We youngsters turned our hands to anything for a bob, from killing rabbits to catching butterflies. There is nothing more different than a butterfly from a kicking bunny. Next door to us is now a pair of houses, but in those days it was two acres of market garden run by an old man who did gardening, woodcutting and rabbiting for a living. As he got older so he let his pals have a rod or two of garden. It was a good time to be alive. War was finished they had done their bit. Now they grew vegetables and in the winter earned money on the farms as pest controllers. They had the rabbits; and in return for ridding the land of rabbits they had loads of cow dung to dig in from the grateful farmers.
Their boxes of vegetables were placed alongside the road and collected when ready. No one touched a thing that was not theirs, in the evening the old men would sit up the river bank with a bit of string and a hook baited with meat and catch a lot of fine eels. Drinking a pint of beer and smoking their pipes and yarning. Yes they could tell a few stories. No one wrote them down alas; to do so now third hand after all this time people would think they made them up, but looking back now at what we did is sometimes unthinkable, but I kept a diary and even I have to think twice, did that really happen to me? Yes I could not havemade it up if I tried!
These old gardeners used to grow a lot of cabbages and would pay us lads to catch the white butterflies, but we must not damage the plants. We found a good way to stop a Cabbage White was an old tennis racquet. Many times they got jammed in the gut meshes. We saved all the ones we caught in a jam jar to be inspected and dealt with later. With out knowing it we performed two jobs at the same time as while creeping up on them we disturbed the creatures from laying their eggs. Any green caterpillars we picked off and squashed. Who said organic farming was a new thing? All around the large garden of his, he laid half a brick for the thrushes to crack the snails on.
He kept the grass on the paths down to within one inch at all times with a huge scythe that shone like the moon. In his day he had been in a gang that mowed corn-fields by hand. His dry stone he kept in his large leather belt, wedged between the left trouser leg.
A few farmers shouted at us to keep off their ground and we mostly complied with their wishes in the daylight. But at night they could not see us. One good chance we had to clean up so to speak was hunt day. Yes, we all put ourselves forward on hunt day. What little angels we were! Why, they even gave us a florin for our good work that was to go around early before it got light on the day and stop all the big fox holes up so that Charlie had nowhere to hide and would give them a good run. To us kids the more they ran with all those noisy hounds the better for there was nothing more likely to make every rabbit above ground go to his or her safe bunkers than a blood thirsty mad pack of nasty dogs. So, forewarned and being paid as well, we toured the marsh blocking all the fox holes up with dirt. We also filled all the rabbit holes up but with a large hard sod of earth or half a brick that somehow always seemed to be at hand from the last hunt. On our travels we always picked up a brick butt from the gateways where the farmer filled the muddy entrance to fields and left them in the bushes or rushes by the rabbit warrens. These we placed at arms length below ground so that bunny could only get his head down. It was common to insert your arm and pull him out by the back legs after the hunting field had gone by. A quick knock on the head and he was going nowhere except back down the hole to be gathered as soon as the hunt went home. As the toffs drank and ate that night to the good chase after an animal that they, or anyone else, could not eat we kids would be celebrating ourselves by paunching and carrying home a bundle of very edible rabbit meat. Rabbits to us kids were the best and easiest things to make money with, we had many ways of stopping Mr Bunny above ground, in his hole he was a different proposition but we had means of shifting him.
To Dad Stoats were only worth sixpence if you skinned them but tous kids they were worth a lot more alive. We used to trap them in tunnel traps. four lengths of wood nailed together to make a long box, block one end of with a bit of tin or fine wire then half way along and half way down the side you nail loosely a length of wood so that it lay tipped down towards the unblocked end. Under this flap you secured a peg that would hang down when you pressed the far end down. This jammed the flap shut and you had Mr Stoat trapped. Very carefully we transferred him to a sand bag, always a sand bag as we had huge piles after the war in the old gunny shed, father dealt in old rags and metal. We used to go in the lorry with him and help on all the farms where he bought the old iron and used sacks. – Now with our very angry stoat we were in business to go rabbiting. A pocketful of nets and off we went. The difference with a stoat and a ferret is once the beastie is let go in the rabbit hole you never see him again. But you do see rabbits. They are terrified of him and leave home in droves rather quickly. No time to pack. It was one out, all out. Boy, did we get rabbits! We were armed with a short stick with a chunk of lead at one end, as we were too small to break their necks like the older boys. One reason we young ‘uns always did well was that we used to go to the warrens where no one was allowed, in gardens and such. Also we were small and made no noise. But the best reason was if you were seen and chased off you had to leave your ferret behind and so lost him. To us this never came into the frame as we were never going to get our stoat back anyway.
There was a time when we had permission to catch the rabbits on a certain bit of ground, there five of us got eighty two in just over one hour with four stoats and had to get Dad to come and collect them. We learned the hard way never to put more than one stoat to a sack as they fought and killed each other. I have never heard of anyone else using wild stoats like us kids but they must have done. If you have ever heard or seen a stoat in the open stalking or killing a rabbit you would have got the idea straightaway. One time later I was turning the ground over with a plough when I noticed a lapwing having a real old go at something. So, going over to the ditch, I spied in the other field a stoat rolling a plover’s egg with its nose towards the bank of the dyke. When it got the egg into cover he spent sometime eating the contents. Many years later with my wife going through Essex to Suffolk we were privileged to see a group of about twenty cross the road immediately in front of us. The one leading ran into the road like a lollipop person and stood up on his hind legs and saw the whole lot across then followed the last up the kerbstone into the hedge. Now I have heard of this happening but never dreamt of seeing it. Imagine that hoard coming across a sitting pheasant. It does not bear thinking of. It must have been a migration for food as not all of them were full-grown. We nowadays talk of immigrants but the birds, fish and animals have been doing it for millions of years. Sadly stoats are now no longer as common as their main prey were rats. The world has changed more than a lot of people realise.
Marsh lies inside the Military Canal
My marsh lies inside the Military Canal that was dug to keep Napoleon out of England. The western part of my flat homeland consists of deep silt loam over peat, and was always green or under water in winter. Being below sea level and joining the English Channel over a shingle beach behind a sea wall of earth, flat and unploughed, it is only five hundred years ago that the sea was driven back by nature to leave a silted marsh, level and very fertile, drained by ditches, dykes and sewers. All the water was drained off by gravity.
Nowadays it is pumped by large electric Archimedean Screws, to be emptied into the River Brede, and eventually flow into the Rother, and meet the sea at Rye Harbour. To the east the land is completely different, consisting of large ridges of sand, and shingle interspersed by valleys of soil. Thick gorse, bramble and thorn persist in profusion with large reed beds, and the odd willow tree. The only real trees are four oaks, which have somehow managed to keep a grip on life in their bare part of shingle. Here a hurricane fighter had crashed in the Battle of Britain, unable to dig the plane and pilot out, the girls on the gun sites planted oak saplings on his grave, and over the years they have grown, and use to provided a home for a sparrow hawk in an old crow’s nest, before we lost the hawk to pesticides. Now he is back on the marsh, although the old nest has gone, and he has found residence elsewhere.
It is out on this part of the marsh, I call it marsh but it never lies wet owing to the make-up of land, which the ruins of Camber Castle stand alone, facing what the weather can throw at it. Built by Henry VIII to protect Rye and Winchelsea, it now stands one and a half miles from the sea. Plundered years ago for the worked stone to build homes in the surrounding area. In my young days, it was covered in thick ivy and for its age is still in good shape, having all its keep and walls around it, which we searched for the jackdaws’ eggs. This was also the home of the kestrel that always chose a nest site that tested our best climber to the peak of his ability and often won the challenge against us boys.
The Ministry of Works removed the ivy some thirty years ago and installed iron grills denying access through the canon ports and doorway. But in our days it was anyone’s and being half way from home to Rye, it was the meeting place for us to join up with the Rye gangs. This was in the later part of the last war, one of the most heavily defended parts of Britain, with more guns to the mile than anywhere else, to shoot the doodle bugs out of the sky.
Near the castle was a cluster of wooden huts, one proclaiming on the door in large white letters, ‘COOKHOUSE.’ This had been a dummy airstrip to fool the enemy. These huts were a favourite place for us to play hide and seek, as there were not many chances to get out of view on a flat open area like our countryside. It was out here one day that we found a stack of large brass shells still alive with their blue and yellow pointed bits attached to their front end. They were hidden from view in a gorse bush and we came across them while searching for linnets nests.
Now we knew they were worth money; dad was a scrap dealer and had many used ones in the yard back home, but we also knew that he would refuse to buy whole ones with those nasty pointed bits on the end. The old 303 bullets and twenty millimetre shells we could deal with by bending the heads off in a vice, and emptying the cordite out into a tin to play with later. Some were filled with powder and with luck the USA ones were filled with little sticks that made wonderful fuses to ignite the loose stuff.
Now we had a pile of big heavy ones to deal with. Our little brains raced to find an answer; they were worth money, but empty. That’s where Tuppy, the oldest of us three, came up trumps. “Let’s build a fire of gorse around them and as they get hot they should go off.” So we lugged them all around to face away from us and covered them in dead grass and gorse.
Then one of us produced the necessary match and we ran away to wait our turn. The fire burned with a great heat very quickly as gorse does. After about ten minutes, the fire jumped into the air with a big bang and scattered the surround area with smouldering debris.
It was then that a nasty angry thing came whizzing our way in a hurry. We all hit the deck in record time.
“What was that? Good job no one stopped it! That was going some and it meant business.”
“Must have been one of the heads coming off”, said Maggots.
“No; they all faced the harbour one mile away. It would not go round in a circle would it? Anyway I’m scared. That was in a rush to get somewhere.”
At last we returned to the dead fire to inspect our ammunition to find that only a few had gone bang, although we were blissfully unaware of the big noise they had made owing to the projectile coming our way. It was the large percussion cap at the blunt end that had come adrift in the explosion the pointy bits had vanished. That was it; no more fires for us. So with our prizes, we lugged the black split empty shell cases back home.
Appearing in the yard with our treasure in the old go-cart father took one look, put two and two together and made seven not four. Boy was he angry! I don’t think I ever saw him that mad in the rest of his life. You see he had heard the bang earlier and wondered what it was. Then into the yard came us three kids with our fire blackened jagged cases. He guessed straightaway. That was it, no more. He phoned the police and I had to go with them and show them our murderous find hidden amidst the gorse, and later that day the army came and they were gone. No more temptation for us kids, so it was back to picking up empty cases, but we were kids and many more pranks would take place in our growing up.
More War Relics
In the fifties the countryside around here was littered with relics of the last war. There were pill boxes galore, also a tall square look-out tower made for the big naval guns that stood overlooking the bay, ‘now the gun sites are part of the new sea wall.’ We kids used to play in them. The breach blocks of the sixteen-inch guns had been removed and we crawled up the barrels. They were big and we were small.
Where the church now stands there is a triangle of ground. Under this there was a big concrete dugout used as a magazine. Us kids made it our camp. One day five of us were in there when we heard a movement and a rattling of chains. We were scared. “It’s a ghost,” said one of the two timid girls. That was all we wanted to know! Now we were all scared and shut ourselves in one of the rooms. It was very dark and cold with water four inches deep on the floor. How long we stayed there I do not know, but it must have been a considerable time. In the end we emerged and ran home. We were late and so I had to explain to mum why. I was terrified so told her everything. Dad was furious as we were told never to go near the place for there were racks of cordite and gun cotton still there. Father sent our man with the lorry, and filled the doorway up with hardcore and dirt.
Later grass grew over it and now you are unable to see where the door was. Much later the electricity company put a pole up on this triangle of ground. The first and second attempts failed owing to them not being able to bore a hole for the pole as they hit solid concrete. I still wonder if the bunker was ever found, emptied and made safe or just forgotten. And the ghost? It was no more than Mr. Simpson’s goat that had pulled its chain and peg from the ground and gone walkabouts!
The area was scattered with downed doodlebugs, all harmless no doubt. Us kids used to play on them and catch rabbits under the bent pieces of iron. Being so late in the war, it had no longer been worth collecting them up for scrap so they lay where they fell. Farmers towed them into piles and left them to rust away.
Today you really have to know where to look for one. There was a whole one in my young days up in a tree under Winchelsea in the wood, but all us kids were forbidden to go near it, although being boys we used to throw stones from our catapults at it.
This Changing World
Nowadays kids seem to spend all their spare time sitting indoors no matter what the weather is outside.
Today the marsh is very quiet, no longer do the old boys work the land. A land rover drives around or a quad bike, and departs for the rest of the day. One hour of mad activity and that’s all.
If you ask the children of today, and don’t forget there were only seven within my age group within a mile of each other in my young days, and that was counting boys and girls, that lived in my settlement for the village was no more than that “Why don’t you play on the marsh?” and they’d say “it’s boring, nothing to do.” We fifties kids never had enough time to do all we wanted. How times have changed; everything must be done for them.
January would find us among the tufts of hard rush that no longer grace the wetter fields. Land drainage has seen to that. These rough fields were the favourite roosting grounds at night for the lapwings. They dropped in amid the rush in their hundreds as it was getting dark and on a windy night, and the rougher the better, we lay in wait.
Earlier we would have set up long nets to catch the unsuspecting plover as he swept into bed. If there was a flash of open water among the rush, so much the better, for occasionally we netted teal and mallard duck. The plover we tied up in bundles of five, and father sold them in the market for one and nine pence.
Come February and we would stop netting pewits, and our attention would turn to the seaside because as the days got longer the cod would have gone, the lovely full roe Dover sole started to make its debut, along with three quarter to one pound fat sand dabs. So it would be out with the hooks and using small baits on small hooks, because the sole had a very small mouth.
We used lugworm and broke it into six pieces. Twenty worms were ample to arm one hundred hooks for the night. We dug, or I did, the others never seemed to get the knack of doing it, the worms in the day and only bothered to fish the night tide, as the day ones were non-productive.
By March, on frosty nights, we would be fishing with one hundred hooks and get at least thirty big soles, even in those days hoping to get sixpence for each fish. Most of them were at least sixteen ounces, and the big ones up to two pounds. Yes we regularly got a two pound Dover sole; it would fetch as much as one and six with luck.
The sand dab was treated as a by-catch that stole the worm meant for the sole. A fine fish to eat and the big ones we called pan dabs because they filled the frying pan; they were whoppers.
As March progressed the soles got more plentiful and fifty plus was not uncommon in one night ‘a speck of dust in March is worth a king’s ransom’ so the saying goes. The marsh started to dry out and the ‘gentleman in the velvet coat’ got to work, then my mate and I would be after him. Fishing was forgotten and left to dad with his keddle nets. The spring marsh called so Maggots and me set our mole traps.
Skins for Sale
My father used to buy and sell skins from butchers and anyone, along with rabbits. He also dealt in fox, otter, stoat, weasel, water vole and moleskins. I used to catch moles from the age of ten. All winter I had twenty traps up on the marsh. At weekends Maggots and me would go and move them. I would check them every day or dad did if he saw one that had gone off. So every Saturday at 9 am, Maggots and me set off to move to a new area. I never had time to locate and reset the traps after school, as it got dark early.
We used to set sail towing an old pram that we had removed the handles from and tied a bit of rope to. It was made for the job. When we came to a ditch, all fields in those days had a plank over them, because all the marsh was sheep, and the Lookers use to walk the fields daily, no corn in those days. The marsh always had a man counting sheep, and the fields were drained by gravity by men digging and clearing out grips with a spade to let the water run off. Women spudding thistles out was a common sight before the sprayers and tractors took over.
On coming to a ditch, one would cross with the rope, and the other would launch the pram and cross over to you. Then we both pulled the load across and out. They made baby carriages in those days, as we never got any water in it. The contents of the pram would be pegs to mark the traps along with any traps we were moving. An old kettle, fire wood, sticks, dried grass and paper. There were no trees so all things we needed we had to carry with us.
This included stones for our catapults, and a few potatoes to boil and eat with a chunk of cheese stolen from the kitchen, a packet of tea, sugar and a screw or cork stopper bottle with milk, and two iron cups. The matches (we never had a lighter) and fags we kept in our pockets. Yes we smoked and mum knew, but then everyone did.
The catch of moles would be taken home and I skinned them and tacked the pelts up in nine by four inch squares and we got sixpence per skin. At times we took a bit of bacon or bread and jam with us and in the spring we got moorhen eggs with a spoon tied to a long bit of willow and boiled them in the kettle, using the same water to make our tea that came from the ditch and was very pure; no nitrogen fertiliser in those days, only sheep dung and now and then a good coat of basic slag, and that was rare. The marsh was very fertile. The sheep put back what they took out. All spring the marsh was alive to people lambing the ewes.
All the farmers, there were only five on the marsh, encouraged me to get rid of that “gentleman in velvet” as they called them. I was paid one penny for every one I got. This was very lucrative as I took the moles to No. 1 who paid, then to No. 2 but No. 3 was wise to my game and wanted to cut its tail off, so I never produced No. 3 with any moles. He got his caught by me for nothing. As to lose the tail the skin was only worth four pence and anyway I was getting tuppence over the odds from the others.
With the skins the furrier made waistcoats and I was a very proud owner of one later in life. It had four small pockets at the front and six tails dangled down on each side. The back was made of red silk, a very posh affair and a big talking point at dances. The only snag was that one could not smoke while wearing it, as a bit of fag ash dropping onto it would singe it.
There was a huge trade in moleskins in those days as most water pipes were made of lead, and the plumber used the skin to smooth the soldered joints before they set hard. I carried on catching moles until the late nineties and got rather good at it, but then it was all gardens as the moles have vanished from the fields of the 1950’s. The reason, I believe, are the massive rollers that a tractor pulls. A team of horses could never move a three-ton roller like a tractor does all day and so poor old mole has been squeezed out of his home.
April meant egg time so a nesting we went. Magpies and rooks were well underway nesting and as the days warmed, the gulls laid out on the barren shingle to the east of us and we were there. Before the rush of eggs we picked the primroses for the London markets. May, still egging and this time it was moorhens and swans. Yes we took swans’ eggs from day one.
With a pencil we marked a cross on the first egg and replaced it; then after a couple of days there would be two eggs, so we took the one with the pencil mark on it and marked a new egg, so guaranteeing we got a fresh one. A mute swan would usually lay up to eight eggs and we took five of them, and then replaced the five we had taken with six goose eggs.
After a while the pen would hatch out the geese and three cygnets and rear them through the summer on the dicks. In October we caught the now grown geese up with a sheep crook, and penned them at home to fatten for Christmas, leaving the swan to get on with her two offspring till next spring.
The Fishing Season
June, the freshwater fishing season opened and found us with our rods tackled up in our favourite spot overlooking a patch of clear water after Tench, or as we called him the doctor fish, and fine one-pound roach, sadly seldom seen in huge numbers on our marsh now, in the days we lads angled for him the huge shoals used to make the reeds move as they swam through the water.
July was our sort of holiday time, playing in boats and making camps and doing what the tramps and gypsies did, but now the fashion is called barbecuing, helping get the hay in, no bales all was forked onto a trailer then the men made stakes that were thatched, then in the winter they got the huge knifes and sharpened them up as sharp as a razor. Standing on top of the stake they then sawed large squares of hay out These they would tie up with a sting and carry over their shoulder on a pitch fork they were the only bales of hay in my early days.
August and haymaking over, now we went to work, and I mean work, there was the corn was to cut. Us boys always eager and keen to please our parents, helped to load and stack the straw. All the corn was then in bags and as they were bought into the barns, had to have their tops untied and rolled down to let the corn sweat as we had no artificial driers.
October was all go; the nights got longer and colder. The pike were fat and as soon as the first frost made all the bluebottles go to sleep, we would start to catch and kill things. There were few people with fridges so blowflies were a very big problem to us. Herring were running and the bloater fire was on the go twenty-four hours a day; bonfire night was on the way.
November was mole-catching time again, along with rabbiting and chestnut time. It was also time to cut and make our snare and purse net pegs. They were made out of privet and if cut in November were soft and easy to whittle. Then left to dry they became hard as iron; they never split or lost their sharp tips.
December was cod time on the beach with more hooks. Only this time the hook size was much larger, and baited with lug, herring, or whelks that the rough seas washed up.
And so back to January and all the time we did many other things that boys do or did.
Rats are hated and were hunted everywhere we went. It is said that you are never more than fifty feet from a rat; maybe in those days of pigsties, hen runs, and loose-sacked corn, but today where I live, you seldom see old Ratty. Once rats were everywhere.
We had a barn that we piled loose corn into and spread it around to dry. One night I had to go and shut the cats into it as we suspected a rat was in there. It was dark and I switched the lights on. The corn was just like a hairy carpet. Hundreds of rats. Now this was no job for a poor old moggy. This was a real mans job. With the lights coming on, rats ran everywhere to get to a safe place so I thought up a scheme as usual, to get rid of them. I got a few empty paper sacks and puffed them up a bit so their mouths stood open, and placed them around the corn, and returned two hours later.
Again I crept up to the shed and put the lights on, at the same time shouting, “Lookout, here I come!” The animals ran here and there in their panic. I rushed to the bags and grabbed them by the neck and held them shut. I had about twenty rats out of a thousand. This was going to take forever at this rate. I quickly tipped the rats into the sewage pit to drown, but one jumped from the sack and ran under my collar, biting me on the shoulder. This was useless, and painful.
The rats had all escaped from the pit by next day. So it was over to poison. Dad said I was exaggerating the numbers of rats but bought a fourteen-pound bag of poison bait. This came in a red paper bag marked RAT POISON with a red plastic handle stitched to the top. He placed half the contents from the bag around the sides of the barn in little heaps, and left the remainder in the bag by the door.
Next morning all that remained of the bag was a rather gnawed up piece of plastic handle. They had eaten the lot! Now he started to reckon I was right all along. Where did they all come from? We never had an infestation of rats before. Yes we had rats, but not to this tune, so us boys were hell bent on eradicating the rat from England.
“Rye’s Own” March 2015
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