One thing my father insisted on was that we all learned to swim.
The harbour village of West Bay was situated two miles south of Bridport, so we didn’t have far to travel to get to the sea. Between the two piers, just on the seaward side of the harbour was a wooden platform supported by struts that divided a triangle of water from the channel used by ships entering the harbour.
The swimming training method of the time in Bridport was called ‘The Belt’. It consisted of a wide belt that was strapped round a child’s chest, and suspended by a strong rope that would be held by an adult walking along the platform above. As the child’s confidence grew, the tension on the rope was slackened until no rope was necessary.
When I passed my fifty yards test, I became a member of the Bridport Ladies Swimming Club. Oh the joy! We had a black and white striped wooden hut in which to change, utter luxury after years of trying to hold down a towel in the wind at the same time as pulling your knickers up over cold wet legs.
Towards the end of every summer there was a swimming gala held in the river mouth. Much as I loved swimming, I didn’t enjoy the competitive events. Each year I started to get excited and dreamed I’d do well, but invariably gala day was a time of shivering nail-biting anxiety and many trips to the toilet.
West Bay was festive in summer, with the campsite full and the fairground buzzing. Around the river mouth small kiosks traded everything from hot-dogs and sunglasses to buckets, spades and fishing nets. One boasted thirty-six different flavours of ice cream, but with the British climate, they probably did a better trade with hot soup and coffees. The soup choice was always only tomato or oxtail. The aroma of hot chips lingered in the air, enticing one to spend hard-earned pocket money.
Once a month large ships came into the harbour to offload timber. The width between the two piers was barely wide enough for some of them, and they had to dock at high tide for the depth.
West Bay, as the port of Bridport dates back to Roman times. From the 13th century Bridport was renowned for rope-making, the hangman’s rope being made there, which gave rise to the saying “stabbed with a Bridport dagger”.
Swimming between the piers was forbidden, partly because of the danger from boats, and partly because of the hazardous currents. One year I experienced the strength of the rip first hand.
My friend Sara’s parents owned a small sailing boat they moored in the harbour. They accessed the boat from a rowing dinghy moored against the wall. We were allowed to use the dinghy to row around in the harbour. One day we decided to take it out through the piers to sea. The waves were quite choppy, adding a bit of excitement to the venture, but we thought we were pretty strong oarsmen by then. About halfway down the length of the piers, fishermen started shouting at us to go back. It was too dangerous. But we ignored them for a while, until the waves became higher and we started to feel a bit frightened. So full of bravado, we tried to turn and go back. But we couldn’t. We couldn’t row against the strength of the tide. Help had to be called and we were towed back in disgrace.
Growing up close to the sea has left me with a great awe and fondness for the ocean. We never knew of anything dangerous in the waters around West Bay, apart from the currents and the odd jellyfish. A couple of times we were privileged to see porpoises arching up out of the water. That usually meant a good haul of mackerel in front of them. One year the larger fish drove a huge shoal of sprats right into shore. The breaking waves were silver with fish. As soon as word got around, almost everyone from the town was on the beach with buckets collecting a week’s worth of free meals. The fish were about eight centimetres long, and were cooked whole. We fried them, grilled them and soused them, but I was glad when they were finally finished, as I didn’t care for the eyes and the bones.