From the upstairs room where I am writing this I have glimpses between the houses opposite of the sea at Chesil Beach. This extraordinary 18 mile stretch of “storm driven barrier” was the inspiration for Ian McEwan’s tale of doomed love (2007) and JM Falkner’s classic adventure tale “Moonfleet” (1898) and its unique attraction has been celebrated by poets, including Sarah Acton, the author of this non-fiction work.
The fact that this is somewhere special impresses on every visit. For an eight-mile section within 10 minutes walk from my house it can only be accessed by crossing the Fleet Lagoon, in past times, flat-bottomed boasts known as “trows” helped with this.
As well as being a place of great geological interest (I visited here on a school Geography field trip as it was part of my O Level syllabus) for many, many generations it provided a source of income for Dorset people. A method of catching the mackerel which at certain points of the year swarmed into the shallows was developed using nets, thrown most often from a specially designed boat, a “lerret”. This now almost lost form of fishing, “seining”, is the subject of Sarah Acton’s book subtitled “Voices From A Dorset Fishing Community.”
I have never fished and like most omnivores have no real understanding of how the food we eat reaches our plate, neither in the present nor the past but there was something very captivating about Sarah Acton’s study. It helps that she is a poet and can talk about the Beach as it “roars and stings, silver shoals of memory dart beneath the sea surface like fragments of mirrors, as memory triggers memory”, finding every opportunity to reinforce the uniqueness of this location but she has also produced an oral history, reminiscences of the last generations who attempted to support themselves financially in this way. These are men and women who lived their lives according to the sea, men who missed the upbringing of their children, youngsters who skipped school, the elderly who chose to spend much of their retirement on the shingle, all hypnotised by the thrill of the catch and the ebb and flow of the sea.
These were people who did not always do things by the book, large catches were unpredictable, the mystique of smuggling had always touched these coastline families and their ancestors. They spent their hours in the water yet many could not swim. They talk of individuals whose achievements have become the stuff of legends, of the most successful families, of crafts and activities which are pretty much redundant. The same experiences are given a viewpoint form different individuals with the repetition in this case enhancing the sense of the oral tradition. As the demand for mackerel declined their earnings became more sporadic but they lived with one eye on the waters. There is a perhaps apocryphal story of pall-bearers who abandoned their fisherman friend’s coffin as they got the call of the sea.
It is all a bit of a fish-stew this book as the author is supported by contributions by different authors on the geology, on boat building and the history of the Fleet Lagoon and this all adds to the layering of this location which is very much brought to life here. I’ve lived in Dorset just over a year and have barely dipped my toe into local history since I’ve been here (see “The Village That Died For England” by Patrick Wright and I have read the very successful 2022 debut novel by Joanna Quinn, “The Whalebone Theatre”). There is still a huge amount to discover about my local environment and Sarah Acton here makes the history of this particular location very memorable.
Seining Along Chesil was published in the UK in 2022 by Little Toller Books.