I’m stuck indoors at the moment and have been thinking about some of the people that I’ve met on my wanderings over the past few years. I thought I’d share a tale of someone I’d met down on the River Tees.
A couple of years ago I was having a wander on the north bank of the Tees. The tide was low, exposing the weed-covered slag rocks of the steep river bank. I walked beneath the Newport Bridge and saw a man scrambling along the rocks close to the waters edge, he missed his footing on the slippery rocks and fell over. I walked towards him, he picked himself up and clambered back up the bank. He looked like he was in his sixties, he seemed unharmed apart from a cut to his hand. I asked him if he was ok, “yeh, just a slip, happens all the time on those rocks” he replied.
We got chatting, he said that he was scouting for winkling spots as he regularly gathered winkles from a few sites along the banks of the river and was always looking for new places. He said that he kept his sites a secret as there were others in the ‘same game’.
I think he must of thought that I doubted his explanation as he produced a roll of cash from his pocket as evidence of his enterprise. “I got this from selling winkles to a couple of fishmongers this morning”. I asked him how long he’d been collecting winkles, “years and years” he replied, “I used to work on the docks but got laid-off, I don’t need to work anymore but I enjoy being down on the river, the money’s ok too, between this and my pension I do alright”.
He then started to tell me about young people “The young ‘uns sit around moaning that they’ve got nowt, they just have to open their eyes, there’s money all around them. See over there?” he points to some objects on the waters edge “see that scrap? there’s probably twenty or thirty quids worth there just waiting to be picked up and weighed-in. The young ‘uns can’t be arsed, they just want someone to give them something, I wasn’t brought-up like that”. We chatted on a little longer before I said ta-ra and left him to his business.
I wasn’t sure what to make of eating winkles from the Tees. I’d grown up in a time when the river was full of visible raw sewage or ‘Tees Trout’ as we called it. The river was also used by the local chemical and steel industries as a toxic gutter to the sea. I went to school not far from the spot where the man was gathering winkles, I can still remember the stench of the Portrack sewage farm wafting across the river. I know the river is now a lot cleaner but I’m still not sure that I’d want to eat shellfish from its banks.
I thought about the people who make their living on the margins of our communities, years of high unemployment and lack of opportunities have meant that it’s not easy to find a niche that earns you a living. This man had returned to a tradition that far outdates any other practiced along the banks of the modern Tees, foraging, living off his wits and his knowledge of the river.
For the next couple of months I kept my eye on the local paper, looking for cases of winkle-related food poisoning, I saw none.