"Sitting on top of a very large log was a bemused-looking rabbit, a good hundred yards away from the nearest grass - a fugitive from the floods"
By The late John Humphreys
Thursday, 17 May 2012
The late John Humphrey's writing in January 1977
Since time immemorial, man has endowed his dearest possessions with female names and personalities. This personification extends to boats, guns and, at times, even the weather. “She’s a little beauty” or “She handles like a dream” are common expressions, and they do not always refer to ladies!
My little single-handed punt/sneak boat is definitely feminine and has long occupied a special place in my heart. She has been sadly neglected for the past few years, and the mild and dry winters must have given her cause to believe that I had abandoned her to the outer darkness of the cartshed for ever.
As I crossed the bridge, I was delighted to see the waters out once more; all those millions of gallons pouring out to sea when two months ago we were not allowed to wash our cars. Who cares for that, though? The water had ousted the interlopers; the bullocks and fishermen were seen no more; there remained only the waters, fringed with dead, brown reed and speckled with wildfowl.
The cartshed door creaked open and my little punt stood, waiting patiently on her launching trolley. A tarpaulin over her pale skin, splashed with mutes from the owl roost above, showed that its office had been no sinecure. The punt was as sound as I had left her; I wheeled her out through nettles and rank weeds down to the old launching place, which has felt my punt’s keel on and off for over 20 years.
I could not help thinking that “she” was enjoying the outing as we poled our way along the dykes, round the withy beds, and tried to remember the location of submerged gateposts and barbed wire. My 12-bore lay in the prow, and I hoped to find a willow bush near which I might moor, to await the evening flight. The real thrill, however, was to be out on the floods again, quite alone on the wastes with the “shore poppers” condemned to standing glumly on the distant high bank.
The accumulated flotsam of three summers came drifting sluggishly downstream. Brown mats of reed splinters bore a variety of bottles slowly seawards: fishermen would seem to be not only a thirsty breed, but also very fond of tomato ketchup! Great logs and lesser branches slid along, wheeling round sedately, catching for a moment on the bank, parting company and continuing their peaceful and meandering journey.
Noah’s Ark rescue
By and large the wildlife of the washes has an instinctive feeling when the waters are rising, and the creatures crawl, run or fly to the higher ground. The ancient fenman did as much when the autumn rains fell and evicted him from his turf hovel. Many of the logs were covered with black beetles which had escaped drowning by climbing on to these ponderous rafts. I poled slowly between two osier beds. Moorhens skittered along the glassy surface; snipe sprang like elastic from sodden mats of stranded weed. Into the osiers in front had drifted a very large log, practically a whole willow trunk, gnarled and pollarded. It had probably been a victim of the gales 12 months ago. Sitting on top of it was a bemused looking rabbit, a good hundred yards away from the nearest grass and, like the beetles, a fugitive from the floods. Believing in any port in a storm, he had gratefully mounted the first floating object he had encountered.
I determined on a Noah’s Ark rescue operation and stalked slowly towards him. At my approach, he took a flying leap into the water and swam with rapid strokes towards the holt, where he snatched with his teeth at fronds trailing in the water. He had quickly tired and I was able to draw alongside and haul him aboard; he looked a miserable and bedraggled object as he skulked on the duckboards.
I turfed him out on the bank, where he took one or two bewildered hops, twirled himself like a dish mop, and scuttled over the bank in an instant. Many predators have a premonition about the coming of the floods and they have come to learn that potential victims become crowded together on the banks, making for easy pickings. Foxes and stoats are frequent, and the short-eared owls migrate especially to take advantage of the feast. Today, I saw no fewer than five in the air at once, drifting and circling on their soft wings.
I tied the boat to a likely bush in midflood, arranged some netting carefully in the branches and settled down to smoke a pipe. A pack of tufted duck came tearing over in their usual hurry; they were high, and in any case I do not care for shooting diving duck, which are not only very direct fliers but also not very popular in the kitchen.
The sun slid down behind the grey clouds; it was not to be a spectacular wash sunset of molten brass and blood, but a far more modest affair. It did not get dark, but the light merely faded and visibility decreased. It was as though the day was determined to hang on for as long as possible. Then, with a whistle and a growl, three long lines of wigeon came over, high and handsome.
Hopefully, they were scouts, prospectors for the main packs, sent to see if the waters really had come.
I picked up the gun as I heard the magic whistle, but again they were far too high, and my heart was not in it. I reclined on the sacking and revelled in the peace, nightfall, the gentle lapping of the water and the sigh of the breeze in the feathered reed heads. Some mallard came in, chattering and invisible, and landed with a swoosh in the osiers; they are usually the last birds to flight. In the distance I could hear the melancholy hooting of Bewick’s swans; in a fen farm a dog barked at his star; night had come.
I drifted back slowly, carried by the gentle current. Sounds of water, night sounds were all about me. I had not had a shot, but cared not a jot for that. The black mass of the bridge loomed up from the murk; two strong pushes to port and the punt slid on to the grass with a silken rustle and became inert and dead. I stepped out and tramped about, easing my stiff limbs.
The owl was not in the cartshed, having gone out hunting; I heard her snore among the elms. The punt was quickly returned to her place on the trolley. I hope she had enjoyed the trip — I had!
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