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What became of the humble pilchard?

Before moving to Torquay, I would often zoom off to Devon for a few days to escape life in the fast lane.

Apart from the obvious reasons, I knew that whatever time of year it was, there was plenty to do there to aid the relaxation process! Fishing or walking on the moor, and, not least of all, eating fine local produce and drinking some of the very finest beers and wines of the region!

On one of my trips, I decided to stay ashore and opted for a six mile circular walk around Bigbury. The starting point was the car park opposite Burgh Island, which meant that it was also the finish. High tide was quite late in the day, so I thought what better to do than to time the walk to end around lunch time, meaning that a short stroll across the causeway would culminate at The Pilchard Inn, the oldest inn Devon has to offer.

Ah, the humble pilchard, what ever happened to it? The inn is so-called as there was a thriving fishing community in the area many years ago. Back in the nineteenth century, the pilchard was the backbone of the West Country fishing industry. Salting and processing plants, or “pilchard palaces”, could be found in most of the region’s ports. There dozens of women would slowly sift through giant mounds of fresh catch, often up to six feet high and forty feet long, salting, sorting and crating. The boom continues until changing tastes meant that by the 1950s, pilchard sales were floundering. It was tinned and relegated to the lower supermarket shelves, languishing underneath piles of Canadian red salmon and Pacific skipjack tuna. Fresh pilchards all but disappeared.

But due to a cunning re-branding exercise, the pilchard, now known as the Cornish sardine, is a modern success story in the South West, and are found on most restaurant menus. But when is a pilchard a sardine? A pilchard is bigger than a sardine, I was informed by a food industry source recently. Anything under six inches is a sardine, and anything over six inches is a pilchard - but could also be called a sardine. Clear as mud!

Burgh Island is well known for its links with Agatha Christie, especially the Hercule Poirot mystery ‘Evil under the Sun’, as well as many other films and TV programmes. It is a tidal island on the coast of South Devon, near the small seaside village of Bigbury-on-Sea. The main building on the island is the Art Deco Burgh Island Hotel, but it’s only approachable on foot at high tide, otherwise by the weird and wonderful sea tractor!

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