The Naked Shore of the North Sea by Tom Blass

As well as news, features and nostalgia about the commercial fishing industry, we also like to let you know about great new books that could be of interest. Enjoy this extract from Tom Blass’ The Naked Shore of the North Sea, published by Bloomsbury earlier this month.

Saturnine and quick-tempered, the formidable North Sea is often overlooked – even by those living within a stone’s throw of its steel-grey waters. But as playground, theatre of war and cultural crossing-point, it has shaped the world in myriad ways, forged villains and heroes, and determined the fates of nations.

It’s not all grim, though: the seaside holiday was born on North Sea beaches, and artists, poets and writers have been as equally inspired by glinting sun on the wave-tops as they have by the drama of a winter storm.

With a wry eye and a warm coat, Tom Blass travels the edges of the North Sea meeting fishermen, artists, bomb disposal experts, burgermeisters – and those who have found themselves flung to the sea’s perimeters quite by chance. In doing so, he attempts to piece together its manifold histories and to reveal truths, half-truths and fictions otherwise submerged…

The Naked Shore of the North Sea is published by Bloomsbury. Hardback, £18.


The Hessle Road district is a working-class suburb of Kingston upon-Hull built on the banks of the Humber River as it leads out onto the fishing grounds of the North Sea. Two generations ago the Road was synonymous with fishing, and one way or another almost all the inhabitants of its little red-brick terraces had some connection with Hull’s deep-water trawlers, as fishermen, or working on the quayside as bobbers unloading the heavy crates of ice-packed fish from the holds of the boats, or in the warehouses or repair yards. And if they didn’t, they depended on the custom of the fishing community – big spenders who liked to dazzle…

Hessle’s trawler men once provided Britain with as much as 20 per cent of its protein intake. It lies on the western edge of Hull by the old fish docks, and has the familiar feel of other red-brick northern towns. In the high street, supermarkets have failed to displace a butcher, a bakery selling stotty cakes, several proper fishmongers and a plethora of bookmakers. If Hessle has moved with the times, it is to meet the needs of its growing Eastern European population (it boasts several Polski Sklep – Polish food shops) and to provide that ubiquitous and mysterious service, ‘mobile phone unlocking’. There are patches of economic gangrene in the form of empty shops and boarded-up pubs, but otherwise it appears almost thriving, at least compared to the glossy soulless retail outlets in the city proper. But as a cohesive, singular community bound together by a common industrial activity Hessle Road is dead.

Behind the high street lies a warren-like cluster of terraces with small front yards. Swathes have been demolished to make way for factories which are now closed, but those remaining are largely unchanged since the days of the Dogger Bank Incident, once allowance has been made for satellite dishes and cars. There have been other alterations. In The Fishermen , a 1962 book about the local community, Jeremy Tunstall described the old fish-curing houses ‘with their tall kippering ovens [giving] the Hessle Road its distinctive and characteristic skyline, and their black smoke [helping] to thicken the winter fogs’, but these are long dismantled and the fogs cleared.

It’s too easy to over-endow this community with a kind of continuity that it never quite possessed. Fishing here began with men in small boats trawling the Humber for their own consumption, seldom needing or daring to venture beyond Spurn Point. As an industry it was greatly eclipsed by shipbuilding, whaling and docks. By the mid-nineteenth century southerners had started to settle: fishermen in large, tan-sailed, black-hulled, sharp-bowed smacks from Brixham in Devon and Ramsgate in Kent, who came to mine the Silver Pit, a crater in the North Sea bed which brimmed with quantities of sole that could seemingly scarce be dented.

The extension of the rail network to Hull enabled fish to be transported quickly and more or less hygienically to the insatiable bellies of Leeds and the mill towns, and thus, as the national appetite for fish increased, so did the burgeoning population of bobbers, women to fi x the nets, shipwrights, ice makers, gutters and smokers. Expansion accelerated further in the 1880s, when fishing made its sudden, brutal transition from sail to steam, pulling in droves of engineers from the rail industry and sucking the life out of the traditional fishing towns of the north, like Staithes and

Robin Hood’s Bay, which, though blessed with picturesque winding lanes and cottages, lacked the large deep-water quays the new larger boats required. Hessle Road developed rapidly and acquired a sense of its own apartness, by dint of social lore, proud indifference to the snobbery of outsiders and of course a shared dread reverence for the sea.

It was on Ribble Avenue, one of the low-rise residential streets that turn off Hessle Road that we met Betty Cullen, her arms folded on her front gate, chatting to a nonagenarian neighbour with a baby-soft face and hair like the fluff on a dandelion.

Betty was the daughter of a trawler man and the wife of a bobber. She was as trim as a stoat and fond of her fags and remembered that the Russian attaché was ‘a very handsome man’. But his visit was ‘long overdue . . . We’ve got long memories here on Hessle, very long memories.’ Indeed, she said, waiting was ingrained into the lives of Hessle women. They were always waiting, for good news or bad. ‘We’d be at the lock gates waiting for hours to see the lights on the boats as they came up the mouth of the Humber. The news [of the loss of one or more vessels] would come, and the entire community would shudder.’

I couldn’t help thinking that Betty was recalling those occasions with mixed emotions – grief but also the togetherness of that shuddering. She said that she thought Leggett’s statue now stood not only for what happened on that night in 1904, but for all the mishaps that the Road has endured, which have kept the community strong. Although the fishing has died now. ‘Is that a tragedy also?’ I asked. She wasn’t sure.

While I sipped my tea, soporific on Betty’s oversize sofa, the two of them waltzed a soft carousel of shared memories – individuals, incidents – each increasingly iconic with the passage of time. They remembered Rayners, where fishermen from across the North Sea and beyond would meet to drink and fight and pick up whores: ‘Not just our boys; Dutch fishermen, Icelanders when we weren’t at war . . . The Danes loved our prostitutes. Lovely girls. They’d just sit quietly in the back room, sipping a Coke.’ (There were also, although it wasn’t Betty or Alec who told me this, other clubs, where fishermen went to meet fishermen.)

Betty was, she said, ‘an embodiment of Hessle history’. She laughed through a throaty cough. Her credentials were impeccable: beneath her bed she kept, wrapped in tissue and carefully boxed, the caul in which she was born – a relic believed by superstitious trawler men to confer such extraordinary luck on those who possess one that they are prepared to offer incredible sums to buy them. ‘It’s my rainy-day fund.’ She laughed again, eyeing the Embassy cigarettes on the mantelpiece she was too polite to smoke in our presence.

Some would have you think that superstition was a potent feature of the Hessle Road community, which didn’t as a rule give a fish for the Church and used the Bethel (seamen’s mission) for pastoral and sometimes financial, but perhaps less frequently spiritual, support. Alec’s books are full of Hessle lore: how uttering the word ‘rabbit’ or for that matter ‘pig’ or ‘cat’ was about as unpropitious as anything one might do save drilling a hole in the hull. Or wearing a green jumper at sea.

Superstition wasn’t the sole prerogative of the men. Women who practised pyromancy – staring into the grate for augurs of impending doom or the faces of lost fathers and sons – could be identified by the blotches on their fi re-chafed shins. And if wives neglected their husband’s dirty shirts and underwear once they’d left for the docks (always by taxi – never seen off by their women, which was bad luck), this was less a symptom of slovenliness than of the laws of sympathetic magic, which turn a tumble dryer into a storm at sea – or at least that’s what was said.

Betty was glad her husband hadn’t been at sea. She had seen how painful the long lonely weeks were for her neighbours before their husbands returned, and how quickly joy could turn to heartache when they did.

The noblest and most distinguishing characteristic of a Hessle Road trawler man (so at odds with the Yorkshire stereotype and the prim East Hullsider in particular) was his profligacy. While their wives drew a living wage from the men’s earnings, any bonus related to a share of the catch was for them to spend as they liked. The hoarding of wealth was so frowned upon and setting to sea with money in your pocket was seen as so unlucky that what hadn’t been spent on drink, women and threads was thrown into the air from the gangplank for children on the dockside cobbles to scramble for. ‘The three-day millionaires, is what they used to call themselves,’ said Betty. (Grimsby fishermen, by contrast, possessed a different attitude to money – although famously for a brief period in the boom years of the 1960s more Rolls-Royces were sold there than in any other city in Britain.)

As we spoke and as she reminisced with Alec, Betty shifted easily between planes of time and place. She declared, ‘We’re hospitable, that’s what we are, on the Hessle Road.’ But it wasn’t the Hessle Road of now to which she referred, but that of the past, which dwarfs it. Moral and other truths danced elusively around each other, at arm’s length. ‘Was life better then?’ I asked. She seemed bemused, made uncomfortable even by the question, and answered with little vignettes of the Hessle Road in its cod-fishing prime which were neither straightforwardly good nor bad. ‘You could tell that a boat was due home cos the women would clean their houses for the first time in a fortnight. Slobs they were otherwise.’ When the men came home they blew their wages and spent three days drinking and fighting and procreating before heading off to sea again. ‘They were wild. But they deserved it. They were heroes. How can you be a hero working in a sticking plaster factory?’ This was a pointed reference to the medical device factory that briefly absorbed surplus labour around Hessle in the late 1980s.

For all her nostalgia Betty knew that fishing was a brutal trade and one that not all men were cut out for. Traditionally, the route in was to go to sea as a deckie learner, a brutal initiation for a sixteen-year-old into a world not only of elemental danger but also often physical and emotional abuse compounded by home-and sea sickness. ‘You’d never push a son to go to sea. You’d never want them to anyway. It’s a cruel living,’ said Betty. Heroism comes at a price.

For Hessle Roaders, life skirted around the ever-lurking abyss of loss at sea, a term which cruelly euphemises the agony of bursting lungs, exploding engine rooms or the sudden capsize of a vessel made top-heavy with Arctic ice. A third mate or deckie slipping into the murky blackness or being crushed beneath heavy equipment or nets was as good as routine. But the subsequent ripple of sadness could take a generation to dissipate.

Fishing has always been dangerous – up to four times more dangerous than coal mining by some estimates. In the age of sail, smacks sailing close together for comfort in the North Sea would cripple each other inadvertently. The transformation to steam in the 1880s reduced the likelihood of a sinking, steel hulls being more robust than wood, but the new boats voyaged further, kept longer seasons and experienced new perils: larger, colder seas and a greater likelihood of ice. And the risk of misadventure as a result of fatigue or stress or alcohol was increased by longer trips.

The Naked Shore of the North Sea by Tom Blass

Read more from Fishing News here