The world between the tides
No sport with a gun is so richly infused with romanticism as wildfowling on the foreshore, says Will Pocklington. But what is it beyond the sea wall that has captured the imagination of so many?
It is a foreign place to most, the foreshore; ignored and spared no thought. A barren landscape of little significance that exists beyond the arena of everyday life. One thing is for certain, environments in the British Isles do not come much wilder than the estuaries and coastal marshes.
But to a few, the sea wall is the frontier of a curious third world. A world of spartina grass, of sea asters and of iodine-smelling crab grass. Of shining mudflats, shimmering horizons and a capillary-like network of creeks. This is the world between the tides; a world owned by the sea. The playground of the wind and waves, where the wildfowler rolls his dice.
The draw of the foreshore to the ’fowler is as strong as the moon’s pull on the very tide with which he must become so well-acquainted. A draw that has been conveyed on canvas and in print so beautifully through the ages. Indeed, no sport with a gun is so richly infused with romanticism, mystery and nostalgia. Nor has any other captured the imagination of quite so many artists and writers. Wildfowling is an evocative pursuit which, more than any other, sends those within its ranks misty-eyed, gracing their souls with a little poetry along the way.
(Illustration: Simon Trinder)
But why so? Wildfowling has a meagre following when laid beside game shooting. Those to have truly experienced it are of a minority. After all, it takes a determined individual to leave the comfort of a warm bed in midwinter for biting, inclement weather – there are no pretenders in this sport – and yet it boasts an extensive history of artistic expression which outguns its fellow pursuits in the fieldsports sphere considerably.
It would seem that a number of elements fuse to create this allure. The first being the very nature of the ’fowler himself.
In his book Wild Wings, James Wentworth Day attempts to sum up this most stoic of sportsmen: “The true philosopher of the gun is the wildfowler, for he must have the sensitive eye of an artist, a love of solitude and lonely places. He measures beauty by the flash of a bird’s wing, by the glint of dawn on sliding waters, by the march of slow clouds. He is the son of solitude, the lonely one.”
In more recent literature, Tony Read describes typical wildfowlers as thoroughgoing individualists. “The hunter, bred and born – a lone wolf pitting his wits and knowledge against the wiles of the wariest and fastest birds on earth,” he writes.
Kenzie Thorpe, Frank Southgate, Laurence Thompson, Frank Harrison; the list of characters to have found their calling on the saltings speaks for itself. These men broke the mold.
Perhaps it takes a certain type to be attracted to the foreshore in the first instance. Perhaps this just so happens to be the same type on whom the experience leaves the greatest impression?
Renowned wildfowl artist Julian Novorol may prove my theory correct. He told me: “My first wildfowling trip was at the age of 14. The dawn light, sights and sounds of the foreshore coupled with the calls of waders and wildfowl left a deep impression, and I was hooked to become a fanatical and lifelong wildfowler.
“Little did I know back then, 50 years ago, that it would lead to me earning a living by painting wildfowl in their winter haunts. I am still a keen ’fowler, but spend my trips out afloat in my gunning punt. As we slide silently down the ebb tide, we merge into and become part of the wild surroundings.”
Indeed, wildfowling is much more than the pulling of a trigger. There is a strong likelihood that a cartridge will not be spent – manicured lawns and a torrent of reared pheasants are a world away.
(Illustration: Simon Trinder)
As the great Sir Peter Scott so eloquently wrote in his foreword to Bill Powell’s My Wild Goose Chase, “The interest stretches beyond the bag, beyond the assertion of ultimate power over the quarry, to the naturalist’s studies, to the scientist’s thirst for knowledge and the artist’s search for beauty.”
And of course, the very setting of the sport is intrinsic to its enchantment. “I could watch for ever the coming of the tide on a quiet winter’s night of moon and stars. It is a scene which must be dear to the heart of every wildfowler,” writes Denys Watkins-Pitchford (BB) in Dark Estuary. A sentiment with which watercolour artist Jonathan Yule agrees: “I have never lost the feeling of joy derived from the wild places to which our sport takes us,” he told me. “The lonely marshes and the wide horizon, skeins of pinkfeet against the Norfolk skies, the whistles of wigeon and the flicker of their wings against moonlit racing clouds. These are the subjects to which I always return.
“For me, wildlife art has always been inextricably linked to the landscape and habitat on which our wealth of diverse waterfowl depends. My work often depicts rather distant fowl in an immense landscape and sky. The pattern of birds against such a backdrop always has and always will lift my heart.”
Make no mistake though, the foreshore is fraught with danger, a front row seat for Mother Nature’s show of power – for she is queen here and has no qualms in demonstrating the fact. Woe betide he who thinks otherwise. It is undoubtedly a place which imprints a sense of perspective on the individual who ventures forth into its wild vault – far removed from the inhabited world we are familiar with. A place for contemplation and reflection, but one which demands initiative, enthusiasm and endurance.
(Illustration: Julian Novorol)
It would be foolish to reference wildlife and landscape as separate entities, for they are so closely intertwined, but the fauna of the foreshore holds a special place in the ’fowler’s heart. The cheeping of little knots; the piping of oystercatchers; the whistle of wings in the midnight-blue hue of dawn. Wild birds in wild places.
“Those species which call the saltings their home live on their wits,” noted Julian Novorol. “To watch a black-backed gull harassing a pack of teal or wigeon, and see it snatch one in flight, brings home the stark reality of survival.”
Fellow artist Simon Trinder is yet another example of a man who has been ensnared by the sheer mystique of wildfowl. “The way the birds twist and turn as they follow the creeks into the marshes to feed at dusk, how they explode upwards when disturbed, the beauty of their colours when seen sunlit against dark winter skies. The sport of wildfowling is all about hunting wild birds in wild places – it takes many years to learn how and when to catch these birds off their guard. And this is what I want to capture,” he explained.
“Over the years a good number of longshore gunners have turned to art as a way of recording the wonderful sights and experiences our sport produces,” continued Simon. “I have a painting over my fireplace of pinkfeet geese under a full moon, just black shapes against light, high cloud, a full moon riding high above them, and the top edge of each goose picked out in a white reflection of that moon. It’s one of the simplest paintings I’ve done but speaks volumes about why I go again and again to the coastal marshes in the winter time.”
(Illustration: Julian Novorol)
This same fascination with wildfowl has led to Julian keeping a large collection of ducks and geese at home – a number of which are free flying, including a small flock of pinkfeet – whilst Jonathan’s obsession takes him to the pinkfeet breeding grounds in Iceland each year.
Wild quarry does something to humans that reared quarry cannot. It stirs something deep down – an intrinsic age-old hunter-gatherer instinct. Pigeon shooting and deer stalking do much the same. But, tucked up on the foreshore with just a dog for company, the arrival of a migratory species from as far afield as the Russian Tundra amplifies the experience somewhat: A medley of respect, awe and satisfaction combines to produce that very feeling so many strive to capture in their work, through one medium or another. The sights, the smells, the sounds – long may they continue to inspire those who rejoice in the world between the tides.