Elijah’s hammer- action

The poacher’s gun

A time when some countrymen had to steal or starve

Country Notes

This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Down at the bottom of the bean field, the meadow lay thirsty and still. For weeks it hadn’t rained and the River Stiffkey, bronze water on a dark bed of mud, rolled slowly towards the sea. The land was of little interest to the men who farmed on either side, too wet for wheat and too rough to plough. But I suspect it would have been just the sort of place that Elijah, the old poacher whose gun I held over my arm, would have liked, on account of all the hares and a steady number of rabbits.

The previous morning in Bunwell, a small South Norfolk village on the old road to Norwich, Mark Lorne, Elijah James’s great-great-nephew, held the gun up to the light and carefully copied the serial number onto my certificate.

It would have been the sort of place that Elijah, the old poacher whose gun I held over my arm, would have liked

Due to his bad back, Mark was no longer using it and there are no Jameses left in Bunwell to take it on. “Poaching for ’Lijah before the war,” Mark explained, pushing himself back in his chair, “was out of necessity — they had very little. But after the war finished, he had a pension because he got shot by a German machine gunner in the thigh, right next to his old chap. Some days he’d be in so much pain, he couldn’t get out of bed.”

Elijah bought the hammer gun in the thirties from Darlow’s, a sinceclosed gunmaker which for a hundred years stood on Orford Street in Norwich beneath a large concrete stag mounted above the door. “When the war was over,” Mark explained, folding the paperwork away in an envelope and pouring me another cup of coffee, “old ’Lijah carried on his poaching whenever he could.”

It was no longer so much about putting food on the table, but it had become a necessity of a different sort. “Some nights he’d head out the door after dinner and wouldn’t return until the following morning. You can see where he used to tie it to his bicycle with string because it’s worn away at the stock — you got all those grooves there.” Mark passed me the gun and in the dim light I could only just make them out, but running my fingers over the dark wood, I could feel them, walnut worn away over six decades ago, down quiet lanes beneath the moon.

To walk up rabbits successfully, you really want a wind. The trick is to always stalk into it so that your scent and any sound is blown behind you. But the air was heavy and still and as I walked the hawthorn hedge, on the edge of the meadow, I could hear a cockerel crow half a mile away, back towards the village.

As I went, I looked down at the hammer gun. In a hundred years, things have moved on and there are very few provincial gunmakers left, but it would have been a fine thing once with its spurred hammers, foliate-scroll, and magnum chambers for goose loads.

Beyond the willows, a little further on, movement caught my eye, and I looked up to see a white tail scudding across the grass before disappearing into the reeds. It was too far away and too small for the stove.

The trick is to always stalk into it so that your scent and any sound is blown behind you

For 20 minutes I continued on up the hedge. Grey clouds drifted in above me, beneath a changing sky. I missed one rabbit, too far out, and let a third run on, too small. Then, at the end of the meadow I stopped for a bit and watched as a lapwing rose and cried out, trying to drive six rooks away from its young. Settling in a nearby oak, the corvids looked on, waiting and watching, while heavy June rain began to fall.

As I drove back for breakfast, I passed the old workhouse at Snoring, just a ruin now and a shed at the side where holidaymakers hire bicycles. On my dashboard sat a copy of John Humphreys’ Poachers’ Tales, its green cover a greasy reflection in the windscreen. Mark had given it to me with the gun. “I hope you can give ’Lijah’s old Darlow one or two outings a season,” he’d written in the front, “and I thought you should have a copy of this book, which includes just a few details of his misdeeds and scrapes.”

As the grey workhouse walls grew smaller in my rearview mirror, I thought about the way people like to romanticise poaching: stories of rum old rogues getting one over on the local squire. It’s easier that way, easier than accepting that not very long ago, rural England was a place where men stole or starved.

Patrick Galbraith’s first book, In Search of One Last Song, is out now in hardback with William Collins

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