Harbourmaster Robert Smith: a Wells love story

PUBLISHED: 14:14 07 January 2019

Robert Smith (photo: Matthew Usher)

Robert Smith (photo: Matthew Usher)


Wells harbourmaster Robert Smith adores his job and his town - and is now sharing the love in print

As you drive into Wells, the sign tells you the town is A Safe Haven. Its twinkling lights have guided sailors and fishermen home from the sea for many years and the promise of shelter holds just as true today as it did centuries ago.

“When you see it, you know you’re coming home. It’s a safe place,” says harbourmaster Robert Smith. Born and bred here, the town is in his blood and in his soul.

He grew up listening to the stories of fishermen, sailors and other local characters – fascinating tales which he has now shared in a book.

Wells Quay seen from the water (photo: Matthew Usher)Wells Quay seen from the water (photo: Matthew Usher)

“I’ve heard these stories all my life,” he says. “I wanted to record them, but not in a way that was boring or mundane. I tried to take people on a journey.”

Written on an iPad, it was no mean feat for a man with dyslexia and a demanding year-round calling. “Of all the things in 28 years of working for Wells Harbour, writing that book was the hardest thing I have ever done,” he says. “It was a challenge. I’ve given talks, but writing things down was a very different thing.” A modest man, he is proud of his achievement. But he gets the most pleasure from knowing that the hard-to-impress locals like the book, called Crossing the Bar – the title a reference to the sand bar which protects the harbour.

“The most rewarding thing for me is how people have received it, including people who know what I’m talking about,” he says as we head into the harbour.

Wells from the water (photo: Matthew Usher)Wells from the water (photo: Matthew Usher)

“One young man came up to me and said he had never read a book from start to finish, but he had read this. That was amazing.”

Robert has heard most of the stories all his life. Some are tales about the creeks and the wildlife which he loves so much; others are fishermen’s yarns and local folklore; and some came to light since the locals discovered he was writing a book.

“I’d just be sitting on the quay and have people come up and tell me things. Sometimes these were things I didn’t know. For example, there are some wooden posts sticking up out there. I had no idea what they were, but I’d get a lot of complaints about them.”

Photo: Matthew UsherPhoto: Matthew Usher

This gap in his knowledge was filled by an old fisherman who told him they were turning posts, a simple solution, using ropes and a tug, to spin sailing ships around in the harbour. “It’s an important part of history and I probably would never have known what they were. Things like this have to be recorded because once I’ve gone, they’ll be gone.”

Tales range from heroic and tragic lifeboat missions which still resonate today to amusing anecdotes, including one about a man who rang to offer a team of donkeys to drag a grounded ship back out to sea.

There are descriptions of the harbour’s role in the preparations for wartime missions; tales of ghosts and superstitions (Black Shuck is a regular visitor to these misty marshes); accounts of horse races out on the sandbanks and stories of wily ruses by fishermen to avoid the authorities. One of these involves a boat owner who was surprised to find a ‘gift’ of boxes of lobsters in his craft. When the fisherman who hid them there to evade the local fisheries officers turned up to claim them, the recipient denied all knowledge – and the fisherman could hardly complain.

Wells from the water (photo: Matthew Usher)Wells from the water (photo: Matthew Usher)

The book also tells of the smugglers, ancient and modern, who used the ever-changing creeks to evade capture and hide their loot. One such smuggler was Captain Thomas Smith, one of Robert’s ancestors, who was spared a murder trial when it was realised that this would reveal the identity of one of his most high-profile customers – Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister.

When Robert first took over as harbourmaster dealing with cargo ships was his main concern, with hundreds of commercial movements every year. But as ships got bigger, the harbour could no longer cope and it lost out to larger, deeper ports. The final cargo – 579 tons of fertiliser – was delivered on February 19, 1992, by the last coaster to visit Wells.

But there is still brisk business with pleasure craft, the 14-strong fishing fleet bringing in crabs, lobsters and shellfish, and boats serving the offshore windfarm, so Robert and his team – 12 in the winter and 17 in the summer – still have plenty to do.

And he has a watchful eye on the future, too. The town is being flooded more often than at any other time in its history – three or four times a year rather than once every two or three years as it used to be – and he is looking to the past to see what can be done to preserve the harbour’s future.

“There is so much more water in the harbour now,” he says. “We lost a third of the marshes to reclaim, so maybe we need to let [the water] go back where it used to go. We need to leave a legacy – we need to be more responsible.”

His passion comes through in the book and in his conversation. He loves the harbour at all times, but never more than when he is coming back in the early hours of the morning. “The whole town is asleep and you have it all to yourself. It’s lovely.”

Autumn mornings also have their attractions, as he points out a huge flock of knot and a seal, which bobs up next to the boat to see what we are up to. “Not bad for an office,” he says. “There’s always something going on. We have all these geese, they fly in and I am in absolute awe of them. The day I stop looking up is the day I leave.”

And would he?

“I have been offered jobs elsewhere and although I have been tempted there’s something unique about this place and I couldn’t do it. If I did, I’d be doing the same job with the same problems but somewhere I don’t love.”

Crossing the Bar: Tales of Wells Harbour is available from Wells Harbour Commissioners on 01328 711646 or at wellsharbour.co.uk. It costs £19.50 and all profits will go to Wells Harbour Maritime Trust and other local charities. The WHMT is dedicated to helping young people gain experience and qualifications in water-based activities.

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