John tells of life on the Norfolk marshes – characters, wildlife and wildfowling.
Life on the Marshes
I moved from Cambridge to Brundall in about 1950. I lived in a little house which was next to the Lackford Run which is the stream that runs through from the River Yare and goes up through Braydeston. It was a tidal stream so there were sort of fish and swans and all sorts of things in it. And the other end of the garden was just marsh basically, which was full of wildlife.
I also remember very clearly waking up one morning in 1953 to find water all round the house which was the big flood of ’53. Luckily it just came all round the house but didn’t come in. So that was lucky. But it was quite spectacular.
The garden we had at Brundall was half marsh and half lawn really. I remember the old chap who used to come and do the gardening for us used to cut the grass with a scythe. He used to get on his knees and cut a beautifully smooth bowling green type lawn. It was amazing to watch him. Of course, in those days we didn’t have any mains water or sewage so we had a well in the garden and the soakaway and I always remember they were only about 20 yards apart! So I’m not quite sure what the quality of the water was like.
I had two sisters. I remember one of them used to go absolutely mad because of the mosquitoes because obviously being near the marsh and the water in the summer, the place was seething with mosquitoes and we used to get bitten quite regularly all over which was always a bit of a nuisance.
I had two best friends in Brundall. One friend, James Cole, his father had a boatyard called Tidecraft Cruisers so at weekends when I was a bit older we used to spend the weekends helping out on the boatyard, showing people how to drive the boats, and cleaning the boats and filling them up with petrol and generally odd jobs about there. So that was quite lucrative as the holidaymakers were fairly generous with their tips. So we really enjoyed doing that.
At that stage, I’d have been 12, 13. Obviously we got the use of the boats as well which was quite handy. In the winter we could paddle about all around Surlingham Broad. All around the rivers. I learnt to sail and one thing and another so it was a lovely childhood really apart from the chore of going to school.
Wildlife and keeping pets
One thing I do remember in those days were the grass snakes. There were hundreds of them! And they used to come and bask on pile of reeds and things and in the sunshine. But they seem to have all disappeared these days.
We also regularly had a pair of swans nest down in our garden. They were called Asthma and Jallopy for some reason. I don’t know why we called them that. I suppose the Asthma bit was because they used to sort of make that coughing noise. But they brought up a brood of cygnets and they got in the habit of coming in to the kitchen to be fed. They used to waddle up the lawn and come in the back door and demand their slices of bread, or whatever it was.
I had some unusual pets. At that time there were quite a few coypus about and I did try and keep coypus as pets. Not very successfully I should say cos I didn’t realise how good they were at burrowing but I tried to keep them in an aviary we had in the garden. I managed to keep them a week or so but they generally escaped after that but we used to sort of feed them carrots and odds and ends which were probably the wrong thing to feed them anyway.
I found them in the garden. I made a bigger version of a cage trap that we had for rats so I made a wooden version and covered it with wire netting and that seemed to work quite well so I could catch them in there. And you could also, if they were swimming, you could get a forked stick and put it over the head and grab them by the tail and pick them up by the tail. The big ones were heavy enough you could pick them up by the tail and they couldn’t do anything about it. But I learnt to my mistake, I picked up a little one, they were quite supple and they could climb up and bite you, which they did.
Well, I remember them being fairly acceptable. It was later on that they started, by the sort of numbers increasing I suppose they then began to do more damage. But I don’t remember them doing a lot of damage at that time. So they were sort of accepted and people caught them for the fur and that sort of thing and then at one stage they put a bounty on the tails I think. So you sent the tails in and got money back for that.
I didn’t actually do that. We saw an advert, I’m not sure how old I was then, that a zoo in King’s Lynn or somewhere wanted coypus and they’d pay £1 each so we managed to catch two or three and send them over there for £2-3 we got. But I don’t know what they did with them.
The coypus were quite big. I think, I seem to remember, something about 20 pounds weight or something like that. Size of a medium sized dog. They were quite hefty things. I remember a friend of mine’s dog dug one out of a burrow and the coypu got it by the throat. And if we hadn’t been there I’m sure it would have killed the dog. But they could fight for themselves.
I didn’t know of any other children keeping them as pets. I just tried to, I was just used to them. I tried to keep snakes as well – grass snakes. But that didn’t work very well either.
I tried to keep the snakes in a sort of, like a big tin bath but they all escaped. The only thing I had any success with rearing really was white mice which we used to keep in the shed outside cos me parents wouldn’t let me have them indoors. And they used to breed like mad so I used to sell them back to the pet shop where I got the first pair from. And make quite a bit of money like that.
I think most of the marshmen used to shoot and they certainly used to catch eels and that sort of thing as well. So they looked around for food sources. Talking about catching eels, again, when I was a young lad, I used to catch quite a few eels and trade them in at the local shop in Brundall. I swapped them for packets of sweets and that sort of thing. Also watercress as well: that was another source of income. Certainly, duck shooting is on quite a large scale, or used to be in those days because they used to actually sell the wildfowl to the markets. A lot of them on Breydon had these punt guns and shoot 20 to 30 birds at a shot. It was all a good source of income.
After the coypus I became interested in wildfowling. I was probably getting on for more like 15 about that stage. One of my friends from Brundall moved to Acle. His father had a shotgun and he was keen on shooting so Andrew used to shoot as well, and he let me have a go with the gun. So once he moved to Acle we then used to wander about over the marshes there looking for pigeons or ducks or whatever for the pot basically. Boys my age or even younger probably sort of start off with airguns and what have you.
Having been introduced to wildfowling over the marshes at Acle I found there was a club in Norwich that organised shooting as a club and I joined that in about 1970. We used to go out after the various types of ducks, wigeon, teal, mallard and the odd goose if you were lucky which all went into the pot. And talking of what went into the pot, I should mention that we talked about coypu earlier. For my 40th birthday which was a good bit later my wife cooked a coypu for a party for us. That was interesting, very tasty actually. But the wildfowling side of it soon developed. I got involved on the committee of the club and eventually became the secretary so that involved a lot of work and meeting lots of interesting people like old Ted Ellis and Percy Trett and various other naturalists. The Wildfowlers Association of Great Britain and Ireland which is now called BASC instead. It was called WAGBI. They were a good crowd. Very interesting: a lot of interesting people who taught me a lot about marshes and wildfowling and various types of shooting and what have you.
Obviously when you’re wildfowling it’s mainly done in the dark cos the ducks fly in dawn and dusk. So you’re actually shooting at shapes and you need a good dog to go and retrieve them cos you’re not quite sure where they fall. So, having a dog was a very important part of wildfowling. Unfortunately, I was never really any good at training the dogs so mine tended to be a bit unruly but I had a little spaniel. One of the retrieves I remember most of all was actually in daylight and a teal flew over the ronds at, this was at, Stokesby I think it was at that time. And I shot it and I didn’t kill it unfortunately. It landed in the river so I sent the dog after it and silly dog ran into the middle of the ronds, not to the river and started digging. I said, ‘no, go and fetch it. Go and fetch it.’ And he carried on digging and he pulled this teal out of the hole. There was a coypu burrow under the ronds and he knew it was down there and he dug it out and pulled it out and brought it to me. That was the most amazing retrieval I think he ever did.
I’m still involved in the wildfowling. I’m still a vice president of the wildfowlers. And this last year, I just sold me guns cos my eyesight’s getting bad and my reflexes aren’t what they used to be. But yes, I still take an interest in it.
Putting out decoys on Breydon Water
John with his retriever
There were interesting characters living and working on the marshes. There were several marshmen that looked after the areas that we shoot over. Like old Reggie Mace in Seven Mile House at Reedham. I can remember him. Funny old boy. In his house it was sort of a table, a chair and all flagstones on the floor. Very cold and inhospitable. But he used to sort of manage from day to day and look after the cattle on his area and manage the pumps from the draining the marshes and so on. There was various other marshmen who controlled other areas like Billy Lacey and Freddie Mutton and Stanley Hewett and various others. They all were characters in their own right. All had their own different ways and means and so forth. Usually had another form of income somewhere along the way.
Once I reached the age of 15 I left school and started an apprenticeship at Heatrae so then, my parents moved back into Norwich so I got a bit away from the marshes for a while. I did an apprenticeship at Heatrae as a fitter and turner and then went into work study at Heatrae. From there I got a job at Mackintosh’s in work study department. That was about 1966 or something like that. From there I went into production planning at Mackintosh’s and it then became Rowntree Mackintosh and got took over by Nestlé at which stage Nestlé closed it down and I took early retirement and that’s where I am now. Retired!
John Crohill (b. 1944) talking to WISEArchive on 30th June 2017.
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