THE season of exhibitions at Watchet’s Mayfly Studios continues this week with a maritime theme recalling the days when working sailing ships were very much part of the daily life of the West Somerset coast.

Journalist, author, and sailor Tony James’s scratch-built models recreate in faithful detail some of the vessels which were once a common sight plying their trade from the ports of Minehead, Watchet, and Porlock more than 100 years ago.

The exhibition, at the studios in Swain Street, Watchet, will be open from Tuesday (August 22) to August 29, from 11 am to 4 pm daily.

“Tony is following a historic tradition,” said the gallery’s owner Nick Cotton. “The sailors and crew who manned these ships were often competent and skilled craftsman and produced a whole array of nautical memorabilia and, in the case of Watchet’s painter Captain Thomas Chidgey, fine ship portraits.”

Best known to readers of the Free Press as a reporter, Tony has sailed the equivalent of twice around the world, and his interest in both models and full-size traditional sailing craft spans more than 50 years.

A model of a Brixham trawler by Tony James.
A model of a Brixham trawler by Tony James. (Tony James)

He has work in a number of museums and many private collections.

Built from original blueprints, and taking up to six months to complete, the models range from Bristol Channel pilot cutters and trows to local ketches and topsail schooners, a largely forgotten fleet which depended on wind and tide to make a living from the sea.

“Model-making is one way of keeping alive the memories of past generations of seafarers and long-gone classic ships,” said Tony.

“I have been making models almost as long as I have been sailing.”

He has owned several classic vintage sailing boats, including a 1900 Essex oyster smack and a 1932 ‘gentlemen’s yacht’, and built a 20 ft Bristol Channel flatner fishing boat which is now in Watchet Boat Museum - of which he was joint founder.

Models of all three feature in the exhibition.

Some of the models made by Tony James.
Some of the models made by Tony James. (Tony James)

Tony said: “Much of my sailing had been done on the South coast and I took one look at the muddy shoaling waters of the Bristol Channel and vowed I would never have a boat here.

“I lasted two years before succumbing and it has been a sort of love-hate relationship ever since.

“I have sailed all over the world but I have had more pleasure - and scares - in the Bristol Channel than anywhere else.”

Tony is also a jazz musician, works as a freelance journalist, and is author of a number of books, including Yankee Jack Sails Again - a sentimental journey to the forgotten ports of the South West.

A Tony James sailing vessel model.
A Tony James sailing vessel model. (Tony James)

John Short, better known as shanty-man 'Yankee Jack', knew the ports of the South West peninsula more than 100 years ago, when they were all busy commercial harbours.

Tony revisited these ports, sailing into them in his flatner, aptly named “Yankee Jack.”

Mr Cotton said: “This exhibition will be an excellent opportunity to meet an old ‘sea dog’ in the comfort of the Mayfly Studios for a real insight into what life was like for the sailors who were once a common sight in the harbours of West Somerset.”