Travel and Culture

Photo journal: Low tide, last last in St Ives

Low tide harbourside in St Ives. Boats are left stranded cast aside by the retreating waves. Pink and orange buoys float on the sand and ropes draped with lengths of frilly seaweed dissect the beach. Thick iron chains protrude through the sand like varicose veins.

A thin layer of water remains atop most of the sand bearing the suns reflection and making the seabed a shimmering silver or gold depending on the position of the sun and the clouds.

Surrounding the boats dead fish lay on the beach, cast overboard, no longer needed. These fish with little commercial value are a feast for the gulls. Seagulls and Turnstones hover around hopefully. Dressed in thick yellow oilskin overalls, a navy and orange oilskin coat and wearing a chequered scarf around his neck, the fisherman, he must have been in fifties, walks purposefully across the sand picking his way through half submerged chains, bucket in one hand and a large fish in the other. With one foot he begins to disturb the top of the sand until a little indentation is made, it quickly floods with water and he is left with a little pool. Every now and then he bends over and picks something up from these pools and places it in his bucket. Feet moving side to side, sweep, shuffle, bend, feet moving side to side, repeat. The fisherman’s dance.

The fish in his hand bears a strong resemblance to a shark, albeit a lot smaller and a lot less teeth. ‘That your dinner?’ I call across the sand. He looks up and starts trundling over to me. ‘Not dinner, me mate just gave it me. I’ll use it as pot bait’. I curiously enquire what type of fish he is holding. It turns out that the fish is indeed a member of the shark family ‘you can tell by its skin, feel it, its like leather no scales like the other fish’. My fingers reach out and touch the fish, it is cold, thick, and rough like sandpaper, like little teeth made of skin. But there is a hint of leather in its skin, you can feel the toughness of it. No scales.

The dogfish, so I later read, is a bottom feeder at home in rocky weedy or sandy terrain. It is its tough skin that makes it undesirable to the culinary market as it is so difficult to remove. The fishermen use a certain amount of dogfish for pot bait to lure crabs and lobsters with their delicious sweet meat and desirable price tag.

For the surplus dogfish, it seems fate dictates a grisly dissection, their bodies pecked apart by the various gulls that frequent the tide line. Even the birds have a rough time feasting on these fish with their tough skin. The gulls have developed a crafty technique and insert their sharp beaks through the gills, eye sockets and into the mouths of the dogfish to retrieve their dinner. It is an entertaining spectacle to observe, birds dragging these large fish across the sand, fighting to get the best delicacies. The dogfish in front of me is a beautiful specimen. A creamy beige colour with patches of blushing rose and grey covering its body. This is overlaid with dark black spots similar to those you may see on a leopard.

Curious about the contents of the bucket, I ask what it contains. The fisherman had been disturbing the sand in order to find clams. These common shellfish are also used as pot bait, it seems very little on this beach goes to waste. Food for us, food for the birds, bait for the fish and bait for the pots. Patience is something these fishermen appear to have buckets full of, metaphorically of course. The fisherman says that if I want to see the valuable fish I need to go to ‘that boat’. He points to a small boat with the words ‘Last Light’ embellished on its side. Aboard is another fisherman dressed in his oilskins.

I walk over and as I get closer I see the fisherman is untangling lengths of fishing net. His fingers work deftly to untangle knots, remove slippery seaweed and clear whatever the sea has donated to his catch. It is cold and I don’t know how he has any feeling left in his fingers. He stops his work as I approach, retrieves a worn pouch of tobacco and rolls himself a cigarette as we start chatting. We talk of EU fishing quotas, bitter early mornings, rough seas and the mystery of hundreds of dead mackerel washing ashore recently. He offers up a large plastic crate of beautiful sea bass for me to examine. These fish, still wet and fresh eyed, are the treasure these fishermen seek, retailing for between £10-£15 per fish, they are ready to take to nearby Newlyn Harbour Fish Market where chances are they will be sold to some of the top restaurants in London.

I ask if he lives nearby, he laughs and says that most of the locals live on the outskirts of St. Ives. Most of the harbourside properties would have, many years ago, belonged to fishermen such as himself. Now the majority remain empty, shells of homes, until they are filled with tourists fleeing the big cities to their Cornish slice of tranquillity in the summer. I recall a story I had heard about one lady, one of the last to sell her home to the holiday cottage tribe. After her neighbours had all relocated, she finally sold up due to a growing feeling of isolation during the early bleak nights of the low season. Hers was the only lamp on the street still glowing. Another street now dark during the low season. This is a problem faced by many popular tourist towns. Locals forced out of the housing market by part time holiday makers. I stand, contemplating what he is saying, not really knowing what to say. He is extremely amicable and by no means criticising the tourist industry, this town thrives on it, but it is an issue that deeply affects the local population. Seagulls squawk overhead and he finishes his cigarette with one last drag, smoking right down to his sea salted cold red fingers. As the sun drops beneath the horizon and as the last light softens we say farewell and part ways. I, heading back to my hotel hot tub and he, nets ready, waiting to set adrift on the next high tide.

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