It is late summer in the magnificent Port of Seaton. Beyond the high harbour defences a mermaid plays in the bay. Shy fauna of the sea, everything about her is beautiful - her silvery skin, shimmering scales, silky strands of well combed hair. She plays with a shoal of pilchards, swimming close to the shore; the fish roll over her and under her as she turns, easy as a seal.
Seaton is large and prosperous. Many houses and businesses stretch along the prom. The grand harbour wall is built in an arc sheltering the vast fleet of boats anchored inside. The river flows down a bustling valley, traders bring produce back and forth, and houses cover the hills. The port is stuffed with activity, the people generally merry and busy.
Spotting the shoal of pilchards so close to their town, a crowd grows on the harbour wall and along the cliffs. The first three boats are launched with their nets and the whole town watches with excitement and in anticipation of all the work to come. On board the smaller lurker boat is Paul Pengelly, a well built young fisherman with sandy hair and a big easy smile. The mermaid flicks her tail at him and he smiles back at her flirting.
Romance is not due to flower today however, as the fishermen have a job to do. Paul signals to the other boats that this is a mighty big shoal of pilchard and the seine forms with a curved line of net flanking the shoal. The fishermen of Seaton are at their very best and most accomplished. In very little time, the voices of the men are lost as fish beat their tails on the water and the mermaid wails in fury, trapped in the net’s mesh.
Too late to appease her, Paul frees the mermaid from the nets and casts her back in the welcoming water, rather hoping she will dance for him again - after all the sea is still teaming with fish. But his hopes are short lived; the mermaid is angry and insulted and vows her revenge. Dredging up a major catastrophe which cannot be undone, the mermaid curses Seaton. She conjures a sandstorm and a huge deluge of sand falls on the harbour and covers the town, burying the buildings forever. Seaton is still, silenced by an angry sea sylph.
Nowadays, Seaton is a pretty beach and river estuary between Downderry and Looe.
The mermaid still shifts the sands with alarming regularity - the river rarely meets the sea in the same place, the face of the beach changes week on week, day on day. Tourists are the main catch. Small red sailed fishing boats work out of nearby Downderry, but they give the mermaids a wide berth.
Plymouth, which in Paul Pengelly’s day was a small fishing village, has grown to be the new most prosperous port. Let us hope none of the Plymouth fishermen dares to insult a mermaid.
retold by Anna Chorlton
- Downderry / Seaton