The artist and former Oysterman Stuart Hodges, who died in 2010, had the reputation of packing oysters faster than the eye could follow and could hold a cluster of 30 oysters in one hand. Jill, Stuart’s wife writes about the industry and the lives of the remarkable Oystermen.
Port Navas is a small hamlet in the parish of Constantine just off the tidal estuary of the Helford River. It’s quaint Cornish cottages have barely altered since they were built except perhaps in ownership. At the end of the village down the road beside the creek lies a hidden gem. This is the Duchy of Cornwall Oyster Farm.
In the mid 1950s the building, or depot, was replaced as the original premises were made of wood and corrugated iron sheets allowing the sea to flow under the building. It was preserved with tar and red lead and as a result it lasted some forty years despatching many millions of oysters to the UK markets.
The new building is like a cross between a boathouse and a bungalow. It was managed by four generations of the Hodges family from 1890 until 2005. Len Hodges was the last manager until he retired, Len along with his brother Stuart working with him was later joined by his son Lindsey. The Helford River, on which the Oyster Farm sits, was originally owned by the Church of England before the Duchy of Cornwall took it over in 1908.
Oysters were originally considered food for the poor but as times and food fashions changed they developed into the food for the wealthy. Oysters were transported each day by train to London with the result that 75,000 Cornish oysters were distributed to famous London restaurants every week.
Despite the Helford Estuary being free from pollution the Oysters are sensitive to weather and riverbed conditions. In the winter of 1963 easterly gales raged for weeks and silted up some of the oyster beds suffocating half of the oyster stock. In 1964 three quarters of the oysters were natives of the Helford River with the remainder being brought from Portugal at two years old and left to fatten for another three years.
Once they were collected Oysters were separated into five grades depending on weight with grade one being the largest. Despite the Helford oysters being on the small side they contain quite a lot of meat compared to the size of the shell and are therefore thought to be better than the larger oysters.
During the time the Hodge’s family members managed the oyster farm dredgers chugged up the river to the mouth of the creek that is called Pedn Billy. The boats would travel towards Calamansac, The Pool, Pill Bar, Frenchman’s Creek, Tremayne Quay and Groyne Point where the colonies of oysters lay on their beds.
The only indication that beneath the blue-green waters there were oysters at a depth of four to five fathoms (24 to 30 feet) when the tide is high werer the thin stakes that stood out ten feet above the waterline.
The boats drifted while the triangular dredge attached to a stout hemp rope was cast. The boats would chug along for a few minutes then stop to drift again while the dredge was hauled up by hand and emptied on the deck.
The good oysters were then put into trays and the seaweed, stones and shell debris, and the oysters that were too small were tipped back into the sea. The size of an oyster was determined by a heavy brass ring specially designed for the purpose. If an oyster slipped through the ring it was considered too small and was therefore returned to the river.
At spring tides the oyster boats went out at full or half tide so that the men could go ashore at low tide to ‘trig’. This involved picking up oysters by hand off the shore and maintaining the beds before the tide came in again. Beds were levelled off by shovels to make them flat and clear of mud as oysters could be lost on uneven beds.
Oystermen were often coopers as they had to know how to knock up a barrel or a box and also had to make nets for the dredges. These days the boxes are already made. An Oystermen also had to know how to hold twenty oysters at a time in their hands and pack them deep shell down.
When the letter R was not in the name of the month – May to August inclusive – it was time for boat repairs and painting, dredge repairs, painting the oyster farm, and maintaining moorings, oyster beds and oyster bed markers.
The Oyster Farm has changed hands since the Hodges family ran it. It is now run under licence. Like many industries it has changed over the years and is not as prolific as it used to be when it had 12 workmen. When the family managed the oyster farm there were two oyster dredgers working at a time hauling and casting the dredges by hand.
These days it is now all done mechanically. To the Oysterman of the River Fal the mechanical approach seems highly irregular as River Fal Oysterman still use haul tow or sail boats. The River Fal Oystermen see their methods as preserving the volume of stock and the hand dredging as a means to stop the suffocation of the oysters.
Click on page two for a piece written by Stuart Hodges before he died.