Memoir

Lost in the Barrens

Looking for Newfoundland in England’s West Country

Photograph courtesy of Claire Mowat and English Heritage/Aerofilms Collection
Photograph courtesy of Claire Mowat and English Heritage/Aerofilms Collection
Photograph courtesy of Claire Mowat and English Heritage/Aerofilms Collection
Photograph courtesy of Claire Mowat and English Heritage/Aerofilms Collection
Photograph courtesy of Claire Mowat and English Heritage/Aerofilms Collection
Photograph courtesy of Claire Mowat and English Heritage/Aerofilms Collection
Photograph courtesy of Claire Mowat and English Heritage/Aerofilms Collection
Photographs courtesy of Claire Mowat and English Heritage/Aerofilms Collection Out like a lamb (from top) Keeping warm; Farley and Garth, the “walking haystack of a sheepdog”; down the coomb; Claire with lamb; Cottage no. 2; in the fields; and Cerne Abbas Giant, the West Country’s primordial guardian.

On the mid-December day of my arrival in Liverpool, in 1961, the city was as grey and gloomy as the Irish Sea itself. I wasted no time there. A dismally hooting little train bore me through a besetting fog to London, where a dispirited cabbie found me a grungy little hotel that had the effrontery to call itself the King’s Arms and was inhabited chiefly by relics from Queen Victoria’s reign.

Next morning, after forcing down a cold and flabby smoked herring for breakfast, I set off in search of a flat in which Claire and I could begin life together while we ransacked London’s libraries and archives for information about Newfoundland’s early history.

My first stop was at the flat of Ted Allan, a Canadian playwright (and the only soul I knew in London), who had said he would help me establish myself in England. Now, however, I found him so engrossed in a new script that he could only suggest I scan the newspaper ads for rental notices.

More than a bit disgruntled, I shuffled off in search of Innes Rose, a man I had never met but who purported to be my European literary agent. He turned out to be a dapper little fellow who tried to raise my spirits with the news that a Bombay publisher was considering translating my People of the Deer into Hindi. Then he shot me down by sadly observing that only bluebloods, and wealthy ones at that, could afford to rent a flat in London.

Gloomily, I trudged off to the austere and ancient offices of Michael Joseph, my British publisher, and here I was rescued by Roland Gant, a volatile fellow of about my own age who became my salvation.

Roland, a junior editor, hustled me off to a nearby pub, where he filled me with dark ale and light thoughts before taking me to his tiny house, which he shared with his Parisian-born wife, Nadia, and their infant son. Here I was warmed, wined, and dined while all three listened sympathetically to my tale.

“I’ve read some of your books, you know,” said Roland kindly, “and you hardly sound the sort who’d prosper in this bombed-out hive. You and your light of love might be a damn sight happier closer to Mother Nature.”

Whereupon he described in glowing terms Coombe Farm, a Dorset sheep farm near the Channel Coast, where he and Nadia had rented a farm labourer’s stone cottage as their own getaway retreat.

“The gaffer there’s got another cottage for rent. Rather rustic, of course, but well away from London’s hurly-burly and smack in the middle of Thomas Hardy country. A real writer couldn’t look for a better place! What do you think, Nadia? Shouldn’t this poor blighter slip down and take a peep, before London sends him ’round the bend? ”

Next day, as a wan sun tried to break through London’s cold and clammy fog, I made my way to Paddington Station and caught the local running south and west across Salisbury Plain, past the gaunt fangs of ancient Stonehenge to the Roman town of Dorchester, just a few miles short of the English Channel.

I was met at the station by Allan Percival, gaffer (and owner) of Coombe Farm, who had nursed his beat-up Land Rover the six miles from home to pick me up. A heavy-set, ruddy-faced stereotypical English squire in early middle age, he greeted me with a broad smile, and invited me to “come aboard” his doorless old vehicle. We drove west along the seaward lip of a vast rolling plateau called South Downs—a world which, on this rainy day, seemed almost wholly given over to boundless flocks of sheep.

Coombe Farm, crouching in a narrow valley (a “coomb”) in the south face of the downs between Dorchester and Bridport, lay within walking distance of the coast. A big farm for England, it embraced some eighty acres of rolling hills and hollows. Allan’s progenitors had held it in fee simple for seven generations and, prior to World War II, it had supported several tenant families—the shepherds, drovers, ploughmen, milkmaids, and hedgers who, together with the Percivals, had constituted an almost self-contained tribe.

However, the economic chaos that engulfed Britain after the war had destroyed this little clan. The Big House (so-called though it boasted only eight small and somewhat poky rooms) now housed Allan; Liz, his tall, blond Valkyrie of a wife; two teenage sons; a chair-bound and slightly demented aunt; and Garth, the family’s enormous walking haystack of a sheepdog.

The Percivals were able to maintain ownership of the farm only by cutting expenses to the bone and scrabbling for extra income. Renting the cottages to vacationing Londoners was one such source. Allan offered me a cottage for a beggarly £3 a month. He also sold me a battered pre-war Pilot car for £70, and Liz proffered the loan of a 1908 Smith typewriter for free. So it came to pass that, five days before Christmas 1961, I took possession of Cottage no. 2, Coombe Farm.

We sealed the deal that night at the Travellers Arms, a lonely pub clinging to the edge of the downs. We three were the only guests as the worst blizzard in a century blasted across the land. Later, in pitch darkness with snow squalls swirling around us, Allan shone the flickering lights of the Land Rover on the door of my new home just long enough for me to lift the wooden latch and feel my way into the damp darkness within.

My journal describes the scene:

My new home consists of three (barely) usable rooms: a kitchen just big enough to swing a cat in, a combined living-dining room supposedly heated by a fireplace, and a bedroom in the loft upstairs dependent on body heat. Thereis a bathroom at the other end of the building, but it has no heat, no hot water, and frequently no water at all.

The whole feels like a Siberian tomb. The inner walls (of rough-cut stone and plaster) glisten with what looks suspiciously like ice, and if there has ever been a fire in the dinky fireplace, it has been out for a long, long time. The logs stacked outside the cottage are so green they seem ready to sprout. And there was no kindling and no bloody axe with which to split any. I solved that problem by pouring the contents of an oil lamp over a couple of logs, and might have set the whole place aflame only everything was too wet to really burn.

The upstairs was no warmer. A hot water bottle Liz had placed in the bed several hours earlier seemed full of slush. I hauled the mattress and blankets downstairs, laid them on the stone floor of the main room, and, putting on my extra sweater, opened the mickey of rum I keep for emergencies. But at least, and at last, I have a place for Claire and me to lay our heads.

December 24. Forced out of bed in the wee small hours by the pressure of a full bladder to find the fire stone dead and the blizzard outside still howling. Spent most of Saturday morning hauling junks of wood in from the storm and stacking them around the fireplace (which had finally responded to the contents of a second lamp) hoping they might dry out somewhat.

Was nearly delirious with delight when sixteen-year-old David Percival showed up in the Land Rover with a hundredweight of coal on board. I could have kissed the little bugger! He helped me shuffle a few bits of movable furniture around so as to turn the main downstairs room into a bed-sitting room.

The fireplace is now drawing well and smokes even worse than I do, but by evening I had as comfy a cave as any paleolithic hunter could have expected. There is no water because the pipes are all iced up. The Pilot’s radiator would be, too, if I hadn’t thought to drain it. Antifreeze? There isn’t any. The Brits have probably drunk it all to keep themselves from freezing.

Christmas Day [by this time, the Gants had arrived from London to spend the festive season at their cottage]. Woke somewhat woozily and lit my fire with a device called a “witch.” It went off like a thermite bomb and somehow seems to have blown out whatever was blocking the chimney. Young David, the joker, says Santa Claus was stuck in there. Whatever—I am now smoke free!

To the Gants’ cottage (which is even smaller than mine) for Xmas dinner: roast duck with champignons and artichokes, washed down with Algerian red wine and single malt whisky. Thank God for the touch of France and of Scotland in lugubrious winter Britain. Snoozed a bit after; then, at Roland’s behest (he’s like a dog let out of its kennel when he gets to Coombe Farm), we went up onto the downs to Eggardon Hill and the remains of a huge and very ancient fort.

This was Thomas Hardy’s favourite place, where, according to Roland, the old boy spent a lot of time enjoying the magnificent view over half the West Country and far up and down the Channel. Here he also communed with the long dead, some of whom came to life again in his usually gloomy books. Though no other human beings but ourselves were now to be seen, several hundred sheep milled around the great fortress mound. They seemed to regard us hopefully, perhaps thinking we were ghostly shepherds come from Hardy’s netherworld to fetch them to Hades—and warmer weather.

December 28. Allan asked me to check the dozen or so cement water troughs scattered over the farm for the sheep to drink out of. The snow has mainly vanished but the slopes are soggy with sleet and rain. Very little evidence of humanity, except for a few crumbling drystone dykes and some odd-looking bumps and ridges that Allan says are the remains of ancestral farmsteads supposedly dating back thousands of years. No evidence of modern man is to be seen, except for an occasional concrete water trough resembling a roofless coffin.

This is a spooky place on a foggy day (which is every second day during winter). Nevertheless, it was a wonderfully vigorous and exhilarating ramble. Garth came along, presumably to check out “his” sheep. Hundreds of the woolly little buggers were hanging around in flocks of a dozen or so, and most ambled over to greet Garth like an old pal. We startled four huge hares, a covey of partridges, and flocks of wood pigeons, while sparrow-like fieldfares and otherworldly lapwing plovers flickered and called like earth spirits.

December 29. This morning, the postie stopped by to bring me letters—the first I’ve had since arriving in England. Four were from Claire! The first three were full of happiness, but the last told me her father had been diagnosed with terminal leukemia and likely had only a few weeks to live. She was clearly under great pressure to delay or cancel plans to join me, and, in my overriding anxiety that she might do just that, I brooded over this most of the day and worked myself into a kind of tantrum, growing more and more irrational, and ended by typing a kind of ultimatum to her. I took it up to the Big House that evening, intending to phone it to the cable office, but Liz insisted on reading it first. Then she threw it into the fire, telling me not to be such a bloody fool. After which she and Allan plied me with strong drink and sage advice, until I became properly contrite and, half-sloshed, slunk back to my lonely little truckle bed.

This was a blue-letter day, but a red-letter one, too, because there was a torrential rain that thawed the drain and water pipes so I can at last take a bath, flush the toilet, and wash the dishes. And I am no longer alone, having been joined by a slinky stray cat who is so fast on her feet that I’ve named her Zoom.

Photograph courtesy of Claire Mowat and English Heritage/Aerofilms Collection
Photograph courtesy of Claire Mowat and English Heritage/Aerofilms Collection
Photograph courtesy of Claire Mowat and English Heritage/Aerofilms Collection
Photograph courtesy of Claire Mowat and English Heritage/Aerofilms Collection
A new life (from top) Claire in the couple’s first kitchen; the fireplace that smoked worse than Farley himself; the Pilot, their “gas-eating monster”; an aerial view of Plymouth.

I began working on a novel about a shipload of eighteenth-century immigrants wrecked on l’Enfant Perdu, a desolate island off Newfoundland’s southern coast, but could get nowhere with the story, my writer’s block having acquired the consistency of concrete.

Zoom was becoming chummy but was no antidote for the silence of the mails and the festering suspicion that Claire might have changed her mind. News from Roland Gant that he had lost his job and would not be coming down to Coombe Farm for some time did nothing for my morale.

One faux-spring morning, I set off to walk the Channel shore west to Lyme Regis, a snug little port where, with my regiment, I had been stationed on coast watch in 1942. I got as far as the tiny fishing village of Swyre before the ferocious rush of a sou’west gale sweeping up the Channel so darkened my mood and chilled my blood that I again sought refuge in the Crown at Puncknowle. Its rotund and elderly publican had a friendly word for me:

“Come you in, lad. Colder than the mill tail of hell this yowling day. No doubt ye’ll do with a warm.”

Three roughly clad road menders were standing with their backs to the grate fire, playing darts. They gave me no verbal welcome, just silent nods, but included me in their next round of rough cider. Then, having tried and failed to turn me into a dart player, they shared their lunch with me—rabbit pie, Stilton cheese, bread, and onions.

After they trudged back to work, the publican sat down beside me and, over several pints of strong ale, enthralled me with tales of fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and even more ancient shades who had sailed from here to fish for cod in the bays of the “New Found Land” on the other side of the Western Ocean.

Late in the day, as I climbed the sinuous path leading back to Coombe Farm, my mood was much improved, for it was being borne in upon me that Dorset was a good place in which to learn about the sort of world ancestral to the Newfoundland story I might write.

Furthermore, life did not seem as bleak as usual, partly because Allan seemed increasingly glad to have me underfoot. He was always short of labour, and lambing season was about to begin. So, on his instruction, I spent hours scouring the downs checking for ewes in difficulties, hauling feed, and bringing the occasional ailing animal back to the farm for treatment. Generally, I was accompanied by Garth, who was one of the most caring creatures I have ever known. Every living thing seemed worthy of his solicitous attention, whether it was a leveret (baby hare), a hedgehog, or a lamb.

One day, while searching for a missing ewe, I followed Garth to the crest of the highest hill on the farm. From there we could see the blue loom of land stretching along the Channel Coast to the southwest as far as Start Point—the headland from which, through the long centuries, thousands of sailing vessels of all shapes and sizes, carrying tens of thousands of West Country men, had taken their departures for the mysterious world of fish and furs on the far side of the Western Ocean.

Such was the nature of my days during most of January 1962, as I waited for Claire to join me and for life to begin anew. Claire dealt with the problems of life at Coombe Farm with remarkable equanimity—until one day she encountered a lush growth of fungi in the dark, damp corners of her tiny kitchen. She demanded instant action against this plague of mushrooms, as she called them, and was not placated even when I assured her that they were harmless and, moreover, not really mushrooms anyway.

“In England,” I told her, “they are known as toadstools and are believed to open doorways into the past. Which is one reason we’re here, don’t forget.”

One day, we encountered an ancient guardian of the South Downs. This was (and is) a spectacularly nude titan, 180 feet from the top of his head to his great, splayed feet; carrying in his right hand a knotted club of such proportions that Hercules himself might have trembled before it, the whole carved into the steep chalk slope of a mighty valley that lay only ten miles distant from our little cottage. Initially the figure—the Cerne Abbas Giant, it is called—seems to have been brought into existence by ancient people wielding deer-antler picks and shovels to strip off the turf and so reveal the glaring white chalk that underlies the downs.

On a sunny day, the Giant can be seen plainly from the decks of ships plying the English Channel. He must indeed be one of the largest and most visible Keep Out signs ever erected by human hands anywhere in the world.

The first Roman invaders to cross the Channel would certainly have been impressed; but so great was their hubris that they came ashore anyhow. Then Maiden Castle, the South Downs, and eventually all of England and most of Scotland were engulfed. For centuries thereafter, the Cerne Abbas Giant lay buried under a thickening blanket of grass and heather.

Soon after the collapse of the Roman hegemony, descendants of the people who had originally called him into being restored him, and once again he stood on guard, stark naked, his heavy club lofted threateningly and his enormous penis raised in full erection, in a belligerent gesture that makes thumbing one’s nose seem innocuous.

And so he stood—until the sanctimonious gloom of the Victorian era overwhelmed Britain and the authorities decreed that the giant was a public obscenity. At considerable expense, the goody-goodies turfed over his phallus.

The Cerne Abbas Giant mysteriously re-emerged to again stand revealed in all his glory; and this time officially sanctioned by science as a fertility fetish invented by our very own Stone Age ancestors, and so deserving of respect.

I think of him more as a primordial guardian, risen again from the enduring chalk to proclaim his warning to all would-be invaders to keep their distance—or risk some very calculable consequences.

One moonlit night in the autumn of 1940, a Heinkel bomber from Nazi Germany took up the challenge and dropped its load of high explosives on the giant. It then inexplicably rammed into a nearby hillside, showering the village of Cerne Abbas with flaming fragments of itself.

As one of the ex–Home Guard veterans who had been in the local pub that memorable night would tell me: “Yon big white booger took no more damage from they bombs than a bull takes from a cattle fly. He stood guard for all of we through the war. No harm never came to us, and I don’t say as none ever will so long as we cares for he as he for we.”

The downs were fascinating, but had nothing to tell me about the early peoples of Newfoundland. So Claire and I set off to visit a place where I might find stories I could use.

This was the Channel Islands: a handful of small islands that, though almost within spitting distance of the French coast, nevertheless fly the British flag; whose inhabitants are of the same ancient lineage as their Dorset neighbours; and who, moreover, had been venturing across the Atlantic to the New Found Lands for many centuries.

To reach them, we boarded the small and pleasantly old-fashioned SS Sarnia at Weymouth (Dorset’s harbour) and, after several hours plowing across the two-way stream of ship traffic in the Channel came to Jersey, the largest island in the archipelago.

Jersey’s one and only town, St. Helier, was picturesque, but we did not fall in love with it for Jersey has become a “tripper trap” and the town was enduring a plague of filthy-rich, mostly British émigrés taking advantage of the fact that residents of the Channel Islands are exempt from paying income tax.

We took sanctuary in Jersey’s archives, which were reigned over by Miss Patricia Webb, a dear old soul who made us honorary members of the Société Jersiais and took it upon her wispy self to rout out information for us about the islanders’ early voyages across the Western Ocean.

Everywhere we went, stark evidence of the German occupation was front and centre. The Nazi preparations for all-out war had been gargantuan. Sixteen thousand slave workers imported from occupied Europe had been worked (often to death) building what Hitler intended to be an impregnable outpost of his Fortress Europe. This included an immense concrete anti-tank and anti-personnel wall several miles long, backed by innumerable concrete gun emplacements. Such fortifications rendered the entire archipelago one of the most extensively fortified places on earth, although most of its fearsome weapons never did fire a shot in anger.

On evening when Allan had dropped by for a drink, we complained that the Channel Islands had thrown little light on my investigations into the Newfoundland story.

“Wasting your time gadding out there!” he reprimanded us. “They folk have English names but they think French. If you’re about finding the real west-faring men, you should be spending your time and money in the real West Country!

“And where exactly is that? ” I asked, a little miffed.

“It’s the true heart and soul of England. The whole southwestern peninsula—Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, and some of Dorset. A world apart, it is, and always has been. Face turned to the sea and its back to the land. A country that has sent thousands and thousands across the big pond to fish and settle what people here still call the New Found Land. If you really want to know about them and their ways, stick to the West Country. There you’ll find stories enough.”

Claire’s mother had been born and bred in the little town of Torquay on the Devon coast not more than fifty miles, as the gull flies, from Coombe Farm.

“I’ve always wanted to go back to Torquay,” Claire mused. “Why not now? ”

Early in March, we fired up the old Pilot, packed travel bags aboard, and set off on a voyage of exploration. We could have gone by way of Plymouth, following the coast (and visiting Torquay en route), but I opted for a more challenging route.

“See,” I said as Claire joined me in peering at a road map of Devon. “There’s a shortcut. Runs right across Dartmoor, which is evidently some sort of national park. Almost uninhabited country apparently, dotted with prehistoric tombs and wild ponies and lots of other wildlife. What say we give it a go? ”

Although warned that Dartmoor’s treeless and windswept plateau might be impassable because of ice and snow, we headed the old Pilot that way, emerging onto the bleak and barren moors whose roads were so heavily drifted the Pilot could scarcely make headway. Her radiator furiously boiling, she carried us into a world reminiscent of the Barren Lands of Canada’s Subarctic except that, instead of vast herds of caribou, Dartmoor offered only companies of free-ranging ponies, who observed us from a safe distance, while, I suspect, sniggering amongst themselves.

The only current sign of human life was a distant and chilling glimpse of the grim stone walls of infamous Dartmoor Prison, where some of Britain’s most depraved and wicked malefactors were supposedly incarcerated.

Confused by drifting snow, we became lost at a crossroad but luckily stumbled on a track that led down off the moor to the village of Horsebridge, a cluster of seemingly derelict stone houses surrounding the Royal Inn. I pounded on its oaken door, which swung open revealing a massively built fellow wearing a furze of salt-and-pepper whiskers who bellowed:

“Name of Jarge! Welcome, my dears! This be no night on the moor for dog nor man—nor pretty gal.”

With which he pulled us in and poured us both hefty belts of whisky. His wife, Helga, a statuesque Nordic woman with little English, heaped more logs on an already roaring open fire while, shouting “Skol !” and stirring the contents of a huge iron pot suspended in the flames.

We were the Royal’s only guests that night.

After we had been fed a marvellous fish stew, we were introduced to the rest of the family: two elkhounds (named Odin and Thor) and Barnacle Bill, a magnificent badger almost as large as a Labrador retriever but so short in the legs he somewhat resembled a self-propelled sack of grain.

“Best keep your bedroom door shut and locked,” our host warned us. “Bill do like to doss down with visitors. He’ll keep you warm, certainly, but he do snore like the devil in fits.”

Besides being a saviour of storm-tossed travellers, George turned out to be one of Devon’s last surviving shipwrights. He still forged square-cut nails, anchor chains, deck irons, and a score of other wrought-iron artifacts; and he had a vivid memory, which I was delighted to plumb.

The weather worsened that night, but little we cared. We happily settled in at the Royal with the inscrutable elkhounds and the indomitable Bill, who we discovered could push open a heavy bedroom door even when a chair had been jammed against it from the inside.

With the Royal as our secure anchorage, we next day visited Plymouth, which had been one of England’s paramount maritime centres until time (and Hitler’s Luftwaffe bombers) reduced it to a shattered grey ruin of its former self.

Nevertheless, treasure awaited us in its museum. When I explained to the aged curator, Edwin Walsh, why we were there, his rather dour and scholarly face relaxed into a welcoming smile.

Leading us into the murky, musty muniment room where old maps and manuscripts were kept, he produced a well-worn leather-bound volume and laid it tenderly before us.

This was, he told us, a donation from one of Plymouth’s oldest families: a lifetime journal kept by a seventeenth-century ancestor, who in his later years became nationally famous as a surgeon and physician.

“What will be of interest to you,” Walsh explained, “is that in his youth this man—James Yonge was his name—made several voyages to Newfoundland from Plymouth’s port of Cattewater as a doctor aboard fishing vessels.

“His journal must be one of the few surviving first-person accounts of what such voyages to the New World entailed. You may find it hard to read—its author seems to have possessed greater dexterity with a scalpel than with a pen—but I believe it will be well worth your while.”

It was. Born in 1647 to a middling well-to-do Plymouth family, James Yonge was, at age ten, indentured by his father to serve a term of eight years as apprentice to the surgeon (surgeon and doctor were interchangeable terms at the time) aboard the brig Constant Warwick, a privateer mounting thirty-one guns, which was engaged in harrying Dutch and Spanish shipping.

The boy spent most of his next four years at sea, surviving gory conflicts with Dutch warships and pirates, while learning the surgeon’s trade the hard way from “an old army Chyrurgeon,” as he later wrote in his journal: “Morose, ill-natured and hard to please, his chief apprentice was his eldest son and another younger he had for his cabin boy. I were a servant to them all, and did all the drudgery under the misery thereof I often wished myself dead.”

Yonge nevertheless learned the fundamentals of seventeenth-century medicine well enough that, at fourteen, he was accepted as a full-fledged surgeon for a voyage to Newfoundland aboard the Plymouth fishing smack Reformation.

He had a rewarding season as the only medical man available to care for a summer colony of at least 1,000 fishermen. He would have sailed again for the fishery at Newfoundland the following year, had not his father meanwhile sold his services to the skipper of the merchant ship Robert Bonadventure, which was soon outgunned and outsailed by a Dutch privateer. Yonge spent the next two years in Holland as a prisoner of war, much of that time chained leg-to-leg to a fellow prisoner.

In 1669, at the age of twenty-two, Yonge returned to sea, this time in a vessel of his own choosing. She was Marigold, a ninety-foot, two-masted Plymouth fishing boat that had already made more than thirty transatlantic passages.

Bluff-bowed and heavy-set, she was an able sea boat, though only large enough to provide absolutely minimal living conditions for her sailing crew of eight and for the eighty-two Devon shoremen who, for a small percentage of the catch, were to do the actual fishing from the eighteen two-man boats that she also carried.

Although I have myself sailed in a Newfoundland fishing schooner of similar size, I find it impossible to envisage what living conditions aboard Marigold must have been like with nearly ninety men packed into dungeon-like holds that stank of generations of dead fish and unwashed humanity; windowless crypts that were always damp and frequently dripping wet, and without heat or light except for the glimmer of candles and perhaps of an occasional oil lantern.

The direct distance between the Lizard (the Cornish cape from which Plymouth vessels took their westward departures) and St. John’s, Newfoundland, was 2,100 miles; but few if any sailing vessels ever succeeded in making a direct passage. Headwinds, adverse currents, and detours to avoid severe storms, ice fields, and pirates saw to that.

There was also the problem of navigation. Most skippers of those times had only the compass and two of the three Ls—Lead, Log, and Latitude—with which to find their way over the trackless seas. The lead, a heavy weight dropped overboard on the free end of a long line, gave warning of an approach to land. The log, a chip of wood heaved overboard from the bow and timed (usually with a sandglass) until it was left astern, provided a rough estimate of the vessel’s speed. Latitude, which enabled the skipper to judge how far north or south of his proper course he was, could be obtained with a sextant—if he had one, and if the skies were clear.

Because of the enormous competition for berthing and fishing space in New World harbours, West Country vessels sailed as early in the year as possible. On February 23, 1669, Marigold, with Yonge aboard, took her departure from England, even though winter conditions still prevailed. Her voyage across took twenty-nine days, twenty-four of which were spent on the open ocean, sometimes in freezing conditions and always struggling with wind and sea. This was considered a fast passage, and only one man died: fisherman John Beard, who succumbed to what Surgeon Yonge diagnosed as pleurisy.

On March 24, the little ship sailed into the superb harbour of St. John’s, to find herself the first fishing vessel to arrive that year. Captain Martyn’s reward was freedom to choose the best berth in the harbour as his summer fishing station.

That season saw sixteen West Country vessels fishing 630 men in 167 two-man open boats from St. John’s Harbour and adjacent ports. They competed with nineteen more-or-less permanent shore stations (planters or interlopers) fishing 175 men from thirty-five boats. In consequence, James Yonge enjoyed a very busy and rewarding summer.

Since the new world had treated him so well, Yonge determined to make its fishery his principal business. Full of youthful confidence and testosterone, he signed on for Marigold’s next voyage, and spent the intervening months playing the mating game in and around Plymouth:

About a fortnight before we were to depart, one Susan, being to be married, I was invited to the wedding. The old folks being withdrawn at evening, leaving us young people alone, we were very merry in the bride’s chamber.…I took special regard of Mrs. Jane Crampporn in whom I found such beauty, such wit, and such humour as together with her excellent education tempted me to love and so warmly that at night, the new married people being bedded, I led this young lady home and left her heart and my heart together.

Marigold left her home port on February 8, just as a winter’s night closed in, bringing bitter cold and a shroud of snow and hail. It was not a good time to be out of doors, even upon the land and certainly not upon the water; but the rising wind was a nor’easter—a fair wind for any westbound vessel—and Captain Martyn was a driver. He was pushing his luck.

The nor’easter blew strong as Marigold laboured westward down the Channel, until dawn brought a glimpse of the Lizard and a last sight of England. Then, under full sail, she broke out into the open ocean, where a perfect turmoil of current, wind, and water drove her back and forth, sometimes westerly but often easterly or even to the north or south, until it must have seemed to the men below decks that the ordeal would never end.

March 1. In this last twenty-four hours, the wind proved so variable we had to steer on all points of the compass between south-southeast and northwestward. We found our latitude to be 49.30 and so supposed ourselves to be 894 miles west from the Lizard, so that in three weeks we have run only halfway to Newfoundland.

Making an approach to land is always a tense time. This one was especially stressful because the offshore was shrouded in fog, and cluttered with Arctic ice driving south on the Labrador Current—ice that could not only bar all close approach to land, but could trap and sink approaching ships.

March 11. We keep men at the bowsprit end all night. One of them says they saw ice, so we tacked seaward fearing to venture further.…The Lord guide our course and preserve us! We are in a great deal of danger.

March 12. We heave the lead, have sixty-two fathoms. We bear into a shelf of ice which proved thick and broad but, blessed be to God, got through and find the next shelf worse than the first with great pieces in it as big as two of our boats. We got through it also, when we find it all full of ice to the northward and ourselves encompassed about in great peril; there was a very great swelling sea, which made the ice crush and cry, terrible to hear.

March 14. At 2 this morning, the wind comes north and we make sail. By 8, it blew a gale, snowed and freezed so that we had much ado to get our sails down, every rope grown exceedingly big with ice. We drove southeast; much hail and snow and terrible weather. We are in very desperate danger, not able for our lives to loose a knot of sail, all being frozen so stiff and fast with ice. In the evening have but thirty fathoms.

March 16, morning. Made shift to cut away an immeasurable quantity of ice from our ship’s bows, decks, and ropes. It is intolerable cold and freezes terribly. From Sunday morning to this day noon, I keep myself warm in my bed, not rising but to go to the house of office [the toilet], which was close by my lodging in the great cabin. Here I made a resolution never to go this voyage more, nor to sea again.

March 18. We are environed with ice, north, south, and west. We are in a desperate case, the worse because our master and his mate are now both drunk.

If things on deck had become so bad that even Mr. Martyn and his first officer succumbed to it, perhaps it is just as well that we do not have even a glimpse of what conditions must have been like below decks.

However, the worst was over.

March 20, after forty-one days at sea. At sundown we spy the land but ten leagues off! The evening looks black—we fear fog. We steer north-northwest hoping the coast is clear of ice. Our crew say in thirty-six voyages they never saw so much ice. We hope the last storm blew all of it out of the harbours, God grant it or we have no place to go. The sky becomes black but it is only a shower. Blessed be God for this mercy. I am resolved it shall be the last time I will hazard being frozen to death at sea.

And so it was to be. After a safe return to England in September, James Yonge swallowed the anchor, married the former Mrs. Jane Crampporn, and settled down as a prosperous Plymouth physician, of whom it was said that he so hated the sea that he would no longer even venture onto a millpond.

Yonge’s days of westfaring to the New World were at an end; and Claire and I returned from our foray into the West Country with much to think about.

This appeared in the December 2014 issue.

Farley Mowat wrote dozens of books, which have sold more than 17 million copies around the world. He died this past May, six days short of his ninety-third birthday.

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