Pat Tyrrell's memories of Alf Woodford

Alf Woodford (1887- 1972) 

All you’d see was a pair of legs and a great big pile of withies walking down the Military Road.It was like a big round bird’s nest but Alf was under there somewhere! 

Here Patrick Tyrell remembers a well-loved Brook fisherman:

I’d like to tell you about a man I knew in the village where I worked when I left school; the village was Brook and the man was Alf Woodford. Alf was a very nice, very kind man and a bit of a character; probably one of the last characters in the village - a longshoreman, I think the last in Brook? I got quite close to Alf over the three years that I worked at Downton Farm; Dave Hookey and I used to spend a bit of time with him so I got to know a little bit about him. 

When I left school in 1958 Alf would have been about sixty, I suppose, and had a hut down on the undercliff below South-hills, a field belonging to Mr Hookey. Alf worked down there all his life. A single man, he only had himself to look after so it was quite easy for him to make a living I suppose. He used to put out lobster and crab pots and had a boat; it was about fifteen foot long and made of wood; clinker built as they used to say then.  When I knew him he had an outboard motor for this boat; when he first started there were no motors so he must have done all his work with oars; it must have been quite a hard job. 

Alf lived on Brook Green, in a house that didn’t have much of an outlook, right behind the house where Alec and Bill Ballard lived. Quite a big garden that ran up alongside Alec and Bill’s, it was a funny old house, you don’t see many houses back to back and as far as I know he lived there all of his life; I’m not quite sure and would like to know about that.

Alf’s journey to work took him up the garden, over the fence into Southhills, up to the corner of Southhills and down onto the undercliff; it took him less than ten minutes I suppose, to get there. Alf used to go out in the boat mostly after lobsters and crabs, although I can remember him catching a lot of mackerel and bass, and he was very keen on pouting. In those days quite a lot of people liked pouting; they’re not a very likable fish these days but Alf always liked them and could always sell them.

He used to sell whatever he caught; I always wondered how he got in contact with anybody to buy them – he never had a phone - there was a phone box in Brook, but I can’t remember Alf using it – I don’t know if he even knew how to use it – so I suppose it was just hearsay; somebody found out he’d had a good catch and came down to buy his fish. 

   Dave Hookey and I used to see a lot of Alf; especially as we worked quite a lot at South hills. We used to turn the cows out at night, especially in the early spring - I would always go up to the top and could always smell Alf’s pipe in the morning, if he was about. He always had a pipe in his mouth; a lot of folks did in those days; he smoked a very distinctive tobacco which he bought at Brook shop.  I think that Alf was a bit of a hero to Dave and he was very influenced by him, especially towards the end of his life when he was more of a fisherman than he was a farmer.

The hut Alf had down on the undercliff was a very nice boathouse, about twenty foot square, made from tin with a wooden floor and painted black every couple of years. It was just up on the undercliff from Brook shore, Sudmore or Chilton side of Brook beach, right down the bottom. Alf kept all his bits and pieces in there -  bits for mending fishing nets and lobster pots; old bits of rag, bits of tarred rope ...  a tidy hut with things stored in little heaps. The boat was just a one-man boat really.

Off he used to go in the Spring; I used to go to get the cows from South hills about six o’clock, perhaps a little earlier, and by the time I got up there he was gone; you couldn’t see him, so he went out quite a long way. He might’ve gone down towards Sudmore, I don’t know, but I can’t remember seeing him out there. So Alf used to start early -  lovely, just the job - he only had himself to please and off he used to go about five o’clock in the morning I suppose; if he hadn’t been gone long or was still on the beach you could smell his pipe. 

In the winter months Alf used to make lobster or crab pots in a little hut he had in the front of where he used to live; actually on the side; it’s still there now and in good condition. It’s at the side of Bill and Alec’s house but it was Alf’s hut. In winter I’d go home to Chessell when I’d finished the milking and the farmwork, have tea and then ride back. I really enjoyed spending time, usually together with Dave, on winter evenings in Alf’s hut. An oil lamp like a Tilley lamp gave quite a good light; a couple of chairs and a fire… I can’t really remember if it was an open fire or if it had a door on it, but there was a fire and it was always very warm. We’d get there about seven, Alf was already there and he’d welcome us into the hut; we’d sit down and Alf was making these pots; they were very good – I don’t think there were many better pots. They were made with a wood called withy (willow) and Alf had a withy bed up at Sudmore which was on the left as you go towards Chilton. He used to cut all these withies and when he wanted to take them down to his house he’d carry them down on his back;  all you’d see was a pair of legs and a great big pile of withies walking down the Military Road! It was like a big round bird’s nest but Alf was under there somewhere! He was only a little man but very strong. Now why he did that I don’t know; he could’ve asked Dave or asked me and we’d have been glad to take them down in a tractor and trailer, but he was a bit of an independent man like a lot of men were in those days, and he liked to do it himself. 

I never went into the withy bed but I was always interested in it and I used to look over there to see what he was doing - all cut out with the weeds and brambles cut back and the withies growing, he knew how to cut them so he had a continuous flow from one year to the next. I never went in there much because Alf always used to say there was some very  big snakes there …  in the Summer it was wet and cool;  adders used to like being there so Alf said, and there were some great big long ones  - four or five foot- that’s quite big for an adder but it’s what Alf used to say… maybe it was to discourage people from going in there ... I didn’t like snakes so I never went in but was interested in what he was doing there. 

During the winter Alf used to make the pots… the withies were stacked outside the shed in the open, as part of the process of making pots was to leave them out to weather. Withies are very pliable, like a bit of string and you could nearly tie a knot in them, that’s one of the reasons they were used; also they’d last a long time.

Alf, Dave and me; we used to get in this hut night time and he always had a bottle with a bit of brandy in it. Alf used to say he’d got it as a ‘present’ … he used to go out in his boat fishing a long way out, and I think French fishermen, who had bigger boats than Alf with an inboard motor to go a lot further and a lot faster, would meet him out there. I don’t know what they’d exchange or if Alf exchanged anything at all, but sometimes I think they’d give him a bottle of brandy, or maybe two bottles. Only just a present, not smuggling or anything like that.  I remember the bottles were a bluey colour and had a cork. Alf kept two or three little tin cups in this hut and he’d pour out a drop of this brandy for each of us, only two or three mouthfuls - I didn’t know much about brandy then but when I look back on it that was the best brandy I’ve ever tasted - lovely stuff, when it went down your throat it tasted beautiful! Anyway we used to sit in this hut night-time with the fire going; Alf used to make his pots and chuck bits on the fire so it would burn up and get warmer and warmer -  you could nearly drop off to sleep! 

Sometimes we’d stay in there talking for perhaps two or three hours; seven when you went in there and nearer ten by the time you’d finished. Time would just fly talking to Alf; he was a man with a lot of stories and it’s a pity that I don’t think he told them to anybody, I think they’re all forgotten now, but he told a lot of stories all about Brook and the surrounding district; it’s a pity a lot of these stories went with him when he passed away. 

Alf was a relative of Mrs Hookey, Dave’s mother. Up on Downton Farm where I worked, we had a dairy. We’d sell milk from the door in those days. There was quite a big window, open with a little bell; anybody coming for milk would ring the bell and Mrs Hookey would come out, that was her job. If Alf had a big catch, of mackerel for instance, he’d bring them up; this would be about June time. (We’ve gone from winter to summer in three or four minutes, but I don’t suppose that matters?) We had a bath in the dairy on the floor; it was a very cold room to keep the milk and cream cool; we had what they called a dolly bath I think; a very shiny galvanised bath, always kept clean.

If Alf had a lot of mackerel, say, he’d bring them up in a sack on his back; we’d half fill the bath with water and  might have say thirty nice big mackerel in there and we’d sell them from the dairy. I don’t remember them being gutted, perhaps he gutted them … they were there in view in the dairy, and the people who bought the milk would perhaps have a couple. They were only about sixpence each in old money; not much of a price in those days. We’d sell them over a couple of days I suppose; we’d sell most of them until they got a bit old.  Alf told us how much to charge, we’d take the money, give them the mackerel and off they’d go pleased as punch and that was one way Alf would sell his fish. 

In those days it seemed to me all the fish did seem bigger; there are photographs I’ve seen in Brook of Alf with bass which touched the ground, with their nose and the tails right up round his shoulders; I expect that bass must’ve been four foot long which you don’t see much now. On the photograph is written ‘a good catch of bass’, or something like that. I can always remember fish being a lot bigger than they are now and I think that’s quite understandable because the sea’s really fished out now, and I don’t think half of them get old enough to grow to full size. Mackerel seemed bigger than they are now and more plentiful.  

Alf used to tell me that mackerel were a bit of a nuisance; you’d get in a shoal of mackerel and couldn’t get down below them with your line - with two or three hooks on your line, in about half a minute you’d pull in three mackerel and then you’d start again, you don’t get that today.  I can remember at the end of May or into June on a warm day, the sea would be boiling for about two hundred yards square with shoals of mackerel, after the whitebait that they’d feed on. I’ve known mackerel to push the whitebait right up onto the shore - you could wade out up to your knees, pick up mackerel and throw them onto the shore. You don’t see that now but I can remember doing it - what I’m trying to say is that there was a plentiful supply of fish in them days for Alf to catch.  

Alf also used to catch a lot of pouting – today I don’t think you see them much for sale – I can remember eating one and they seemed a terrible bony fish and not very nice at all, but one of the things Alf used to do was catch pouting which he always had orders for at the right time of the year. He always used to say he had what you call a ‘poutmark’.  Pouting would live in a hole on the seabed, so that on the seabed you’d have this hole that went down fifteen or twenty foot perhaps, which Alf called a poutmark. He said he knew where these poutmarks were because he used to line up somewhere on the downs when he was out there - perhaps one of the five barrows, another hump, or a tree - and he’d line that up with perhaps a chimney pot in Brook – get the two in line and he’d manoeuvre his boat so that he knew when he was over the poutmarks then fish knowing he was near enough there. I suppose it took a bit of manoeuvring, maybe twenty foot one way or the other, but once he started catching the pout he knew he was over the mark. I’ve always thought nobody could do that now, but he did it all his life and he caught his pout. I don’t think fishermen still do that today. 

Alf mainly caught lobsters and crabs when I was working at Brook; he wasn’t a young man when I knew him, I think he used to catch a lot more fish in his younger days and be able to sell them but had slowed down a bit by the time I knew him. Brook Bay prawns were what Dave caught in his later years, they’re big prawns and he always had a sale for them.

Of course when Alf made his lobster pots in the winter he’d sell more than he kept for himself; I suppose he’d replace any that had got worn but mostly he made them to sell; that was part of his living. It was a very skilled job, even around the sixties, with not so many folks doing it. I remember they stood outside his hut piled carefully on top of one another, -   the ones I’ve seen are all black with tar; whether he did that or not I don’t know but it would’ve made sense. He had perhaps twenty or thirty lobster pots outside his house about eight foot high, ordered by fishermen from all around.  I don’t know how much you could get for a lobster pot in those days but I expect he made enough to buy his groceries every week.

I remember that at Brook in the summer the sea used to come up and they used to call it a ground sea; the waves would come up and break thirty or forty yards off the shore, surging and boiling right up to the foot of the cliff. A ground sea would come on quite suddenly; Alf might have gone out in the morning in a very calm sea, but while he was out there a ground sea could come up and he’d have a job to get back in. The waves might not look very high from the shore but I expect when you were out there they were five or six foot high even in the summer; the wind would come up as well. Mrs Hookey would come out to me if I was going up to Southhills to get the cows in for the afternoon milking, “Pat, when you get the cows can you have a look and see if Alf’s boat’s in?” She was being kind you see, because she knew this ground sea had come up over a few hours and that Alf would have been out there; that was for safety’s sake and because she cared about him. I’d have to walk up to the top of the cliff and look over. Alf’s boat was always in; he was very clever at reading the weather - I think if he went out in the morning he’d probably know what the weather was going to be like six or seven hours from then - I always thought that was a very kind gesture; Mrs Hookey said that to me more than once. 

I went out with Alf a couple of times; what I didn’t like was that these ground seas came up so quick; it used to frighten me. I didn’t like boats then and I don’t like them now. I only went out with him twice as I can remember and then not very far. I think Alf must’ve got caught out there at some time and found he could manage alright, so I’m sure if the waves had come up he’d have known what to do to get in alright.  I never heard him say he’d had any accidents out there, or near misses, so obviously Alf knew the weather and he knew what to do.  

I remember that Alf was always dressed the same; a very heavy jacket, a shirt with no collar and the sleeves rolled up, and a pair of overall trousers. Always a bit short on him, they were... and black boots; that’s what Alf used to wear all the time. I never knew Alf to catch a bus to go anywhere; I suppose he could get most of what he’d want in the shop in Brook. I know he got his baccy there, I don’t know just how much more he wanted.

Alf never rode a bike but walked everywhere and never seemed far away. He’d walk up from his house to the shop, come up and get a drop of milk sometimes and have a chat with us while we were working around the farm, and never went far as I remember. Whether he caught the bus or not I don’t know; I expect he did but I can’t remember it. He used to wear a cap as well and his pipe stuck in the corner of his mouth...always puffing on it he was and he lived into his eighties so it never did him much harm, did it?  It was pretty strong baccy he used to smoke as well. 

I never went in Alf’s house so I don’t know what it was like; I went to his door but never had any need to go in his house. Alec and Bill Ballard lived in the front of him and they got on well, they’d go in and out and look after one another. Alf was quite a good gardener but not a perfect one; he’d gut fish and bury it straight in the garden; it rotted down and made beautiful manure! He used to grow some quite good stuff there but I don’t think it was one of his first interests; I can remember him having potatoes, rhubarb, all the stuff they grew in those days and I remember him digging all this stuff in; I suppose it’s like this fishmeal you buy today, all quite natural with nothing added.

Apart from his spell in the Royal Navy, Alf must have been the last longshoreman in Brook working the sea from when he left school until he couldn’t work anymore. He was also coxswain of Brook ifeboat. He was in his late seventies or his early eighties when he had to pack up fishing altogether - even then I think he used to make a few pots.

He was a very nice man, Alf was, a man that I took to... I liked most things in Brook and one of them was Alf Woodford; a bit of a character, a very quiet man, he never caused no trouble, never argued. He didn’t say a lot actually, but was a very nice man, someone I’m always pleased to think about; an old fashioned man who when he talked to you could make you feel a grown-up even though you were only fifteen. Sitting here now it seems a long time ago since I was fifteen and knew Alf. I’m glad to be able to sit here tonight and talk about Alf Woodford.

  Pat Tyrrell in 2010