LOCAL FISHING PRACTICES
Borth women of yesteryear were a hardy lot, especially those who gathered cockles and fished for shrimps. The shrimpers pushed their nets up and down Borth beach from Trwyn Cyntaf all the way to Ynyslas and around into the estuary. Sometimes the cockle women would carry a trident to stab for flounders or any other flatfish in the estuarine shallows. Around 1860, cockle lady Ann Hughes regularly trudged over the vast Dyfi estuarine sands.This lady reputedly carried a sixty pound sack filled with cockles on her back, from Traeth Maelgwyn to her tiny cottage which was somewhere opposite the house known today as Evelwen. Occasionally, weather permitting she and other cockle ladies would cook the shellfish on a driftwood fire at Ynyslas. By doing this and removing the shells it would lighten the load. Ann took the cooked cockles eight miles to Aberystwyth, to be sold for a penny a cup. With the money, Ann would sometimes buy three or four loaves of bread at Aberystwyth and on her return to Borth keep one for herself and sell the others. In a typical day she, like the other cockling ladies, would have walked a total of approximately twenty miles. Occasionally the women took the cockle bounty across on the ferry to sell in Aberdyfi and as far as Towyn. Possibly somewhere near Ann Hughes' cottage, under the stones, is a midden heap formed from the many cockle excursions she undertook. Her cottage may have been the earthwalled one seen in the background of the photograph titled Native Captains Borth. The following risque ditty concerning the cockle ladies was told to me by Mr and Mrs Davies of Dolclettwr Hall Farm:
Cocos a wyau Cockles and eggs
A bara ceirch tenau with thin oat bread
S’yn gwneud i hen ladi’s makes old ladies
Godi ei cynffonhau lift up their tails
An unpublished 1949 short story by A. E. Richards, Home For Good, is about such a cockle woman and her hard life, that includes a death at sea involving a wrecked Borth schooner. Borth native Anna Hubbard in her role as lifeboat crew member in the 1980s, dragnetter and a keen fisherwoman, has in a sense continued Borth womens traditional connections with the sea. Her daughter Sian was also a lifeboat crew member in the early 1990’s.
Rockpool fishing for lobster, crab and prawns is a long established practice at Borth. The small beach just before Trwyn Pellaf was the furthest point that Canon Llewelyn Jenkins went fishing. He was a keen crabber and he would often catch a substantial amount of these crustaceans on his fishing beat, mainly around Trwyn Canol (Middle Point). In the 1950s Canon Jenkins retired back to his native Borth and lived in Rock House. He was from a typical Borth farming/maritime background, whose family homes were Pengoitan Farm and Rock House. His father, master mariner John Jenkins, born 1843, and his mother Phoebe, born 1844, had five sons and one daughter who were all brought up at Rock House. The daughter Rebecca, married Captain David Davies who built No's 1&2 Bay Ridge on Cliff Road. During the building process the couple lived at Rebecca's home Rock House so as to be near the construction site. The eldest son Richard became a shipbroker at Liverpool and his brother David a ships engineer. The other three brothers, Thomas, John and Llewelyn had successful careers in the church. Canon Jenkins always wore his ecclesiastical apparel, that included a wide-brimmed hat that I and my boyhood friends were convinced was a cowboy’s hat. He looked as if he had just stepped out of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers as Septimus Harding. He obviously suffered with bad eyesight, as one lens of his spectacles was completely blacked-out and the other was so thick it enlarged his eyeball.
When I first met Canon Jenkins on fishing forays in the 1950s, I was a little frightened of this black-dressed man with his cyclopean eye, who prawned with an improbably clumsy-looking net, which was a museum piece even then. It was typical of a type made in Borth in the 1800s which has been described as “an enormous implement, about ten foot long, consisting mainly of a young ash tree and weighing umpteen pounds” (Beadnell, 1920). It was known in Welsh as a ciprhwyd, rhwyd meaning net, whilst cip comes from cipio which means to steal or snatch. This was the term also used to denote a larger, more egg-shaped net which was designed especially for lobster catching. Canon Jenkins’ net was made from a seven-foot-long forked bough which was stripped of its bark and long bleached by time. A ring of iron was attached to the forked end and the bag net was slung from this. The pole wood had not been dressed or smoothed, so it retained the contortions of natural growth and was thicker toward the base. The net pole’s twists and bends may have been selected so as to fit the user, just like a scythe handle. These archaic nets always looked heavy and awkward to me. It may even be unique to Borth, as the Aberystwyth Primitive's painting Aberystwyth Rocks circa 1850, shows a different design of circular hoop net with thin straight handles being used for rockpool fishing. A 1910 photograph shows a young A. E. Richards, with a rock fisherman from the Jenkins family of Pengoitan Farm, Borth, holding such a net. They are photographed outside the entrance to Twll Ladi Wen.
When I was about twelve, Canon Jenkins and I were comparing our respective catches at Trwyn Canol when he told that at my age he'd gone fishing with his uncle on a particular day, in the previous century, when there had been a phenomenal spring tide. This was reported in the Cambrian News by my great grandfather David Davies, Balmoral House who accompanied them. Amazingly they were able to walk from Trwyn Pellaf around to Aberwennol Bay along the exposed sand outside the rock-shelf. They had literally picked up a dozen or so lobsters, which seemed equally surprised by the freakish low tide. The Canon wistfully remembered seeing their long red feelers peeking out from under boulders and out of crevices (Jenkins, pers. comm. 1956). Needless to say that this story fired my imagination. For years afterwards I dreamt in vain of such a tide, where lobsters were plentiful and easily accessible.
From early spring through to autumn many different types of prawn arrive in waves to the coastal rockpools at Borth. Trwyn Pellaf in particular has always attracted them, and being within sight of the village was the furthest point that a youngster was first allowed to fish alone. I recall innumerable occasions when I would watch Jac Richards fish one of his favourite spots, which is the boulder on the sand by this headland. He had an uncanny knack of knowing when the first prawns of the season were present. He maintained that one should fish after the first two calm days in March so as to catch the newly arrived red/brown type of prawn that he referred to as the "big mahogany ones".The favourite prawning location of the ‘Shami’ Davies family, Jack and sons Glyn and Ronnie, was around the two large weed-wigged boulders on the northern side of Aberwennol bay. Others I remember were Dic Hughes, a Trywn Pellaf only prawner, Clifford Jones, who went no further than Carreg Mulfran and Aran Morris who always went as far as Carreg Fach, near Wallog, in search of his main quarry, the lobster .
My late uncle, David Davies, recalled that among many of the rock fishermen were retired sea captains. As a boy he remembered them as being silent and almost sullen in this pursuit, affected no doubt by a strict allocation of fishing areas - to encroach on another’s territory was a serious breach of etiquette. The mens’ wives would often be encouraged to exaggerate their spouse’s catch just to raise the ire of the other fishermen (D. Davies, pers. comm. 2001). Now the number of knowledgeable native pursuers of prawn and lobster by hand-net and hook has dwindled to just a few. To the north of Craig y Delyn, set high in the cliff face is a row of white stones called Cerrig Gwynion. Few realise that they have been used for centuries as markers to locate fruitful lobster holes on the rock shelves below. At Trywn Pellaf there are pools named after the men who favoured them such as Pwll Tom Hughes and Pwll Dai Dafis. The latter was named after my great grandfather, who was fishing it around 1870. The former pool was named after Thomas Hughes who lived with his widowed mother at what was in my youth Castle Stores. Georgie Dutton, a local character who had once owned the fishing boats Lizzie and The Fisher, was a keen prawner. Even in old age he would leap into the deep pool at the outer edge of Trwyn Canol, so as to pre-soak himself, declaring "All Sir Garnet" as the cold water enveloped him. Sir Garnet was a very successful soldier at the end of the 19th century and the term "All Sir Garnet" meant all would go well.
Apart from using a net and hook to catch the wily lobster, in ancient times a lobster trap was constructed from a suitable piece of blackthorn cut from a hedgerow. A piece of the main branch at the thick end was cleaned so that a rope could be attached to it. The end of the bush was tied together to form a squat broom-like shape. A hole was driven from the thick end into the middle of the bush. A stone for weight was inserted, and having passed the springy thorns was unable to slip out. Bait was likewise driven into the same tunnel. The entrance passageway was carefully lined with scrap wool gathered from hedgerows. The end result was a wool-lined passageway leading deep into the centre of the blackthorn trap. This was lowered into a pool or gully at low water so it could be fished tidally or if one had access to a boat, dropped off at a suitable location. The lobster was not caught on the thorns, but on the wool strands that became entangled around the many protrusions on its carapace and the joints of its claws and legs.
There is perhaps only one form of fishing that requires no specialist knowledge, equipment or great skill, and that is sprat catching in the autumn. Great shoals of sprats gather in the shallows at Borth beach which can be seen from Rhiw Fawr as an undulating mass from Trwyn Cyntaf to Ynylsas. They are so numerous that they can be sometimes caught with a bucket at the sea edge. Another way to catch them is at night with a ground swell running. Ideal conditions are around high tide, directly on the sea side of Morfa Borth. All one needs is a torch if there is no moonlight. The procedure is that after each wave any sprats that are cast up on the shingle can be quickly picked up before the next one arrives. I recall the great fun I had in the company of the Davies boys of Elidir, when an evenings sprat catching would inevitably finish with some of us with shoes full of water. On some nights one could catch a bucketfull. The sprats were dredged in flour and fried, or baked in a pan, providing a delicious meal.
Dragnetting is another local fishing method that has a long history. The practice was handed down to the younger generation when they started as the inside net puller. Jac Richards first began netting with Twm Hughes of Castle Stores, when he was about ten. Twm used to call at Jac's mother’s house, much to her disapproval, and tap on the kitchen window calling to him in Welsh, “Come on, I can hear the fish singing. They want us to catch them.” The enticement of the term ‘singing fish’ denotes the use of a device to pre-empt the hardships involved in this fishing method. Twm was always debonair, and even when netting he wore, of all things, a three piece suit. This much used suit was so stiff with salt that he had to bang it with a stick prior to putting it on. Over all this he wore an overcoat and a sou’wester on his head (M. Brown, pers. comm. 2003).
Thomas Rowley Morris of Gleanor House recalled that in 1898 he and David Davies of Balmoral Cottage, were dragnetting and decided, even though the tide was almost touching Trwyn Canol to go further and have one last big sweep of the beach area just before Trwyn Pellaf. Half way through this procedure they realised that they were now being rapidly cut off by the sea, so they dragged the net up over the rocks as they knew there was quite a shoal of fish trapped. As Mr Morris related many escaped as the net was being torn on the rocks but the eventual catch was 83 fine sewin. By the time the net was wrapped up the sea was well in and they had to hasten under the cliffs so as to get back to the Slip (T.R. Morris, pers comm, 1963). Mr Morris’ son Aran, recalls with affection the old mariner John Robert Jones who lived at Inman Cottage. It was from him that Aran and friends always borrowed a dragnet, inevitably with the same parting proviso, “Byddwch yn ofalus, myndiwch yr hen boncyffion sydd ar yr trath"..." be careful, and mind the old tree stumps on the beach" (A. Morris, pers. comm, 2003). He was of course alluding to the remains of the sunken forest.
Many who had left the village to pursue careers elsewhere would often, on summer visits to their family, immediately set out on one of these fishing forays. No doubt many of those returning natives were re-acquainting themselves with childhood in the context of a beloved place, despite travels or settlement elsewhere. I always knew Glyn Davies was home in summer when I could see two figures drag-netting in the half light of dawn. He and his father Jack ‘Shami’ Davies would net from the north end all the way to Trwyn Cyntaf and finish at Pwll y Mor, just as it was beginning to fill with the incoming tide. Glyn’s brother Ronnie still has the dragnet poles that his family have used for over a hundred years. This family's forebears lived at today’s Westward Ho, and can be seen in a photograph where they are grouped on the beach around their boat, the Neena. As a youngster living at White Lion Place, Ronnie would sleep downstairs so as not to miss out on going dragnetting. He was ‘bag boy’, and often struggled to carry home the fish filled hessian sack . The catch was varied; skate, thornback ray, blonde ray, turbot, plaice, sole, bass, mullet and sewin. The rays would be cut up on the beach to lighten the load. The skate ‘wings’ were usually nailed to a shed door or fence so as to facilitate their skinning a day or so later. A bag boy was always cursed by the net pullers if he waded out in the shallows to assess the catch before they did. Plaice up to five pounds and turbot up to twelve pounds in weight were regularly caught up to the 1970s. Ronnie recalls his father telling him that as a boy he would go with family members to the sand dunes if fishing was poor to set up the net into which the plentiful rabbits there would be driven. This alternative to fishing would be aided by a resourceful whippet named Rosa (R. Davies, pers. comm, 2003).
I, like many others, began my drag-netting ‘career’ under the tutelage of Bill Edwards. I fished mainly with his sons, Thomas James, David, Michael and Gwilym; the latter as bag boy. The standard clothing for this form of fishing in those days was layers of old coats to keep out the cold. For the outside puller, in deeper water, a flat cap worn backwards was essential to avoid a wavetop sending a flush of cold water down one’s neck and back. Fishing was done mainly in the dark and I remember on my first forays imagining that the occasional slippery clay patches that I suddenly trod on were huge stingrays, resulting in me instinctively jumping up on the pole. Bill Edwards conducted fishing ‘business’ from the Railway Inn where he would be mesmerising visitors with tales of his ‘trawlers’ full of large catches. The usual fishing procedure was to begin dragnetting southwards from opposite the Golf Club. Inevitably when we had reached the back of the village after several pulls there came the sound of Bill Edwards scrambling down the shingle bank onto the beach. As usual he was exhorting us to go out further. The air would be blue with one of the Edwards boys up to his neck in water telling his father to “bugger off back to the pub” and that he was “out as far as he could go without drowning”. Gwilym, as bagboy, was instructed by his father to come round the back of the pub with anything that was caught. Fish other than flatfish or skate were presented in a basket with cabbage leaves and parsley where often mullet would be masquerading as sewin with Bill spinning some improbable yarn to the gullible about them being a strain of local sea trout.
Unwittingly Bill was an environmentally friendly fisherman as there was usually enough holes in the net for a pod of dolphins to pass through and the net poles were like pit props making them difficult to grasp. After four of five hours of hard slog, with only a reasonable amount of fish and having redistributed a ton of seaweed along the beach we’d be given a lecture on our return to headquarters at the Edwards cottage about not going out far enough. To which in high dudgeon, Thomas James the eldest son once replied “I was so far out I started developing an Irish accent”. Our clothes would be dumped along the old stone wall to be used again, without washing of course. We stood naked and shivering in the early hours of the morning throwing buckets of warm soapy water over each other. Thankfully Mrs. Edwards would make a massive pot of tea to warm us up. On the way home smelling like a Grimsby trawler one questioned the sanity of it all. Nevertheless like many others I eventually got my own net and enjoyed many a fruitful nights fishing dragging the gravelly bank opposite Wesley Chapel with Jack Evans or Michael Pugh. A later development was using a boat. Alun Evans and I would shoot the net from the stern of our boat Glas y Dorlan, an 18ft dory, that was ideal to use in the surf which was an improvement on the wet and miserable conditions endured previously.
Dragnetting is still popular and this ancient fishing method can be seen in the right hand foreground of the illustration Barred Havon which is a view of Aberystwyth and its fleet of sloops. Dragnetting has also been commemorated in a Medieval Welsh poem:
For the seas have I been accustomed
I will walk by sea and river
along the strand with my circled net.
(Maredudd ap Rhys, 1430-60)