Pat Tyrrell remembers Alf Woodford

Pat Tyrell remembers spending time as a boy with Brook fisherman, 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 and the last longshoreman in Brook. 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 of Downton Farm. 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. 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.

Alf lived on Brook Green, in Therles, a house that didn’t have much of an outlook, right of South Hills and down onto the undercliff ; it took him less that ten minutes to get there. I could 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 Brook shop. Alf used to go out mostly after lobsters and crabs, although I can remember him catching a lot of mackerel and bass, and he was very keen on pouting. He used to sell whatever he caught. I always wondered how he got in contact with anybody to buy them as 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. I suppose it was just hearsay and somebody found out he’d had a good catch and came down to buy his fish. The hut that 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 on the Chilton side of Brook beach. Alf kept all his bits and pieces behind Chine Cottage where Alec and Bill Ballard lived. Alf’s journey to work took him up the garden, over the fence into South Hills, up to the corner distinctive tobacco which he bought at 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. 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. In the winter months Alf used to make lobster or crab pots in a little hut he had on Brook Green (Seashell). I really enjoyed spending  time, usually together with Dave (Hookey), on winter evenings in this hut. An oil lamp, like a tilley lamp, gave quite a good light; there were 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 prawn and lobster pots. He always had a bottle with a bit of brandy in it and 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 and 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; it was 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 about Brook and the surrounding district. It’s a pity a lot of these stories went with him when he passed away.

Up on Downton Farm where I worked we had a dairy. If Alf had a big catch of mackerel, for instance, he’d bring them up to the farm; this would be about June time. 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, 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. In those days it seemed to me all the fish, especially bass and mackerel, seemed bigger 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. He also used to catch a lot of pouting and always had orders for them at the right time of the year. 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. He 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 - which he’d line 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 and start to fish. 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 would do that now, but he did it all his life and that’s how he caught his pout. 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. 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 mightn’t 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 South Hills 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 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. 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 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 think it was in his late seventies or his early eighties when he had to pack up fishing altogether - even then I think he still used to make a few pots. I liked most things about Brook and one of them was Alf Woodford; a bit of a character, a very quiet man, he never caused no trouble, never argued - didn’t say a lot actually, but a very nice man. I’m always pleased to think about him, an old fashioned man who when he talked to you could make you feel a grown-up even though you were only fifteen.