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Before the Avocets

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Robert Brinkley
Charles Brinkley
The Fiske Family



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Many who visit Havergate Island in the River Ore, which is now owned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, must wonder, as they pass the ruins of the cottage near the landing place, who lived there and what life was like long before the Avocets came. Richard Cobbold wrote of its association with the smuggling fraternity in his book "Margaret Catchpole". I can only write about the period known to my father, the late Charles Brinkley, who spent part of his young life there at the turn of the last century.

My grandparents, Robert and Elizabeth Brinkley, moved from Orford to the island when my father was a fisherman on a cod smack. His elder brother and sisters were working away from home at that time which left only his eight-year-old brother William with his parents. In between fishing trips he helped his father with the work on the island which consisted of looking after the stock sent each year from Mr. Fiske of Bramford, supervising the grazing, cleaning drainage ditches, regulating the sluice and looking after the oyster beds in Butley Creek.

To get stock to and from the island they used a flat-bottomed barge with a hinged ramp which was pulled across the river by ropes, the men standing in with the animals and getting kicked and bruised in the process. One of these barges, roofed in, was later used as a shed at Orford Quay.

On landing from the island at the hard near Chantry Point, one of the family had to walk the animals back to their owner's farm near Ipswich. My father recalled one drove of bullocks which, on reaching Kesgrave, charged of at full gallop back to the farm where they had been born, much to the owner's annoyance. He accused father, when he arrived, of running them too hard!

During the summer my grandmother would often take their boat and row down to Orford for supplies of food and paraffin for the lamps. William told me that he felt quite a man when he went with her and could pull an oar. Extra supplies had to he fetched before the winter gales arrived, for the island is treeless and receives the full force of the wind. It is barely protected from the sea by the low peninsular of Orford Beach, a narrow strip of shingle which runs parallel to the river arid coastline to the mouth of the Ore near Shingle Street.

The family were all great beach-combers and this beach was a constant source of supply of driftwood and coal for the kitchen range. This was only part of the salvage from the many ships wrecked on the shoals off this coast.

One wreck my father remembered occurred on a bitter winter's morning. The crew had taken to their lifeboat and had landed at Shingle Street, all except for one man who was washed up on the beach opposite the island, clinging to the remains of the ship's deck-house. He was taken to the Jolly Sailor Inn at Orford by two men of the village who were waiting to see what they could salvage.

During that day the whole beach was strewn with wreckage, empty bottles and full demijohns of what I can only assume was overproof alcohol. By then all the able-bodied men from Orford were there and my father joined them in burying as many of the demijohns as they were able before the coastguards arrived. Father used to say that some must still he there in the shifting shingle as they forgot where many of them had been buried.

Two men died from drinking this spirit neat, but father said that if it was diluted and flavoured with peppermint it was wonderful stuff for keeping out the cold! They nick-named it "Jimmy John"!

Amongst the wreckage was part of the ship's prow with the figure-head of a woman firmly bolted to it. Father returned the next day with tools to remove it but found much to his disgust, a man from the village with an axe who had, to quote father, 'split the owd gal down the middle' to free it from the bolts.

In summer this beach was a great nesting place for plovers and terns and the family collected their eggs to supplement the larder. There were plenty of rabbits and hares on the island, also wild fowl in winter which they shot. From shooting for the pot my Uncle Edward went on to competition rifle shooting and, in later years, won many trophies at Bisley.

They also fished for cod and netted sprats and herring in Hollesley Bay which my grandmother salted and smoked. Loneliness there must have been at times, but boredom never as in addition to all the usual household chores my grandmother baked bread, looked after the chickens, helped in the large vegetable garden, gathered seaweed for manure, made flannel shirts and knitted socks and jerseys. She also had to be able to cope with minor accidents and ailments and even made a healing ointment from a House Leek plant which grew on the roof. Their only source of fresh water was from rain, collected from the cottage roof and run into a tank.

The worst journey that my father ever made from the island was during the time he was home one Christmas from a sailing barge, weatherbound at Harwich. There was heavy snow and ice coming down the river in sheets when he decided to go shooting.
He had an old air-operated shotgun, the air chamber of which was pressurised by a hand pump. As he commenced pumping, for some reason the air blew back into the pump with terrific force, smashing his right hand between the pump handle and the low beam of the kitchen ceiling. His mother dressed it and his father had to row him in their boat to Orford where the carrier took him by pony cart to Ipswich Hospital. After that long, painful journey in bitter weather, his hand had to be amputated.

Later he was fitted with a steel hook in place of his hand. He was then employed by Sir Cuthbert Quilter of Bawdsey Manor (now R.A.F. Bawdsey) as ferryman on the old vehicle chain ferry which ran across the River Deben, and he became a familiar figure to many over the years. This was the start of my family's association with Bawdsey Ferry. I was born at Quay Cottages, Bawdsey, and my brother Charlie carries on the Brinkley ferrying tradition to this day, but that is another story.

To let their father on the island know they were coming home, members of the family would send telegrams. To deliver these the Orford postman walked along the river wall to Chantry Point where there was a signal flag pole. He would hoist a flag to the top of the pole for a telegram, and at half-mast for letters, which were placed in a box for their father or William to row across and collect.
When my father married and lived at Bawdsey Ferry, William was old enough to help his father with the work on the island.

My grandmother died on the island in January 1907 at the age of sixty-six. Grandfather was eighty-four when he died in February 1924. They were both buried at Orford by the beautiful church which overlooks the winding River Ore and Havergate Island.

After his father's death William stayed alone on the island for six months, leaving finally when a Mr. Welham and his housekeeper, Alice Ellis from Orford took over. They only stayed for about two years, after which the cottage remained empty.

The cottage was never lived in again and finally became ruined after a gravel company had used it to house their machinery. With no one to care for the sluice this too fell into decay and the consequent flooding of the grazing land made suitable conditions for the Avocets. These birds had not nested regularly in Britain for over 100 years.

The R.S.P.B. bought the island in 1948 and permits must he obtained from them to land there under the supervision of the warden, Reg Partridge, who lives at Orford.

Every year my husband and I sail into this lovely river and spend a few days beachcombing on Orford Beach. I think of my grandparents; my regret is that I never knew them. We do for pleasure what they had to do in order to live.

Christina I Bayly


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