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Wildfowling: Tales from the River Exe

I was recently sent a book that marked 60 years of the Devon Wildfowling and Conservation Association’s (DWCA) activities on the River Exe.

This is unknown territory to me, for though I have pursued wildfowl for eight more years than the Association, my mud-slogging has taken place on the vaster estuaries further north, with only the Severn and the Medway the extent of my southern limits. True, there were sorties at Pagham and Chichester harbours, but I never thought of these as more than almost suburban foreshores, any more than Key Haven, the stamping ground of that icon Colonel Peter Hawker, where only a skein of Canada geese brightened the day when I visited his house.

In short, the southern coastline of this country has never had the appeal of further afi eld, but this book by Clive Cooper, builder of punts and punt-guns, and Andy Chadwick makes me wonder if I’ve been missing something. Here, we have a look at the ancient history of wildfowling, the River Exe and Topsham.

The most common geese are Canadas, but there are plenty of teal and wigeon to excite the 70 members. But apart from the shooting, it is the conservation work that stimulates the DWCA. Great strides have been made since World War II and good relations are enjoyed with local non-shooting organisations.

Among the more interesting parts of the publication are the reminiscences of members, which emphasise the true spirit of wildfowling. The tale of Bannan Voysey, for example, who weighed 32 stone and was over 6ft tall and who fired a punt-gun from the hip, whereupon the explosion blew him and the gun through the closed door of the Lighter Inn, is unlikely to be repeated today, though I am told that the families concerned are still arguing about it.

The tale from the book extracted below is by Den Chadwick, father of co-author Andy Chadwick.

A day of mist in the 1960s

It was a fine misty morning with a flat calm on a particular day in the 1960s when I decided to go punting. Down at the quay, a group of local fishermen and shooters were discussing whether this was really a good idea. No problem, I thought, as the tides were slack, and a punt such as I had, rowed at a good speed, could always get me back.

My punt was of the sea-going variety with a 4ft beam, fully decked and 16in at its highest point. I planned a round trip from Topsham to about seven miles away at the river’s mouth. Working with the tides I estimated I’d return in about eight hours.

As I was going down the river, I saw a bunch of wigeon flying around an adjoining marsh. They came over the riverbank, pitched well down, but in front of me, and put their heads under their wings immediately. This was certainly not normal behaviour, yet the weather the previous week had been hard and most of the water inland frozen over. Force of habit got me down on the floor of the punt and the one-handed sculling paddle came out.

I hadn’t intended to shoot, but I could not resist the challenge. I carried on floating with the tide and went through the middle of the bunch. Not one looked up, and the bow of the The Exe has been the site of many fowling adventures boat almost touched one drake. They were in very poor condition, which made me wonder if it was worthwhile going on with this trip. If those birds were in that condition, would others be any better? I wished later that I had thought a lot harder.

The mist was getting thicker so I decided to pull in to a piece of hard bank that the falling tide revealed, and have a think. I could see the riverbank occasionally, so knew I was about halfway through the outward trip.

As the gravelly shallow bank came into view I saw a black blob ahead. Knowing that this place out in the river was where shags and cormorants liked to sit, I boated the paddle and let the punt drift in. As I got closer, the blob got even bigger as the man, who was picking up winkles, stood up! I floated on in
and the bow almost touched his boot as I came to a grinding halt on the gravelly edge.

“Gawd Almighty,” he said, “You gave I a fair old start then. You’m a brave fellow coming out on a day like this.”

“You’re the brave one”, said I, “I almost shot you crouched down as I took you for a shag.” He thought it was a great joke and his laughing could probably be heard half a mile away.

Chatting for too long

He then said, “I’ll tell ’ee about a friend of mine that did a bit of punting. This were when times were a bit hard an’ he couldn’t afford lead shot, so he loaded his big gun with nails, tacks, and that sort of thing. Anyways, he were settin’ to a nice lot of geese one mornin’, an’ he let rip as they jumped.

“Well he fired a bit low, and when he went to pick up he found nort but a heap of goose legs. I don’t know how true ’tis, but he told me that when the birds came back the next year, they all had wooden legs, just like mine”, and pulling up his right trouser, he showed me his wooden leg!

Now we were both laughing and we continued to chat for probably a bit too long. After wishing each other good luck, I started for home.

It was still daylight, but mid-winter days are short and can catch you out. I could still see the shoreline most of the time, but the mist was turning to fog. I made good progress for about a mile or so, when one of the paddle’s blades snapped off. I had the sculling paddle as a spare but that was much shorter. So, poling with one paddle and pulling with the other, I made some progress. The fog was now really thickening, plus I could not see the riverbank any more as it was getting dark. I was in trouble, though not far from home. Then I heard the sound of a train out to my right.

The trouble was that trains (steam locos back then) ran both sides of the river. I guessed that it was one on the east side and this was confirmed as its sound changed as it went over the iron bridge across the Clyst river. Pointing the punt straight at the direction of the sound, I set off. I do not know how long I struggled with the broken paddle, now having to use it as a canoe paddle, as the tide had made the water too deep to pole.

A close shave

After I don’t know how long, a great stone wall loomed up and stood in my way. The blocks of stone looked huge and I could not see the top or sides of them. I realised these formed one of the piers of the Clyst railway bridge and I had very nearly rammed it, as the tide was pushing me up the river at a rate that was not obvious, as I had no view of the banks. I had crossed over the Exe into the Clyst, so I knew I was safe. I turned the punt left to the bank and trod the anchor deep into the mud. Then I scrambled up over the bank, across the small field and I was on the road to our cottage.

I was daft, as the locals confirmed next day — “You was bliddy daft gwaing down there. As a boatman you’d make a bliddy good varmer.”

Sadly, later I learned that a fowler was out on the sand flats opposite where I chatted to the winkle-picker and all they found was his gun. If he had shouted or whistled, I could have easily pushed over the estuary, as I did on another occasion when a fowler fell asleep on Bull Hill and got cut off by the tide. This story’s end could have been so very different, as could have his.

To order a copy of Sixty Years of wildfowling & Conservation, tel 07769 334440 or e-mail [email protected]. Paperbacks are £8.99 and 150 limited-edition hardbacks cost £15.99. Postage is £2.45 for one copy and £1 per extra book.