The following watercolours are examples from the set “Working Sail in the Bristol Channel”. There are fifteen paintings in the set.
Signed, limited edition prints are available of the whole set and they are also available in a hand-bound, signed, limited edition set with historical notes.
If you would like more information on any of these prints please contact me using the form at the bottom of this page.
By the end of the nineteenth century the ketch had become the general workhorse of coastal deliveries, as ubiquitous as the Transit van in the late twentieth. Needing a minimum of crew to work the simple rig , and with minimal running costs, these vessels managed to hold their own for over fifty years against the onslaught of steam and then motor coasters. Unlike the modern mass produced forms of transport however, each vessel was unique and to most modern eyes, beautiful.
This painting shows the ketch Sunshine, slightly astern of the Fanny Jane as they approach the mouth of the River Parrett off Burnham-on-Sea. Sunshine was built in 1900 by Charles Burt in Falmouth for Captain Nurse of Bridgwater and was later owned by Captain Screech in Appledore. She was rated “The best and fastest ketch on the three channels” by William Slade, another Appledore ship master. Fanny Jane was built in 1858 in Bridgewater and when new, was in the Irish brick trade. She was the last vessel to sail from Bridgwater without power. After a long working life under sail, Fanny Jane’s masts were removed and she was used as a barge to carry grain from Avonmouth to the flour mills in Gloucester. My own barge, Glevum, was built as her replacement in 1955, by Charles Hill and Sons in the Albion Dockyard in Bristol.
With the weather deteriorating, the tops’l schooner ‘Rhoda Mary’ runs for shelter in Barry Harbour. The development of this useful, deepwater harbour was not begun until the 1880s and it was built for coal export. So successful was it in this respect, that it went from a small fishing village to the largest coal port in the world in eleven years and a prosperous Victorian ‘newtown’ was built to house the workers. Its accessiblity at any state of the tide soon brought many other maritime activites and cargoes. Even before their amalgamation in 1921, many of the Bristol Channel pilots found it a convenient base, and it has remained the center for Bristol Channel pilotage to this day.
The ‘Rhoda Mary’ was a 130 ton schooner built in Falmouth in 1868. Originally two masted, she would have sported a single tops’l, t’gallant and stuns’ls, as she was built as a fast fruit schooner. This trade was triangular, with vessels carrying salt from Britain to Newfoundland for the preservation of cod. Salted cod, “stockfish” was carried from there to the Mediterranean and fruit loaded for the return to Britain. On the last leg in particular, speed was of the essence to deliver the fruit in good condition. Eventually, as steamships took over the fruit trade, ‘Rhoda Mary’, like many of her sisters, was re-rigged as a three masted schooner and went into general trade. This enabled her to be sailed by a smaller crew and thus, still compete for cargoes with the “steam kettles”. But she never lost her reputation of being one of the fastest ships in the coastal trade.
The humble trow was the general workhorse of the Severn, Wye and Bristol Channel. The name originates from the Saxon trow (to rhyme with crow) meaning trough. The older vessels were little more than floating troughs. In spite of being practical, rather than beautiful, these little vessels were perfectly suited to the conditions in which they worked and were not surpassed in all the years of working sail. As most trows had an open hold, there were detachable rails along the side on which canvas sidecloths could be spread to keep out the worst of the seas. It is generally accepted that this limited the trows to an working area north and east of Bridgwater Bay, but if the weather was settled, an adventurous captain might take his vessel further. There are even photographs of trows in the harbours of North Cornwall.
Many trows were still working up until the second world war. They were often used to deliver stone from the quarries to the contractors building and improving the sea walls that were so crucial to low lying areas of Somerset and Monmouth. This painting was inspired by a description, in “Last Days of the Sailing Coasters” by Edmund Eglington, of trows delivering stone to the River Yeo where his father had the contract to build the walls. The trow could only reach it berth on spring tides and I have shown her, not long after dawn, ghosting up the river on last of the flood, with the morning sun burning off the sea mist.
The lives of the gravel bargemen of the Taw and Torridge Estuary were as tough as any in the shipping world. A gravel barge, with a crew of two men, would be sailed into the estuary and, as the tide went out, it would be left grounded on a sand or gravel bank. It was then the task of the two man crew to fill the barge with sand or gravel. This was done using long handled shovels to throw twenty five or thirty tons over the side and into the barge. When the task was done the tide would lift the vessel off and it would be sailed back to Appledore to transfer the aggregate to the ketches and schooners that would take it “upalong” for use in construction. The harbour works in Newport, Lydney, Avonmouth and Bristol were all built from this material, and virtually all the aggregate used by the construction industry in the area, was from the Torridge and Taw. This trade continued until the mechanisation of sand and gravel dredging in the twentieth century. As most of the gravel barges were owned by local publicans, after the men had collected their meagre pay, the chances were that much of it would return to the landlords till.
Because of the weather, the barge is not fully loaded, but the squall still presents a serious threat to this deep laden little vessel with her open hold. As she is already fully reefed down, the hand is scandalising the mainsail to prevent her heeling any more. The squall has also carried away the topsail sheet of the inbound schooner and two hands are hastening aloft to rectify the situation.
Until the latter part of the nineteenth century these tough, and somewhat primitive vessels formed the backbone of the trading fleets belonging to the so called “Bar Ports”, Appledore, Bideford, Barnstaple and Braunton. The term “muffy” was a local contraction of the more correct classification of hermaphrodite brig, also known as a ‘poleacre brig’ because of the single pole construction of the foremast. This rig was ideally suited to the local conditions as it allowed these vessels to easily work back and forth across the Taw and Torridge Estuary. With no doubling on the foremast, the foretops’l could be lowered and raised in an instant, this allowed them to back and fill and criss-cross the estuary whilst the tide carried them in or out, regardless of contrary winds. This practice called for exemplary seamanship and was considered amongst the greatest of a captain’s skills.
By far the most frequent cargo was limestone, so they had to be sturdily built, it was loaded from quarries in South Wales and carried to the lime kilns that dotted the coastlines of Somerset, North Devon and Cornwall that burnt lime to produce fertiliser. Much of this trade involved loading and unloading directly from open beaches. Few vessels can have had more nicknames as, thanks to the latter trade, they were often referred to as “limestone hacks”.
Off Hartland Point, an everyday scene is taking place. The inbound barque is squaring away, having picked up the pilot and the boy is sculling back to the skiff. The skiff itself is turning hard a’starboard to come up into the wind and heave to, so as to recover the punt. If two pilots were on station, a race would take place to be the first get their pilot aboard and whoever got there first, got the job.
The Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter is possibly the most iconic of all westcountry sailing vessels. Their reputation as sturdy, well found little ships, that could take anything the Atlantic could throw at them, meant that when the Pilot Service amalgamated in 1921 and the cutters were retired, many were bought up by yachtsmen and a remarkable number are still sailing today. Possibly the most famous were the pilot cutters belonging to the explorer Bill Tilman whose vessels, ‘Mischief’, ‘Sea Breeze’ and ‘Baroque’ took him many times around the world and far into the Arctic and Antarctic, exploring and climbing mountains, usually being the first to do so. One mountain was named Mischief after his boat.
Such are the qualities of these ships that many replicas are still built for people who recoginise that there are some designs that were brought to such a state of perfection, that even modern design and technology cannot improve on them.
The fierce tides of the Bristol Channel tested the seamen who plied its waters to their limits. From the racing currents of the Shoots, a narrow channel through rocks (below the Second Severn Crossing) where, on an ebb tide, the turbulent water eddies between the close girt rocks in a terrifying maelstrom, to the frustratingly frequent occurrence, in the prevailing south-westerlies, of the wind and tide cancelling each other out and leaving a sailing vessel drifting, unable to steer. Few of these problems were insurmountable, and the ever resourceful seamen had many tricks up their sleeve. If a trow had to pass up through the Shoots on a flood tide with a following wind, either the boy would be sent off in the boat with a rope from the bowsprit, tied to the thwart to drag the ship from side to side and avoid the rocks. Another method was to hang a ‘pig’ from the bows. This consisted of a heavy iron ball on a chain. This would be allowed to drag along the bottom and would bring the vessel’s head to the tide slowing her down enough for the rudder to bite and allow some steerage from side to side. But it would also give rise to the peculiar sight of ships sailing backwards. One thing that no man could defeat however, was that the tides would run so fast that, when they turned against you, the only option was to anchor until the tide turned in your favour. This must have been exceedingly frustrating for men who were paid by the voyage rather than by the day. Nonetheless, as they worked long hours, with constantly broken sleep, in the most arduous of situations, the enforced rest must occasionally have been a welcome chance to recuperate.