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The Fish Shed by Alexandra Dudley

Burnham Deepdale and Brancaster Staithe are not large villages. In fact you can walk the length of both in about the time it takes to enjoy an ice cream. There is a small café selling bacon butties and proper cups of tea, a shop selling postcards, tea towels, mugs and stickers all printed with lobster. There is a convenience store for milk and newspapers, a campsite, two pubs and occasionally an ice cream van. Also in this small sea-side village pairing just across the road from The White Horse Pub is a small converted hut called The Fish Shed

It began in 1989 when Mr and Mrs Bocking began selling fish from their kitchen table with just one box of fresh fish a day. It was when they converted the shed behind their house and that they settled on the name. In 2004 The Fish Shed outgrew its original home and was moved to a larger shed just off the coastal road. 

If you look out you will see a weather beaten sign spelling out The Fish Shed as well as a large painted orange crab and a blackboard with the seasonal specials written in chalk. Today the sign says ‘Fresh lobster, dressed crab, strawberries’. 

Come winter it will be washed down and rewritten to read ‘home-made fish pies, apple crumbles, local mussels’. Originally only selling fish The Fish Shed now sells a variety of fruits and vegetables all locally grown. There will be strawberries in the summer and apples in the autumn. The apples with be speckled and uneven in size and the carrots and beans will be perfectly imperfect.  You can also find locally produced honey and jam, sausages, pork pies and loaves of bread baked daily in Wells (a seaside town a few miles along the coast). What most people come here for though, is the fish. 

Lobsters, crab, cockles, mackerel, mussels, sour herring, sweet herring, brill, bass, bream, hake and haddock. Almost all of it is caught locally. The mussels come from “across the road” and are picked by Mrs Bocking’s brother. Her nephew brings the lobsters and has a knack for delivering the “best lobsters around”.

I have been buying fish here since I was ten years old and eating it since I could chew. My late grandmother lived in the next village down called Burnham Market. As children we spent summers, Easter’s and long weekends here and when I was fourteen my father bought a house right in the heart of Burnham Deepdale just five minutes from The Fish Shed. As a child my Grandmother or ‘Oma’ as I called her would bring me along to help her choose the fish. Often we’d have fish pie which she’d make from scratch and if we were very lucky we’d have The Fish Shed herby fishcakes. 

When I became a teenager I started walking her myself. It was and still is a bit of a ritual on mine. Even if we aren’t eating fish that day I will find a reason to come – a punnet of strawberries to eat as I walk home. Or perhaps for a small pot of cured black olives which are so good I often stockpile a few pots to bring back to London. 

Today I am buying lunch for the family. Growing up has meant it is rare that we are all here all together so it feels special in a way. Lunch is a simple affair– cold new potatoes leftover from the night before, salad and beetroot from the garden with smoked mackerel and two dressed crabs from The Fish Shed. The fish is smoked in a small smoking hut just behind the shop. It is rich and woody and better than any smoked salmon I have ever tasted. 

You should try y’er mackerel with horseradish” the Joe, at the counter, tells me. 

“Oh I do” I say. It was in fact the same man who taught me this trick a few years back and I’ve not eaten it without it since. “I eat it with Dijon mustard too” I say. 

“Do you now? Ill have to try that one” he answers back with a cheeky smile.

The people of The Fish Shed are friendly folk who work incredibly hard. There are only two days throughout the entire year that the place is closed – Christmas day and boxing day. The work day begins early with the first job to put out the ice. Then the fish is sorted through, the bread is sliced and the fruit and vegetable baskets are filled. Closing time is 4.00pm, 5.00pm in peak season before a full wash down of the shop and there are often pots that need a stir or fish pies that need cooling before the day is truly done. I notice a young lanky boy jarring up marmalade at the back of the shop. The smell is delicious and makes me think that a scallop and orange dish would be quite divine. 

Next to the till reads a sign that says ‘empty jars and old newspapers welcome.’ Leave your jar here and it will be given new life - home to homemade jams, marmalade and lemon curd. I buy two jars of marmalade. One comes in an old Dolmio Pasta sauce jar, the other in a rather stout greenish glass. Both are slightly warm and sticky on the outside. There is no pretension here - just very good marmalade. 

“Err, You realise you’ve got two different sized crabs ere?” says Joe who is wrapping up my order in last week’s financial times with a rather worried expression. 

“Oh yes that’s fine – we’re sharing them.”

“Well you are a civilised bunch aren’t y’er. You couldn’t do that in my house. There’d be riots! If one of us caught on that the other had a bigger crab…cor!”

I ask him if there is any fish he doesn’t like. “Not much” he says “although I don’t get all the fuss about seabass. Seems boring to me”. I tell him I don’t enjoy plaice that much. “Dip it in breadcrumbs and fry it in butter” he says as he slaps a plaice onto the newspaper, rolling it up and tossing it into my basket in one smooth action.

Whilst I lose myself in the jam shelf contemplating whether or not we could do with another jar of raspberry jam at home the man in the queue behind me asks for two dressed crabs and a scotch egg. “Forks and sauces just by the till” comes a voice from the walk in cold room. The man squeezes brown sauce onto his crabs and grabs a fork. I pass him on my way out. He is sitting on a bench watching the sailing boats come in whilst tucking into his second crab. 

I smile and say that “it looks delicious”. 

“It is” he says with a grin. 

Words & Photography by Alexandra Dudley