Poacher’s Cottage

BY NIGEL BEAN

The end-of-terrace cottage with its well-manicured garden and side driveway, affectionately so-named by those that grew up in the village with the local poacher’s stories and antics. Although I would never say he was an outright poacher, more an opportunist.

Mr Rolfe was his name, but the kids knew him as ‘Punch’ with his blood shot eyes and his dog called ‘Sparky’. He walked the lanes and woods of the village of Bedmond at least three times per day. In his early life he had worked the fields and farms in the area and ploughed with a team of horses. If ever the title of ‘countryman’ be afforded to just one man he would have been in the running. He looked after his granddaughter’s two ponies, ‘Prince’ and ’Champion’, they were in a field two miles away so one of his walks would always see him swing by to keep an eye on them. This also meant I got free rides whenever I wanted but I wasn’t much into equines back then so rarely took up the opportunity.

Punch carried a catapult at all times, he called this his ‘nanny’, and sported a pocket full of stones on his walks – pretty much anything was a target. If it flies it dies, he would tell me. Apart from Robins of course – “never shoot a Robin, that’s bad luck” he would insist. To add to his quirky nature he also had a garden full of nest boxes, he lifted those from the local forestry plantation. I know this because I stood on his shoulders as a young lad to help him with a few.

My theory was that Punch was not a poacher in the truest sense of the word, going out in the middle of the night with a catapult and returning with tomorrow’s dinner, but more an opportunist. If something was in range from the path it was fair game, but he never properly trespassed from what I saw. Then again, he had the responsibility of a minor and trust of parents – and I was tucked up in bed in the middle of the night.

Punch would also greet a magpie in the morning for good luck. ‘Morning Mr Magpie’ he would say whenever we encountered them. Although they were a rare sight when I was growing up. He came from a different time – a time of hedgerows and village orchards, ponds and wildlife in abundance. As a young lad he would shoot sparrows with his ‘nanny’ and take the heads into a local police station for a reward. If he didn’t shoot them, he would go out at night with his mates and capture the sparrows in ‘bat folding nets’.  These were nets that were folded for easy carrying and opened right out – once it was dark, they would be held behind a bush and another would be at the front of the bush beating it with a stick. The sparrows panicked and flew into the netting.

He made me my first catapult. He had been making these all his life – deadly and silent. He knew all of the trees with V shaped branches in the area that would make a catapult, I just had to pay for the elastic. He taught me to walk with one eye in the trees and bushes and another on the floor looking for near perfect round stones for ammunition.

I had grown up in an age when it was just becoming unacceptable to go birds-nesting. However, because I went with Mr Rolfe, a village elder and countryman, that was okay in my parents eyes although I had to keep my collection around at his. He made me a little box, divided into sections for each individual egg, it was painted turquoise with my name on the top. Punch taught me how to blow an egg and I got quite good at it. At the time Starlings were very common and great murmurations were common around our area, the woods would erupt as they went skywards to dance around the sky and yet their eggs were so difficult to find.

It wasn’t always about hunting and birds-nesting, there was foraging as well – his old and one-toothed wife made an excellent blackberry pie. We would go out on the morning and pick the blackberries and return with the bounty and hand them to his wife. I would return later in the day to an all-you-can-eat blackberry pie. Punch’s wife cooked all their food by the fire, in a tiny compartment with two shelves. She did have a gas oven, but she could not get on with new-fangled contraptions.

The wood chopping and sawing was another job I enjoyed. Punch would have a flatbed lorry load of old wooden fencing dropped off by a local. I would then go over and help chop it up for the fire. The fence posts were dealt with by a two man push pull saw and not one of those awful noisy chain saws – he would say they wake the dead.

The first time I went on his walks and returned back to the cottage I needed to go to the loo. He said it’s by the back-door boy. Well I searched and couldn’t find the loo for love nor money and went back embarrassed saying I couldn’t find it. Punch looked perplexed, he took me by the arm opened the back door and pointed down at the drain the kitchen sink emptied into, “it’s there boy, that’s where you pee”. Then he walked off chuckling to himself.

As we grew into our teens out came the home-brewed stout, he would come out with the same old stories but just as funny as when you heard them the first time. His favourite was when he was 12, he was caught having sex and the girl’s mum went and told his mum. He got home and was sent straight to bed with just bread and jam and that well known quip “Wait till your father gets home you’ll be for it, tan your hide so he will”.  He had been in that sorry plight before – what followed was his Dad would come home from work, he would be heard talking to his mother and then the kitchen door would open and there’d be the sound of footsteps up the stairs and his Dad removing his belt. That evening he waited, his Dad came home and immediately he heard his Dad ask “Where’s the lad?”.

“He has been very bad” said his mum, “He was caught having sex with a young girl”.

“So where is he now?” asked his dad.

“I sent him to bed with bread and jam and told him to wait till you got home”, his Mum replied.

Punch then heard his Dad bellow: “Dear God woman get him down here now and give him a proper dinner, there’s no way I could shag on just bread and jam and I don’t expect him to either”.

Punch’s wife died. Soon after at 85 he had to have his appendix out – very late in life. This knocked him back. He wasn’t able to walk the dog or chop the wood, his physical condition deteriorated and about a year after his wife’s death, he died. Their cottage was bought up and the number changed to a name – ‘Poacher’s Cottage’. A fine tribute to my old pal, Punch.

Edited by Paul Read.