Fishing Heritage

Can She Bait a Line?

The unsung heroines of North East England’s fishing communities

A talk on Zoom for New Bedford Fishing Heritage Centre USA

February 10th 2022

5-6pm UK time (12 noon EST).

In the traditional small-boat fishing communities of North East England, until the mid 20th century, fishermen relied on their wives and daughters for the unpaid, land-based tasks that kept the boat at sea. These tasks included gathering bait and preparing the long lines, each of which carried 1,400 hooks. It was also the women’s job to sell fish. American artist Winslow Homer travelled to England in 1881 and spent a year depicting these activities.

Alongside small-boat fishing, from the early 19th century the Scottish and English herring fishery became more industrialised. Some women gained a degree of economic independence in this fishery.  Following the herring shoals down the coast, they worked in teams, gutting and packing herring into barrels with layers of salt.

My talk will include real-life examples from both kinds of fishing, together with some artistic and poetic responses. Along the way we’ll consider what we can learn from fisher women’s lives about human relations to nature, place and sustainability.

Details of the Talk and Zoom link HERE

My work on the Northumberland coble fishing community includes poems in ‘The Lost Music’ and ‘Two Countries’, oral history in ‘The Bonny Fisher Lad’, and historical interpretation (with Dr Adrian Osler) in ‘Bednelfysch and Iseland Fish’ (Mariner’s Mirror, vol. 96, no. 1, Feb 2010).

My 2021 talk on the language of Northumberland fishing communities for the CELCE group at Leeds University may be seen HERE

The Coble & Keelboat Society

The Coble and Keelboat Society aims to preserve and promote the history of the inshore fishing tradition on the NE and Yorkshire Coast. I’ve been a member for about 30 years. In January this year, to my great surprise, the Trustees asked me to accept the office of President. I feel completely unworthy, but accepted in the hope that it might provide the incentive for me to write up more of what has been passed on to me by the people with the real knowledge and experience of fishing from cobles. Here’s a short essay I wrote for the CKS in response to this honour:

Charlie Douglas huddles by the stove in his tarred hut overlooking Beadnell Haven on a stormy January afternoon. He is telling me the story of Andrew Fawcus and his three sons, lost over a hundred years ago, when their coble capsized within sight of home. Their memorial stands, weathered now, and partially illegible, in Beadnell Churchyard. ‘Th’ was a lot a wund. Patterson had the sail reefed, y’ kna, so he didn’t hev ower-much sail on. But Andrew – Andrew Fawcus went away wi’ a full sail. Nivvor reefed hor, y’ kna. Went away for’ there, wund freshenin’…’ Charlie pauses, and hangs his head. ‘Ma gran’fetther telt me – him an’ Auld Foreman, Dick Haal an’ Jimmy Cuthbertson – a right night th’ put in, lookin’ for them. Ye cannot be ower-careful at the sea.’

Charlie told me that story about 30 years ago, around the time I joined the Coble and Keelboat Society. I was immersed in the life of the coble fishing community from Holy Island to Amble, a writer and poet finding inspiration in the people around me, many of whose memories stretched back to the ‘sailing days’. I made some wonderful friends at that time – Redford Armstrong and his sister Cathy, originally from Newbiggin; Bill Smailes from Craster; May Douglas and her brother-in-law, Charlie, at Beadnell. I was privileged to know each of them, too many to name; to listen to their stories and record as much of their knowledge as I could.

The coble fishing community that I knew has dwindled over the decades, replaced by a generation of younger fishermen who, while they preserve many of the same virtues, instincts and traditions as their forefathers, fish by necessity with less locally-distinctive boats, and in more intensive ways. This is, in important respects, great progress. Modern inshore fishing boats, with powerful engines, plotters, echosounders and radar, are safer than Andrew Fawcus’s sailing coble, and modern standards of living are far higher. I think especially of the women, who brought up their large families while gathering and ‘skeynin’ mussels, and baiting the 1,400 heuks of the long lines every winter’s day.

Without nostalgia, I try in my writing to express what I found so admirable about that older generation: their (not always harmonious) values of interdependence and community; their awareness of the importance of the past to the future; their intimacy with their fishing grounds; and, above all, the inherent sustainability of coble fishing – particularly long line fishing, hard as it was on the women. The coble was self-limiting by size, able to carry only small amounts of gear or fish, and – although poverty pushed fishermen into taking risks – unable to work in the worst weather. As we celebrate the fact that the hardship and acute danger involved in inshore fishing have diminished, we recognise that have lost some of the communality, sustainability and long identification with place that made the coble fishing tradition so unique. I believe that the CKS exists to celebrate these values, as well as the boat itself.

It is with deep humility that I accept the honour of President of the Coble and Keelboat Society. I could never hope to emulate the knowledge and experience of the former President, or of so many individual CKS members, many of whom know far more about coble construction and history than I do, or have practical coble sailing or fishing experience, which I do not. A Society is as diverse as its members, and its energy lies in all that those members bring to it. I hope that, as President, my role may be to pass on more of what others have given me. I feel enormous pride that the generation of fishermen and women whom I knew and loved, and who entrusted so much of their knowledge and wisdom to me, might be better remembered as a result of this honour. I thank them, and all CKS trustees and members, so much.

Photo by Dave Durward

The FisherPoets Gathering 2022

February 26th-28th

The FisherPoets Gathering, which takes place annually in Astoria, Oregon USA, is online again this year. Since my first visit there in 2014, I’ve been a huge fan. I feel enormous solidarity with the men and women of the American West Coast who make their living from the sea, and write and sing about it.

You can still hear a BBC Radio 4 documentary which I made about the Gathering in 2014. Listen HERE on BBC Sounds.

Treat yourself to last year’s Saturday night FisherPoets performances HERE. (Listen all the way through if you can. I’m on near the end, at around 2 hours 47 mins).

For more details of this year’s Gathering, keep an eye on the FisherPoets’ website, HERE.

Plenty Lang a Winter

Food and Drink NE is a Community Interest Company which aims ‘to build the North East’s reputation as a flourishing food and drink destination with local heritage, sustainability, innovation and community at its heart.’ Together with GRUB Productions they have come up with this beautiful short film, based on my poem, ‘Plenty Lang a Winter’, from ‘Two Countries’ (Bloodaxe Books 2014). Watch it HERE.

Guillemot Press Poets on Poetry and Collaboration

Podcast, January 10th 2022

Click on the heading to hear an introduction to and reading from the collection ‘Sea Change’ (Guillemot Press, 2021), which Phoebe Power and I gave as part of an online event for Poetry in Aldeburgh in November last year. Not fishing this time, but post-industrial social and environmental regeneration on the Durham Coast. Also taking part with a fantastic music and poetry collaboration are Clarissa Álvarez and Petero Kalulé.



What would we have done in the last year without Zoom? I’m indebted to the platform for making possible the following live and recorded events.

Upcoming Live Events

York Festival of Ideas

Science, Imagination and Poetry

Monday 14th June 2021, 1pm to 2.15pm BST

Online Panel Discussion

Free admission, booking required

How can science, poetry and imagination combine to enrich each community’s ideas?

Expert speakers include poet-priest Malcolm Guite; violinist and composer Anna Phoebe; poet Katrina Porteous; and internationally-recognised expert in interdisciplinary studies, Sam Illingworth of Edinburgh Napier University.

The event is chaired by Tom McLeish, a physicist, interdisciplinary leader and writer from the University of York.

To book Science, Imagination & Poetry, please click HERE.

Wordsworth Grasmere: An Evening with Katrina Porteous

Online poetry event

Wed, 23rd June 2021

19:30 – 21:00 BST


Featuring the World Premiere of ‘Under the Ice’

‘Under the Ice’, poetry by Katrina Porteous and electronic music by Peter Zinovieff, is the World Premiere of an immersive half hour performance, which takes the listener on a journey to the unseen world beneath Antarctica’s ice: gigantic mountains, valleys, lakes and volcanoes, more difficult to visit than outer space. Intended for the non-scientist, the piece explores the ‘remote sensing’ techniques used to investigate this secret landscape and to measure the movement of glaciers — in particular Thwaite’s Glacier, crucial to the understanding of climate change.

Scientists studying Thwaite’s observe Earth’s smallest and largest phenomena: microscopic clues in the bedrock provide evidence of the glacier’s advance and retreat over vast timescales; air bubbles in ice cores reveal the composition of the atmosphere over a million years; radar and satellite data supply information about the dynamics of the glacier and the ice sheet which feeds it. More information about the piece will follow in my June blog post.

Peter Zinovieff’s music is derived from real sound sampled from Antarctic glaciers, by Northumbria University scientist Dr Kate Winter, and audio artists Chris Watson and Philip Samartzis.

‘Under the Ice’ is created as part of NUSTEM’s Exploring Extreme Environments project at Northumbria University, supported by STFC.

The premiere will be followed by an Open Mic session in the second half of this Wordsworth Grasmere online event.

To book, please click HERE.

West Antarctica (Photo credit NASA)

Recent Events Now Available on You Tube

Fireside Chat for the Poesie App

On April 23rd I recorded a live question and answer session with Ben Bregman for his excellent Poesie App, which had featured some of my work from Edge a few weeks earlier. The discussion was unscripted and wide-ranging, and has now been edited to a 30-minute version. It begins with an overview of my work, including the possibly perplexing question of why I write about both inshore fishing traditions and contemporary science. That’s followed by a question about the current state of fishing in Northumberland, then a tough one about how I engage with my responsibility to the values of sustainability and local ecology. There’s a reading of “Various Uncertainties: II” from Edge about midway at 17:48, then a further question about how I reconcile the vast difference in magnitude between my work on fishing traditions and my work on astrophysics. Towards the end there are questions about what it was like to work at the intersection of arts and sciences while writing the three planetarium pieces in Edge, and one about how I ended up at my current home in Northumberland. The interview ends with a poem from Edge, “Aurora”.

Poesie is an app-based, online poetry book club, which features different poets every week. It’s currently available on Apple devices only. Subscribers read and discuss a selection of each poet’s work. It has thousands of members from around the world, and is a labour of love for its creator. I can recommend it. Download from the App Store HERE.

Fishing History – ‘The Sea’s the Boss’

CELCE, the Centre for Endangered Languages, Cultures and Ecosystems, University of Leeds.

On February 24th I gave an illustrated talk for CELCE about the life and language of the Northumbrian ‘coble’ fishing community in the late 20th century, and its understanding of place and nature. In the talk, touching on the language of fishing practices and species caught, place names, navigation and visualisation of the seabed, taboo words and beliefs, I argue that elements of the coble fishing way of life remained little changed since medieval times, and that recent developments in fishing technology, reflected in its language, have profoundly altered the relation between people and place. With illustrations from my poems, I try to show that an intrinsic understanding of ‘sustainability’ lay at the heart of the coble fishing way of life, and explore the human cost at which this was achieved. This talk is 60 minutes long, and now available on YouTube. It’s introduced by Prof Jon Lovett of the University of Leeds.

FisherPoets Gathering 2021

There are not many good things to say about the way Covid-19 has affected the arts in the last year. But one tiny ray of light for me has been the chance to hear again some of my great friends from another time zone at the annual FisherPoets Gathering, based in Astoria, Oregon. All the poets’ and songwriters’ short performances are now available online in three fantastic sessions, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. My own contribution can be heard near the end of the Saturday session hosted by Holly Hughes, at around 2.46.50 – 2.54.00 – but please do listen all the way through from the beginning (not to mention the other two nights). With contributions from Alana Kansaku-Sarmiento, Meghan Gervais, Max Broderick, Toby Sullivan, Doug Rhodes and Mary Garvey, to name just a few, it’s all there – that ancient story-telling tradition from people who have lived the experiences they write about, touching some of the deepest human themes. And it’s so much fun. Thanks to my friends Jon Broderick and Jay Speakman for putting it all together.

New Publications

Songs of Place and Time

Birdsong and the Dawn Chorus in Natural History and the Arts

Edited by Mike Collier, Bennett Hogg and John Strachan

‘…Perhaps if human beings could be quiet and really listen to avian beings, we might realise that the Earth is not ours alone – we share it with all other communities of life…

‘At a majestic 354 pages, this handsome hardback features the writings and art of 29 contributors working across many interconnected fields – from ornithology to poetry, ecology to field recording, cultural history to photography, musicology to environmental policy, and much more.’ I’m extremely honoured to be among the contributors to this magnificent book, with a short essay and the text of my 2006 audio-poem, Late Blackbird.

Songs of Place and Time is the beautiful result of many years’ research and interdisciplinary collaboration. It is published by Gaia Project and Art Editions North, in partnership with Bath Spa University, and distributed by Cornerhouse Publications.

Price £25

The Oldie 400th edition, May 2021

Bird of the Month, The Fulmar – John McEwen

Look what turned up in this month’s edition of The Oldie! Here’s an old poem I’ve only ever published in a small anthology, that has never yet made it into one of my own collections, with a strange publication record. It popped up a few years ago on an Irish national exam-board paper. Now here it is again, alongside an essay by John McEwen about this beautiful bird, and a lovely print by my friend Carry Akroyd. Thank you, Carry and John, for bringing this poem to a wider audience on the pages of this excellent magazine.

Grey Hen Press

Speaking of ‘oldies’ — as one myself — Grey Hen Press is a small, independent press which publishes poetry by older women. My poems have been included in many of Grey Hen’s excellent anthologies, most recently these two, edited by Joy Howard.

Reflected Light Poems in response to the creative arts. £10

Not Past But Through Poems about rivers. £5

More details and orders HERE.

Sea Change

Thank you for reading this far. Last but absolutely not least, please don’t forget my latest collaboration — this lovely book, Sea Change, created with Phoebe Power, illustrator Rose Ferraby and the fabulous Guillemot Press, about the regeneration of the Durham Coast.

More details and orders HERE.

Artwork for ‘Sea Change’ by Rose Ferraby

The Poetry of Fishing

To everyone who has found their way here from my talk on February 24th for the Centre for Endangered Languages, Cultures and Ecosystems (CELCE, University of Leeds), to everyone who has come here via the 2021 FisherPoets Gathering (February 25th – 27th) – and to every other reader – a warm welcome!

The title of my talk for CELCE is ‘The Sea’s the Boss’, a quote from fisherman Charlie Douglas (1909-1995), who features in my poem ‘The Marks t’ Gan By’, and many other poems in The Lost Music (Bloodaxe Books, 1996). The talk is based on memories of a number of Northumbrian fishing families, particularly Charlie and the Douglases of Beadnell, Redford Armstrong (1919-2000) and his sister Cathy from Amble (both born in Newbiggin), and Bill Smailes of Craster (1920-2002). These people were my friends. I left the academic world in 1987 to live as a freelance writer in a Northumbrian fishing village, and all the people in my talk fully understood why I valued their way of life so highly and why I wanted to know so much. For the best part of a decade the rhythms of the fishing year were a way of life for me, too. It was never an academic study. I was closely involved with these families in a very practical way, taking turns to row the Douglas’s ‘townie’ (small boat) along the trouting nets, and helping to mend gear in their huts. My talk deals with the language spoken by their generation; how and why I have used it in my poetry; and above all why I believe that language and way of life encode important lessons for us all about sustainability.

Fisher Friends L-R: Charlie Douglas, Beadnell; Bill Smailes, Craster; Arthur, Cathy and Redford Armstrong, Amble; all c1990

I’m extremely grateful to Jon Lovett and Janet Watson at CELCE for making it possible for me to give this talk. It’s free and open to everyone, so please follow the Zoom link HERE on this page if you would like to join us live on Wednesday February 24th at 4pm (that’s 8am if you’re in the USA on PST). Of course, a short talk like this can only touch on points of interest. I still have much more work to do to write up the experiences of those precious years. In the meantime, for anyone interested in following up some of the themes of the talk, here are some further links.

For the Northumbrian Language generally, please see the two websites of the Northumbrian Language Society, HERE and HERE. The Society covers all forms of Northumbrian speech, from the rural dialects of Coquetdale and North Tyne to ‘Pitmatic’ and ‘Geordie’, and welcomes new members interested in preserving and using these local variations. Because of my long association with north Northumbrian coastal speech, I have the great honour of being their President.

For my own word-list gathered from fishing families from Holy Island to Amble 1990-96, please see Appendix 1 of Fishing and Folk by Bill Griffiths (Northumbria University Press, 2008), pp.217-246. Bill’s book contains an accessible yet scholarly account of the origins of some of the area’s coastal place names and words. His thesis suggests that the coastal language is broadly based on Anglo Saxon, but with a strong Scandinavian influence, perhaps indicating an ‘Anglo-Scandinavian’ culture with a large amount of intermingling. Bill was a polymath, scholar and poet, and Fishing and Folk, his final book, was the third in his ‘Wor Language’ trilogy.

Two different excerpts from my long poem in the fishing dialect, ‘The Wund an’ the Wetter’, accompanied by Chris Ormston on Northumbrian pipes, are available below on You Tube and HERE on the Northumbrian Language Society website. You can hear the whole poem via the audio of the eBook version of Two Countries (Bloodaxe Books, 2014). The full text appears in that book. The original IRON Press version, including a CD of a performance with Chris Ormston, is currently out of print, but may be available second hand in the usual places online.

I’ve often heard fishermen say that they find it difficult to make themselves heard by scientific advisers and policy-makers. I suspect that part of this difficulty might sometimes lie in the differences between the language used by the working community and those in policy-making positions. As a poet, involved primarily with the working community, but also coming into contact periodically with an academic audience, I have sometimes experienced something similar. It seems an important and rich exchange to try to communicate what is so very valuable in the experience of fishing families to a wider audience, in prose as well as poetry – hence my talk for CELCE, and the following earlier publications:

For more detail on the culture of fishing communities on the north Northumberland coast, including the fishermen’s visualization of the sea-floor, please see my paper Mapping the Human Landscape, for ENSUS, School of Marine Science and Technology, University of Newcastle 2005, reprinted in North East History, vol. 37, 2006, pp. 68-87.

For a general picture of life in a north Northumbrian fishing community in the late 19th to mid 20th centuries, please see my oral history, The Bonny Fisher Lad (The People’s History, 2003). Although it is now out of print, copies are usually available HERE second-hand.

For the argument about the long continuities within the Northumbrian fishing tradition – and the sustainability which this represents – please see my paper, co-authored with Dr Adrian Osler,Bednelfysch and Iseland Fish: continuity in the pre-industrial sea fishery of North Northumberland, 1300-1950‘, in Mariner’s Mirror, vol. 96, no. 1, 2010, pp. 11-25.

These days, there is not much fishing from my village – just a little potting for crabs and lobsters. The salmon fishing was finally banned in 2019, and the trouting ended with it. The last coble left the harbour over a year ago. But there is still a small active fishing community at Seahouses, and a larger one at Amble. It has been a pleasure in the last year to connect with a younger generation of the families I knew there 30 years ago, and to see the development of the Northumberland Seafood Centre and award-winning restaurants valuing sustainable locally-caught seafood. I still write poetry about fishing, too, including one about the complexities of Brexit and another about a rare encounter with a British female trawler skipper at North Shields, published in Tyne Anew, edited by Keith Armstrong and Peter Dixon, (Northern Voices Community Projects 2019). Most recently, the wonderful Mary Garvey, FisherPoet and singer from Washington state, USA, prompted me to write a new poem about Northumbrian herring lasses in the early 20th century for her forthcoming CD. More on that soon.

Above: Performing with some of the FisherPoets, Astoria, Oregon, 2014 (photo: Julian May)

One thing about fishing communities remains true: daily exposure to the sea leaves you forever aware that it’s Nature that is in control, not us. Fisher people the world over recognise one another in this knowledge. I feel especially privileged to be part of that worldwide community, and to be celebrating it again – this time via Zoom – with the FisherPoets, that fantastic brother-and-sisterhood of fishermen and women from the USA who gather every year in the Cannery town of Astoria on the Columbia River. Among them are the unforgettable Jon Broderick, Jay Speakman, Moe Bowstern, Dave Densmore, Rich King, and so many more — warmest greetings one and all! You can read and hear more about them if you follow the links from my previous blog posts, Sea Change and FisherPoets (see sidebar).

Oregon timing is not kind to a British audience, but do please join us if you can. Live performances from the FisherPoets Gathering are accessible via the links on their website. The Saturday 27th performances start at 6pm PST (2am UK time). The line-up for the final event with Holly Hughes as MC includes: Henry Hughes, Monmouth OR; Melanie Brown, Juneau AK; Maggie Bursch, Anchorage AK; Doug Rhodes, Craig AK; Katrina Peavy, Craig AK; Alana Kansaku-Sarmiento, Portland OR; Josh Wisniewski, Sitka AK; Gary Keister, Port Hadlock WA; Brad Warren, Seattle WA; Meghan Gervais, Homer AK; Joel Miller, Portland OR; Clem Starck, Dallas OR; Toby Sullivan, Kodiak AK; Katrina Porteous, Northumberland, England; Holly Hughes, Indianola WA.

It’s on Saturday Feb 27th starting at 8pm PST (4am Sunday 28th UK time), and you can live stream it HERE.


Memorials, and especially statues, are a highly sensitive subject. Who should we memorialise and why? How should they be remembered? Historic England has long been concerned with these questions. Two years ago, in 2018, they held an exhibition on the subject in Lambeth, called ‘Immortalised’. As part of this, they held a Design Competition to ask: What does the future of memorialisation look like? They invited artists, architects and designers from across the country to suggest a memorial that they felt was currently missing. From these proposals they selected ten designs and the artists were asked to develop their concept for display in the exhibition. I was incredibly honoured that my design for an audio memorial to the women and men of the Northumbrian fishing community was one of those chosen.


Other winners included two strikingly imaginative responses to controversial existing memorials. I was moved by each of these. Each seemed an intelligent way of challenging and subverting past orthodoxies, without obliterating them altogether. The first, ‘Contextualising Colston’ by MSMR Architects, responded to Bristol’s contentious statue of Edward Colston, which was dumped in the river earlier this month by protesters. It placed Colston on board the outline of a ship, in which the source of much of his wealth – enslaved African people – were represented, each as the outline of an individual with dignity. In this open, contemplative space, Colston’s problematic philanthropy was acknowledged in its true historical context.

The second, ‘A Long Shadow Over London’ by Studio MASH, gave General Robert Clive’s statue in Whitehall a ‘shadow’, etched into paving material, that contains details of the contested history of his involvement in India, representing the suffering of Bengali people during his leadership of the East India Company. In each of these designs, a contentious historical figure was opened up to debate, rather than closing down discussion by obliterating their memory. You can find out more about these memorial designs HERE.

My own prize-winning design was far less controversial. ‘The Long Line’, a five minute audio collaboration with Peter Zinovieff, commemorates the traditional coble fishing communities of the Northumberland coast. It includes archive recordings of women and men involved in fishing, and a Northumbrian song sung by retired fisherman John Dixon. Peter’s electronic soundtrack derives instrumental sounds from John’s singing.

I hope that our piece creates a different kind of memorial, made not of bronze to aggrandize a single individual but from many local voices, women’s as much as men’s, to remember a whole community of inshore fisher people who contributed so much to this country, but who have been largely forgotten. I hope that it raises important questions about sustainability, industrialisation and our relation to the natural environment. Long line fishing involved an intimate, sustainable relation to nature, but came at a terrible cost, especially to women, whose unpaid job it was to bait 1,400 hooks a day. The first engines, introduced into sailing cobles in 1918, marked the beginning of mechanisation, which eventually freed women, but which also had wider, ultimately unsustainable, consequences.

You can hear ‘The Long Line’ HERE.

Kate Douglas Baiting lines, Beadnell

Women’s unpaid work: Kate Douglas baiting a Long Line,

Beadnell, Northumberland, c1910

This year, I’m working again with Peter Zinovieff, on a very different project. We are creating a second piece with NUSTEM and Northumbria University research scientists, this time on the STFC-funded ‘Exploring Extreme Environments’ project.  Our new poetry and music collaboration explores Antarctic Ice Science. You can hear me read a short poem, ‘Invisible Mending’, as part of Fly On the Wall’s Planet In Peril publication, HERE.

This poem was inspired by research by Dr Kate Winter, Baillet Latour Antarctic Fellow at Northumbria University. Kate is investigating iron-rich sediments, carried by glaciers from inland areas of the Antarctic to the Southern Ocean, which are thought to encourage the growth of microscopic phytoplankton, which help to reduce Carbon Dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere.

My poems from three of my previous audio collaborations with Peter Zinovieff are published in ‘Edge’, available from Bloodaxe Books. You can read reviews of this book if you click on the following links:

The High Window, Summer 2020

Research in English at Durham

The Guardian

A You Tube version of ‘Sun’, my earlier collaboration with Peter Zinovieff, NUSTEM and Northumbria University research scientists, is available HERE.