site unseen; Exeter Maritime Museum

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Kolek, opepe and sambuk are not the kind of words which you expect to find in any respectable family newspaper. In fact, however, they are not exotic new designer drugs but rather the various sailing vessels to be seen moored in the unexotic city of Exeter.

The prosperity of Devon's county town was founded on the river Exe which serviced the port that sprang up here. Access to water was vital in medieval times, deciding whether a community would live or die. All over the country, rival landowners and towns would try and control river traffic to their own benefit.

Here in Exeter a potentially fatal threat was posed by the decision of the then Earl of Devon to obstruct the flow of the Exe a few miles to the south. His interference forced ships to off-load their goods at the ancient port of Topsham which just happened to be owned by... the Earl of Devon.

The people of Exeter fought back and a canal was begun in 1564 so that vessels could bypass Topsham. Over the centuries the canal was gradually enlarged, culminating in the completion of the Basin at Exeter in 1830. The dastardly deeds of the "Topsham-ites" were foiled and Topsham had to settle for being a small but delightful satellite of Exeter, full of characters with names - according to the local history - such as "Bird's Eye Pidsley", "Fishy Baker" and "Farty Bray".

After the Second World War, changing patterns of trade meant that several ports up and down Britain were doomed to die. Exeter was no exception. Its Victorian warehouses and port buildings lay derelict and unloved.

Until 1969, that is, when an intrepid ex-Army man called Major David Goddard opened the Exeter Maritime Museum with a collection of 23 craft which he had lovingly gathered from all over the world. Today the museum is home to more than 160 vessels and visitors are encouraged to touch the exhibits.

And what marvellous exhibits they are. Boats of all shapes, sizes and decoration happily share a berth, some of them sporting the "oculus" or all-seeing eye which sailors hoped would ward off evil spirits. A graceful Venetian gondola rubs shoulders with the rather more primitive coracle, a dhow makes eyes at a sampan.

There is sadness too: a flimsy bamboo boat emphasises the horrific conditions in which the Vietnamese "Boat People" made their perilous 600-mile journey to Hong Kong.

But to return to the kolek, opepe and sambuk. The kolek comes from Singapore, the opepe from Nigeria and the sambuk is Arab.

Not a lot of dictionaries know that.

Exeter Maritime Museum is down by the Quay. Open daily.

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