Colin Foote tells the story of a punt-gunner's adventure on the Dee Estuary when one of his best days nearly ended up being one of his worst.
An active man could just about leap across Taylor's Gutter today, but in 1938 it was more than 50 yards wide. That illustrates the rate at which the Dee estuary silts, a natural process which accelerated following the construction of Burton Cop in 1860. The Cop was intended to improve the tidal hydraulics but had the opposite effect. The Dee tides flow three times faster than they ebb; in consequence all their suspended silt is deposited. In those years the gutter separated a tract of newly formed salting - known to the fowlers as Welshman's Island - from the main marsh.
A cold easterly was blowing that December Saturday afternoon as a neap tide started to flood into Taylor's Gutter. Painted dull grey to match the mud, the single handed, gracefully lined, half decked gunning punt faded into that background until it seemed no more than a shadow on the water. Lying flat on his chest, head up, on the bottom boards, the fowler steered the punt with paddles like table tennis bats having a leather strap in which to insert the fingers. The tide provided momentum.
With dabs of the paddles he kept his little craft in the shadow of the bank. It touched the sand every few yards and swung broadside to the current, but the water took only seconds to rise. A stroke or two of the paddles and he was back on course. Hands protected by goose fat but it was a cold job. The tide water was warmer than the air sure enough, but the wind was severe on wet fingers. However, the potential prize was worth a little discomfort.
As he had rowed out along the marsh edge, the fowler had seen a flock of wigeon so dense they blotted out the low winter sun. They had flighted upriver towards the Welshman's Island. He felt sure he could get in amongst them. There were usually plenty of pintail up there too in these conditions of wind and tide. Very wary those lordly fowl, tideway pheasants they called them, but the sweetest eating of all if a few could be outwitted.
Now he could hear that spine-tingling ‘wheeoo' of the cock wigeon, a sound that causes adrenaline to course through any fowler's veins. Rounding a bend he saw them. There were wigeon on the mud all along the gutter bank as far as he could see. Others were in the water, asleep, heads tucked under wings but many more were amongst the sea purslane and samphire at the edge of the grass. They were on the opposite bank to the one he followed. The last rays of the winter sun reflected off the white wing patches of the cock wigeon and he thought he could see the neck stripes of a few pintail drakes as well.
It would mean crossing the broad expanse of the gutter if he was to get a shot. Better to do that now while the fowl would be less likely to see him. Slowly he advanced, 120 yards from the nearest, 100 yards, 90, 80 – and they had their heads up. The punt touched bottom. For a second or two he thought all would be lost, but the underside of a gunning punt has a saucer profile. The suction of a flat bottom would make it impossible to move should it come to rest on the mud. It came off nicely after a long second as the tide flowed, 70 yards, 60 and with a roar of wings they all jumped.
The sound was deafening. All the duck in the river must be along the Welshman's Island, he thought. They were rising, flock after flock when he pulled the lanyard, turning his head out of the way of the gun as it recoiled against its stop ropes. The recoil drove the slender craft 10 yards backwards against the tide. The echo reverberated across the marsh as the smoke cleared. The shot had cut a good swathe through the nearest fowl and he hastened to collect the slain. A long handled landing net was a useful retrieving aid. He poled the punt into the shore to walk the bank and recover those which had fallen into the grass - a good afternoon's work, and lucky too, as many a shot is spoiled in the last seconds by some old curlew with its strident alarm. 29 wigeon and 11 pintail, his best shot ever. Three bob a couple for wigeon, four for pintail. In his last apprentice year they would make as much as a week's wages.
By the time he had the fowl stowed, the tide had reached high water, and he could go back with the ebb without difficulty. He would be overtaken by darkness but there was a quarter moon and he knew every gutter and feature of the estuary. There was always a compass in his pocket lest the dreaded fog should drop, a double-cell bicycle light on board and matches in a waterproof container which had seen trench service in the last war. A cup of tea from the flask and he started the long haul back home. He poled merrily along, glowing warm from a combination of exertion and success, the setting sun just dropping below the western horizon. That left a good hour of combined daylight and twilight and a couple of hours aided by the moon before full dark to follow that – plenty of time. Then disaster struck.
There was a horrible tearing noise following a jolt that nearly threw him overboard, and the punt started to fill with water. Quickly he turned it into the island but the water was up to the gunwales as the bow grounded on the mud. Grabbing the painter he pulled the punt well up to the grass. Much of the water slopped out as he did this, enabling him to see a jagged tear in the planking more than a yard long and three or four inches wide, just below waterline.
He could have walked off the marsh as the tide dropped of course, but that would have meant leaving the punt, the gun and the ducks. There would have to be another solution. He took out the big gun and the ‘cripple stopper' 12-bore and laid them on the herbage at the top of the bank. The ducks followed. The punt he dragged up too, turned it over to get rid of the remaining water and inspect the damage. While he was doing so, the tide was dropping away revealing what he half suspected had caused the mishap. The last spring tides must have shifted the sand, which buried a long sunken and abandoned fishing smack. Broken backed, planks and strakes long gone but her oaken ribs were still sound. One of these had become spear-ended through the ravages of time. It was this that had wreaked such havoc with his punt.
While the light remained, the fowler walked the tideline around the island gathering anything from the flotsam and jetsam that might be useful, including driftwood. With this he made a rough lean-to shelter backed to the wind and piled it up with tidewrack. A couple of planks made a floor spread with sea purslane for a bed. There were plenty of those pine planks - deck cargo, no doubt washed overboard from a Scandinavian coaster. He had collected an old fisherman's yellow oilskin jacket that must have fallen from some trawler or other, a half-full can of lead paint, some pieces of net, a few old cork floats and a bamboo cane.
He lit a fire with the rest of the driftwood and quickly plucked a wigeon, cut it into four pieces with his pocket-knife and roasted it over the embers supported on the bamboo cane. He decided to keep his cheese sandwich for breakfast and ate the wigeon with sampkin (samphire) squeezed over it for its salt content. “It was lovely”, he said later, “I sucked the bones.” A swig of tea from the flask and he bedded down as best he could on the planks with the fire well stoked in front of the shelter and the punt's kapok life jacket for a pillow.
He was wakened of course by the calls of gulls, seapies, redshanks, curlews and wildfowl moving with the tide around 4am. But by the time it was light enough to see anything, the tide was long gone. He patched the tear with a combination of the cork floats, pieces of net and the oilskin cut into strips. Softening the lead paint over the fire, he used this to caulk the repair and then wedged the patch with driftwood across the beam of the punt to withstand water pressure. His last job was to roast another wigeon to carry with him before enjoying his cheese sandwich.
With the punt right-side-up again he slid it down into the gutter where it sat tight enough in the few inches of water remaining after the tide had gone. Then he stacked the big gun, the cripple stopper and the ducks aft, to take weight from the bow. He lashed the big gun down with spare cord for safety. Without the benefit of tide until an hour later in the afternoon than the previous day, he proposed to tow the punt as best he could as far as the ‘deep' and then row down to the mouth of the gutter which ran into his mooring at Lawton's Quay.
It was another bitterly cold day with rime on the saltings until around 9.00am when he started towing. Low water neaps are higher than low water springs, but even so, little water remained in the gutter, insufficient to float the punt, but generally just enough to make towing it easier than it would have been on dry mud. Consequently he was lathered in sweat when he reached deep water some three hours later. The patch looked good and little baling proved necessary as he rowed downstream. He was weary though when he reached the mouth of Lawton's Gutter so decided to wait for the tide to take him home. But young and fit, a short rest after eating the wigeon and drinking the last of the tea, his fowling instincts took over. There were a few duck flighting along the edge of the saltings so he waited hidden, cradling the 12-bore. He had two nice mallards by the time the tide started to flow into Lawton's Gutter.
He poled in on the tide around dusk to the great relief of his parents. They were not unduly worried - their son was often out half the night with his punt. His uncle, his mother's brother, had taught him all he knew about punting and given him the punt and gun when he gave up two years earlier. That craft had once been owned by Tom Evans, a famous Dee fowler, a coxswain on the ill-fated Lusitania, who had often acted as puntsman for Leonard Brooke. The lad knew the estuary like the back of his hand and never took risks. His father helped him unload and put the punt up on trestles ready for repair. They were both joiners and would soon have it shipshape again.
"I had a big bowl of soup when I got in to the house," he told Dolly, his girlfriend, the next evening. Her father and brother were puntgunners so she knew what it was all about. "Then I had a bath and a long soak, before a good meal. Slept like a log and cycled off for work this morning with my bacon butty in my fist, no time for breakfast. Quite a weekend! Sorry I missed the dance.” “Never mind love”, she said, “I stayed by the fire, listened to the wireless and knitted you a new hat for the punt. There will be plenty more dances.”