England: Working fleet on a Hastings beach

By Jim Eagles

I had kippers for breakfast for the first time the other day. It seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, I was staying in Hastings - the English Hastings - and smoked herrings are a traditional English breakfast food.

I can't honestly say I enjoyed the experience. The flavour was fine but I really didn't like all those tiny bones. I guess it's an acquired taste.

But it was an ideal preparation for visiting the amazing Hastings fishing fleet, dating back well over 1000 years. And it was one of those boats that landed the herrings that became my kippers.

The fleet is unusual because, since the local harbour vanished some 500 years ago, the boats have been launched off the pebble beach.

Hastings has the largest beach-launched fishing fleet in Europe and the Stade - an ancient word meaning "landing place" - where they are based is a fascinating place to visit.

On the afternoon when I wandered down the weather was stormy, so most of the brightly coloured boats were already on the beach. But the area was still lively, with fishermen carrying up boxes of fish, doing maintenance work on engines, sorting out nets and touching-up paintwork.

"It's always an interesting spot to visit, right enough, though people do have to look out because it is a working area," says Tush Hamilton, who was showing me around.

"There's always something going on. But the number of boats is declining, that's for sure, and with new European Union rules coming in all the time who knows how much longer the fleet will survive.

"When I was a kid there were 30 boats working here. Now it's down to 20. And there's a couple more - like that one there, he's just about had enough," he points - "that are pretty close to giving up."

The very day I was there a deputation from the Hastings Fisherman's Protection Society was in London arguing the case for special treatment for the Stade's small boats, but no one seemed very optimistic about them being listened to.

If the fishing industry does disappear from Hastings it will be the end of a very old tradition. There is, for instance, a record of the fishing boats being sent to sea in 1066 to keep an eye out for William the Conqueror's invasion fleet.

When the fleet was delayed by contrary winds the boats went back to fishing and William was able to land undetected.

But the Stade's history obviously goes back much further than that. "There've been fishing boats working out of Hastings since forever," says Hamilton, "and mostly the same families.

"My family have been fishing since I don't know when. I've been in the game all my life. I started helping out on the boats as a kid, fished for a few years and then turned to selling fish. But that's all changing.

"One of my brothers couldn't see a future in it so he ended up working on the railway. My son started fishing but left four or five years ago to work in a garage. It's a dying tradition."

The signs of that tradition are everywhere. For centuries the boats were wind-powered, wooden sailing luggers about 10m long, a design which survived until less than 100 years ago, when marine engines took over.

In the nearby Fishermen's Museum, based in what was once the Fisherman's Church, is the last survivor of that breed, the sailing lugger Enterprise, built on the Stade in 1912. Outside the museum is the boat that ushered in that change, the Edward and Mary. It was built on the Stade just seven years later but, unlike the Enterprise, designed to have an engine.

Another custom which hung on until about 10 to 15 years ago was for the boats to be launched by being pushed down the sloping shingle beach by hand and then hauled up by winch, "sometimes," Hamilton recalls fondly, "with 20 men all adding their weight".

The advent of tractors for launching and powered winches for hauling boats out not only put an end to a reliance on manpower but made possible a switch to heavier, stronger, cheaper steel-hulled boats. "There are still one or two of the old wooden ones," says Hamilton, pointing them out, "but you won't see them no more. They were built by hand and now that's too expensive and they're not really economic."

The museum is packed with marvellous memorabilia of that proud tradition, including an extraordinary video of a recent storm, when one of the boats got into trouble and the whole fishing community combined to save it.

At one end of the Stade beach, is another reminder of the perils of going to sea, the Shipwreck Heritage Centre. Its displays include an early victim of the tricky local waves, a Roman trading ship.

At the other end, offering a similar message, is the Lifeboat House, with its 12m lifeboat on a giant trailer kept permanently ready to be launched in even the worst weather.

Along the landward edge of the Stade is another piece of fishing history, 50 strange black wooden structures, each about the length and breadth of a garden shed, but four storeys high. They were once used to dry the nets to keep them from rotting.

Since the advent of nylon nets the sheds have been used to store fishing gear, although one provides a base for Hamilton - still passionate about fishing even in retirement - to turn out on summer days and cook fish for tourists "to let them see what it's really all about". But if he's not in action with his trusty barbecue you can get the taste of freshly landed Hastings fish by wandering across the road to one of the many fish shops.

I happened up in Rock-a-Nore Fisheries, run by Sonny Elliott, scion of another fishing family - "me father was a fisherman and on me mum's side they were fishermen back to the 1800s that I know of" - who has moved from catching fish to selling it.

The shop was packed with fresh fish of every description and also - his pride and joy - a magnificent new smoker.

"Look at this," says Elliott, pulling out a tray of freshly smoked herrings. "Just perfect."

I must admit they looked and smelled superb.

Maybe I should give kippers another go.


Getting there: Emirates has three flights a day from Auckland and one from Christchurch to Dubai, and flies from Dubai to several British airports, including Gatwick in the south of England.

Further information: See visithastings.com for more information about the Hastings area, including the Stade. General information about visiting Britain is at visitbritain.com.

The Hastings Fisherman's Protection Society has a website here.

Jim Eagles visited the Hastings area as guest of Visit Britain and Emirates.

- NZ Herald

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