Wally tells his story as the ‘King’ of the marshes. He is the last hand reedcutter and is leaving his legacy of knowledge to his sons.
I was born in Rockland St Mary, in the old Post Office row, in 1947. I had two sisters and one brother. I just got one sister left now.
Before my dad went into the army he was brickmaking with his dad on the estate in Blickling. Then after the war was over he came back and he went into brickmaking again. All these little villages then had clay on the farmers’ fields – they’re mostly ponds now, all grown up and filled in. They used to get the clay with the horses, take it down to the brickyard – there was one at Rockland.
They’d shovel the clay on the bench and they’d wet it and get it in their hands and slap it in this wooden mould. Then they’d shovel the top backwards and forwards, turn it up on the table and put it on the setting off trolley. Then they’d wheel it off to dry off. Then when they were dry they’d take them to this kiln to be burnt.
If you had a good day you’d hand make about 1,200 bricks a day. They used to be on a price or bonus in those days. If you made over a thousand you get a few more pennies, so everybody’s obviously doing over a thousand – that made them work more, it gave them an incentive really.
The bricks were red, and the clay was brown and you get some black, it all depends, when you moved up counties to different brickyards. In Peterborough they were nearly all done with machines.
My dad worked at Catton, at White Woman Lane and then he came back to Rockland, because they used to make tiles and angled bricks. Trouble is, because of demolition, people have a hard job to find them now, which is such a shame because you used to chuck them in driveways as hardcore, over the site and there’s one big shortage of them. I think there’s still two old boys that do it, they still pug it with a horse going round in circles, pugging with clay, whether they’re still doing it now, I don’t know.
I used to help my father, wheel the bricks out in a little barrow, to dry them out. I was about eight or ten.
I went to Rockland Primary. My Mum (she had 14 in her family, from Aylsham – the Bakers) grabbed me, took me down to the school gates and said, ‘this is where you’re going on Monday, and you behave yourself!’ Then I moved – we were in Nuneaton for a little while. Then I went with my brother, he was in the Royal Navy down in Wales, in Pembrokeshire. So I went to St David’s school there, then I come back to Framlingham Earl. Then went back to St David’s again and Framlingham Earl again. So I had a good move round in schools.
My brother was in married quarters on the camps, and I used to go back with him, for six months, sometimes a year. It was difficult because you get half way into a subject and then you’re going down the road again, saying goodbye to your friends. ‘Might see you in another six months or a year.’ And then your interest goes a bit, unless you’re going to follow it right through. I went to about five or six different schools and I left in 1962, just on 14. I should’ve left at 15 but I’d started a job and I should’ve gone back to school after the Easter holidays but they let me off. I had a job and there was a bit of a shortage of jobs and for the sake of four or five weeks they left me alone.
Tiddling – going after tiddlers in becks, taking a little jam jar. We used to jump off the bridge, have a little swim, walk up the beck, follow a little stream about 18 inches deep, see who could get the little tiddlers. Little robin redbreasts we called them and we sat them on the bank and see who caught the most fish and put them back. That was at Hellington, just half a mile down the road. Them times we’d get on a bike, bicycling as a gang, go down to where there was a nice big, horseshoe shaped green bit there. We’d have a swim about, do a bit of fishing, play up in the woods, put a bit of rope up as a swing. I mean, we didn’t have tools like they got now, or games, you know, that was our entertainment – you had to make yourself.
Winter of 1963
I can remember when the rivers were frozen in 1963. They were frozen three feet deep – everything came to a standstill. That was a long, long drawn out winter. We didn’t have central heating in houses then, we had paraffin heaters, and they used to stink, they were horrible. All the pipes were frozen. The frost was that severe the pipes would burst and everyone was in trouble. Schools would close, and to get bread that was a heck of a job. We made homemade bread with mum and even we ran out of yeast ‘cos shops were selling out of gear and we had to walk everywhere in drifts.
I started with Dad that year out on the reed cutting. I used to go and do my own bit, well tried to do my best. And the ground was just so rock hard! In them days there was no such thing as thermos flasks, they weren’t even out.
People took an old tractor and a car on there and went skating and I thought, ‘I’ve got to go on’ but my first step going on to it, must have been like the man on the moon, even though you know it’s solid and frozen you think ‘aah’ near the edge, but it was three foot thick! You expect ponds to freeze over but when you imagine running rivers… that was just solid!
They brought a big boat a few weeks after that and it broke it all up. The freeze lasted for weeks and weeks, it went right through and I remember when it did thaw a bit my dad said, ‘whatever you do, don’t take that boat to go out and cut reeds on the river. Leave it till I’m with you.’ But when you’re young,16 or 17, you think you know everything in life. And one afternoon, it was wintertime and nights were pulling in quick, I thought right, it’s about two o’ clock, I’ll go for the afternoon on the reed. I had some stacked up before you see, on these trays.
I’d only got on the river about five minutes and all of a sudden I heard all this rumbling under the boat. Then I couldn’t row. Of course the big lumps of ice that were underneath me, I couldn’t see. Then it pushed me across this bend and I was spinning round in the river and it just kept rising up all the big lumps of ice. It was lifting me up the same time. That was the most frightening time I’ve ever been on the river – it was scary! I thought, ‘what am I going to do?’ And I just kept spinning and spinning round. Luckily enough I hit one big bend and I got out and stood on the ice and lifted the wooden boat to get it back into water. By luck, when it spun round the ice shot off and was I relieved! I never did tell my dad to this day, ‘cos he would’ve given me a good clip on the ear or kick up the butt! That was on the river Yare, just past Strumpshaw.
There’s people that own these marshes, mostly farmers or private people that own them and you had to go and get permission to go on them. Years ago people did, what you’d call a little bit of poaching I suppose, but then you’d never see nobody for weeks and years you know.
I was always getting it wrong, you had to toe and heel the scythe. My dad was a big old boy and strong. He’d wet his finger and tell you about the wind, which way to do it and which way to swathe it. I was a small boy so it was hard for me but once I got the knack of walking and cutting at the same time, it’s like falling into place. I’ve still got a lot of the hand tools, the old scythe.
We were all equal years ago ‘cos most people worked on a farm. The parents did and your mothers did, and there’s seasonal work and we just got together. We had no money to buy anything but we used to make things – like catapults.
We’d get a little saw from home or a knife, cut a load of crotch out and find an old bit of leather or shoe at home, get a piece of lash and put it on and make it go, pick some stones up and you’d get a tin on a field or chuck it up and that would be a day’s fun. Then you’d make a bow and arrow and go and get some bulrushes and you’d play cowboys and Indians. That was lovely …
You used to help the farmer, we used to play, but sometimes the old farmer would say, ‘now come on you boys, behave’. He’d put you right in line. He’d tell you to clear off. You went back home after two hours and your mum would say, ‘what you doing home?’ But you can’t do that today – life’s changed completely.
I used to do acorn picking. You’d get a basket and go round the bottom of trees and there used to be hundreds of these acorns around. I think they went towards feeding the pigs. When you went to school, in the holidays you want to earn a few pennies, you didn’t do it for a living.
Like stone picking – you just go and see the farmer. He’d say, ‘you want a job boy?’ You’d go up and down all day with pails and tip it in one big container. It helped the soil when they were ploughing, and growing plants coming through – like you would in your own little garden outside. They used the stones for driveways for tractors and cars.
We used to go fruit picking: blackcurrants, strawberries, gooseberries. Most days it was all mushy blackcurrants. We used to bike or walk or mostly run there. When you’re young you mostly run everywhere don’t you? You’re fit then.
That was your pocket money. The first place you’d go would be the village shop to buy some aniseed balls or some gobstoppers. Four for a penny I remember them now. You’d see them all change colours. It was like a golf ball. It would last you a couple of days.
My father used to take us on the motorbike in the sidecar on school holidays. We’d be in the bedroom, without us knowing. We knew mum was doing something, she’d be doing a lot of cooking. And all of a sudden there’d be a knock on the door at five o’ clock in the morning, ‘come on you guys! You want a day down the beach?’ Cor, that was marvellous – a day down the beach! We didn’t know what a week’s holiday was like. Mum and dad, they didn’t have the money. And away we’d go, we’d pile into the sidecar, about four or five of us in his old 500 Norton. It would be spitting and firing up till we got a few miles up the road and away we’d go for the whole day.
We’d get down to Wells. And when we got there, Dad would make a little fire in the wood. We’d have some toast and stuff like that and whatever mum had done, sandwiches and cakes. When the tide went out there’s a lovely channel down to Wells, beside the wood, out to the sea, and we’d go and swim and we’d do a little short race.
‘Come on’ he’d say, ‘feel these on your feet’. You’d think they were like stones or pebbles but they weren’t, they were cockles. And he’d bring the sack and we’d rake them, take them out on the little channel, fill a couple of sacks up, take them home by the sidecar, drag them up the beach, load them up.
Then we’d go swimming again. And there was no such thing as ice creams and fish and chips then. If there was we couldn’t afford it anyhow. He’d just have enough money to get down for the paddling. And that day, even today, was a marvellous day, just mucking in as a family, like putting up a couple of bits of sticks up for cricket, have a ball. And other families would all join in on the beaches in them days. You wouldn’t be walking past people. You’d all be doing the same thing, out for the day. We’d all get together, all the kids and the parents, and we’d have a lovely day. That was great.
I remember the wherries on the river. One of the first things I remember were the little wooden sailing boats. It was very quiet on the river in them days. The wherries used to come through and I used to know one old boy down there. I used to hop on there, go for a little way with him on the wherries and he’d chuck me off… and I’d run back to where my dad was. And he’d say, ‘go on, you can go for half an hour’. It wasn’t often he’d let me go but he didn’t mind me doing that. The old boy would get to the side and I’d jump off, run back as I say.
You’d get the big coasters. Everards – all the merchants that do coal, wood, come from Yarmouth ports and Lowestoft, bring it through down to Norwich…they were up and down all the while.
If you were on the river they used to draw about five foot of water. Once you heard them blast their horns on the bends, you’d look up and it was like a tower of flats coming round the trees, ‘cos they were massive boats. They nearly filled the whole river up and if they were in a hurry, all you’d see is white foam at the front of the big boat and then as they’d pass you, you’d be bobbing up and down and get in the swell. And they’d draw you, shove you away, and if you were in a dyke the water would all disappear – you’d be sitting on mud. You were just holding the oars to keep you up, to keep upright. And all of a sudden you’d see the water coming down the dyke every two foot and chuck you up and sling you about. And afterwards it would all go calm and the water would go back to itself again.
I did a lot of fishing as a child. Mostly we used to go out babbing, with the eels. My dad used to get all the big worms in the garden in a sack at night and the next day he’d dig them up, get about a yard of cotton wool and a big needle, thread them and put them in a bunch, like a big bunch of grapes. Then he’d get a piece of willow stick and a little lead weight beside it.
You’d go out on your boat and you’d get a sack and wet it and tack it like it was a sheet in the middle of the boat. He’d slip one end over the other end and he’d cut a hole in the sack and then the pail underneath it. Eels do bite but they suck more than anything. And you just keep bobbing up and down your stick, testing on your line to get your height and once you hit the mud you just keep doing it up and down gently and then you feel a real tug on it and you lift it over the top off the sack and the boat, where the hole is and give it a flick and they drop off and into the pail.
You got mostly one at a time. One day, when I was about 11 years old, I got one big one and grabbed it. I was excited! I lifted it up and the tail hit the side of the boat, plop. And at the same time as it plopped, my weight and all the worms, caught my father at the side on the ear. He was not amused! He hit my ear just as quick: ‘sit still and behave yourself’, and that was all he said. He wasn’t very happy with that. He didn’t take me next time as punishment but he knew I loved it, so that was part of life, I accepted it.
They used to eat the eels years ago. They used to skin them and fry them, gut them, take the outside skin off and if you jelly them leave the outside skin on, obviously. And smoked is supposed to be a big delicacy with eels. There’s just one centre bone. You just leave the bone in. You chop it up like a sausage, maybe with breadcrumbs, if not just do it with your mushrooms, tomatoes and bacon.
Visitors to the village
The circus would come to Rockland once a year, little travelling caravans on wheels, all wooden, all coloured. They used to look lovely and you’d see a sign put up: ‘circus here for a week’. It used to be about sixpence or something. We’d done things to get money – paper rounds, fruit picking, so you had a few pennies with you.
The circus would be set up and it would be marvellous. All these big marquees on the meadow. The farmer used to let them have a bit of meadow. And then they do a show in the afternoon and at night. Ponies would be running around inside and they were jumping off them onto coconut matting. They’d get you to join in. They were mostly just clowns, acting about, pretending they were going to chuck a pail of water over you. And then one or two they would give you a spray. But that was exciting then, as a child you never forget.
And then a similar thing, you used to get the old scissor grinder coming down the road. I haven’t seen one of them for years. Put his old bike up, shout and they’d come to the door, the young lad with him. ‘Do you want any knives sharpening and shears?’ We used to go and watch them do it, seeing the old sparks fly and he’d be peddling away earning a shilling or two.
And another one that used to come around was the old rag and bone man. He’d be shouting, ‘rag and bone, rag and bone’. Similar to old Steptoe on telly. When you heard the old horses’ hooves clopping down the road you’d rush out there cos you knew he’d be coming.
You’d get a thrupenny joey and a goldfish. Of course nowadays you’re not allowed to do that kind of thing. You used to get goldfish in a plastic bag like on the fair years ago, as a prize. You wouldn’t get no money.
The Broads now
We used to jump in the broads, in the water and have a bit of a dip and a swim. I wouldn’t want to now. It was all clear years ago, now it’s as black as your hat. Obviously it’s been hit big time by pollution. There’s no circulation round the broads now, plus the old boys used to cut the side of the banks when they were doing reedcutting but now you aren’t allowed to do it. There’s so many laws and byelaws now. That’s why there’s so much wilderness and everything’s grown up.
There’s more vermin out there than there is proper wild birdlife. I can’t see why people aren’t seeing this. Even in your own backyard now it’s hard to see a thrush. The first thing you’d hear on the summer mornings was a tap, tap, tap, and that would be a thrush with a snail banging it outside for food. And that’s gone – there’s a lot of little birds that are getting very rare now. You’ll get a gang of them, rooks, starlings and that but starlings are a bit different, a lot of them come from abroad.
When they do that murmuration together, when they all twist and turn – that’s one of the most magical sights you can see, and some people never seen it in their lives! The problem is a lot of people live in these villages and they’ve never been round the broad, never been on it and they’ve lived here for years and years. It’s a pity they don’t because they don’t know what they’re missing.
There’s not a lot of villages now, they’re mostly like little towns now, all linking up. Houses are going up everywhere. The sad thing is we’re losing little post offices, little shops. The supermarkets have taken over – they can’t compete. We used to have little butcher’s shops and things like that. Little vans used to come round delivering, that’s all gone. Your milk would be delivered, your bread would be delivered.That’s finished, they just couldn’t make a living.
People seem to keep themselves to themselves. They’re rushing everywhere, they got no time to live. As soon as they get up they all got these mortgages. They all got a new car each and they’re rushing to pay for everything. It ain’t like a 15 or 20 years’ mortgage – some of their children will be ending up paying for these houses, and that could be a long while. And things can go bang in the middle of it all.
Modern technology today, like cars – you get robots welding them. If you’d have said to these old boys 80 -100 years ago that this was going to happen, they wouldn’t believe it, like man on the moon. You read it as comics but that’s happened.
What you can do on a mobile phone now? If someone had said to me in my time, 40 years ago, you got these mobile phones and you can talk to someone miles away, it was unbelievable! Marvellous bit of technology and good for medical reasons, but when you see younger people walking round all day long holding them up to their ear, walking past mother nature and they don’t know about it. They don’t know when to put vegetables in, when they flower and how the bees pollinate and all this. It’s a bit sad really. Something’s got to happen so that schools stop computers for one day of the week. Get them into talking about nature. What’s going to happen to them when they leave school? There ain’t gonna be much work with modern technology.
My first proper job was £3.50 a week on the farm. There was no such thing as five days a week. It was five and a half days, including Saturday mornings. I did sugar beeting, straw cutting, helping with corn, general farm work.
With the sugar beeting, the horse used to pull them up with one single furrow and you used to knock all the mud off, put them in rows and you’d top them then, with a sugar beet hoe, and they’d put them in big heaps. The lorry would come and they’d load the lorry up. They used to have big old runways up the river, so they’d tip them up and put them on a boat. And they know whose is what… Then lorries used to go round but they still used to use these big old gangways before the lorries. You’re quite close to Cantley this side of the river but you’d have to go right round to get to it. The quickest way as the crow flies, down towards Loddon, down towards the Cantley factory.
That farm work was down at Rockland St Mary, down at Andrews farm for about nine months, then I left that and went to work on a mink farm. The job was advertised in the local paper – and you’d go to the local phone box and ring up and ask about the job, or you’d get on your bike and go and find the place that was advertising and go round and see them, which was the quickest sometimes. I used to bike down to a little old rowing boat, chuck the bike in, and bike down to Blofield. There was a mink farm there.
Instead of getting £3.50 a week and giving my mum £2 a week board, I started there on about £5.50 a week. Well that was nearly double my wages on the farm so I went for it. But I wish I hadn’t have done because of the aggravation in the mornings, with rushing down on my bike; jumping in the boat (and it wasn’t a very good boat – I used to get sore from bailing all the water out); then chucking my bike in, shooting across the other side of the river; going down on the railway line (a big hill in Brundall) and then there was about two or three mile to bike to Blofield. So I didn’t keep there too long. My dad lent me one of the little old reed cutting boats.
The mink job included mixing up the feed for them. They used to be all in cages in big runs and you get the barrow and you used to feed them with tripe, liver, fish, mince it all up. But they had the idea of breeding them… And there used to be about 200 mink one side and 200 the other side in big long sheds. And they were fast and as sharp as anything, same as a ferret. Then they used to kill them and sell the furs. Some of the mink escaped. There was a big storm and the tree broke the netting down and they got out. There’s still plenty of mink about now on the Broads.
After the mink farm, I was carrying tiles for a builder for a little while and then I started pipe laying – water pipe laying, trench work. It was all over the place. They just pick you up in a van and away you go, all around.
When the gas mains come through here years ago I heard about these welders and all the big money they were earning and thought, ‘right, I’d better have some of this!’ It was seven days a week admittedly, 10 or 12 hours a day. I went with the welders then I moved myself up and went and worked with the grinders, then I finished up going into digger driving and groundworks. The gas mains work lasted about two or three years, then it fizzled out, when I was about 20 or 22.
From when I was about 19, I started doing bits of work for myself. You’d have good spells, building sites. The building industry would go mad for about 10 years, then for three or four years it would go right down. If you think about it, if a house is £50,000 and then by the time you’d finish it would be gone up in price, if they sell well. If things carried on, every house would be a million pounds!
I always did it, every year. Even when I had a regular job I always did it at weekends. It was seven days a week. Dad was still reed cutting and I’d just go and give him a hand at weekends. I’ve got three sons now and they all still keep their hands in today.
When you can go in a window factory today and earn about 400 quid a week, you aren’t going to be walking around in mud… You get a lot of these reed cutters thinking, ‘oh I can earn a thousand pounds a day’. And people look in the paper and say, ‘hell that’s funny money, we’ll try it, we’ll have some of this’. You think you’re a football star then. What about your vehicle to get there? People don’t use the river to get there like I did. They can drive up the banks on roadways but in my day it was, go out on the broad all day, rowing, cut your reed and bring it home, put it on the staithe. That’s a completely different thing.
I always did it with a hook and scythe. I’ve tried it by machine but it was too noisy in my ears. I am the last one, around Britain and everywhere – the last hand cutter who can do it.
The old wooden scythes have two handles on the side, so when you swathe it, swing your blade into the reed, you take a yard or a metre at a time and you just swathe it, walk a bit, swathe it. You have to get into the rhythm… Then you just lay the scythe down, gather the reeds up and then you clean it and dress it and then knock it on a wooden board and you’ve got a bunch of reed ready to go on a roof for thatching.
When you cut it by hand all the small pieces come out of it, whereas with the machine it would take everything as it goes. About two or three inches of stubble it would leave – exactly like a combine on a corn field. On a farm the corn would dry hard but in the marshes it’s a completely different place – it can be wet and boggy.
Now, thatchers find that there’s still a lot of reed in when they open the bunch up on the roof. When they’re buying machinery they’re getting a lot of cleaning to do themselves, so they aren’t really buying a whole bunch but three quarters of a bunch. The price of hand-cut reed and machine-cut is about the same. You can’t win today because for the last 20 years, we had all the foreign reed over here and that’s blitzed it, killed the job completely. It comes from all over: China, Poland, Turkey. And they tell you now what they’re gonna pay you. You can’t banter with them like you could years ago.
Reedcutting: Photographs taken from “Mist On The Marsh” a Big Sky productions video by kind permission John Parker http://bigskyuk.weebly.com/index.html
It all depends on the weather and the wind, and the tide and yourself, how you feel. On a good day you could knock 50 or 60 bunches in a day. The thatchers came to me – they’d even offer to carry it. What they call Norfolk water reed is the best reed in Norfolk, it lasts for 70 years. They also do combed wheat… and that’s about 4 foot, which they use for thatching as well. But that only lasts about 30 or 35 years. So if you’re going to sell a house, you’re going to go for the 35 year aren’t you, instead of the 70. You’re gonna want £35 in your wallet aren’t you?
I’ll never stop going on the marshes. I just go out on the liggers. I still do duck paths for people. We just muck in. It’s more of a hobby, than for a living. As long as it pays for the boats and the diesel in the truck I’m happy. You won’t make a profit. A lot of people have tried reed cutting and have lost so much money ‘cos these machines cost so much now. You’re talking £10,000 for a machine. You gotta cut a lot of reed before you get that back!
I also worked on shoots, cutting the pathways out for them, scything again. Cut all the duck paths out for them and the hides…I don’t shoot, myself, ‘cos they let us have the reeds and muck in and it’s not fair for me to go shooting when they’ve put their money into it. The marshes belong to them so I’d be an idiot to go and shoot a pheasant or a duck that was worth two pounds when I can walk round four or five hundred acres and go fishing when I like and they know I’m about there to look after the place.
In my heart I’ve felt like an Indian. I could stand on a reed bed and without turning round I could tell if there was anyone on the bank. I go by the wildlife on the bank. You can sense straightaway.
Years ago there were loads of cutters about there and around other broads. There must have been 16 or 18 of them, bless the old boys, they’re all gone now. And they were all hand cutters, like I say, they’re gone.
A ligger is a long piece of wood. They mostly use them on wherries. It ..was a big long plank, 20 or 25 feet long and heavy. You had to drag it ‘cos you couldn’t get it on your shoulder. You chuck it across the dyke at the next marsh. They were all readymade and done – the old liggers would be there that the old boys had had before us.
You’d have to be careful if you didn’t peg them down ‘cos if the tide came up and you were carrying a bunch of reed across a dyke and you think the ligger is still on the other side of the marsh, you’d get half way, and all of a sudden you’d start going down into the water. And away you go – you’re in, soaked. Out you’d get, dry yourself, drag it, lift the ligger onto the bank and away you’d go again.
We used to make faggots, from the thin little branches of trees. You’d make a big old bunch and tie it three times. When it was wet I used to do a lot down the boat yards. Before the liggers came in they used to use faggots. If you check it out on farmed fields, they used to give them handfuls of sticks and tie them together and you’d find the black sticks still in the drainage. Anything underwater like that would keep for years.
What you do with a faggot, you’d dig your slipway in the boatyard, where they want to get the boats and trailers down to get the boats out of the water, they push all the timbers up at the sides, into the river, wait for a low tide and then you take these faggots and they put netting in the bottom and they’d chuck them in and the next day that would be like a float. When it was a wet day you’d make a load. They were like big old square pads and they’d sink them on the side to keep erosion down.
Eels are marvellous when you think about it. Most people think they come from rivers around this way but they’re completely off course. Eels come from the Sargasso Sea, that’s two thousand miles away. They get here by the tides, just floating on the sea. When people catch a little eel down there that’s about four inches long they think it’s only about three months old and they think it’s come from here but it doesn’t. It’s taken them about 18 months to get here, and that little eel could be about five or six years old, which is fascinating. I think the males go back and start it all over again, similar to salmon really.
We’ve got so many euro rules – other people telling us what to do in our country. And we know what to do and what’s wrong and what’s right. You’re going to get poachers anywhere in life: shooting pheasants, ducks, eel fishing and people who put nets where they shouldn’t, or haven’t got a licence. If there’s a bit of money they’re going to try and earn it.
Years ago you never used to need to have a licence but now it all has to be legit. You have a licence for each net and you have to wash them now. You get all the crayfish and the broad never looked into it properly. They just thought, ah well they’ll bite the weeds on the rivers. They didn’t realise that they undermined the banks. And they brought these other little shrimps in and they got this disease.
You go out at night for eel caching. You set out before it gets dark. You take your eel nets and your boat and you sink them right down in the centre of the river. You chuck your first net in and go with the tide, dropping your nets as they go down. And your last net you chuck in.
You’ve got to remember where they are because the next day you’ve got to go back within a few yards. You hook them up and draw them in, empty them into your bin, wash them and keep them nice and hide them up somewhere on the riverbank, in a sack or a cage.
You have to use a cage today because there’s so many otters about. What you’ve caught in a week they’d just go and rip their necks to bits and you’re doing your work for nothing. But it’s hardly worth doing now. I finished up with just ten nets in the end and I was lucky if I got a pail a week.
Eels just aren’t about now. Even with a fishing rod you’d sit all day, fishing on the broads and along the dykes. You’ll get the big ones in ponds and lakes, where they travel overland… I think like everything in life, like with the polythene and the whales…Everything has had a big knock. It’s only now with modern technology they realise what’s happening. They open them up and see tons and tons of polyethylene inside them.
The eels mostly go to Holland, to the main big eel companies. They used to send one big boat over here. He used to come in a tanker, once every six weeks. He’d meet you, give you a few shillings and go away happy to another 20 more people about. He’d go to Kings Lynn, Yarmouth, Lowestoft and finish with three or four ton of eels. It mostly involved about 80 or 100 eel fishing people.
We buy them back from the Dutch company now. They’re mostly smoked. But the thing is now where the little ones are born, they’re like little tadpoles and they’re selling them like soup. And that’s a big delicacy in these restaurants – crazy money! You’re talking about £25 or £30 for a soup for rich people.
So I think that’s been a big decline. There are so many populations getting bigger in every country of the world and people have got to eat – you’ve got to have food. Like the cod. Where’s any trawlers round the coast now? They’re all finished. And there aren’t many people out doing whelks and cockles and stuff. I’ve sold my licences and I’ve finished. As much as I love the water, it’s a lot of hard work: chucking weights in mud, cleaning and the tide.
There are one or two eel catchers still about. I don’t think you can get licences now. I’m almost certain you can’t – I think that’s a closed shop now. Whereas I had 20 nets, as I was doing it in the evenings and mornings, they mostly have about 300 nets. I can’t compete against them. They just go down the river with about two miles of nets. If they get half a pound of eels in each net. But they’re doing it all day – it’s their living.
Eel catching: Photographs taken from “Mist On The Marsh” a Big Sky productions video by kind permission John Parker http://bigskyuk.weebly.com/index.html
My sons are interested but you’ve got to earn money haven’t you? I can’t afford to go and buy one of these big boats with an engine in and two miles of nets. If they aren’t there now it isn’t worth it anyway is it? If you go to the top man, the money man, he never has to mess his hands or touch it. Whatever you make he can make double on. And he ain’t gonna mess his hands up. You’re just in the middle and there’s nothing you can do about it – that’s life isn’t it.
Best and worst
The best time on the marshes is when the Spring comes – in the beginning of April. The birds are getting about more and they’re flittering off, making nests and the weather is getting better and the nights are pulling out. I think Spring is a lovely part of the year.
The worst time was 1963. This winter, especially, has been a real shock, wet every day. You get a bit of sun for two hours and then it rains. And the grey and the dullness of it! We’ve hardly seen the sun for weeks and days. This winter has been a horrible old winter for everybody.
Now I’m retired I still go out fishing. I love rowing a boat, I love the Broads anyhow. I just like sitting in a boat, pulling the oars in, let it drift from side to side, row back and let it do it again for half an hour. Just twirling round and the water lapping up against the boat. I still like cutting reeds and we’re now doing a show for Norfolk Day for The Nook, to give something back, me and my sons. My whole family can take credit, cos they’re all helping and mucking in on it.
The Mason family demonstrating their craft at Norfolk Day, Rockland St Mary. 28th July 2018. Photos: WISEArchive.
Wally Mason (b. 1947) talking to WISEArchive on 20th July 2018 at Rockland St Mary
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