Allen Jewitt

Allen Jewitt, River Tamar salmon and eel fisherman

It is with great sadness that we heard of the sudden death of Allen on Thursday, 12th January.   He will be greatly missed by all of us at Weir Quay. 

A tribute to Allen by Mike Hooton.

At 8.30 this morning in a gently falling tide on the unusually still waters of the River Tamar, Trevor and Saul and I took a 40-foot Norfolk Broads cruiser from its mooring at South Hooe and towed it downstream.  The boat belonged to Allen the fisherman who had died of an apparent heart attack yesterday morning, 12th January.  There was thick mist in the valley and Trevor and Saul took up positions on the bow of the boat:  I helmed.  There was no backchat; in fact no one spoke.  All three of us stood straight and still.  The sun was there but only as a dim presence through the mist.  It would be a fine day.  We passed his cliffs at Hole’s Hole, his beaches, his derelict landing craft and his stack of wood, his signs and paths and stakes and lines.  The invisible birds were shrill in their calling and the outboard motor’s steady thrum didn’t disturb anything.  We brought his boat through the moorings to the safekeeping of the boatyard and we tied her up.  We fidgeted about a short while before the spell was broken and we got on with our work.  I think the others felt as I did.  It was a still point in a turning world.  We had performed a small service for Allen – our last – and we were privileged to conduct it in the awesome beauty of his world.

Allen Jewitt was 70 years old and he had lived on the River on his own in one of the most remote and gorgeous waterways of England for the last 40 years.  But he wasn’t a lonely man because, as he said, he was married to the River and he enjoyed the company of others when he was inclined to do so.  He had sired two daughters, Sheena and Faye, by different women and whose names concatenated to make the name of his last boat.

He was a carelessly handsome man; a bit wild in his youth by all accounts.  A champion oarsman in the Caradon gig, he claimed never to have lost a race.  A Cornishman by birth, he learnt fishing from his father.  When the time came for schooling he left the family boat and walked up the long hill to the village school to present the headmaster with an 8lb sea trout as a gift from his father.  The headmaster accepted the gift and then wisely said that Allen would be better off at home on the River, learning from his father.  He never went back.  

Later in life he moved a few miles upstream in his boat to the quieter world of Weir Quay, Hole’s Hole, South Hooe, Lifter, Clifton Quay and Pentillie that he was to make his own.  He netted salmon.  He was the last full-time commercial netsman on the River.  He laid down his nets in 2006 when the Ministry bought out his license to preserve stocks of salmon in the River, and thereby closed the book on a working life-style that stretched back for millennia.

From then on he concentrated on eel trapping, rowing out with his nest of hoops falling from the stern and collecting barrels of live eels which he sold to a Dutchmen by the stone for the European market.  He gave that up in 2010 and gave his precious traps to a younger man.

A waterman all his life, he could never swim and the simplest knots were a total mystery to him.

He was barely literate to the end but he never gave up learning and he loved knowledge.  He wanted to astound you with facts that he had gleaned from the radio, magazine advertisements, supermarket shelves, wherever.  Mostly, of course, his learning was from the natural world around him and it was voluminous.  He told me which of the common shag and cormorant had thirteen and which fifteen tail feathers and how this explained their different diving techniques.  And he could read the River like no other, he knew the counter-intuitive movement of ‘the Edie Tide’ and he could track a salmon from bank to bank where no-one else could see the slightest disturbance on the surface of the water.

He liked to share this knowledge with you or me and with my children and your friend from Zambia or Washington or anyone whose path he crossed.  And his stories were good stories full of puns and jokes and hyperbole and gesticulation and self ridicule.  He could talk and talk when he was minded to and some stories you had heard twice or thrice or many times but they were always captivating and always entertaining because it was a live and improvised performance before your eyes.

In later years he was almost a local celeb.  He gave talks about life on the Tamar at all the sailing clubs and most of the parish halls in the region, always commanding full houses and always to rapturous applause.  He never took money for his talks, although he was offered plenty, but asked his hosts to make a donation to the blind.  

You couldn’t call Allen eccentric because he didn’t stand in relationship to society but he was entirely his own man with a view on everything and full of idiosyncrasy.  He ate a pound of raisins every day of his adult life and he never once wore socks.  Although he could have had food for free, he never ate fish because he didn’t like it and he rarely ate meat.  He lived on £18 a week and saved a fortune when he was old enough to draw a pension.

He always had a dog – two German Shepherds and an Inuit dog in the time I knew him and each was called Marcus or Marco in honour of the one that had gone before.  The last of his dogs gave rise to his beach sign ‘BEWAR THE WOLF DOG’ and you surely needed to.  My wife’s perfectly serviceable coat and jumper were shredded by the first over-friendly Inuit greeting.

Unlike many people who live on their own he was not the slightest bit frightened by change or technology or the modern world.  Like many people who live on their own he sometimes arranged things in his mind in such a way that he felt he had been slighted or treated without respect.  Then his response could be extravagant.  Three times I caused offence without knowing it and each time it was 6 or 8 or 10 weeks of ranting his woes and the terrible wrongs I had done him until some intercessionary’s pleadings led the way back to peacable relations.  And I got off lightly.  Neighbours who he thought were against him suffered drowned cows being pushed up on their beach or shirts shoved into drainage pipes to block their sewage.

Although he spent less to live on in a month than some of us would spend on one good dinner, he wanted for nothing.  I have no idea where his money came from but if he thought he needed a new dinghy to get to the Co-op in Saltash, (“I always shop at the Co-op because I come from a Co-op family”) or a brand new outboard or a wide screen telly or a new diesel heater he would read the catalogues and the magazines and he would buy what he thought was the best.  The day before he died he was full of the joys of spring and he told me to expect delivery in March of two bright red leather armchairs which he had bought for £1,400 but he was delighted because he had persuaded them to take £70 off the price.  As he said on camera “I thank the Lord for what I’ve got; I’d thank Him more if I’d got more”.

Allen wouldn’t have taken to the indignities and infirmities of old age and he wouldn’t have lasted long on the land.  He was blessed to have gone quickly and still overflowing with life.  We all wish he was still here and we wanted him to be around forever.    From now on when I go up stream – tomorrow or next Thursday or in twenty years time – or when I next see the morning mist hang late on the River with the dim sun promising a fine day, I will be thinking of Allen and with an interior pause I will try to know better his world of miracles and his less ordinary life.  It wasn’t a bad going, but it was a great way of being.

Allen Jewitt in memorium.  Further tributes to Allen, click here.      

Allen's funeral is at St Nicholas Church, Saltash, on Friday 27th January at 11am

 

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