Fens tradition brought back to life with a bang

PUBLISHED: 14:10 07 September 2009 | UPDATED: 09:14 02 June 2010

Eel catcher Peter Carter, 44, of Outwell

Eel catcher Peter Carter, 44, of Outwell

IT is a relic more likely to be seen in a museum cabinet than in action along the region s waterways, but until a few decades ago the punt gun was the livelihood of many fenland fishermen. This weekend the ancient wildfowling tradition was brought back to

Peter Carter disappears in a cloud of smoke as he fires the punt gun at Wicken Fen

Photo: Submitted

IT is a relic more likely to be seen in a museum cabinet than in action along the region's waterways, but until a few decades ago the punt gun was the livelihood of many fenland fishermen.

This weekend the ancient wildfowling tradition was brought back to life with a bang as one of the last traditional eel fishermen set off a punt gun.

Peter Carter, from Outwell, near Downham Market, filled the barrel of the weapon, dating back to the 1800s, with gunpowder, and set it off in Wicken Fen, near Ely, as part of a National Trust fenman experience day.

In a rare demonstration of the craft, the 44-year-old left out the lethal nails and tacks which would traditionally have filled the barrels and killed up to 70 roosting ducks in one explosion.

The power of the shot would have kicked the fisherman in his punt back 20ft.

Although no longer a common practice today, even 30 years ago it was the livelihood of many fishermen.

"This is the only one I know of around that is working", said Mr Carter. "Many of them are in museums. I am the only insane one who sticks my head near it.

"They would do eel catching in the summer and wildfowling in the winter. The idea was to go out when the ducks were still roosting.

"If the gun went wrong and it blew up in your face, then it would kill you. There is an inch think barrel and it is cast iron."

Mr Carter still fishes eels but is keen to educate people about the life of a fenman and does talks and demonstrations in local schools.

He said: "The punt was the family car. They used to go to church in it and they all used to go and get the shopping in it.

"The old fen blokes never talked about eel catching. Eel catchers did not want others to know about what they were doing. It was all very secretive.

"I imagine they are up there now telling me I've done it all wrong. But I am trying to keep it all going. A lot of people do not know that we are still doing it. They thought it had all gone.

"I've never had anybody saying that because eel stocks are low I shouldn't be doing it. It is the fenland's history. The eel was fisherman's gold."

Chris Soans, property manager at Wicken Fen nature reserve, said: "It brings the social history alive. It was a way of life for a lot of people but it is so removed from what people do today.

"I think people have had a great time today. It's the fact that it's an almost completely unique experience. Pete is the only one around that's doing it. It is a unique opportunity to relive that history."

During the Fenman's Day a group of around 12 adults spent the day with Mr Carter. They heard about his family history and how they all lived off the fens.

They went to check Mr Carter's eel nets before having a "Fen Docky" - named because their pay would have been docked during their lunch break. They were also taught how to weave nets.

"Only one person was successful, but the others had a laugh trying," said Mr Carter.

The group also skinned, fried and ate the eels they had caught.

Joan Hentall, from Hatfield in Hertfordshire, who brought her husband Ralph to the Fenman's Day for his birthday, said: "I've learnt how hard it was. I had a go at making the nets and it was hard.

"It is a dying art, that's for sure. I do not suppose there are many eel catchers around now.

"You try and pass the craft on to the young people now, but a lot of them want instant everything."

The Welney Wetland Centre has a restored punt gun on display in the visitor centre. It was owned by the first manager of the Welney refuge, Josh Scott, and loaned to them by his grandson, Paul.


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