… It is one of the last of the wild places of England, a low, far-reaching expanse of grass and reeds and half-submerged meadowlands ending in the great saltings and mud flats and tidal pools near the restless sea.
Tidal creeks and estuaries and the crooked, meandering arms of many little rivers whose mouths lap at the edge of the ocean cut through the sodden land that seems to rise and fall and breathe with the recurrence of the daily tides. It is desolate, utterly lonely, and made lonelier by the calls and cries of the wildfowl that make their homes in the marshlands and saltings—the wildgeese and the gulls, the teal and widgeon, the redshanks and curlews that pick their way through the tidal pools. Of human habitants there are none, and none are seen, with the occasional exception of a wild-fowler or native oyster-fishermen, who still ply a trade already ancient when the Normans came to Hastings.
Omitting the first sentence, that’s the start of Paul Gallico’s delightful little tale of The Snow Goose, originally sub-titled in the Saturday Evening Post and for the 1941 British publication as A Story of Dunkirk.
It’s a story with the power of a legend: the ambiguous relationship of the isolate Philip Rhyader, the girl Fritha, and the Snow Goose, concluding with the self-sacrifice of Dunkirk, and a death of fire and water which seems as archetypical as Beowulf.
Where it goes askew is the opening sentence itself:
The great marsh lies on the Essex coast between the village of Chelmbury and the ancient Saxon oyster-fishing hamlet of Wickaeldroth.
For the purposes of the narrative that invented location (presumably somewhere between the Stour and the Crouch) is necessary to allow Rhyader to take a small boat to Dunkirk.
The actual location, which Gallico attempts to realise, should be the reclaimed Fens where Lincolnshire rubs up alongside Norfolk: the outfall of the River Nene into the Wash. It’s a couple of miles north of Sutton Bridge.
Ironically, except for the “blow-ins” with their 4×4 battlewagons, the area is even more isolated today than it was in later Victorian times. Beeching saw to the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway in 1965, which carried “coal in, ‘tatos out”: Sutton Bridge had been the junction for the two branches to Wisbech and Spalding.
The curse of celebrity must fall as hard on the son of a dead national hero as on any aging glamour-star faced with her younger self on late-night TV.
In his early twenties Scott was still trying to escape from his inheritance. He had taken to wild-fowling while at Cambridge. He was already making a mark as an wild-life artist of some quality.
Wildfowlers use a punt. The method is to lie flat in your punt, which is equipped with a terrifying weapon, a punt-gun which can have a gauge of as much as an inch-and-a-half. The punt is gently directed towards a group of wild-fowl. Once close enough, the gun, loaded with what amounts to shrapnel, is discharged. As many ducks or geese as possible are slaughtered and harvested. This is termed a “sport”.
From the Sutton Bridge website:
Peter Scott’s first encounter with the East Bank Lighthouse was in December 1929. He had commissioned a new punt-boat from a punt builder in Cambridge and with two friends, taking it turns, they brought the boat, named Kazarka, Russian for the Red-breasted goose, to an anchorage on Terrington Marsh (between Sutton Bridge and Kings Lynn). Peter Scott, at this time, was a keen wildfowler and after bagging a Pinkfoot each and three Mallards and two curlews, the two friends set out for the punt. Their intention was to take Kazarka round into the River Nene, four miles direct from where they were by road, but three times further by water at low tide. They intended to leave the punt there over Christmas. They also hoped to stalk more wildfowl.
Finding the tide receding at a rapid rate, they only just had enough time to launch the boat on a narrow trickle of water into a narrow, winding creek. The light was beginning to fade and a strong SSE wind was blowing very hard and it was beginning to drizzle. They were very hungry having had nothing to eat since early morning and Peter Scott later described it as madness that they had even decided to attempt to get into the Nene Channel, which they did not know, and in the dark. They hoped the neap tide would enable them to ‘cuff a good many corners’. The alternative was to turn back and sit and wait in the dark and cold before the tide would flood them back onto the marsh.
As they approached the sea they could it was a big tide and after only just having enough time to get their gun from the front of the punt and turning up the ‘hinged coamings’, the huge waves lifted the boat up and water poured off the decks.
Although they could see a marked wreck on their port side (marked on the chart), they couldn’t see the channel. In fact they were actually sailing away from their destination. However, as the last light faded, they came aground on a lee shore and managed to get the sail down and the oars out. Rowing was no good and the tide was still falling, so they poled onto the sandbar, where they managed to reset the sail. During this time, they had drifted and found themselves literally and figuratively in deep water ten feet and with big waves. Peter Scott wrote later that this was his ‘nastiest moment’. They knew that they had to sail on. The chart they used seemed to bear little relation to where they thought they were and what they could see. By this time they were having to bale out the water that was continually being thrown into the boat.
After what seemed like a long time, and with the boat moving reasonably steadily with less water being taken on board, they decided the time had come to swim. Then, at that moment, they saw land ahead and Peter Scott was able to touch bottom with a ten-foot pole. After going ashore and stowing the mast and sail, they decided to go on rather than leave the boat and walk across the mud. Rowing was useless and so was poling, so they walked and pushed the punt but this proved useless because the punt was still taking water on board. In the end Peter sat in the stern baling out water as fast as it came in, while his friend towed using one of the breeching ropes. They ended up in a dead end with shallow water all around. By this time they could see the glow of light from Kings Lynn, Sutton Bridge and Long Sutton, and the points of lights of cars travelling on the main road about four miles away.
Laying down in the punt to get out of the wind and finding a stale ham sandwich, Peter and his companion drifted off to sleep. They awoke to find the tide beginning to flow, which enabled them to get back into the channel. The tide had subsided and after passing a series of beacons they knew they must be in the right channel. As it straightened they saw the ‘old lighthouses’ and heard geese not far off. They secured the boat and managed to climb up the mud slope and walked along the bank to the lighthouse relieved to be on dry land again. One of the cottagers gave them milk and they set off again to walk the three miles to Sutton Bridge, where they hired a car to take them ten miles to Lynn.
There were many visits to the Terrington and Holbeach Marshes and Peter Scott had been trying for some time to lease the disused lighthouse on the east bank of the Nene. In 1933 he applied for, and was granted, a lease for a rent of £5 per year. The lighthouse was still in use as a ‘hailing post’ for HM Customs and Exercise. There were two customs officers stationed at Sutton Bridge and one of them would arrive half an hour before high water and using a megaphone would hail any ship entering or leaving the river. Half an hour after high water, he would return to Sutton Bridge.
So Scott came to occupy the East Bank “lighthouse”, with Charlie, who grubbed an existence collecting mussels and samphire (not, as the Daily Mail spectacularly misrepresented, “camphor”) living in the basement, and a couple of coastguards daily in his kitchen.
Out of that came Scott’s first (and hugely-popular) book, Morning Flight, followed by Wild Chorus, with his own illustrations.
At some stage, Scott told his mate Gallico of the snow-goose that wintered at the East Bank lighthouse. Then, at the outbreak of War, Scott was off to serve in the RNVR, first in destroyers, then commanding the flotilla of steam gun-boats patrolling the south-east coast.
Scott, however, did illustrations for what Malcolm still regards as the “standard” edition, in which the girl Fritha is derived from Scott’s first wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard.
Perverts of a certain age would rightly recall Jenny Agutter doing the part, opposite Richard Harris, directed by Patrick Garland:
A (slight) family connection
Malcolm’s dear, dead Dad served his time as a locomotive fitter in LMS Sheffield Brightside. As was the norm of those hard early-1930s, once an apprentice completed his “time”, he was “out on the stones”. So, by then a cricketing constable in the Met Police, Dad was deemed ripe to be (hostilities only) an engineroom artificer (and later a petty officer) running three high-octane Packard engines on MTBs.
Thus he found himself at Newhaven, where Scott’s flotilla also was based.
What Dad never forgot were the painted “naked ladies” with which Scott redecorated his cabin.
Neglected and deserted, the East Bank “lighthouse”, passed by due lot into the hands of Anglian Water, fell into dereliction. It was then bought by an acquaintance of Scott’s, Commander David Joel (himself an author and artist), who waged a constant battle with the elements and the exposed position reclaiming and restoring the building:
I wanted to do it up in Scott’s honour,’ he says. ‘But it was totally derelict.’
Over the years, Cmdr Joel says he has spent £250,000. Just bringing electricity to the lighthouse in the mid-Eighties cost £24,000.
Last winter was especially punishing: sea spray penetrated the walls, causing lumps of render to fall off, costing thousands to repair.
It was deemed unnecessary to illuminate the entrance to the Nene years ago, but Cmdr Joel voluntarily keeps the lamp burning at night.
Strictly, the two structures each side of the Nene channel were not “lighthouses”. The “lantern”, 35 feet up, has two windows facing north and south. They were built as sea-marks, and supposedly to a design by John Rennie:
Rennie was primarily a hydraulics engineer, and much of his career was spent in adding to or altering commercial harbours and docks … He completed the drainage works in the Lincolnshire fens commenced by his father and, in conjunction with Telford, constructed the Nene outfall near Wisbech (1826–31). He also restored the harbour of Boston (Lincolnshire) in 1827–8 and made various improvements on the Welland.
Recently the East Bank Lighthouse has come onto the market, and because of its distinguished connection has made it to the national property pages: the Mail, the Telegraph and the Independent have all featured it.
Savills in Norwich are pushing it for all they are worth: currently that’s £385,000, down from the original asking price of £435,000. Malcolm has a yen, but not the loose cash … however, East Anglian property prices are heading in just the one direction.