The art of lobster catching in Staithes
PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 May 2014
One man’s love of the sea and fishing brings something fresh to the dining table as Annie Stirk reports
It’s hard to imagine the peaceful Yorkshire seaside village of Staithes as once heaving with maritime industry. It was the UK’s premier port for shellfish and had more than 300 fishermen who filled three trains a week with fresh fish for delivery from Staithes station on the Union Railway to the rest of Britain. The area is also awash with fossils (more than Dorset’s famous Jurassic Coast) and for centuries was mined for its jet, iron, alum and potash.
And for former fisherman Sean Baxter unwrapping Staithes’ rich history and combing the beach for its treasures has always been a passion and is now a family business. Along with wife Tricia and sons Thomas and Luke, Sean offers visitors the ‘Real Staithes’ experience; a series of discovery days and walks that unravel the secrets of Staithes foreshore.
Sean also demonstrates the art of foreshore lobster catching; laying out lobster pots in the rock pools and gullies when the tide is out and collecting the bounty on the next low tide. ‘It is extreme rock pooling,’ says Sean with a grin. ‘We show people how to check and bait the pots on longlines set from the shore, but we also show them how you can catch small lobsters in rock pools if you know what you’re doing.’
This foreshore foraging is done year-round but lobster catching is much more seasonal. ‘The best time for lobsters is June, July and August,’ says Sean. Strict laws prevent him from having more than 10 pots, and he’s only allowed to take two lobsters a day from these for personal use. While this prevents him serving up his own lobster to ‘Real Staithes’ guests, Sean – who taught sustainable fishing techniques in places like Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone – is philosophical. ‘These local licenses are a good way of conserving the stocks for hobby fishermen, it means we can still pull a few each day and that’s enough,’ he says.
Elder son Thomas has clearly caught the lobster bug too and at low tide can be found taking his own collection of pots out into the rock pools. Twenty-four hours later, he scrambles over the rocks and pulls them out, and if he’s lucky will find a few – albeit smaller – pink clawed crustacean have made their way in. ‘He’s learnt by osmosis,’ says Sean.
Perhaps for most the highlight of any of Sean’s foraging walks is the seafood picnic – fittingly served in his fisherman’s hut in the disused Port Mulgrave. ‘It’s where I always played as a kid and it seemed a natural point in the walk to build a shack and have lunch,’ says Sean. ‘That said, it took us a long time to get all the materials for the shed over the cliffs.’
So here, in a protected cove on a spit of shale a ravenous party of walkers are greeted by Sean’s wife Tricia, who has cooked up a fantastic meal of fresh Whitby lobster, new potatoes and salad served with a giant jar of homemade mayonnaise.
‘Tricia does the cooking while I do the flannelling – I’m good at the grumpy, Hemmingway side of things,’ says Sean. ‘Lunch at the hut is the sophisticated element to the walk – it’s not quite napkin rings and tablecloths, but its restaurant food in lovely surroundings.
‘We don’t stick loads of rubbish on the lobster though; fresh lobster, crab and prawns are always best on their own, with a great slice of bread and a good dollop of mayonnaise. And with a head full of sea air, a comfy armchair and the Sunday papers, we do get a few people nodding off.’
It’s certainly an idyllic life. ‘I’m lucky to be able to make a living out of something I’m passionate about,’ says Sean. ‘But there’s no fakery or falsehoods here; this has been my life – this is what I do and what I’ve always done – and I’m happiest at sea, by the sea or walking the seashore.
‘I’d like to think my sons will one day go into the business,’ says Sean. ‘While they both have the knowledge, Luke has the charisma and all he needs now is the beard like me – a beard is obligatory in this business.’
Find out more about Sean’s courses - including those with lunch - at realstaithes.com