Monday, 30 November -0001

Why women are the real heroes

As he completes his year as a Cornish fisherman, TV star and ex-Royal Marine Monty Halls talks to Matt Warren about sustainable seafood, how women keep the fishing industry afloat – and the magical day his daughter was born

Written by Matt Warren

Monty Halls ducks into The Boudoir – he’s terribly tall – and assembles himself on a pink, Regency reproduction chair. As visitors to The Lady go, he is surely one of the more incongruous. A swashbuckling former Royal Marine with rugged, film-star looks and a VERY firm handshake, Monty is an adventurer, marine biologist and former winner of Channel 4’s ‘tough-guy challenge’ (yes, there really is such a thing). He even met Nelson Mandela – ‘he’s much taller than you think’ – while helping to integrate ANC guerrillas into the South African Army. Surely he’s more at home wrestling crocodiles in the Congo, than sipping tea in the floral-papered offices of a venerable ladies’ magazine.

But here he is, looking perfectly at ease – and talking animatedly (he seems incapable of speaking any other way) about the magical day his partner, Tam, gave birth to his beautiful baby daughter, Isla. ‘As an ex-Royal Marine, I admire people who are tough. They do say it’s one of the bonding mechanisms between a man and a woman when the baby is born, but the man watches the woman go through it and the respect he has for the woman just goes through the roof. Thirty six hours Tam was in labour, and not a peep out of her.

‘I would have given her my Green Beret – no problem at all. And then, of course, I went home and slept for 10 hours because I wasn’t allowed in the hospital and she was there with a baby beside her that kept her awake all night.

'But it was wonderful. Afterwards, we went down into the village and all the girls wanted to pick Isla up and say hello and welcome her to the village.'

Monty-02-590Idyllic Cadgwith: one of Britain’s last artisanal fishing villages

Amazingly, in the weeks before Tam went into labour, Monty was out at sea trying to make a living as a Cornish fisherman for his new book and TV series The Fisherman’s Apprentice. In fact, as his daughter’s due date approached, he’d spend his days listening keenly to the boat’s crackling radio for news of her imminent arrival.


Spending a year in the south Cornwall village of Cadgwith, one of the last outposts of our traditional fishing fleet, Monty worked on the small vessels, sharing this community’s fight for survival and trying to set up the framework for a sustainable fishing industry. And it can be a tough life – especially for ‘a tall, posh bloke called Monty’. Often exhausted and seasick, he discovered how hard these local fishing communities must work to make even a modest income.

‘Every day, they are going out into the unknown in a tough, tough environment and they have lost a lot of men over the years,’ he says.

Monty-03-590Feeling the pinch: cornish crab fishermen work long hours for little pay

But, as Monty discovered, this isn’t just a man’s world. The boats may be operated by the men, but the fishing community relies enormously on the women who stay behind on dry land.

‘The women don’t go to sea because if a husband and a wife went to sea and the boat went down, which happened incredibly often, you had orphaned children. So half of the family had to stay at home and look after them.

‘The role of the women has always been so crucial in these communities. They used to process the fish, prepare it for market, take it to market and do all the business dealings, the accounts. The driving force behind the fishing fleet was often the women. They were these amazing, strong, confident, matriarchal figures who were running a lot of these businesses. Even now one of the largest fishing families in Cornwall, the Stevensons, is run by Mrs Stevenson.’

After a month on his own in Cadgwith, Monty was certainly relieved when he was joined by Tam – and his beloved dog, Reuben.

Monty-04-590Monty aboard the Razorbill, setting out for a day’s lobster fishing

‘My relationship with Tam became quite a traditional one [while I was fishing]. I would stumble in, kick my wellies off and she would have a plate of food for me. I’ve always been this thoroughly modern, touchy-feely guy, believing men should cook as well, but we quickly realised the value of what she was doing. That she was base camp for me making these forays.

‘I don’t want to sound like it’s 1926 and the woman’s place is in the home, because it plainly isn’t these days, but her role there supporting me was absolutely invaluable. I simply couldn’t have done it without her being there. I really couldn’t.’

Not that Tam didn’t worry as Monty set off each morning for another day on the high seas.
Fishing is extremely dangerous work. ‘As a fisherman, you tiptoe along the edge of danger all the time. It doesn’t matter how well you know the sea, it will bite you on the bum every now and then. Fishermen have a 1 in 20 chance of being killed.

‘In fact, fishermen traditionally wear a gold earring to pay for their body to be transported home if they get killed and washed up somewhere else.

‘It was certainly important for Tam to know that there were all the other women in the community for her to turn to if things went wrong.’

But as Monty makes clear in his book and TV series, this ancient way of life is now in peril. The situation is complicated – small vessels (which make up 80 per cent of the UK’s fishing fleet) are forced by government quotas to catch only three per cent of the UK’s fish, and are struggling to compete with industrial-scale trawlers. Then add to the equation rising fuel prices, foreign imports and EU legislation, and Britain’s small fishermen face a grim future.

Monty-05-590On the Billy Rowney: one of the controversial beam trawlers that have been blamed for overfishing

Which is, as Monty says, a great shame, because they provide a diverse range of high-quality, environmentally- sound seafood, caught just off our own coastline. ‘We need to get local communities buying direct from these boats and paying a little bit more money, thereby supporting their local fleet,’ says Monty, who has started to lay down a blueprint for a network of Community Supported Fisheries. ‘This isn’t just some quaint historical example of a way of life that’s dying out, it’s a potential sustainable fishing model for the future. It’s a beacon of hope.’

And we can all play our part by trying new types of fish, rather than just sticking with the same old favourites. ‘There are four species of fish we eat in this country: haddock, cod, salmon and tuna,’ Monty explains. ‘And that is the mass market. The fishermen in Cornwall catch 21 species regularly, but because we don’t buy many of them, they are worth very little. As a result, they just get put over the side.

‘So we need to explore different fish species. Just go to your local fishmonger and say, I don’t want haddock today, I want a bit of that gurnard that looks really interesting. Or a bit of that red mullet, or can I try a bit of that bass? If enough people do that, fishmongers will start stocking more of them. We should also ask where our fish comes from and if it’s sustainably caught. Ask questions, experiment, enjoy yourself. It’s as simple as that.’

The Fisherman’s Apprentice, by Monty Halls, is published by AA, priced £20.

Monty on…

…being superstitious: ‘I don’t like to tempt fate. I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate. I’ve got a lovely young baby, lovely missus, and a great life. I’m doing what I want to do. But I almost don’t want to talk about it, because any time you start gloating, that’s when life bites you on the backside. That’s when things go wrong.’

…death: ‘I’ve had near misses, several actually. There was one incident on a shark feed
in the Bahamas that I just got completely wrong. But you’re putting yourself in the environment of these creatures, you’re getting them very excited because you’re feeding them, you’re placing yourself in the middle of it all and if something happens to you, well, who’s fault is that?’

…fear: ‘Sensible people are cowards, it’s just how you deal with it. Psychopaths are fearless. No one else is. And I have a healthy sense of caution.’

…being a TV star: ‘In the world of telly, one minute you’re the crown rooster and the next you’re the feather duster.’

…charity: ‘I’m trying to raise money for the Royal Marines Charitable Trust Fund, which is attempting to raise £6m for wounded Royal Marines. I want to raise money by running the whole South West Coast Path [that’s 30 marathons] in 40 days. For further details, please visit


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