The Revival of Porlock Oyster Farming
Oyster farming in Porlock Weir, off the coast of Somerset, has a rich and sometimes tragic history, and has been revived in recent years in a bid to bring jobs and tourism to the little waterfront village. Rachel Phipps tells the story of Porlock’s oyster fishery.
In the early 1800s, a chance discovery that the waters local fisherman passed through in order to dredge off the Welsh coast were rich with Pacific oysters led the Porlock to establish what quickly became a thriving local bivalve trade. Yet by the end of the century, the industry was dead.
However, in 2013 a project that stemmed from a meeting of the local parish council led to a renaissance. The local community came together to take an industry that had contributed to, first the rise, and then the subsequent decline of local fortunes and brought it back to life – bringing local employment and tourism opportunities to Porlock Weir.
A 1946 interview published in the Somerset Times with one William Pollard tells the story of how his uncle John decided to drop his dredge on the way home one day and found it full of oysters, kickstarting Porlock’s burgeoning oyster industry that saw rapid growth, as the oysters quickly became known for their fresh, clean taste. A dedicated train line was opened in 1874 to ferry spanking, fresh bivalves up to London’s restaurants, and the local community reaped the benefits of increased trade and employment opportunities with around 1,200 oysters being caught every day.
However, within 20 years all the oysters were gone. The oyster industry up and down the British coast was experiencing a marked decline which took oysters from an everyday ingredient to a luxury indulgence. The rise in pollutants and human waste being introduced into the water by new drainage systems, and the rise of diseases introduced by imported stock, had hit the long-established oyster industries in Whistable and Colchester hard. The industry in nearby Faversham had already been killed off by the local paper mill. This prompted east coast fishermen to cross the country to dredge the Bristol channel instead, desperately trying to supplement their own dwindling supply. They stripped the beds clean, and oyster farming off the Somerset coast collapsed almost overnight with a massive impact on the local fishing community, suddenly without a source of income on which many had come to rely.
Porlock Bay Oysters started as a Community Interest Company in 2013. Porlock parish council were searching for ideas to boost tourism to Porlock – now a very pretty, very rural village on the Somerset Coast just north of Exmoor National Park – to create half a dozen local jobs, and to create an income for the local community. Working with a team of volunteers in April 2014, trials began to see if oysters could be reintroduced at Porlock. Some attempts had been made to revive the industry at the time of its collapse but with no lasting success, and while the community group endured an unsuccessful attempt to introduce mussels into the Weir (they rapidly became dinner for the local seagulls and starfish!), the waters off this section of the Somerset coast have all the conditions required to cultivate a really good oyster. They were soon enjoying a stellar harvest with a remarkably low mortality rate.
Porlock is home to very cold, certified, Grade A waters (one of only three sites in England and Wales who have been awarded this classification by the Food Standards Agency) and also boasts the second highest tidal range in the world, ideal for oyster cultivation.
All of their seed oysters are sourced from the U.K. and the Channel Islands, making their home in the relatively sheltered Devon estuary to shield them from the harsh conditions in the waters – particularly during the cold winter months – before being introduced. Whilst their supply is not yet big enough to push much further than the local market (currently they are only producing around 1 million oysters a year, each coming in at around 80g in weight), Mark Hix is already a fan. With ambitious expansion plans over the next few years, they have set their sights set on the luxury London market.
The commercial landscape is difficult for any community venture, and earlier this year local businessman, Mark Pendarves, bought the company (which had fallen into administration), and this has afforded the project greater financial stability. It is hoped that the capital to expand and farm on a larger scale will help ensure the venture’s future while also ensuring that it continues to keep the creation of local jobs and tourism opportunities, which made it such a special part of the local community, at its heart.
Until the buy-out, locals who had invested in the project had no idea that their capital was at risk and had believed that the success of the oyster harvest had translated to financial success for the company.
So how do the oysters taste? Visually, they’re a bit on the gnarly side and rather difficult to shuck, but on the inside, like any good Pacific oyster, they had a fresh, clean taste that is low on minerality. They have an almost creamy mouthfeel before you’re hit with the usual ocean finish. Unusually, however, rather than being hit full on with the flavour of the sea, you get just the merest hint of saltwater as it slips down; Porlock Bay Oysters are both rich and delicate in equal measure.
Plans are already in motion to expand. Porlock Bay Oysters are in the process of acquiring larger premises for a new depuration plant on the harbour to welcome visitors and to provide more of an oyster education than is currently possible. They also have plans to sell fresh oysters straight from the plant. Visiting Porlock today, they are mostly catering to the wholesale market, though you can find them holding pride of place in the waterfront café and the hotel next door.
As the only oyster farm in Somerset, Porlock Bay Oysters have taken a forgotten local industry and brought it back to life with the goal of creating a luxury product for the benefit of the local people the industry first helped to support, carrying on from where they were forced to break off over 120 years ago. It would certainly be a boon to the British oyster industry if they manage to make a go of it.