In the fist of a series of insights into the stories which inspire my collection – Charl Knitwear, I’d like to share the conversation I had with The Female Fisherman – Ashley Mullenger with you.
If you’ve been receiving my newsletters or reading my Journal entries for a while now, you will know that I’m fascinated by stories; whether this be the stories of the original Ganseys in museum archives or piecing together the lives of the fishermen who wore them, mine is not a collection that pays lip service.
One of the founding intentions behind my collection was to share the craftsmanship that was born out of these extremely proud fishing communities along the Norfolk coast, because theirs is a heritage that deserves to be cherished and preserved for future generations. It is the identity of a people that will be lost if there’s nobody to share it with.
Last month the Harbour Master at Well-Next-the-Sea, Robert Smith MBE invited me to photograph the Charl collection (including new additions) in situ – where the original Gansey jumpers were knitted and worn. This was an absolute privilege and gave me the opportunity to experience how it might have felt to be a fisherman off the Norfolk Coast at the mercy of the infamous tides. We filmed on various craft including vintage Life Boats and traditional fishing boats with the Norfolk “ribbed” hulls – one of which, the “Lucy Lavers” a beautiful wooden boat, answered the call to Dunkirk and rescued soldiers off the beach during the II World War.
Robert also took us onboard a working fishing boat – the “Fair Lass” owned by real life female fisherman Ashley Mullenger (@thefemalefisherman). I was so excited to hear that female fishermen exist and that fishing is not just the realm of men as it has been in the past. When I returned home, I arranged to talk to her her to find out what it is really like to be one of the few fisherwomen in the British Isles and what drew her to such a demanding profession in the first place.
To me, as I imagine for most people, fishing as a career is an elusive, slightly daunting occupation. How could you ever fully grasp the pattern of the tides, know exactly where to set the crab pots, or how to handle the boat in stormy weather, not to mention being prepared to go out at all times of day and night and in all weather conditions.
What Ashley described, reminded me of the words Julia Blackburn wrote when re-imagining the thoughts and life of John Craske (a Norfolk fisherman and artist) in her book “Threads – The Delicate Life of John Craske”. Ashley explained that the feeling of freedom and tranquillity that she experiences when out at sea is so strong, that it draws her back time and again:
“The minute I chuck my pots out I think – right I’m there now… it doesn’t matter what’s going on dry land, you leave it behind and live in the moment, just you, your boat and the sea.” I imagine that not much has changed in this respect from when my fishermen were out at sea a century ago.
I wondered why it was so unusual for a woman to go out sea fishing. Ashley told me that initially she had been worried that hauling in the pots might be too physical, but that in practice with a crew of two (herself and her skipper Nigel) this is not the case. She also reminded me that traditionally women were considered bad luck on board fishing boats. Since starting her social media page @thefemalefisherman, Ashley said that at least least 95% of the comments she gets are extremely positive and encouraging.
Ella wearing the Middleton knit onboard “The Fair Lass”
Ashley’s boat “The Fair Lass” is a beauty – a gritty, oily functional fishing boat that began its life in the Outer Hebrides, when Ashley first brought it back to Wells, it was not easy navigating the choppy North Sea waters. She explained to me that there is a partnership between a fisherman and his or her boat – “it needs you and you need it”. She admitted that on occasion, she even talks to it, especially when it’s not behaving!
“Boats like these aren’t pressed out of a mould, they’re built by hand, and you have an emotional connection with them. A fisherman can never leave their boat – they always need to go back and check on them, see if they’re OK, you can’t survive without each other.”
Not surprisingly, Ashley is also passionate about supporting the British seafood industry and she told me that shamefully 80% of all British seafood is exported. The truth is that the British public are so used to buying pre-prepared, easy to cook, cod and haddock that we are reluctant to try our native catches. Norfolk fishermen fish for whelks, crabs, lobsters and sometimes mackerel which are cheap, healthy and have a low carbon footprint.
After our chat, I was keen to ask Ashley how to prepare some of her catch. She recommended her recipe for crab dip which is on the Great British Food Awards website.
From my research and talking to Ashley, I now understand that being a fisherman or woman is more of a way of life than a job. Those who choose it, do so because they love being out at sea in the fresh air and the sense of space and tranquillity that this provides. Fishing is not an easy way of life, but the rewards are immeasurable – a completely different life to working in an office from 9 to 5.
I admire Ashley and her fellow fishermen and women, for following their intuition and choosing a profession that fulfils their need for fresh air and freedom (words often used by Robert Smith to describe this way of life) . I am also glad to see that Ashley is proudly lighting the way for other female fishermen to follow in her steps and that she has encountered such support from within and outside the industry.
If you’d like to find out more about Ashley and her day-to-day experiences as a fisherman, you can follower her on Instagram @thefemalefisherman.
If you’d like to find out more about Wells, the location of our photoshoot, its history and stories, I recommend reading “Crossing the Bar” by Robert Smith MBE Harbour Master;