Where to stay
Berry Head Hotel
Perched on a clifftop, Berry Head is a pleasant retreat from the nearby town, which is still only a stroll away. Highlights include views across the sea and easy access to coastal walks and Berry Head Country Park. The hotel’s facilities include an indoor swimming pool, sauna and six acres of parkland. Doubles from £296. Berry Head Road, TQ5 9AJ, 01803 853 225, berryheadhotel.com
Perfect for weekenders looking for a relaxing break in Brixham, this boutique B&B offers rooms with balconies overlooking the harbour. Have breakfast on the terrace while watching boats go about their business and then head to the quayside, just a five-minute walk away. Exceptional standards, immaculately clean, and with friendly hosts in Keith and Zoe. Doubles from £115. 11 Prospect Road, TQ5 8HS, 01803 858 915, driftwoodbandb.co.uk
This family-run hotel is perfectly situated on the picturesque fishing harbour right on the town’s colourful seafront. There is a pub and restaurant where you can enjoy the freshest seafood, brought straight from the fishing boats. The rooms on offer combine maritime cosiness with touches of luxury. Doubles from £105. 41-49 King Street, TQ5 9TJ, 01803 855 751, quaysidehotel.co.uk
Where to eat
A family business for more than a decade, chef Simone Cook is a market regular, hand-picking what will go on the menu that day. The family also run nearby seafood stall Claws, on the harbour, where you choose the freshest fish and eat alfresco. Two courses from £23. 19 The Quay, TQ5 8AW, 01803 854 777, beamersrestaurant.co.uk
As the son of fish and chip shop owners, it was inevitable that local fish merchant Robert Simonetti would open his own seafood restaurant. Not only does he distribute Brixham’s finest across the UK and Europe, but he cooks it up, too, at this harbour diner. Two courses from £18. 72-74 Fore Street, TQ5 8EF, 01803 883 858, robertsfisheries.com
Top seafood chef Mitch Tonks has been living in Brixham for more than ten years and, having opened his award-winning Seahorse in nearby Dartmouth, he realised a dream with the launch of Rockfish Brixham, which is literally right above the fish market. Two courses from £18. The Quay, TQ5 8AW, 01803 850 872, therockfish.co.uk
Food and Travel Review
Dave Driver is a fisherman. Like his father before him and generations before that, he pulls the strings of the world’s most cumbersome puppet orchestra, flitting between the controls of three spindles of rope, carefully balancing each in search of his first haul of the day. While the size and scale of the job has evolved, it remains a battle between man and fish. Driver has a 130-tonne boat on his side and is set against several tonnes of nets, ropes, rival boats, assorted sand and detritus – and the English Channel. But no sweat. Driver has been here before.
From his three-metre-long platform he looks down at his heaving opponent, through a cluster of winches and pulleys, and senses victory. Born from a gene pool so entwined with the sea over the years, it’s a wonder evolution hasn’t already just decided to save time and kit him out with webbed feet and a set of gills.
Not that he needs them. With an awful lot of clanking, the spindles gradually retract the ropes and, much to the delight of squadron upon squadron of dive-bombing gulls, the edges of the nets start to appear. The nets have been trawling behind the boat for four hours, scouring the ocean at some 25 fathoms (around 45m) in search of everything from cuttlefish and lobsters to rays, turbot, monkfish and brill. A rope in the centre connects the two nets. This not only joins the pair, but also has a small section of chain to tickle the seabed and awake slumbering bottom-dwelling fish and shepherd them into Driver’s web. Either side of each net, two giant metal doors spread them as wide as possible – meaning they can trawl as much as 700m-1,000m at any one time.
As the rattle of squawks from the gulls above becomes deafening, you know the fish are near. Driver’s son Simon and long-term third hand Kevin await on either side of the boat to ensure knots are unknotted and tangles untangled as the ropes and nets are wound up and deliver the fish into a trough at the boat’s edge.
It’s only now, after Driver’s expert manoeuvring of levers comes to an end, that we can inspect the haul. Even if your fishing experience consists of little more than crabbing at the quayside, the excitement of discovering what’s on the end of the line is the same. Perhaps multiplied by a few thousand in the case of Driver. ‘Even after 40 years I still love the challenge,’ he says, ‘I still love seeing what we’ve got every time the net comes in.’
What he’s landed is an array of the ocean’s finest. Not so much a fruits de mer, rather the whole orchard. Ray, squid, turbot, plaice, monkfish, smooth-hound shark, John Dory, gurnard, dab (a small flatfish), brill, lobster and an awful lot of cuttlefish, something that makes up a good chunk of any catch in these parts. The variety is what’s startling; visually, it’s spectacular. A writhing lake amounting to the world’s greatest seafood platter – a veritable aquarium of dinner options to make any fish lover weak at the knees.
No sooner are they caught, Simon and Kevin go to work, quickly returning any fish that are too small or limited in number and sorting into type. The cuttlefish are kept apart from the rest due to their propensity for spraying black ink everywhere, and any fishes needing immediate gutting are made quick work of by Kevin and Simon, who show exceptional knife skills. The fish is then packed into boxes, kept fresh with ice made from saltwater – ‘They keep much better in saltwater ice,’ explains Driver. ‘If you use fresh water, it turns cuttlefish purple, which is why we spent £30,000 on it.’
As the sorting process continues, Driver has more time to chat. Not that time to talk is in short supply when you’re on a trawler. Hectic as the haul is, it was preceded by seven hours, during which he found plenty of time to give me a potted history.
EARLY BIRD CATCHES THE...
At 3.30am – a time when even the gulls are rubbing sleep from their beady little eyes – there are few signs of life in the town of Brixham on Devon’s south coast. All sounds emanate from the fish market and the readying of Girl Debra, Driver’s 14.5m-long day boat. Having only finished his last trip at 3am, and with the fish already off the boat and being processed, he’s getting ready to go again.
The living space on Girl Debra consists of a table big enough to fit four with an adjoining kitchen that, while not massive, you could just about swing a small kitten in. A set of steep stairs takes you down to the bunkrooms and a bathroom with shower and toilet. To look at it, this isn’t a massive boat when compared to its neighbouring beam trawlers (up to 30m deep and often twice the weight) but she has some depth to her – 4m beneath deck.
Right at the top of it all, in the wheelhouse, is Driver. We plan to steam out to 30km, which will take about two and half hours, before dropping the nets, and trawl for three to four hours. It’s a process that will be repeated twice, before heading home and in at about 8pm – a short trip compared to his last. ‘We were out for about 18 hours, and I’ve probably had about half an hour’s sleep in that time,’ says Driver. ‘But I don’t think you need anywhere near as much as people say you do. How long we stay out depends on what we’re fishing for and where. If it’s down in Cornwall, we might stay out for two days, land at a port down there and get a lorry to come and take a load of fish back to the market, and then head back out again. We’ve got a crew of four, with three on the boat at any one time, so we each do six days, then two days off.’
We’re heading out to the English Channel, Driver’s office for most of his life. His eyes are always on the sea. Screens are dotted around the cabin, one with multicoloured, crisscrossing lines that mark routes taken or being taken by boats. Other boats are here, too. While the journey began in the dark, as the sun begins to show its face, other boats appear on the horizon. Driver had a good day yesterday, bringing in some 1,300kg of cuttlefish, 100kg of plaice, 60kg of brill and 30kg turbot; a haul worth around £6-7,000. As such, he’s a marked man today. ‘They’re all out here today,’ he says, pointing at the dots that show the other boats on the screen. ‘They’ve heard we had a good day and so they’ve all come up to see what we do – they’re all from Cornwall, too, none from Brixham.’
Strict safety measures mean that any boats owned by a company, as opposed to those skipper-owned, such as Girl Debra, will always be visible on radars to everyone. Driver on the other hand only has to show his location every hour. ‘I’m of the old school,’ he says. ‘I prefer to tell them when I’ve caught them and not before.’
He’s not kidding when he says he’s of the old school. Hailing from the village of Beer, further along the Devon coast, Driver shows me a book on its fishing heritage. For Dave, it’s virtually a family tree, as there are more Drivers in it than you’d find on the M25. ‘My dad’s family have been fishing back to the 1500s,’ he says, pointing out each of the people in the black and white photos he’s related to – right down to the owner of the fish hut on the beach. ‘I left school at 15 and started with a small boat in Beer. Then, after a few years, I wanted a bigger boat so had to go out of Lyme Regis, then another bigger boat, which meant going from Exmouth. The fish would always be sold at Brixham, so I used to have to pay a lorry to send it down. We moved to Brixham about 15 years ago.’
We’re interrupted as he talks to Shaun, on a boat a couple of miles in front. It’s general casual chit-chat, checking position, discussing the weather. No sense of urgency, just a ‘checking-in’ between two people who may never have met in person, but speak most days.
As Girl Debra chugs to the fishing point, Simon and Kevin catch a few winks of sleep in the bunks below deck. Driver seems immune to the need for sleep. Instead, he does his best to educate me on how everything works, from the nets to the navigation to the politics and quota systems. I try and keep up. In a profession that is near the top of every Google search for ‘dangerous jobs’, Driver’s attitude is sound. ‘I’ve lost three or four very good friends at sea,’ he says. ‘I’m very safety conscious. For instance, you only need to have one safety raft but I’ve got two – if I pull the string and one doesn’t work, I want another option. You only get one chance at life.’
Talk turns to Girl Debra, his partner in crime for 17 years. ‘You have to order the boat years before you need it because they build it to your specifications, so it’s a risk,’ he says. ‘It was supposed to cost £700,000 but the guy went bankrupt when he was building it, which meant it cost about £200,000 more. The bank would only lend us half the money to finish it, so I went out every single day to fish in order to pay the rest, it was a really tough time.’
Now, things are looking good, especially when compared to when he first started fishing these parts. ‘We catch a lot more now than we used to,’ he says, ‘because there are fewer boats. I can be away for two days and hardly see another boat, but 20 years ago I’d have seen 30. The fishing will keep getting better, too, especially if we maintain the 20km limit for European fishermen – they all want to fish in our waters. Nobody believes us, but we’ve got the best fishing ground in the world here. It’s not just French boats, but Belgians and Dutch, too. The problem is that in bad weather, even the beam trawlers will be in but the French will be out there 24/7 ploughing the seabeds. We see bad weather as nature’s way of giving the ground a rest, to help the fish regroup, but they don’t. They often come within our boundaries, especially when the weather’s bad because there aren’t any boats patrolling. It’d be nice to know that if all our boats are in then the ground is given a break and there aren’t 25 Belgian beamers ploughing it up.’
At the heart of most debates has been the Common Fisheries Policy, an EU directive brought in to protect stocks. Like many fishermen you speak to in Brixham, Driver feels that they’ve gone beyond the requirements to protect fish. ‘The fishermen have done more to it than they were told,’ he says. ‘Take Ed, who makes the nets. He’s been making nets bigger to allow fish to escape and a lot of the trawlers are trialling them. Our nets are bigger than they need to be as well – we want there to be something to catch next year. You won’t find a guy who wants to catch everything in the sea.’
With the government suggesting changes to policy won’t happen until 2022, is there anything he’d like to see aside from the enforcement of borders? ‘There’s certain fish without size limits,’ he says, ‘like turbot – you can catch them when they’re the size of a hand. We need to protect those valuable fish species or they won’t be there for much longer. But really the main thing is to get our waters back.’ Driver’s key message is one of protection: to maintain boundaries when it comes to who can fish the Channel and to enforce size quotas and ensure certain species’ longevity. ’Not sure I’ll see that in my lifetime though,’ he adds.
Is he surprised that it’s looking like no action will be taken?
‘Even though we voted to pull out of it [The EU], I think we all knew
in the back of our minds that they wouldn’t do anything for us,’ he
admits. ‘But we had to prove a point by standing together. It would
just be nice if someone in government knew about our industry,
I don’t even think agriculture and fishing should be thrown in
together – it should really have its own minister. Lots of MPs own
farmland, but I bet not one of them has a fishing boat.’
Alex Mead and Sarah Coghill travelled to Brixham courtesy of Food Drink Devon. fooddrinkdevon.co.uk
Get Premium access to all the latest content online
Subscribe and view full print editions online... Subscribe