PUBLISHED: 12:40 13 August 2014
Away from the fields of our splendid countryside, farmers of the sea have trawled our coastline to bring home fresh fish for centuries. Clacton's Ken Green shares his tales of the sea
Essex has a natural connection to the sea and the heritage of its fishing industry can be traced back centuries.
For Clacton fishmonger Ken Green, who this year celebrates 60 years’ service to the region’s fishing industry, fishing is not just a way of life, it has been his life. ‘Fishing is a little bit like life — it’s all about being in the right place at the right time,’ says Ken.
Born and brought up in Wivenhoe, Ken is the fifth generation of his family to be active in the fishing industry. At an early age he set out to sea in the family boat with his uncle Ernest Gardener Green, fishing off the coasts of Frinton, Clacton and Harwich. His ambition to follow in his uncle’s wake and become a fisherman was interrupted when he was called for National Service in 1952 and posted to Dusseldorf in Germany.
Two years later, after de-mob, he was dismayed to discover his uncle had chopped up the boat for firewood. ‘He died before he’d even burnt it all,’ Ken comments wryly.
So Ken looked to his father, a fish wholesaler, for inspiration. He quickly learned the trade and opened his first fishmongers in Colchester’s Eld Street in 1954.
‘It was the 1950s and trade was brisk — fish literally fed the nation. After the war it was cheap and nutritious to feed the family and we’d sell plenty of cod, haddock, plaice and locally-caught shrimps — one part of the family caught them and the other sold them.’
It was the heyday of the English fishing industry, when much of Ken’s fish would come in daily from Lowestoft and Grimsby, where his family roots extend, but change was in the sea air.
‘The fishing business totally changed in my lifetime,’ said Ken. ‘The northern North Sea, North Atlantic and some areas of the Barent Sea were once fished by the vessels of Grimsby and Hull. Today they come in under Icelandic and Faroese flags. Times change, but the quality of the fish remains outstanding. While the proof will always be in the tasting, it’s the eyes that do the buying. I have the gut-feeling of a fisherman and instinctively know a good piece of fish from a poor one.’
As a member of the Kent and Essex Sea Fishery Committee, Ken was often at the forefront of fishermen’s causes — a passion which led to Royal recognition in 1979 when he was awarded an MBE for services to the fishing industry.
He recalls: ‘I’ve always had total involvement in the industry, which has always fascinated me, and I’ve been very involved in its politics over the years. In 1968, the industry was shaken by the tragic loss from Hull of three arctic trawlers — and all hands — in icy conditions off the north-east of Iceland. An inquiry into the disaster led to so many safety regulations for fishing boats that if we had stuck to them all we would have been out of business. As a member of the Kent and Essex Sea Fisheries Committee, I argued that new regulations covering Arctic fishermen were just not necessary for those fishing in the southern North Sea. It brought us into direct conflict with the government of the day, but to their credit they listened and concessions were made which saved the local industry. I was extremely proud to receive the MBE in recognition of our campaign.’
In the 1970s, with his Colchester business established, Ken embarked on a new venture to open a fishmongers in his home town of Wivenhoe, where he traded for the next 30-40 years. In this period, Ken generated a substantial wholesale and retail trade, as well as building a fishing fleet of three boats together with two fishing skippers and his brother, Douglas. The catches were sold at Lowestoft fish market where Ken would also buy fish that his crew weren’t catching.
Ken explains: ‘It was quite a big operation then — filleting, smoking and supplying the many fish and chip shops across the region on a daily basis.’
Today, Ken Green Fish boasts a flourishing fishmongers in the High Street at Clacton on Sea, which he runs in partnership with his wife, Desi, and step-son, Paul, along with a further six members of staff. It’s home to a wealth of activity. Front of house is an exciting array of fresh and smoked fish and shellfish is laid out over homemade ice shards for the many customers who come in and out throughout the day. Yet the real heart of the business is behind the scenes where all the fish such as haddock, kippers, mackerel and trout are filleted and prepared for smoking in Ken’s kilns.
‘There’s an art to smoking fish and you have to be guided by the type and size of the fish. We use oak wood which gives a real depth of flavour. I like to be hands-on — it’s something my family has been doing for centuries.’
Recently, Ken’s trade was given a welcome boost when he was asked to join the East of England Co-op’s Sourced Locally suppliers, bringing his fresh and smoked fish into 24 Essex stores and with more stores to carry his frozen and smoked fish coming soon.
Ken adds: ‘We’re very pleased because with its focus on high quality, local produce and a strong sense of community, the East of England Co-op’s essence sits very well with our own. Our relationship with the Co-op meant we were able to expand our premises, securing part-funding from the European Fishing Fund to invest in the business and ensure we can meet the demand.
Ken’s passion for fish is clear, along with his concern for fish welfare. Seasonality is just as important for fishermen as for farmers; understanding when various fish species pass through certain waters and at what point in their breeding cycle they are in the best health.
‘My favourite fish is lemon sole, but I eat and enjoy all fish. I was brought up on it and it’s always stood me in good stead,’ says Ken. And if you catch the twinkle in his eye, you’ll find it hard to argue.