(Image of coastal fish weir, 1999; © Crown copyright.HE)
Archaeological evidence for fishing off the Exmoor coast can be most clearly seen from the air. The remains of large V-shaped fish weirs or fish traps are visible in the intertidal zone, the area of foreshore between low and high tide.
Fish weirs or fish traps are only found in coastal or estuarine tidal waters. Exmoor’s steep coastal cliffs mean that the shoreline is easily accessible only in those low-lying areas around Lynmouth and Porlock Vale. It is in these areas that most of Exmoor’s known fish weirs are recorded. Concentrations are visible off Culver Cliff Sand near Minehead and at Gore Point near Porlock, where eight have been identified. Much denser concentrations can be seen to the east of Exmoor, on Minehead, Dunster and Blue Anchor beaches, where the shore is more accessible.
Coastal fish weirs vary in design from a simple inverted ‘V’ shape to a range of ‘tick’ shaped curved constructions. The ‘point’ or apex of the trap always points towards the open water. This is to catch the waters of the ebbing tide in a pool behind the ‘arms’ of the weir. Any fish trapped in this water are forced towards the apex of the trap, where they are collected by a sluice into baskets or nets. Such traps are best suited to locations with large tidal ranges and the arms of the traps can reach great lengths. The largest trap known off the Exmoor coast is at Porlock Weir, where the arms of the traps exceed 130 metres in length, and would probably originally have been longer still. As the tidal waters recede the water pooling behind the arms kept the fish alive until harvested by the fisherman.
The weirs were always built from local material. For instance, West Weir at Lynmouth and the traps at Porlock Weir were built from the local shingle and boulders. Those on the wide mud-flats of the Severn Estuary to the east of Exmoor, where stone is scarcer, are built from wood or, like East Weir at Lynmouth, from a combination of wood and stone. To function effectively each weir would need regular maintenance.
The earliest intertidal fishtraps in England, found on the Isle of Wight, have been dated to the Bronze Age. Those on the Exmoor coast date probably from the medieval to post medieval periods. Fish traps were valuable commodities, jealously controlled by landowners and the rights to use them expensively bought by local fishermen. Monastic houses and the church often held control over the fishing revenue. In his 1630 ‘A View of Devonshire’, Thomas Westcote, described how Lynmouth was dependent almost entirely on the catching of herring for its livelihood, curing them in drying houses, now largely converted into cottages.
Lynmouth was: “only a little inlet, which, in these last times, God hath plentifully stored with herrings (the King of fishes), which, shunning their ancient places of repair in Ireland, come hither abundantly in shoals, offering themselves (as I may say) to the fishers' nets.”
That was until: “the parson taxed the poor fishermen for extraordinary unusual tithes, and then (as the inhabitants report) the fish suddenly clean left the coast, unwilling, as may be supposed, by losing their lives to cause contention.”
The herring shoals may have been an irregular resource, but one for which it was worth maintaining the weirs. Snell describes how on Christmas day, 1811, “there was an exceptional and very abundant shoal of herrings, and the inhabitants were called out of church in order to take them out of the weirs.”
It was probably in protest against such tight control that the small fishtrap in Countisbury Cove was built, 5 kilometres to the east of Lynmouth. Although functional, (it still holds water today) the steep cliffs, narrow tidal rage of Countisbury Cove and relatively small size of the trap (at no more than 80 metres long) must have made this weir impractical and expensive to maintain and operate.
A few fish weirs in the Severn Estuary, (such as East Weir at Lynmouth) remain in use today, but many have fallen out of use. Some were subsequently employed for other purposes. The large weir at Porlock Bay probably passed out of use by the 18th century and might have used as an oyster perch, part of a later oysterage, which gave its name in the early 20th century to nearby house, ‘Oyster Perch’, the home of two local fishermen. Lynton West Weir had probably been abandoned by 1887, but by the early twentieth century had been reused as a tidal bathing pool, a use still enjoyed by visitors today.
Strachan, D. 1997 Dating of some inter-tidal fish-weirs in the Blackwater estuary. Blackwater Estuary Management Plan (BEMP) Area Archaeological Project: Report No.1. RCHME & Essex County Council.
Snell, F.J. first published 1923. A Book of Exmoor.
Fishweirs Update, North Devon Archaeological Society website
Banner image: Image of coastal fish weir, 18280_06 (19 March 1999), © Crown copyright.HE
Image 1: Fish traps at Porlock Weir, 24028_01 (9 August 2005), © Historic England