Dick tells about his love of Breydon Water, becoming a wildfowler, and being involved with the National Wildfowl Counts.
I was born in Britannia Barracks in Norwich in 1946. The barracks was the home of the 4th Battalion, The Royal Norfolk Regiment and my dad was the resident engineer.
I had always had an interest in wildlife thanks to my mum whose family came from a farming background. My dad used to look after the maintenance on the army camps around Norfolk, one was at Stiffkey and another at Weybourne and on school holidays I would go with him and used to wander off around the various coastal paths. That’s where my initial interest started, in birdwatching. When the camps closed down I had to find somewhere else and discovered Breydon.
I used to take the train to Great Yarmouth, and go out the back of the station where you’d be right on Breydon sea wall. You’d walk along all the way to Berney Arms and that’s where my interest in Breydon started.
I noticed in those days that there were several little houseboats along the sea wall and nobody ever seemed to be there. But occasionally I’d bump into one gentleman, an old fella called Bill Mason who had a little houseboat called The Pintail. We would sit on a Sunday afternoon and chatter away about Breydon and the way it used to be. Bill remembered it back to the Second World War. Gradually I began to meet one or two other guys, including Robin Harrison, who was quite well known because he used to write regular weekly articles about Breydon and its wildlife in the Eastern Evening News.
Robin was not only a naturalist; he was a wildfowler too. In those days I used to get the train there and back to Breydon on a Saturday and another one back on a Sunday, When Robin found that out he offered me the use of his houseboat, The Lapwing, on a Saturday evening if I wanted to stay the night, which I did. Even today nearly 60 years on if I smell a paraffin stove it takes me right back to opening the houseboat door all those years ago. It was great, I was in another world, all on my own. I loved it and I was addicted to Breydon. Eventually Robin handed the ownership of the houseboat over to me and some pals of mine used to come along, we all used it, it was great fun and a great place to have.
I would spend weeks up there at a time during the summertime and winter, my parents moaned at me because I never had a Christmas lunch at home for seven years, ‘cos I was on the houseboat.
Becoming a wildfowler
During the course of my wanderings around Breydon I eventually became a wildfowler. At the beginning of the season I used to stay at Robin’s marsh cottage before heading back to the houseboat for a couple of weeks. I got to know some of the local lads, one of them had a houseboat and he used to spend a couple of nights on that and we’d go off to flight together
This was in the mid-1960s and we all had houseboats. The Pintail that Mr Mason had was gone, and we replaced it with a new one which we helped to build for Billy Frosdick, who was the principal supplier of the timber as he owned a timber business. He did most of the work but we messed about up there and gave him a hand.
The Breydon houseboats tended to be smack boat hulls. Smack boats are the little boats that used to go out and ferry stuff ashore from the fishing boats. In about 1929, 1930 Robin Harrison bought one from a yard in Yarmouth, towed it to Breydon with his gun punt and put it on a little area of rond, that we think in those days was called Lamb’s Rond. It was a little bit of salt marsh and he pulled it up there and built a cabin on top. In the late 1930s early 40s he started to build it a bit differently and it more or less became a cabin on stilts. When I inherited it it was still a cabin on stilts but with the old hull of the smack boat still there, although it was really just an ornament. The wood was still as hard as iron even though that was over a hundred years old then.
I suppose that I was the only one that used to sleep on the houseboats up at Breydon for any length of time. Some of the lads would come up for the day and occasionally stay over. My pal Ray Stone, who still does a bit of wildfowling, and I spent a week up at The Lapwing and The Pintail as well, because Billy Frosdick was Ray’s uncle.
When I was staying on the houseboat on my own I would cook all my meals on a little meths cooker, or have fry ups ‘cause they were easy to do. I would pluck and dress some of the birds that I’d shot and cook them. I would get bread from James’s store, near the old bridge over the River Bure at Yarmouth. It’s all gone now but back then I‘d punt down, pull up near the Vauxhall station and get my supplies, bacon, eggs, milk general commodities to live and bread of course. Then I‘d wander back to the punt, stow them all away and row back to the houseboat.
It was very basic but it got us by. We had tea and coffee and hot chocolate and in the wintertime we’d lace it with a bit of rum. On a Saturday afternoon in wintertime the houseboat would be packed with the gun dogs, wildfowlers smoking pipes and the air would be thick. We’d have lots of banter, passing round the mugs of tea and coffee and hot chocolate ooh and of course the Morgan’s rum which we’d top ‘em up with and yeah it was a great atmosphere. I’d put in a little Tortoiseshell stove into Lapwing and it would be going red hot. It was a Godsend in the winter, with snow on the roof outside, you needed the heating. We’d be jumping out of bed all night to put some more wood on the fire.
Sometimes a guy called George Rose, an old punt gunner and one of the last on Breydon, would punt up to his houseboat and bring me some coal on the way. The coal boats coming up to Norwich power station would moor near his boat shed and he would get permission to sweep round the holds and sweep up any coal that was spilled when they were loading. George had his little houseboat up at the end of Duffel’s Rond, a little salt marsh half way up the north side of Breydon. He was stone deaf and his nickname was Deafy, he couldn’t hear a thing but you’d lip read and sign language to him but we’d always get by alright. He was quite a character, I think that he died in 1969. His houseboat got passed on to another wildfowler but we had a bad storm one night and the houseboat got flattened and wrecked, nothing left to even show where it was.
Looking back a bit, Yarmouth Wildfowler’s Association was first formed in 1955 when a group of local gunners got together and formed a group. It was called Great Yarmouth and District Wildfowler’s Association and it’s still going today, and is known as Great Yarmouth Wildfowling and Conservation Association. The conservation side of it comes about because of their involvement with the running of the nature reserve at Breydon.
I first came on the scene in 1961 and joined in 1965, up until then I’d been friends with several of the guys but didn’t join because I didn’t need to. I was still living in Britannia Barracks then and didn’t drive then. I used to walk from the barracks down to Thorpe station with a 12 bore over my shoulder, rolled down sea boots and a camouflage jackets, sometimes with a dog on a lead. I would walk onto the station dressed like that with the gun under my arm or over my shoulder and nobody would bat an eye lid. The ticket collector would just say, ‘Is the gun unloaded Boy?’ and I’d just flick the top lever so he could see that it was and I’d be given a cheery wave on to the station. Nobody took any notice whatsoever. Can you imagine doing that today?
Over the years of course the world has changed and if I was to walk on to the station with a couple of duck in one hand and a gun in the other there would be all hell let loose I think.
As I said Yarmouth Wildfowlers were involved with the formation of the nature reserve along with the other interested parties. There were meetings at Yarmouth town hall were the formula was thrashed out. I was invited to become a warden on Breydon to be involved with the work that had got to be done there, building observation hides and tern nesting platforms.
I was also invited to join the management and advisory committees that also met in Yarmouth town hall. There would be discussions about what we needed to do and ask permission to do it. Normally there wasn’t a problem because they wouldn’t have a clue half the time. We would just say what we wanted to build and they would just rubber stamp it, that would be fine and that would go ahead. Most of the work happened within the part of Breydon owned by Yarmouth Borough Council, the rest belongs to the Crown Estate.
Wildfowling on Breydon and punt gunning
Wildfowling on Breydon was difficult at times, because you were governed by the tides. Most of us would go out in the punts, which were 20-odd foot long. Punt gunning goes right back to the 1700s, a person used a large bore gun which was lashed on to the punt and they would approach the duck on the water. When they got within range they would then fire it as the ducks were getting off the water. They would hopefully make a big bag of duck which they would then sell to the market. The chaps probably had jobs on the land or at sea and when things got tough they’d go off with their punt gun to bag fowl to sell and take home to family. There were trains that used to run on the old train lines into most villages then, they would collect the birds and they would go to Leadenhall Market in London, so it was a big professional thing.
Punt gunning faded after the Second World War. Attitudes have changed and people don’t approve of it so it’s very much a secret society now. Punting on Breydon with a punt gun stopped when we had Breydon made into a nature reserve in 1968. That was one of the conditions of the other interested parties.
So, because of the tides that meant that we could only get there at certain times and as we all worked that sort of concentrated it down to a Saturday, which meant that there were many times when nobody would be shooting there. We used to keep our gun punts in boat sheds down at Cobholm in Great Yarmouth. The doors would open and we’d slide the punts into the harbour and then row up Breydon on the tide for the morning flight setting off across to the eastern end of Breydon which is called The Lumps.
We used to go up in the evenings as well and we had some shooting on the marshes on the other side of the Breydon wall but we had to pay for that. We didn’t shoot huge numbers of duck, for a start there weren’t huge numbers there. So if you went up Breydon for an evening flight and you got a couple of duck you’d be happy with that. We never sold anything, we tended to be a bit against that. We felt that what we were doing were just for us and the old days of selling what you shot were gone as far as we were concerned. That isn’t wildfowling and we don’t get involved in that. I think if somebody had a goose or a couple of duck and someone wanted to give them a few bob to cover the cost of the cartridges then that was fine. But I never sold any ducks ever. I would either give mine away or eat them myself and would mostly eat them myself.
We were a great bunch of lads, all knocking around together, going fishing together, sailing together. Sometimes we’d sail and row our punts up to Berney Arms pub, have a couple of pints and row back again on a Sunday morning, sometimes the worse for wear I have to say. We became known as the Breydon Pirates and I think that one of the lads wrote or painted the words ‘Breydon Pirates Forever’ on the old pillbox that was along Breydon wall at a place called Stone Corner. It stayed there until they covered it over when they rebuilt the sea wall.
One of the things of course that you did used to have to do was use the dog, and shooting on a tidal estuary you really should have a dog with you. I had three gun dogs in my lifetime and because of life changes I haven’t had any more since. So if I go shooting I have to have a pal with me with a dog. It’s not fair to go shooting on the tideway without a dog, I don’t think. Inland is a bit different as you can generally get to pick your birds up fairly easily. But not if you’re shooting on the Acle marshes because there are dykes everywhere and if it drops the other side of the dyke you may have a long walk to pick it up. It’s restricted my wildfowling a lot these days so that’s why I don’t go out very often.
The season starts on September 1st and runs until January 31st, but for punt gunning in particular it’s extended until February 20th. This was partly because the fowl would often mass up in big numbers on the coast prior to their moving away back to their northern nesting grounds, so the punt gunners could make a big bag at that time of year. The high water mark of a spring tide would allow the punt gunners to still go afloat in February. Not many people still shoot below the water mark now so most of it finishes at the end of January.
As I said there are very few punt gunners, it’s a tough strenuous sport, out in all weathers, in dangerous conditions with a heavy gun in the boat. I knew two of the last of the punt gunners, George Rose, who I mentioned earlier and Harry Smith who was also one of the last of the Breydon punt gunners
You can be overwhelmed by the sea and one or two have. Even Sir Peter Scott when he was a young man, in the ’30s, was a punt gunner when he was at Cambridge. He nearly came a cropper with a friend when punt gunning on The Wash when their boat nearly got swamped and they could quite easily lost their lives.
From the end of January to the start of the new season in September us lads would be up Breydon in punts, we’d be fishing or doing a bit of sailing. A couple of us rigged up sails in the punts and we’d sail all over Breydon, and as I said, up to Berney Arms and back. That time would also be for stripping down the paintwork off the punts, getting them in the boatsheds and painting them up and getting them ready for the following season. We’d usually do that about March time because the weather would be a bit grim so we’d get in our boatsheds. But generally we were just chilling out and enjoying it until the summer arrived and we’d be off up Breydon.
Sometimes we’d have a swim, I’d go over the side of my punt and have a swim. I had an eel grig, a wicker one which I used to bait up and get some eels, but yeah we were just generally messing about until the season came round again.
Bird watching on Breydon and the National Wildfowl Counts
We used to spend quite a bit of time bird watching on Breydon. It’s the most easterly estuary in Great Britain, and is on the north/south fly way. It is said that there’s nowhere else in Britain that’s got such a lengthy list of rare birds, some of the first for Britain were recorded on Breydon way back in the 1800s. So it’s a great place and a very popular place with bird watchers. There are always rare birds to be found there, if you’re looking, if you’re lucky. I’m never that lucky but my chum Peter Allard who has been up at Breydon a bit longer than me, he’s found some very rare birds up there. He’s one of those lucky guys if they’re gonna appear they’ll appear right in front of him. He’ll probably hate me for saying that, but that’s true.
It’s not an easy place to bird watch because you’ve a huge area of mud flats, the concentrations at high water around the eastern end is one of the reasons why we built the public observation hide down there. The hide stood at the top of old railway buttress but we took it down in 1978 or ’79 and put it in storage so they could build the western bypass. We rebuilt it along the sea wall just about three or four hundred yards from where it used to be. It’s still there today, but it’s a bit tatty now and it takes a bit of looking after as it’s vandalised quite a bit which is a great shame but that’s the way of the world these days.
Today the wetland bird survey is called the WeBS count, but in those days they were called the National Wildfowl Counts and they were done for the Wildfowl Trust which was set up by Peter Scott. Peter Scott was a great friend of Robin Harrison and he used to come up and stay at my houseboat on Breydon. Robin started doing the National Wildfowl Counts in 1947 courtesy of Peter Scott. I helped Robin until 1983 when I took over from him, the gentleman who had been the organiser for Norfolk passed on and I was offered the job of being organiser, which I then took on for the next eight years. It was great fun and I managed to get quite few of my friends together helping with them. My chum Peter Allard was also doing the counts and the wader counts as well and we did these counts together for many years and Peter still does them.
The birds on Breydon have changed hugely over the years. There are birds that used to be very rare that are now common. I can remember seeing an avocet when I was out wildfowling one Boxing Day in the early ‘70s, just the one in the middle of winter which was unusual. Today there are hundreds of avocets on Breydon and along the coast. Spoonbills were quite a rare visitor, they used to drift across from Holland in the summer, but there were always just one or two, now there are dozens of them and they’re nesting in Norfolk.
Little egret, I can remember, with Robin Harrison, seeing the first little egret on Breydon way back in the early ‘70s and now there are dozens of them and they’re nesting in Norfolk too. So things have changed hugely. When I used to do the National Wildfowl Count if the winter was hard the birds would come off the Broads and there may be about 5000 wigeon on Breydon and now there’s something like 26,000. Pink foot geese were very rare, but because the marsh has changed the numbers have changed. They’ve now started to come back and I think the last count I have a figure for was 16,000, not just at Breydon but all the way around the Norfolk coast. They just weren’t there in my young days, they just didn’t come. They used to graze the old grazing marshes when the cattle had fed on them during the summertime, but that’s all gone. What they have found that they like is sugar beet tops, so that’s what appeared to have brought the geese back to Norfolk, which is great. Breydon gets its fair share and sometimes they’ll come in, land on the mud flats and roost for the night, if they feel in that mood.
Breydon itself hasn’t changed much but of course the marshes have. One of the things that the geese didn’t like was the helicopters, and you had local helicopter companies operating just out of North Denes and they did put the geese off. But these companies are not so busy there now and the geese have got used to them I think as they tend to ignore them now.
We always used to have clear-ups several times a year. We would all turn out on a Sunday morning, when the tide was out and clear up all the rubbish along the tide line. There would be plenty of that, bags of rubbish chucked off the Broads’ cruisers and things like that. We’d be dragging bits of wood and plastic across the mud flats and through the salt marsh and would pile them all up. In those days we used to have bonfires and burn ‘em all, all the rubbish plastic included I’m afraid to say. We didn’t know the seriousness of that at the time. But we did that for about, oh, 20 odd years, 25 years probably. There’d be about 30 or 40 of us all in our sea boots and dirty old clothes as it was a filthy job, ladies would come along with flasks of coffee from Yarmouth Naturalists Society.
It was quite hard work but it certainly made a difference with the place ‘cos such a lot of rubbish got washed up there. To my knowledge it still occasionally happens.
Tern nesting platforms
These came about from an idea that cropped up when an old platform washed up on Breydon from the harbour. Nobody came after it so a couple of wildfowlers topped it off with shingle and terns nested on it. It belonged to May Gurney who did tow it away. So the seed had been sown and in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s some of the naturalists got together and put up a platform for the terns to nest on. That mushroomed out into two or three platforms. They were properly built, with permission from Yarmouth Borough Council, with little sections on top, all topped off with beach shingle.
The terns nested in them every year, Peter Allard used to do the ringing and over the years there were several hundred birds ringed. We have to replenish the shingle every few years and my gun punt would be used to take sand bags across. We would usually do this in March, we’d pick a morning when it was a big spring tide and we’d be prepared to be cold. Somebody would ferry the shingle up the road to near the signal box marsh, which was just about three-quarters of a mile from Yarmouth station. They would carry the bags across the sea wall and I’d load them into my punt and row out to the platforms where there’d be someone waiting to take the bags off me. We’d tip them in and make it all nice and neat and tidy for the terns to arrive in April.
When we didn’t have to replenish the shingle we would head out, again in March, to wash the shingle out. The reason for this was because cormorants would roost on the platforms through the winter and the guano would collect in the shingle and become filthy dirty, not good for the terns nesting. So someone would climb on the platform with a spade and shovel the shingle down to someone standing thigh deep in the water with a sieve, They would wash it out, pass it back up to tip back out so the terns had some nice clean shingle to nest on.
We, along with maintaining the platforms, did that for many years but unfortunately it doesn’t happen anymore. But they’re still there although the terns seem to have left them because a pair of peregrine falcons have taken over now. But that for many years was a great thing and if I remember rightly that was the largest colony of inland common terns nesting in Britain at one time, certainly the first for Norfolk. The terns never nested on Breydon until we put those platforms up, so it was a bit of a feather in the caps and it’s a pity they don’t return but there we go that’s the way it goes.
Fishing on Breydon, smelt fishing and eel catching
There used to be professional fisherman at Breydon, not in my time so much but they fished for smelt. Smelt is a fish like a herring which smells just like a cucumber and they used to call them ‘cucumber smelt’. They still come up the river, and some time ago somebody was studying them and I was able to offer the information that they used to be caught commercially on Breydon. They didn’t know that so were able to put that on their records.
They used to put eel sets on Breydon and there was one or two old boys who used to get a living from it in the ‘60s when I went up there. And up until the ‘80s there was a guy called Roy Carr who used to regularly have an eel set, or grigs out. They used to sell the eels to Yarmouth market for jellied eels which I used to enjoy. I used to give mine to a chum who passed away a couple of years ago. He used to fill up his bath with these eels much to his wife’s disgust and then at the end of the week he’d also take them up to Yarmouth market. But of course the market’s gone for them now because they’re protected.
I don’t think that there is very much up there now, apart from mullet. We used to net the mullet in Breydon, it was quite a job. I tried fishing for them with a rod but that was a waste of time. We’d trail a fine net from a boat in a big circle and then trail it over the back of the boat and then haul it up onto the mud flats., Sometimes the mullet would jump right clean out of the net, but other times we’d get a good catch, which we’d hand over and they’d go to a fishmonger somewhere in Yarmouth. Yeah, we’d get a fish of two or three pounds, four sometimes. I’ve got photographs of my little lad when he was at school sitting in my punt holding these great big fish.
I used to take my kids to the houseboat, and I took my boy in the gun punt when he was probably only a few months old. He loved it, really loved it. My daughter when she was in her pre-teens used to moan, we all used to go up there but she used to get bored. She wasn’t into bird watching or anything like that. Now that she’s in her late 40s she wishes that we had the old houseboat she says, because she realises what fun it really was and she would have appreciated it now. And living overlooking Tunstall Marsh she can see Breydon in the distance when the tide’s up and she says, ‘I wish we still had a houseboat Dad’.
I’ve dropped out of it now; my houseboat unfortunately went up in flames in 1991. It was an arson attack and so I more or less lost a lot of interest. Having left the estuary for many years I went back to wildfowling but I missed my houseboat and the boatsheds and the gun punts, they’d all gone. So I carried on for a little while but then in 2011 I packed up.
My son, he’s not wildfowling anymore but I think that he would if he could do what we used to do. If we still had the houseboat and the gun punt, the boatsheds, our friends, if things were like they used to be years ago he would still be there. But things have changed, times have changed, he’s got family of his own so although he has his gun he doesn’t shoot.
Some of the fond memories I have go back to the early ‘60s when I used to leave off work, go home for tea. I’d pull my boots and coat on and in those days I smoked a pipe so I’d stuff my pipe and baccy in my pocket and walk down to the station and get the train about seven o’clock. It’d be a pitch dark winter’s night, but a nice night, nice and still. I’d walk out the back of Yarmouth station onto Breydon wall out into the pitch blackness and I’d walk for a couple of hours along the sea wall up to my houseboat. I’d open the door, go in, light the lamps, put the kettle on, make myself a cuppa and I’d stand in the doorway with my pipe glowing, listening to the sounds of the night. I listened to the curlew which was my favourite bird.
I reckon that there’s nothing more evocative than the call of a wandering curlew far up in the dark autumn night sky. And whenever I hear curlew today it takes me straight back to those days when I was absolutely in love with that whole estuary. The salt wind, the salt mud, everything about it and it’s a huge part of my history and I love it, and I’ve loved it and it’s all gone but I’ve got those memories.
More about the Breydon houseboats in the 1960s
There were houseboats like these on Breydon for over a hundred years, and are recorded, like the men who had them, in books by Arthur Patterson alias John Knowlittle who wrote 26 books mostly about Breydon and the Broads in the late 1880s and early 1900s. Old Patterson had a Breydon houseboat himself, The Moorhen, moored by the old Lockgate Farm.
When I first went to Breydon in 1961 there were several houseboats along the North Wall. At the eastern end of the estuary, the Yarmouth end, there were two houseboats on an area of saltmarsh known as The Lumps. One belonged to a chap known as ‘skins’ Gates and the other to a Bob Allen. An old Broads cruiser was moored in the lower run, a channel, which belonged to a Harold Davis. About a mile west along the sea wall was a small metal houseboat tucked in the corner of the sea wall, which belonged to a couple of wildfowlers whose names I do not recollect. Next a bit further long was the old tarred hulk of the houseboat Pintail, belonging to Bill Mason. A few hundred yards on was the houseboat Lapwing which was Robin Harrison’s, later mine. Further on from that was an old wartime caravan on the landward side of the seawall, which also belonged to Harold Davis. There was an old puntshed in the seawall corner just after the caravan which belonged to Robin Harris. On the next corner of the seawall a houseboat appeared in 1964, the property of lady birdwatcher Maria King, called the Whimbrel, later sold to the wildfowlers Colin and Phillip Smith. Over the seawall opposite Whimbrel was a big Norfolk farmhouse called Lockgate Farm, the home of marshman Gordon Addison, marshman for the Wright family. To the southwest of the farm is Duffles Rond, a large block of saltmarsh and on this was another old houseboat, a bit of a wreck by then, which had belonged to one Percy Trett another wildfowler. Later, in 1964, George Rose the puntgunner moored his little houseboat, Swan, on the edge of the Rond. Next was some two miles along the seawall at a place called the Dicky Works, and there was an old houseboat that had been George Rose’s but he had sold on and it later was bought by Birdwatcher Peter Allard. On the last, most westerly, part of Breydon, Bushes Rond, was a houseboat called Greylag owned by the Carter brothers who were fishermen … All if these places have now gone, even the farmhouse, where there is not even a shadow on the ground to show where it stood.
Dick Foyster (b. 1946) talking to WISEArchive on 14th October 2021 in Wicklewood.
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