of the boats always waited until after the race before heading for the Sprat and Mackerel or one of the other pubs in town.
Below is a selection of pictures from the Trawler Race a few years ago.
If you don’t mind getting up early you can visit a fish auction on certain days of the year. There used to be only a handful of opportunities, but there are quite a few more these days, and in my opinion are well worth doing.
There were no tours in 2020 due to Covid 19, but the previous year it cost £15 for the privilege, which includes a cooked breakfast after the tour with all proceeds going to the Fishermen’s Mission, which as I found out on the day I took the tour, is a very worthwhile cause.
The day before I went, a Brixham trawler had sunk off of Berry Head. On board were three fishermen – two were saved, but the captain was still missing and the lifeboat and other vessels were still searching the wreck area.
Under the circumstances, the auction was bound to be tinged with an air of sadness, but it was also heartwarming to see how the local community rallied round. The trawlermen donated their day’s catch for nothing and the buyers paid highly inflated prices for it.
The Captain’s body was found some time later, and the Fishermen’s Mission was on hand to help look after the bereaved family. Unfortunately, they have to do this far too often. Even as I’m writing this update, two more Brixham fishermen have been lost at sea within the last few weeks.
The worst tragedy to hit Brixham wasn’t out at sea, but in Oxen Cove right next to the fish market. The prevailing winds in this part of the world are south-westerlies, and boats often take shelter in the bay, but on the night of January 10th 1866 the gale changed direction. Over 40 boats around the bay were wrecked and more than a hundred lives were lost, many of them in Oxen Cove.
Much of Brixham’s fish is exported, but there are any number of places that serve up a variety of fish that doesn’t come any fresher or tastier – but perhaps it’s worth remembering as you pay the bill – what the true cost of fish really is.
ORIGINAL POST – MAY 2018
LATEST UPDATE – DECEMBER 2020