The beaches are full, ranks of fishing boats lay hauled up on the shingle. Craft don't use the Harbour, it is choked, silted and filled with snags. The air is a heady mix - fish reek, rough shag tobacco and ribald language. Bearded men with skin like a doctor’s satchel mend nets, leaning against the hulls of their clinker built vessels, they wear cavernous sea boots, thick jerseys and caps, awaiting the tide. From the Sailor’s Reading Room, the previous generation of fisher folk, all bent backed and cotton wool whiskered, stare down critically on the scene. A handful of tourists scurry along the Prom, fearful lest their daughters should catch the twinkling eye of the younger fishermen - tanned and muscled like fighting dogs. This was Southwold a little over 100 years ago.
Southwold was once a town of the sea rather than a “seaside town”. Fishing was its lifeblood. Two world wars, changing consumer tastes, shrinking fishery exclusion zones and over-bearing bureaucracy succeeded in virtually destroying a once booming industry here. A dedicated handful of hardy souls continue to work the shallow, ever changing, waters of Sole Bay, named after the delicately flavoured flat fish that favour these muddy seas. Ask any of the Southwold fishermen who remain what factor finally sounded fishing’s death knell and the reply is unanimous - The EU. Suffice to say for those who daily risk their lives at sea to catch fish, the merest mention of Brussels will elicit more bad language than any fouled net or visit from a Ministry representative!
My cousin, Gary Doy, is the last Southwold born and bred fisherman to ply his trade out of the Blackshore. I should of course use his proper name. Along this coast most of the men were known by their nicknames. A son inherited the nickname of his father, prefixed with the word “Boy”. Gary’s dad, was the legendary Dutter Doy, this meant that Gary became “Boy Dutter”. Gary epitomises the true spirit of this town. A timeless thing, that remains both captivating and reassuringly authentic against the backdrop of modern Southwold with its obscenely expensive second homes and high street spattered with countless craft bakers and luxury clothing brands. He is the working man, heading to sea with the tide - like his father and grandfather before him. Eyes blue as the sky, cheeks rouged by North Easterlies. He smiles regularly and laughs easily, and when he does the family resemblance with my mother shines through. A glinting gold hoop in each ear looks totally correct under his fish scaled cap. The tattoos on his arms of anchors and bathing belles are like the rings on a tree, marking the decades of his fishing life. No actor, no weekend sailor nor pleasure boater could look like him, move like him nor mimic him. Gary Doy is of the sea.
I joined Gary on a warm, calm July morning to trawl for flat fish. He goes out seven days a week. We set out from Harbour on Gary’s boat “Crofter” at 06.00. If I hadn’t tagged along he would have slipped his moorings some four hours earlier. The sun broke through the broken grey cloud, ringed with pith like a satsuma. Sailing south, the wide beamed, red hulled trawler chugged against the tide at a gentle 1 and a half knots. Crippling fuel prices mean that high revving and speed is the preserve of the gin palace sailor, professional fishermen can afford no such polluting profligacy. Walberswick passed to starboard, and as we approached Dunwich, Gary lowered his net for a “tow”. The net itself is thick nylon, woven by Gary in a diamond pattern, he calls it his onion sack. There is a large patch of square netting at the top of the trawl net, this enables smaller fish to swim away from the snare. A series of small yet dense rubber rings sink the net to the bottom, a mere 30 feet beneath us. These rings then act like bearings, ensuring that the trawl net gently bumps over the sea floor, allowing it to catch the flat fish that live there . With the net on the bottom we started our tow heading away from home, treading a sea lane that Southwold fishermen have sailed for millennia. After an hour of steady trawling, Gary set to hauling his nets.
Crofter's winches whined as they strained to pull on the ropes and raise the catch. Our course had taken us over the ghost of the river Dunwich. Local legend has it that old Dunwich lays intact beneath the waves, and bells ring out at night from 12 lost churches which, along with the rest of the old town, was destroyed by storms in 1286. Sadly these tales are mere myth. Suffolk folk are not so daft as to let valuable stone just tumble into the sea - look at the foundations of houses and barns built inland hereabouts and there you will find the remnants of old Dunwich! The winch strained and struggled, We had indeed found something historic, pre-historic to be accurate. As the first of the flapping soles appeared over the stern a looming dark shape followed in their wake. Scrambled in the net came a fossilised tree stump, at least a ton in weight by Gary's reckoning. Tying off the portion of the net that contained the haul of fish, he worked feverishly for an hour in a rising swell in a bid to rid us of this unwanted by-catch. To no avail. Gary eventually gave the snag best, drew out his razor sharp pocket knife, and cut a large hole in the net. We watched as the carbonised piece of the past slipped back beneath the waves. Gary now sorted his catch. Soles, Flounders, Dabs and Skate skidded onto the freshly washed deck. It was marked how few fish Gary caught other than his target species, inshore fishing is notably sustainable. The handful of undersized fish that came up, along with a solitary hen crab, were returned back to the sea to grow on . With the hole in the net irreparable at sea we set for harbour and home.I looked on as Gary gutted the product of this small haul, gulls wheeling in to noisily claim the offal. Despite the unprofitable size of the catch, the snag and ensuing tattered net, Gary still smiled. He was doing what he loves and his catch, glistening and fresh as the morning air would be on sale in his hut in Reydon by the afternoon.
I urge you to buy your fish from Boy Dutter, when you do, talk to Gary of Southwold and you will learn more about how fishermen such as he have helped shape this quirky little town that clings to the far eastern reaches of our islands. Also lament that there are so few left of his breed.
Doy and Son Fresh Fish – weather and catch permitting open 1.30pm – 6pm. 7 Elliot Avenue, Reydon, Southwold, Suffolk 01502 723380