First and foremost among these men was Gabriel Pigott. He was (as a gentleman said of him when speaking to me about him) one of Nature’s gentlemen. He was a fine portly man with a long beard; he would have made a good model for a Patriarch. He had a fine deep voice too, and his character was in keeping with the outer man. He and I have had many a shore tramp together and he has sent me many a specimen in summer plumage; all this was long before a close time was thought of.
This photograph of Gabriel Pigott (c 1885) was in the possession of his granddaughter Florence Radley, when ‘Sea Pie’ (C.D. Borrer) came to search for those who still remembered him.
I was also acquainted with several good old gunners later on. Two or three of them were Salthouse men, one of them named Moy, who when I knew him had given up shooting. I have often talked with him and he told me of having taken the eggs of the avocet (‘Clinkers’ he called them) when a boy, and of the alterations on the marshes which drove them away.
The following excerpts are taken from an article which appeared in ‘The Shooting Times and Country Magazine’, 6 November 1959, by `Sea Pie' (C.D. Borrer, of Cley who died in 1961)
Time was when men who lived in the fenlands of Lincolnshire and East Anglia, and looked after the dykes and ditches and marsh drains and sea-banks, were known as ‘dyke-reeves’. Certain landowners and village elders in areas around the Wash had the onus planked firmly on their shoulders of seeing that their marshes were ‘dyched scowred and clensed as often as neyde shall require by the lordes freeholders and copyholders’, according to one 16th-century document.
I suppose old Gabriel Pigott of Salthouse-beside-the-sea on the North Norfolk coast may well have been a lineal descendant of some ancient dyke-reeve, for the above quaint description describes his work exactly, though he lived as recently as the latter part of the 19th century and his title was no more romantic than that of ‘marsh-man’.
But the name of Gabriel Pigott is remembered today, not only as that of an amender of marsh drains and cattle paths but as the greatest wild-fowler and specimen hunter that Salthouse ever produced—a man to rank with Ramm of Cley and the John Thomases of Breydon. Some of the rarest birds in many Norfolk collections fell to his gun, for in those far-off days the arrival of any feathered rarity was the signal for every local fowler to set out at once in its pursuit. He is remembered as the last of that semi-amphibious race of marsh-men who lived almost entirely by means of gun and net.
SHOOTING THE AVOCETS
In those days, when Gabriel was young, no sort or kind of protection for birds or animals existed, and in later years he told how returning punt-gunners emptied their great muzzle loaders by shooting the avocets to avoid the trouble of ‘drawing the charges’.
When the craze for egg-collecting was at its height in the 1870s, Gabriel earned many an honest pound by finding the nests of the Montagu’s harriers which bred on the wild uplands above Salthouse and Kelling.
But his heart was forever on his beloved marshes. His work as a marsh-man gave him wonderful opportunities for wildfowling, and many a rare specimen in the Norwich museum or the famous Connop collection bears witness to his prowess.
Perhaps his most spectacular trophy was a black stork, which frequented Salthouse marshes one April, and was reputed to bear a charmed life, so eagerly was it pursued and so frequently shot at without success by the local gunners. At length the great bird became utterly unapproachable, as it constantly fed in an open part of the flats. One foggy morning, however, Gabriel, who of course knew every yard of his ground when making his way across the marshes, was surprised to encounter what he first took to be a decayed post standing upright in the mud. When the supposed wooden object suddenly rose into the air, it was lucky for Gabriel that he had his gun all ready, for the stork almost instantly ‘vanished in the thick’, as Gabriel used to put it when telling the story, adding that ‘I fired where I thought it ought to be.‘
TWO WHITE-TAILED EAGLES
Gabriel Pigott is said to have accounted for two white-tailed eagles in the course of his many adventures ashore and afloat. These great birds were by no means uncommon in winter on the salt marshes and inland heaths of East Anglia, for in the middle of the last century sea eagles nested in many of the wilder districts of Scotland. Gabriel is credited with more than one bagged on the upland warrens, where these great creatures were attracted by the swarming rabbits.
My friend Mr Fred Pashley, still living at Cley, well remembers Gabriel Pigott as a living link with the days when much of what is now grazing marshland was a vast stretch of shingle and mud, partly covered by every flowing tide. The line of the beach was in places half-a-mile further to the north than at present [Sea Pie was writing in the 50s] and a tidal channel, the outline of which can yet be traced below the Dun Cow, ran up to Salthouse village. Indeed, so rapidly has the sea encroached upon the land during the past hundred years that I have myself talked with men who carted hay from fields now far beneath the sea.
In the year 1853 a protective grassy sea-wall was constructed for a distance of some two miles from Weybourne Sluice as far as the east bank adjoining Cley levels. No doubt Gabriel Pigott, as a true dyke-reeve, worked on this causeway which was to have so great an effect on his beloved Salthouse marshes. It was a big undertaking, but ten years after it was completed the sea, banked up by a northerly gale, breached the bank—which was never properly repaired.
None of it remains at the present time, the whole being completely buried by thousands of tons of shingle driven over its site on the brackish marshland. A mere fifty years or so ago, I often walked along the top of this dyke. Many delectable salt pools haunted by diving duck and grebes are now under the beach; and many a wintry day I have spent beneath the shelter of the old bank waiting for fowl to come in off the sea. On such occasions it was easy to picture the scene as it must have appeared in Gabriel Pigott’s boyhood.
I recently made a pilgrimage to Salthouse in company with Mr Lindsay Fleming, a noted Sussex antiquary, in order to ascertain if memory of the old marsh-man still remained green in his native village. We first visited the splendid old church, which has weathered so many centuries of storm and sunshine, high above the marshland and the red roofs of Salthouse village, that ancient land mark visible to distant ships far out at sea beyond the Sheringham shoal. Here we discovered Gabriel’s gravestone among the long grass beside the south door.
Within a hundred yards of his last resting place is the little house wherein he lived and died.
We were fortunate enough to find two elderly ladies, granddaughters of Gabriel, still residing in the village and one of them living in that same cottage, Pear Tree Cottage, which was Gabriel’s home for the last 39 years of his life. It remains exactly as in his lifetime. The date 1850—which is the year when he went there—is inscribed above the doorway, and a pear tree planted by Gabriel still flourishes over the front wall. The elder of his granddaughters (Alice) vividly remembers him and tells of how he would come home
laden with fish and fowl, lean his muzzle-loading guns and his nets against the wall and place his powder-flask and wads in a dry corner of the shelf. I sometimes wish that something could have been added to his epitaph to the effect that here lies the last of the Norfolk dyke-reeves.