A bay, a boat, a way of life

The traditions and speech of Maryland's estuary fishermen make them one of America's most fascinating communities

They're just evaporating," said Ed Kane, boss of Baltimore's water- taxi service. "In a few years, they will be folklore, like the Algonquin." Ed was talking about the Watermen, as Chesapeake Bay's fishermen are known. They have lorded over the waters and inlet-strewn foreshore of Maryland's Eastern Shore for centuries. "Since the Fifties, they've been drifting away and in many places it seems like they ain't there no more. Oyster-dredging in minus 10 degrees loses its appeal against a better- paid secure job," he adds.

The Watermen are descendants of the early settlers, who arrived in the 1600s and 1700s. For generations they have reaped the Bay's bounty. In the autumn, the skies cloud up with traffic jams of wheeling flights of ducks and geese on their annual southerly migration. In the winter, the Watermen dredge for oysters.

On the map, Chesapeake Bay appears like an incision made by the Atlantic driving the water 200 miles inland to Baltimore and Washington DC. In reality, the Bay is a vast shallow estuary with 7,000 miles serrated by inlets, river spills and promontories, fringed by salt marsh, woods and farmlands. In between lie small historic time-stood-still towns, like Oxford, St Michaels and Tilghman Island.

Oxford is chocolate-box pretty. Standing on the foreshore, it consists of a dozen streets, fronted by Victorian shingle-board homes half hidden by azaleas and picket fences. In the 1700s, it was the State's largest port run by a Liverpudlian, Robert Morris, who later financed George Washington and the revolution. In the 1800s, the railway arrived making it boom town for fish-packers. The shellfish went north to New York and beyond. Little of that can be seen today; it is sleepy enough for strolling through or renting a bike to explore. A definite treat would be to stay at the Robert Morris Inn, built in 1730, where James A Michener held court beside the log fire when writing Chesapeake back in the Seventies.

Taking the small car-ferry across to Bellevue leads one to freshly steamed blue crabs, softshell crabs, crabcakes and local oysters and clams in the seafood shacks. It's high- chair eating, where the waiter bibs you up and the cutlery is fingers. The St Michaels Crab House, owned by Eric Rosen, is typical and where I met my first Waterman.

Bert Blades is in his thirties and, while worried about his crabber and the Bank, he talked of fishing with his pa and Grandpa. He will carry on, tough as it is (even though shellfish is fetching high prices). He has adapted to combine trotline crabbing with tourism and acts as hunting guide for wildfowlers.

Like most of the Watermen, Bert's origins are English. His speech is as peculiar to the American ear as our own. Some words are used according to their old dictionary definitions, like "annoy", meaning "to hinder" rather than "to aggravate". Some pronunciation is crisp "Ambridge country", other, good old Yankee Doodle. It becomes quite startling with words ending in "o". The enunciation becomes so elongated that Brian Sewell would feel at home.

The harbour-town of St Michaels, with its Maritime Museum, is built around its wood docks and pilings. Its moment of history was during the war of 1812, when the townsfolk set lights high in the trees causing the Royal Navy's night bombardment to overshoot the town. Its churches and streets are from a bygone age, and instead of T-shirts, the souvenirs on offer evoke the traditional crafts of the water folk.

Duck decoys are still painstakingly carved from tupelo or basswood, but now they are sold in Madison Avenue art galleries for thousands of dollars, leaving the wildfowler to buy the exact plastic lookalikes made in Taiwan, for a dollar.

So far, the traditional occupations have not yet become mere tourist attractions. Bay-sailing fishing boards like skipjacks and bugeyes are lovingly restored. Some are used to give visitors an experience of trotlining or potting for crabs or oyster- dredging, rather than just joy-rides.

There are wildfowl calling contests using reed whistles or vocal mimicry of ducks and geese. Specific cries for "chivvying stragglers", "in-flight chatter" or "food below" are judged and the results are taken very seriously.

Maryland's history relates to England. It was named in honour of Maria, queen to Charles I. Apart from Baltimore and Annapolis, it is a region where settlers challenged nature, making farms for sweetcorn, tobacco or the rearing of chickens. But the region sees few British tourists. Visitors to Maryland's Eastern Shore are mainly genteel weekenders from Washington DC seeking casual escape, which has created some excellent hotels like the St Michaels Harbour Inn and Sir Bernard Ashley's posh Inn at Perry Cabin, just sold to Orient Express.

Beyond St Michaels is the creek and reed-ridden Tilghman Island, with its Inn owned by genial chef-patrons, David McCallum and Jack Redmon. Rick Stein did a memorable cook-out for his BBC series using David's crabcake recipe, now said to be on the menu in Padstow. Dining is cheery and informal, despite the celebs and politicians who make the one and half-hour journey from DC.

Filled with so much sea air, the calls of the marsh birds and the gentle lollopy noise of fishing boats against the wood pilings, it seems madness to return to a city. Annapolis made up for it all. Joining an escorted crocodile led by a period-dressed guide along the brick streets and through the State House of 1772, was brilliant. It was the presentation in olde english by the "wench" that made the tour fun and informative.

Baltimore, home to Edgar Allen Poe and Wallis Simpson, has shrugged off its run-down inner-city image. The harbour is geared to brash tourism, with shrines to junk food. Its redemption is its museums, from the likely to the totally unlikely.

The Baltimore & Ohio Railway museum is great fun. It covers 37 acres and features 120 locomotives, from the bell-clanging, bulbous chimney engines seen in westerns, to giant locos, like the 320-ton Allegheny that hauled the pre-war Hollywood stars across the States.

Among the many other museums, there is the Dr Samuel D Harris National Museum of Dentistry, a surprising homily to amalgam and fillings with some entertaining inter-active displays. There wasn't time to visit the Liberty Ship, one of 2,700 built for the deadly convoys that kept us in supplies during the Second World War. The Light Bulb Museum didn't turn me on, and I took a raincheck on the Museum of Urology.

Ed's water-taxi can be taken to Fort McHenry. On 13 September 1814, British frigates began a savage bombardment of the fort. For 26 hours it stood resolute beneath a huge Stars and Stripes. At sunrise the next day, as the frigates retreated, the flag was still flying. Francis Scott Key, a young Maryland lawyer, watched it all. On seeing the flag, he was filled with passion and pride. He drew his pen and wrote down the words that became the catchiest of all national anthems - the "Star Spangled Banner".

CHESAPEAKE BAY

GETTING THERE

Icelandair (tel: 0171-874 1007) flies daily to Baltimore via Iceland, from pounds 259, plus taxes.

WHERE TO STAY

B&b at the Admiral Fell Inn, Fells Point, Baltimore (tel: 00 1 410 522 7377) costs from $199 (pounds 127) per night, including parking.

St Michaels Harbour Inn (tel: 00 1 410 745 9001) costs from $159 per room per night.

A 14-night "Chesapeake Colonial" self-drive tour with American Connections (tel: 01494 473173) costs from pounds 637 per person, including flights, car hire and hotels.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Call for a Maryland information pack (tel: 01295 750789) or Capital Region Guide (tel: 01234 767928).

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