Last of the line

Regula Ysewijn returns to the north Devon village of Clovelly for its annual Herring Festival and to watch Stephen Perham, its last herring fisherman, do the job that he loves.

Stephen Perham with his wife Joy James in his 16-foot wooden “Picarooner”.

When mild autumn days are over and cold weather is upon us, for a small historic fishing village in North Devon, that can only mean one thing: the Herring Festival is near. Held on the second Sunday of November, it’s now one of the most eagerly awaited events in Clovelly. There are stalls selling fresh herring to take home, herring rolled in oats and fried, smoked herring baguettes, deep-fried herring roe, and even a herring wood-fired pizza. There are demonstrations, exhibitions and traditional music and sea shanties too. It’s a great day out.

But in the past, Clovelly looked forward to the herring season for different reasons. The village once depended on the herring trade. Records show that 200 years ago there were 100 herring boats in the harbour, landing 9,000 “silver darlings” on a good day. But those days are long gone and today there are just a few fishermen around here who still go out for the herring, using sustainable fishing methods with drift nets.

All kinds of super-fresh seafood and entertainment at this year’s festival.
Freshly fried, battered, filleted herring baps and more exotic foodie fare.

One of them is Stephen Perham, the harbourmaster, a sixth-generation Clovelly fisherman – and the only one left who still lives in the village. His brother Tommy still fishes too, but he doesn’t live in Clovelly. Stephen lives in his grandmother’s house. His sister lives next door, in the house their father and mother lived and died in, like many generations before them. These houses are full of stories and ghosts of the past. Stephen’s family is with us, in pictures hanging on the walls, when we sit around his kitchen table, by the warming old Rayburn that’s drying both tea towels and the three dogs just in from the rain.

In fact, there are pictures of Stephen’s ancestors all over the house – and other long-gone locals too. I’m told that many of the old folk of the village left their family photos to him too when they died. When we visit the local pub, we see echoes of Stephen’s family history here too: the pictures on the wall of the snug bar tell the story of an older Clovelly; of fishermen gathering around the table smoking pipes; and of their beloved wooden boats, of which only a few still remain in the harbour. These “Picarooners” are unique to Clovelly, specially built to get out to sea as fast as possible when the herring arrive.

There are echoes of Stephen’s fishing ancestors all over his house and indeed the village – including the pub.

Meeting Stephen, it’s easy to understand why this festival isn’t just another food festival. It’s a celebration of tradition and heritage – his heritage. He himself even appeared on Clovelly souvenirs when he was a small lad. This proud and gentle-natured fisherman is now the last of the herring men of Clovelly: the keeper of hundreds of years of memories.

He knows all the local stories: where which boat got shipwrecked, and who survived or was lost to the sea. As harbourmaster, he knows where every local boat is at any given moment in the present too. He can read the waves, the sky, and the sound that the rain makes when it hits the water. And although it’s hard to sell herring these days – it’s now unjustifiably out of fashion – he continues to go out for herring, because it is what he loves to do. The fish he doesn’t sell, or eat himself, he salts down in barrels – a dozen of them – to use as bait for when he fishes for lobster and crabs in the summer.

It was his passion for herring – and the traditional methods of catching them – that made him think about ways to put this wonderful fish back on the map and on the menu. For him, the herring season is a celebration: it runs from Michaelmas to Christmas, so he sees it is as part of the build-up to the festive season, his favourite time of the year. He came up with the idea for the Clovelly Herring Festival with Bob Rouse and Sue Haworth, who both work for Clovelly Estate – the private organisation that owns the village – and Mike Smylie, a maritime historian and author. Mike has done a great deal for the fishing industry, recording its history and traditions. He and Stephen met when Radio 4 introduced them for a programme about Mike’s book, Herring: A History of the Silver Darlings, and they have been friends ever since.

The recent history of herring is a painful one: traditionally plentiful, stocks crashed due to over-fishing in the 1970s (as we’ve written about before). The subsequent ban on fishing for herring in 1976 caused the closure of the Celtic and North Sea fisheries and lasted until 1983.
Stephen and Tommy grew up during the herring ban, so his father taught them the tricks of the trade by drawing diagrams in the salt of the windows of his house. Sadly, he died a year before the ban was lifted.

Stephen and Joy, fishing for silver darlings.

The extraordinary thing about Stephen’s method of fishing is that so little has changed since his ancestors’ time. His boat is still the traditional, small 16ft wooden Picarooner: it’s painted white every year and finished off with a pretty red rim. The nets are the same design, although they are now made of nylon rather than cotton. What has changed, though, is the demand for this beautiful silver fish: the big markets such as Brixham and Plymouth just aren’t interested any more.

Stephen still fishes pretty much in the some way as his ancestors did for centuries.

Mike Smylie also comes down to the Herring Festival with his self-made herring smoker, which looks rather like an old outdoor loo. He believes that people went off smoked herring due to the usage of artificial dyes to speed up the smoking process of kippers during the Second World War. It’s also a sad fact that people have become so used to buying fish ready-filleted that they have lost the knowledge of how to bone it – or even how just to eat it straight from a hot pan, bones and all. Indeed, these little harmless bones provided people with much needed extra calcium in the past.

Mike Smylie’s portable herring smoker, aka the kipper house.

Rick Stein and Marco Pierre White have both come down to Clovelly in recent years to fight the herring’s corner. And it’s a fish worth standing up for. It’s so versatile; gorgeous fresh, but just as good smoked into kippers or cured into rollmops. It’s so good for us too: it’s packed with omega-3 fatty acids. It’s abundant once again, and now properly, sustainably managed. And by eating more of it, particularly the fish caught by the likes of Stephen, we’re supporting small-scale fishermen who take such great care to fish in a sustainable way.

Regula Ysewijn is a graphic designer turned food photographer and writer. She is the editor of the acclaimed blog Miss Foodwise where she celebrates her passion for British food and culture, and she has just finished her first book. All the pictures on this page are by her.

Herring Clovelly