Cold hands, hot barrels
You cease to feel the cold once a flight is under way, says J. Wentworth Day — when the blood is up, those chill winter mornings are a singing joy
December came with snow and ice. The wind off the North Sea was bitter cold. Snipe were driven to probing in the saltings or treading daintily among the tinkling, ice-fringed reeds on the oozy edges of the fleets. Foxes were on the prowl by night and day and, under the bitter blue of the winter sky, carrion crows hunted the marsh like ghostly harriers. The great saddle-back gulls sailed in noble insolence over the fleets and saltings and sea-channels, their tiger-eyes and savage beaks ready for any poor wounded duck or floating body.
Meanwhile, on the Continent and in the skies above us, the war, though we did not know it, was marching irrevocably to its thunderous end of flame and carnage. On Saturday, 8 December, a few of us — Lord Lisle,
Philip Martin, Joe Studholme, Colonel James Gordon-dickson, my ancient fowling partner, Jack Budd of Tattingstone Place and one or two others — shot the uplands round the Court. Fell had mustered a dozen schoolchildren and they, aided by an ancient farm labourer or two, marched the frozen ploughland while we lined the hedges on the high fields that look out across the glimmering marsh and the shining creeks to the wide mouth of the estuary, and the luminous horizon of the sea beyond.
There were not a lot of partridges, but what there were came strongly, straight and well. We picked up 7½ brace and a hare; and the next day, being Sunday, went down in the dark before dawn to the marsh. The decoy pond had frozen over but Joyce’s Head was open and the long and steely stretch of Pennyhole Fleet was crisped into wavelets by a wind that would have shaved you.
I went down the marsh road as far as the seaward end of Joyce’s Head. There, with the towering ramparts of the sea wall on the right-hand side and the great winding fleet stretching for half-a-mile or more to the left, I ensconced myself with the sheep-pound at my back and a wall of reeds in front. The faithful Mr Soapy Sponge planted himself at my feet, tail wagging furiously from side to side, sweeping a thin layer of frozen snow like flying white dust.
It was still dark. The wind swished like a knife through the dry reeds. Outside the sea wall, the tide was flooding. Ice floes cracked and tinkled against the piles at the foot of the wall. Curlew whistled like the ghosts of boatswains. Redshank fluted up and down the flats, yelping their restless ways. Far out in the channel sounded the cronking of black geese, restless and on the move. It was a black morning before the dawn, fit only for witches and wild wings and the ghosts of drowned men.
The other Guns moved off into the blackness, stumbling their various ways along the narrow cattle-tracks across the tussocky marsh. Some were for points higher up Joyce’s Head. One went to the teal pond where, if you fall in, the mud would swallow man or bullock without trace. The rest, led by Fell with his uncanny SHOOTING TIMES & COUNTRY MAGAZINE • 45
“Snipe were driven to treading daintily among the tinkling, ice-fringed reeds”