Sunday, 26 January 2014

Dawn Sky and shooting

As I often do at the weekend in the winter, I left home pretty much in the dark, arriving at the reserve just as the dawn sky was colouring up over to the east. The first photo below which shows the reserve barn as I approached it to park up, somehow shows the light to be brighter than it actually was.

But as it did get lighter as the sun continued to rise below the horizon, so for a brief spell, the colours began to intensify. This photo shows my regular route across the grazing marsh to the distant speck pf the sea wall hide - some what wetter than some bloggers refer to as "very wet" in their areas!

 But being the heroes that we are, the dogs and I endured the water, the mud and the cold and as we did so, the colours in the sky intensified even more, and all with the constant calls of some 500+ geese close by - it was quite magical.

With my trousers rather wet around the top of my wellies I eventually reached the top of the sea wall and standing on the veranda of the hide, surveyed the immediate area. There were three Kent Wildfowlers on the saltings in front of the hide, the same three as were there yesterday at dawn, attracted no doubt by 500 odd geese flying around the reserve. As the light increased and light grey clouds began to blot out the earlier colours, the three wildfowlers eventually began to pack up and make their way back to the sea wall. Chatting to them it was clear that, despite all the geese about, they had had a repeat of yesterday's wildfowling, nil shots fired at anything.

 I left them to walk back to their cars and continued on my way round the reserve, trying to count the very mobile and spread out geese as I did so. Some White-fronted Geese continued to arrive, high in the sky from the north, throughout my walk but I eventually arrived at a count of 300 White-fronted Geese and 280 Greylag Geese. It is likely that the Whitefront numbers might have increased if more continued to arrive after I left but the sound of all those geese calling as they regularly got up, re-settled, or flew across towards the fields below Leysdown, was truly awesome.
Many of the geese make this flight to the fields below Leysdown regularly throughout the day, I don't know what the attraction is, perhaps the inland duck shooting syndicates are putting out corn to attract them. The inland duck shooting season ends this coming Friday night, which just leaves the wildfowlers with three weeks after that to continue shooting below the high water mark around the coast, i.e on the saltings in front of the reserve. Given the poor returns that these guys get for their efforts, their effect on the wildfowl will be negligible, it is the inland duck shooting syndicates on Harty over the next five days that offer the biggest danger to the geese, especially the Whitefronts. No doubt these syndicate members will be looking to get what they have paid for before the end of the season and will be intensifying their shooting over the next few days to that end. Unfortunately the geese appear to be sealing their own fate by preferring to fly in that direction. I have to admit that I'm not to bothered about the Greylags, which are little more than feral birds that need thinning out, but I would like to see the truly wild Whitefronts survive intact.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Growing up in Sheppey - Part 3

In 1958/9, I'm not sure of the actual year, we finally moved from our very basic surroundings in Unity Street to what seemed to us, the sheer luxury of a three bed-roomed, semi-detached council house in St. Agnes Gardens, Sheerness. By the time that we moved there were four of us children, with me as the eldest, and a fifth joined us not long after.

The houses weren't brand new but they were certainly modern and had everything we could dream of, including a large, although overgrown garden. It's hard these days, to describe the sensation of moving from a tiny house with one gas lamp and a cold tap to what we had gone to. Down stairs there was a hallway with an inside toilet, which led into a kitchen with cupboards and a sink with hot and cold water taps! The two other downstairs rooms were a front lounge and a back dining room, open to each other except for a half dividing wall that contained a coal fire in the lounge and a cooking range in the dining room. We never, ever used that range because we always had a gas cooker in the kitchen.
Up the wide stairs there were two large bedrooms and a small box bedroom and the one thing that meant the most to us all, a bathroom with a second toilet and a fitted bath with real hot water that came out at the turn of a tap. I must of been the cleanest boy in my class until the novelty wore off!
And then of course, there was that one last thing that I found truly amazing, being able to go into a room and light it up my flicking on a light switch, gaslight and candle light seemed another world away! Downstairs in the lounge there was a fascinating piece of decorating that had been created by the son of the previous owner. Each of the three and a half walls had all been painted from floor to ceiling to show the views out of a window in three directions. This meant that by sitting in the armchair you could look at a village cricket match taking place in one direction and a village street in another, it was was a clever and artistic piece of work but unfortunately my father didn't agree and soon had that covered in some pretty boring wallpaper.

Eventually, after we had been there a year or so, the next piece of wonderment arrived. My father had been to the local rental shop and a second hand, black and white television arrived. Imagine, in the space of a year we had gone from listening in the evenings to a wireless powered by an accumulator, to a real television - the whole outside world had come into our lounge at the flick of a switch!

Outside in the garden, there was much to do, grass to clear and vegetable beds to be dug but that came later. In the meantime I revelled in the wide-openness of our new world, the sun beamed down and into our house at last, there were large skies and no more the closed in and permanent shade of the narrow streets that we'd come from. The Sheerness canal and marshes were only a row of houses away and Skylarks sand and Marsh Frogs croaked all night, I could here them from my bedroom. In Vincent Gardens, a few hundred yards away, there was the large community of well kept Pre-fab houses to explore and just through a short alley, Southview Gardens, the one-sided road of houses that had across the road the grassy banks of the canal. I grew to know every inch of the canal, it's wide and shallow waters that dried up one drought summer and it's coots and moorhens and reed beds. The year that it dried up it went through the wet mud stage first and in that mud to the delight of us local kids, were hundreds of eels. We spent countless hours getting plastered in that foul smelling mud, with buckets and baths gradually filling with the eels that we scooped up and hoped to sell locally.

My father too had needed to find a pub close by and the nearest was The Nore, in St Georges Avenue and there he joined the darts team and spent the last ten years of his life before dying in 1969, aged just 50. The Nore was alongside the football ground of Sheppey United who still gave their address as Botany Road, the name before St. Georges, and whenever there was a home match the roar of the crowd and the referee's whistle could be heard quite clearly from our garden, a few streets away. I recall that if I was still up when my father came home after closing time at the pub, he would often let me share his favourite supper, cold pig's trotters and bread. I'm not sure that I could nibble round the toes and toe nails of those trotters these days but at the time they were normal and tasty food, just as toast and dripping was. We still had the traditional Sunday lunch time roast dinners in those days, cooked and eaten to the accompaniment on the radio of Jean Metcalf and Two-way Family Favourites, followed by the Billy Cotton Band Show. Part of the roast dinner was a suet pudding, cooked each week in the same old pudding cloth and tied up with string. Half of the pudding was sliced and put with our roast and the other half was saved as our "afters", and eaten with sugar, jam or treacle on it, no fancy yoghurts or cheesecakes in those days. Rice pudding with sultanas in it was another favourite "afters", with my sister and I fighting over who was going to have the brown skin off the top.
It was whole new world around us then but so many places have now gone. The pre-fabs were demolished and the site became half Old People's Home and half a grassed play area. The allotments between The Nore and Granville Road were built on. The Co-op supermarket in Victoria Street was eventually closed, as was the school Dental Clinic on the corner of the High street and Vincent Gardens, a real torture chamber of a place that was.

I had narrowly failed in the 11-plus and instead of the Sheerness Technical School, had ended up at the Boys Secondary School in Jefferson Road, the "Central" as it was known. I soon saw that as a blessing, it had a huge school sports field and only a wire fence through the playground separated us from the Girls Secondary School, something that was a major attraction as teenage hormones began to kick in. Hopefully those teenage years will become Part 4.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The January Harrier Roost Count

Yesterday (Monday) was one of those rare days this winter where it didn't rain a single drop throughout a whole 24 hrs and not only that, it was wind free and fairly sunny - a small event but one for great celebration in this endless round of rain and flooding.
Most of the harrier roost counts took place on Sunday evening but I was unable to make that and so did mine yesterday evening. This wasn't a problem because mine normally consists of counting the few Hen Harriers that traditionally roost on the saltings close to Shellness Hamlet and so there isn't normally a case of counting some that were counted elsewhere the night before. Although water levels on the open fields of the reserve have receded a little now, there are still large areas of flood water in some of the fields, as this photo of the Flood Field in front of the Sea Wall hide shows.

To get across to the sea wall and it's hide from the reserve barn, I had to cross the field alongside The Flood which wasn't as wet as that above but still involved a good degree of splashing through water and soft mud - OK in the daylight but not so good on the return journey in increasing darkness and rising mist. On getting on top of the sea wall I could see one of the local wildfowlers that I know, coming towards me with his three dogs and so I waited for him to catch me up for a chat. It was a very still late afternoon/early evening and with clear skies it was looking like he was going to have a wasted journey shooting wise - windy, cloudy conditions are more favourable, and so we stood talking on the sea wall together for the whole of my stay.

That's not to say that there weren't a lot of wildfowl about because there were and surprisingly, giving this winter's low counts there, a lot were ducks. They were out on a fast flowing and ebbing tide, half a mile or so across the saltings. My telescope brought in to view good numbers of mixed duck species, sitting on the tide and being carried speedily towards Shellness Point. The majority were Wigeon, Mallard and Shelduck but amongst them were also a few pairs of Pintail and Teal and they looked really picturesque on a glass calm sea with the first few wisps of mist just starting to rise from the saltings in front of them.  As we talked and in the space of another half an hour or so, the sea had receded enough for the mudflats to start to become exposed and with that came the mad rush of various waders as their huge flocks began to appear from all directions to hurriedly feed on the mud itself. Curlews began to leave their high-tide roost in the Flood Field and pass over us with their bubbling calls, rushing to join the other waders out on the mudflats before the dark settled in. Further down The Swale a noisy flock of Brent Geese that had been drifting past Horse Sands, now began to walk on to the top of the Sands as they became exposed by the dropping tide. It was a particularly magical evening and we commented several times on how colourful the setting sun had become as it began to drop below the skyline alongside Harty church.

And then it was gone, leaving behind it the increasing cold of a potential frost and a mist beginning to rise from the marsh in the fast decreasing light.

The photos don't really do justice to how beautiful and still and cold it was standing there surrounded by the calls of so many different types of birds as the darkness began to increase. In the Flood Field the resident flock of Greylag and White-fronted Geese had begun to become restless as the time for their final flight to their overnight roost became ever closer. The calls of the Whitefronts are magical at the best of times but in that setting they became really special and I suspect my wildfowler companion was looking at them with mixed feelings - how beautiful they sound/might I shoot one.

Had I recorded any Hen Harriers, no I hadn't and surprisingly no Marsh Harriers either. The only raptor that I saw while I was there was a female Merlin sat on a post out on the saltings. After three monthly counts this winter so far, no Hen Harriers have been seen going in to roost at Shellness, which probably reflects the dire state that Hen Harriers are now in in this country.
By then the rising mist over the saltings had risen to 2-3 feet high and it made seeing any birds out there impossible and so it was time to return back across the marsh. This was the view through the reed bed as I traversed the crossing over the Delph fleet by the sea wall and crossed on to the marsh behind. I left my wildfowler chum to spend a brief and half-hearted spell sitting out on the saltings getting damp and cold for probably no reward.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Growing up in Sheppey - Part 2

Part 2 - with apologies to those who have no links with the Sheerness of old.

Having described where I began life as a child in Sheerness, I'll try and describe some of the things that we got up to in those Unity Street days, before we moved houses when I was eleven, difficult at times because 60-odd years ago is a long time to remember things. In previous posts I have described how I gradually began to explore the fields and marshes just outside Sheerness but what did we do closer to home. There are also very few photos from those early years because cameras were certainly an item that didn't exist in our household, we could rarely afford to pay for the coal and had to hide indoors when the coal man came knocking for his money. The one below is the only one that I have that shows the austere surroundings that we lived in. It was taken in the back alley, outside our back gate and presumably by a neighbour as it features their daughter between  my sister and me, aged around eight or nine in my Delamark Road School cap, and jumper knitted by my mother.

My first encounter with school came at the age of five, which was the normal school starting age in those days when mothers rarely worked. I don't know if I had been primed for the fact that school was about to happen but I do recall that first morning in September 1952. My mother led me up Telescope Alley nearby and left me in the Alexandra Road infants school playground, full of children of all ages that I had never seen before. After five years of rarely being away from the security of my house and my mother I was petrified and beat a hasty retreat back home, where, shortly after, my mother found me cowering in the garden. Unfortunately I was then dragged back up the alley, crying, screaming and shaking and left in the fortunately comforting hands of a school mistress. That then, also fortunately, saw me begin a very happy relationship with school life, I loved every minute of it right up to the time that I left at 15 and went out to work.
By the way, the fore-mentioned Telescope Alley, which is still there today, was one long alley that crossed the ends of several streets. It began at the bottom of Unity Street, opposite the now defunct ambulance station, and ran across the bottom of Clyde, James and Alma Streets before emerging on Marine Parade opposite the sea wall. What I do remember is the fact that the Heights of Alma pub was/is, on the corner of Alma Street and the alley, just a couple of yards from the infant school playground wall. This meant that if we came out of the school at lunch time we were able to look into the open door of the pub's bar as we went past. These days the school is still there but in private hands as flats or something.

My father worked at the Canning town Glass Works in Queenborough, the "Bottle Works" as it was known locally. He never owned a car and so like the majority of working men in those days, he cycled to work through all weathers to carry out the weekly cycle of shift work, 6-2, 2-10 and nightwork. The route took him through Sheerness and up the then unmade New Road to the Westminster rail crossing opposite the Gas works. Having pushed his bike across there he would then ride it through Westminster village, up the Whiteway Road into Queenborough and down the Rushenden Road into the works. When he wasn't working he liked his daily pint in one of two pubs close to our house. The first was ridiculously close, with it's rear entrance literally just across the alley, The Blacksmiths Arms in Clyde Street. When my mother visited her family in Ramsgate I spent many a late night in the back kitchen of that pub, listening to the radio while my father had his pints in the bar. When that pub eventually fell out of favour, he moved his allegiance to the British Admiral, a couple of streets away in James Street, where once again I would sometimes find myself spending a lonely hour or two sitting in the Jug and Bottle section with a large arrowroot biscuit and a bottle of Vimto. Many pubs had a Jug and Bottle in those days. It was usually a tiny bar with it's own outside door that people would go into in order to buy some beer and crisps to take away, either in bottled form or by having a jug brought from home filled up. I recall being sent round there myself as a young child to have a jug filled up for my father and returning home trying not to spill any of the foul smelling and tasting, foamy contents. How times have changed, imagine sending an eight year old child round to a pub these days to buy a couple of pints of draught ale and a packet of Woodbines!
Sadly, they are the most dominant memories of my father throughout my childhood, he worked very hard and he spent most of his leisure time at the pub, which I suppose was fairly common in those days, but he rarely did anything that was family-orientated.

Apart from exploring and playing in, the network of alleys that that were the arteries of the area in those days and not the cleanest of places, the one other place that was a major playground to us all, was the nearby beach and sea front. It was only three streets away and on foggy nights the fog horns were a constant sound as I lay in bed and thought about the ships out there in the darkness. 
In those austere and pre-package holiday days of the 1950's, Sheerness sea front in the summer was guaranteed to be packed on warm and sunny days. We sometimes had picnics there with my mother and any visiting relatives but mostly, us children spent a lot of time there on own, taking an education in risks, accidents and exploration denied to most children of pre-eleven age these days. We swam in rough, cold seas, we rock-pooled, we dug bait, we collected winkles and cockles and on dark winter's nights we hung around the arcades looking for an opportunity to fiddle a penny or two from the machines. We roamed right along the sea front to the fairground at the far end of Sheerness where we watched enviously, people going on such exciting rides as the Big Wheel, the Ghost Train, the dodgems and my favourite, firing air rifles at targets. I remember falling over there one night and running home with blood pouring out of a fat lip and being told off for being that far from home but it never stopped me going. 
Also along the sea front, there was a short jetty next to Ron Lodge's cafe where we would hang over the railings above the deep water with our hand fishing lines hoping that one day the bite on the end was something other than the non-stop catch of crabs. I think the most I ever achieved was a young "bootlace" eel that covered me in slime as I tried to untangle it.
Just so hard to imagine that we did all this as 8-9-10-11yr olds but we did and many, many things more and as a consequence got a very valuable start to later adult life.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Growing up in Sheerness

With the reserve now quite well flooded, accessing it from alongside the barn at the rear, as is the normal route for those of us with such access permission, is proving to be both difficult and and in my case results in quite a bit of pain. Spending a few hours wading through either deepish water or soft, clinging mud in wellie boots, raises the pain levels in my arthritic feet to quite a high and long lasting degree. Couple that with the fact that Midge, the older of my two dogs, has just had an operation that means until the wound has healed that she can't do anything remotely energetic or be in wet conditions, and it means that my visits to the reserve are severely restricted at the moment. So time to look at something different.

Reading Sheila Judge's book "The Isle of Sheppey", the other day, I was intrigued by the following comment. "The Great Depression of the late 1920's and early 1930's hit Sheppey as much, or more, than the rest of Britain. The dockyard had work, but there was not much other work about. Sheerness had a dispirited air, the streets of residential houses looked shabby, and there had been very little improvement in living conditions. True, most of the houses now had gaslight, a water tap and a flush lavatory, but there were few with hot water systems or bathrooms and the toilets were still out back".
Whilst that described the conditions in the 1920's/30's, clearly little continued to change because it was still an accurate description of the street that I was brought up in during the 1950's, some 20 odd years later. Until we moved to a posh" council house in 1958 when I was eleven, we lived in Unity Street, in Marine Town, Sheerness. I say Marine Town because in it's early years, well before I was born in 1947, Sheerness was made up of three areas. Mile Town was the area that contained the High Street and surrounding roads and streets, known as that because it was formed it was created a mile away from the hub of Sheppey, Bluetown, the dockyard and army garrison. Marine Town was at the eastern end of Sheerness, close to the seafront and the area that you leave when heading towards Minster. Banks Town, was a small area in between the other two, that contained some impressive terraces built by Sir Edward Banks, the buildings in Sheerness Broadway being some of them. Eventually all these areas became Sheerness-on-Sea and now are hardly ever mentioned.

So, back to Unity Street in the 1950's. As I think I have mentioned in a previous blog, it was one of several similar streets in that area, all made up of lines of small, terraced, two up-two down houses, mostly rented by their inhabitants. No.58, our house, was in the middle of the street and walking through the front door you stepped straight into the small front room. Passing the steep stairs to the two bedrooms you then walked into the equally small living room with it's solitary gas light over the fire place. As I recall it this was the only light in the whole house, although there might of been non-used gas lights in the bedrooms, either candle-light or darkness was the order of the day up there. Running off from the living room was the scullery, which was low-roofed and formed the short piece of an L-shape at the back of the house. In the scullery we had a stone sink and one cold water tap, a gas cooker and a free standing round metal bin known as the gas boiler, in which laundry was boiled before hanging out on the line outside and a gas cooker. When were very young we sat on the edge of the draining board and were washed from water, often cold, in the sink. As we got bigger we had a strip wash at the sink in the freezing scullery and once a week, on Sunday evenings, there was the weekly bath. This consisted of bringing in the metal bath, always hanging on a nail on the garden wall, putting it in front of the living room fire and filling it with water heated up in the gas boiler. This weekly aid to cleanliness was shared by myself and younger sister and I believe, by my parents afterwards!
Going up the stairs there were two bedrooms, my parent's at the front looking down on to the street and that of mine and my sister's at the rear. Neither rooms very large and although they had fireplaces they were never used, that luxury was reserved for the living room only. Even that downstairs fire though, was often only kept alight by my father coming home from night work and then trawling the nearby beach for driftwood. Between the beds of my sister and I there was a roughly made wooden cabinet that I recall had a drawer at the top, which when opened I clearly recall had the words "Jaffa Oranges" stencilled on it. At night, to avoid us being scared of the darkness, we had a small wax "night-light" burning which unfortunately scared me even more because it caused shadows to flicker on the walls and ceiling.

Outside in the garden, alongside but separate from the scullery, were the coal shed, which was more than often empty, and the only toilet. Perhaps for ventilation purposes, I recall that the toilet door had a foot gap at the bottom of it and one thing is certain, in the winter there was no retiring to the toilet to read the paper as is common these days, sitting there with snow blowing under the door was a very brief experience!
The garden, come yard, was longish and narrow and in it my father grew some vegetables for a while and I had a tortoise run. We sometimes had some chickens and always the rabbit hutch, which reared the rabbit, or rabbits, that we always killed and ate every Christmas.
The back gate opened up into the narrow alley that not only seperated us from the back gardens of the next street, Clyde Street, but also served for several years as the playground that we roamed up and down, inventing all kinds of games such as "feet off ground" and "he".

What other memories of living there. Well I suppose that 1953 was the most memorable. In February of that year we had the well documented Floods, when the sea broke through the defences and flooded most of low-lying Sheppey. To a 5 year old child, to have the sea running right through your house, flooding the whole street and trapping us upstairs, was an exciting event. To my mother, who daily had to stand in freezing water in the scullery and try and cook meals on the gas rings just above the water, it certainly wasn't. To add to the excitement, the milkman came down the street in a rowing boat and we lowered my mother's shopping bag down on a rope from the bedroom window for him to put the milk into.
Also in 1953 we had the current Queen's coronation and the street parties that took place to celebrate it. Below are some of the people that took part in the Unity Street one. Apparently I'm one of the young lads at the front but although I can identify my mother at the back, I haven't a clue which one I am, especially as there was several "cowboys".

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Water Everywhere

It was a real treat to wake up this morning pre-dawn and note for once that the world outside was both wind and rain free, stars were in the sky and a hard frost had descended. I left for the reserve just as the first fingers of light were beginning to appear in the eastern sky.
Arriving at the reserve barn in the half light and pulling on the dreaded but unfortunately necessary wellies, the task then begins of trying to get across the reserve to the sea wall without any bootfuls of water. This is how the gateway by the barn looked in October.

 And this is what greeted me this morning, the water comes to with half an inch of the top of my wellies.

After negotiating that deep water, this is then the view of the grazing marsh and route across to the sea wall, on the sky-line to the left you can just make out the black dot of the sea wall hide.

By using experience from previous winter floods it is just possible to pick a way across the flooding and end up at the sea wall but it's getting deeper by the day and poor little short-legged Ellie has to do quite a bit of swimming.

This the view of the Flood Field from the sea wall hide. It's beginning to live up to it's name but still has some way to go to get as flooded as last January. This morning, as it is most days, it was full of geese - around 120 White-fronted and 240 Greylag. As they regularly got up and noisily flew round they made quite a spectacular sight in the early morning sunlight.

These two local wildfowlers were returning back empty-handed along the sea wall against the dawn sky. I had a chat with them before they left and they said that despite the number of geese on the reserve, very few are flighting over the sea wall and that coupled with the low duck numbers on the reserve looks like making it a very poor shooting season this winter.

These few Mallard pretty much summed up the duck numbers this morning.

An example of how cattle and gateways don't mix on a very wet reserve, making walking round quite arduous at times. Fortunately the cattle were all taken off a few days ago and will spend the next few months in dryer stock pens as they start calving.

With the sun now starting to come above the horizon it began to light up the bellies of these Greylag Geese and they passed overhead.

 Finally, these last two photos of the same grazing meadow show the extent of the flooding. Three weeks ago it was a well grassed meadow containing grazing cattle and now, all that remains is the red, cattle feeding bin.