A Severn Tradition
People often say that we don’t appreciate the things on our doorstep and I suppose that is as true of Severn Valley folk as anyone else. Our special environment holds some unique cultures and crafts that go back into the dimness of pre-history, but today are almost forgotten. Although it has declined in recent years to a fraction of its former extent, the Severn salmon fishery is one of the dying traditions that we should try to keep alive as part of our heritage. Two people who are trying to do just this are Deryk Huby and Don Riddle, who came along to the December gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeological Society to tell us the history of the salmon fisheries and give us a fascinating demonstration of the making of ‘Putchers’.
Putchers are a ‘modern invention’ (says a report of 1862) that replaced similar varieties of willow fish traps. Using wonderful dexterity and strange array of old Victorian tools, Deryk and Don split the willow withies into 3 and wove them into what looked like an elongated wicker basket or wind sock. (You may have seen some filled with flowers for Thornbury in Bloom.) Whilst mesmerised we were regaled with tales of night-time forays into the black river to check the Putchers for fish and scare away unsuspecting deer that were browsing seaweed on the exposed river bed.
Just a few decades ago it was possible at low tide to see yards of ‘hedging’ and ranks of hundreds of Putchers stretching far out into the Severn anywhere between Newport and Tewkesbury. It was vital to check these twice a day at low tide, day or night, otherwise your catch could be stolen by otters, foxes, crows or eels. It was hard, dedicated and dangerous work. If you managed to let water into the top of your chest waders then the air trapped at your feet would flip you upside down, and in the cold light of dawn a pair of upturned feet might be spotted floating down the river.
Long rows of sturdy posts were anchored into holes driven into the bedrock of the river, so that the ranks of Putchers could be fixed fast. Remains of posts and traps carbon-dated to the 6th century were found in the construction of the second Severn crossing. Statutes and charters concerning the fisheries go back to the year 956, with many mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. Much of the regulation and control goes back to the 1860s and we were shown examples of the licensing and the current strict monitoring done by the Environment agency. It’s amazing the information the scientists of today can gather from a fish scale!
The experience of Deryk and Don goes back a mere 51 years, when they renovated a fishery at Cowhill. During the allocated season from mid-April to mid August they would catch salmon up to a monster 36lb, with which to supply local farmers and hotels, always remembering to keep a prize specimen for the landowner. Deryk and Don retired from fishing in 1997 but still do much to keep the tradition alive.
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.