The marsh remained as constant as can any saltmarsh of mud and sand that alters slightly with every rip tide that pushes the salt and shingle to and fro
By The late John Humphreys
Friday, 27 July 2012
The late John Humphreys writing in 1978
His van squelched to a halt alongside the pile of rotting straw bales as snugly as a calf stands besides its mother. The man switched off the lights and motor, and sat for a moment while his eyes adjusted to the purple bloom of the night and his ears to the subtler sounds than the clattering of his engine, which still clicked and ticked as it cooled. The contrast caused by the sudden cessation of the jolting and bumping of his ride down the pockmarked lane gave him an uncanny feeling of other-worldliness; the noises and the lurching of his journey had at least occupied his mind and held at bay the slight twinge of loneliness which now assailed him.
Finely tuned ears
His pupils dilated enough for him to distinguish between the black bowl of the sky and the blacker mass beneath it, which was the sea wall. His ears tuned more fi nely to catch the breath of wind that rustled the straw and the distant wail of a peewit. Old Fen fowlers, living as they did in times of superstition and strange fears, must have been either brave men or devoid of any imagination to have even ventured out in the dark.
With a conscious effort, he tugged at the door handle and heaved himself out into the night. The tang of salty mud and sea lavender would have told even a blind man that he was near the sea. The man opened the back of his van and his dog, a great, raw-boned extrovert of a black Labrador, leaped out and pranced about him before dashing off to the nearest inanimate object. With his appearance, the remaining wisp of the man’s morbid and primitive fears left him. The bustle of donning oilskins, belt, bag, scarf and the hopping about on one leg trying to pull on a reluctant wader were done in increasing haste as a new emotion of eager anticipation crept upon him.
Old habit made him check before leaving to make sure that his vehicle was safe, despite the unlikelihood of another wanderer passing this spot on a winter’s morn. He had everything: compass, torch and whistle for emergencies; ammunition and, most importantly, his long-chambered double 10-bore — a gun who’s beautiful Damascene was hammered out long before he was born, but which, with loving care and pride, he maintained in perfect order.
A familiar path
He followed the familiar path out across the saltings, stepping firmly but with care over the narrow gutters that, with their surprising depth and treacherous overhang, could throw down a man and break his leg. His dog knew better than to gallop about, but plodded at heel, head down to sniff at the tide wrack or to investigate hopefully the spartina for signs of any other canine travellers.
There was plenty of time for reflection, and the man thought of all the other fowlers who had shot this part of the Norfolk coast in the great, old days of goose shooting. Why, 50 years ago a man had killed geese from the very high street of nearby Wells, and famous and infamous gunners had lain up in the sand with their eights and fours, in the hope of sending a goose crashing down into the pine trees behind them. They had gone now — both geese and gunners; the latter as often as not to graves on distant battlefields and the former first further round the coast and later to the secluded sea lochs and mosses of Scotland.
The marsh remained constant during these ephemeral changes — as constant, that is, as can any saltmarsh of mud and sand that alters slightly with every rip tide that pushes the salt and shingle to and fro. The eastern sky grew less dark, redshank belled and now he could see gulls, cold and angular, winning over, wheeling and keening when they saw the plodding figure below.
The man reached the edge of the green marsh and stood on a little island of spartina surrounded by a maze of wide creeks. Brown mud, rich and soft, stretched away before him like the windribbed sands of a great desert. He cast about for a place to hide and settled for the lip of a great creek, where a minor hedge of sea lavender gave him a hint of protection. Into this recess man and dog snuggled as though it were the softest bed on earth.
He checked his great gun to see that the muzzle was clear of mud and to make sure that it was loaded, and then he couched it in a bed of grass, ready to hand but not conspicuous to sharp eyes above. Almost immediately there was a flicker of wings, and a little trip of dunlin came flashing past and settled in the creek outfall, probing and running hither and thither on twinkling legs. The sky grew lighter by the minute, a jagged rent appeared in night’s cloak and the applegreen and pink lining tinged the east.
Geese on the wind
The man pricked his ears: geese, surely! There was no mistaking that subdued murmur punctuated by the shrill shout of an old gander. The sound came and went of the breeze, as tantalising as “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” in The Wind in the Willows. The small skein, descendants, perhaps, of the Wells geese of old, passed unseen and faded shorewards. It had been a sound to set the pulses racing, and the man felt a return of the unease he had felt earlier. How could the simple cry of a common bird affect modern, sophisticated man in this way?
It was brent next, croaking and flapping raggedly along the now making tide, which he could just see as a white line creeping over the ooze. Curiously, there was not the same emotion for this sound, though the birds were indeed geese, and as wild and unapproachable as any greys. Perhaps they lost some of their magic when the mantle of official protection fell upon them so long ago. The bird has certainly proliferated since, and the local gunners complained that they ruined the few remaining zos beds, and with them the local wigeon shooting.
The thought was barely in his mind when it was wigeon that he saw — not too high — about a score of them bearing up to him obliquely across the mud. A silver whistle floated downwind as his hand snaked to the pistol grip of the great gun. There was no time to think, for The Moment was upon him as they crossed in front; another second and it would be too late.
The 10-bore spoke once, twice with belch of flame and acrid blackpowder smoke. From the middle of the flight, two birds peeled out and smacked into the plumcake mud. The dog ran in and had them back in a twinkling — two cocks, their white breasts sullied by the mud into which they had plumped with such finality.
It was time to go. The sun was up and soon the tide would fill the creeks behind him and cut off his retreat. He walked back quickly, making light work of the patch he had trodden so gingerly before sunrise. He carried his birds by the necks rather than crumple and dirty them further in his capacious bag. He crossed the last creek, now filling rapidly, with but inches to spare at his wader tops. The tower of his parish church gave him a sure landmark; now he was safe. He turned to gaze back at the marsh and gave it a long, lingering look as if drinking in its wild but subdued beauty and its desolation — enough to last him another week in the city bustle where he was obliged to make his living.
That done, he marched off briskly, dog at heel, in search of the van.
A solicitor who specialises in country sports law... Read more
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