Shooting the headmaster's hat

Wildfowling storiesEnthused by stories and paintings of famous foreshore ‘gunners’, three keen young sportsmen headed to the Wash for their first experience of wildfowling. But, as Jack Francis recalls, it didn’t play out quite as expected.

ILLUSTRATIONS: JONATHAN YULE

It was in the late 1950s that three school chums – James Loudon,William FitzHugh and I – decided to go wildfowling in the school holidays. We had been enticed by the notion of shooting for free’ on the foreshore below the high tide mark. The paintings of Sir Peter Scott who had been a wildfowler before he became a full-time conservationist, and the tales of Kenzie Thorpe – the nearest thing to a ‘market gunner’ that you could find in Britain – had enthused us and fed our dreams of becoming wildfowlers.

Borrowing my mother’s Morris Minor, the three of us set off to Holbeach in Lincolnshire to stay for several days on the Wash. On arrival, we booked into a wildfowling pub and enquired about a ‘guide’ to take us out to the best places on the saltings and mudflats. We were well aware that any attempt to do so on our own without local knowledge of the tides and deep muddy areas was highly dangerous.

Duck flighting and goose flighting are somewhat different, although there is of course some overlap. Ducks spend the day out at sea and flight inland in the evening to feed on the saltings and marshes nearby; whereas geese do the opposite and flight inland at dawn to their feeding grounds where they spend the day and return to their roosts out at sea during the night. The plan therefore was simply to do the evening flight for ducks and the morning flight for geese.

Jonathan Yule paintingsPooling our pocket money, we hired a guide who duly turned up to take us out for our first evening flight. He took us to Gedney Drove End and then led us along the sea wall for some way before branching off down the saltings alongside a creek. We tramped and squelched after him. Eventually he spaced us out 50 or 60 yards apart and told us to stay there until he returned to take us back. “As it gets dark, the ducks won’t see you unless you move about, so say still,” the guide said. “The tide is coming in so it is important that you stay where I can find you. If by any chance we get separated and you have to swim for it, stick your gun firmly upright by the barrels in the mud to make it easy to find and retrieve when the tide goes out again. Then it is just a matter of cleaning your gun which is better than losing it altogether.” With this rather grim warning, he set off into the gloom.

It grew darker and darker but there was no sign or sound of any ducks, and after what seemed an age I was convinced that I could hear the sea fast approaching and feel the mud around me getting wetter. Then there was a series of shots way off in the distance.

Not long after, the guide returned with several dead wigeon draped over his shoulder. “No luck?” he enquired. “Pity, they must have come down the creek where I was. I got five.” But my mind was elsewhere; I was becoming seriously worried about the tide which seemed to be sloshing round our ankles and I couldn’t care less about the guide’s wigeon. Somehow we got back to the sea wall and eventually to Holbeach where we reluctantly parted with our pocket money for the evening’s adventure.

Safe to say, this was not an altogether satisfactory initiation and necessitated a council of war. The decision was to go it alone without a ‘guide’ and not venture far from the sea wall in future. Then at least we would be safe and not waste our pocket money subsidising the guide’s sport. And so it was to the sea wall at Gedney Drove End that we would go for the dawn goose flight on the morrow.

At 5am the next morning, having sacked the guide, we once again set off in the Morris Minor to the foreshore. We stumbled up the sea wall and spaced ourselves out to hide behind it and await the geese. The tide was high.

As the dawn skies gradually lightened, the view out over the Wash was magical and the geese began flighting from far away in the distance. It was an amazing sight, skein after skein of geese stretching out all along the Wash, heading inland in ragged ‘V’ formations.

There must have been hundreds if not thousands of them. They were stratospherically high and well out of range, especially to our 12 bore game guns and No. 5 shot cartridges, so we held our fire.

Much to our surprise, it soon became apparent that we were not alone; all along the sea wall, spaced at regular intervals, were other ‘gunners’ who despite the absurd range of their quarry proceeded to blaze away. The geese continued on their line, seemingly unconcerned.

And then, suddenly, it was all over; the geese had disappeared. We made our way back to the car, where, to our surprise, we encountered a fellow fowler who somehow had managed to shoot a goose. He displayed it proudly and in answer to our curiosity explained that he was using a 10 bore with BB shot and that he had doctored his ammunition by opening his cartridge cases, packing the shot in candle grease so that it stuck together, and then reloading it. “Wonderful for long- range shots,” he explained. Indeed, judging by the huge hole in the wretched goose’s breast, it was clear that there was something in what he said. He had virtually turned the 10 bore into an anti-aircraft gun.

The legality and indeed danger of doing such a thing clearly didn’t concern him, but it gave us an idea – we needed much bigger shot for our ‘feeble’ game guns if there was to be any hope of bagging a goose. So it was back for breakfast and then to Kings Lynn where we found a gun shop which sold BB shot cartridges.

In the pub that evening, after another fruitless flight, we encountered a wildfowling party comprised of two schoolmasters together with two schoolboys – much like ourselves. Initially we rather looked down on them.After all, we didn’t have to have schoolmasters ‘chaperoning’ us on our wildfowling expedition! However, as time went on we learned that one of the masters was Peter Gladstone from Shrewsbury School and a great-grandson of William Gladstone the Victorian Prime Minister. He was a renowned naturalist and wildfowl expert who was later to join Sir Peter Scott’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. Like Sir Peter Scott, he was also a good Shot – both exemplifying how shooting and conservation can complement one another despite their superficial incompatibility.

The other master was Anthony Chenevix-Trench who had recently left Shrewsbury to become headmaster at Bradfield and later became headmaster of Eton and then Fettes. He was a somewhat controversial character, later described in The Observer as a ‘flagellomaniac’... He had had a ‘difficult war’ having served in an Indian artillery regiment before being captured in Singapore and becoming a prisoner of war of the Japanese for the remainder of the Second World War. The resulting brutality may have affected him, although this was not apparent to us at the time and he seemed a rather quiet and unassuming personality.

Jonathan yule wildfowling illustrationsAfter several more forays, our final day approached and we decided to link up with this other party. After all, Peter Gladstone seemed to know what he was doing despite the fact that they had also had no luck. So, driving off in the early morning in the pitch dark, we led them to our usual place at Gedney Drove End.

Upon arrival, we found that the weather had changed; the sea wall and mudflats were shrouded in fog – ideal for goose flighting as it forces the birds to fly low to find their way. Consequently they were low enough to shoot with normal No. 5 shot game cartridges. As the tide was retreating, it was also safe to venture further from the sea wall and spread out onto the mudflats and saltings despite the poor visibility.

Sure enough, as dawn broke there was the unmistakeable sound of geese approaching. Dark shapes zoomed through the fog, seemingly in every direction, and I found it impossible to work out from where they were coming and set my feet in time to shoot well. After some time, as the flight began drawing to a close, a shot rang out in the distance. None of us had had any luck, or so we thought, as just then a squat figure wearing an enormous hat emerged from the fog cradling a goose in his arms. This was Chenevix-Trench, the goose still alive with its head and neck erect and a very indignant expression on its face. Luckily Gladstone knew what to do and quickly despatched it.

Beginner’s luck had transformed Chenevix-Trench’s demeanor from the quiet and unassuming to the greatly animated and as we trekked back along the sea wall, he suggested that as a celebration and compensation for our own ‘blank’ morning, we should shoot at his huge hat! 

The hat was a Terai Gurkha slouch hat from his Indian Army days, made of thick felt with a very wide brim and, if thrown and spun like a frisbee, it would float away like a flying saucer or huge clay pigeon – a most enticing target. He threw the hat from the sea wall in a safe direction and we all enthusiastically blazed away at it. And what happened? Nothing. So the hat was retrieved and inspected, but there was not a mark on it. It was then thrown again and again, and still nothing. Eventually I noted that because the hat was thrown from the sea wall, it presented a dropping shot as it sailed away. However, being so big a target, inevitably everyone shot straight at it and consequently missed over the top. Finally, rather than game cartridges, I furtively loaded my remaining BB cartridges and shot well below the hat; it jinked and on inspection had several BB-sized shot holes in it.

After returning to the car, we retired to the pub to pack up, pay the bill and drive home. I ruminated that despite our unsuccessful wildfowling adventure, there can’t be many others who have shot a headmaster’s hat!

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