In the early 1970's a friend and I roamed pretty much the whole of Elmley from Straymarsh Farm out to Spitend, mainly rabbiting in the winter and eel netting in the summer. I can't recall how we came to be able too do this unchecked but we were very familiar with the area from our recently left jobs on the Kent River Authority and were friendly with some of the Gransden family, who were in the process of vacating Elmley after some thirty-odd years of farming there.
Sometime around 1974 whilst down on Spitend emptying eel nets we were surprised to see a person turn up with a wheelbarrow and spade and begin tipping barrowloads of mud into a ditch close to Wellmarsh counterwall. Curious, we wandered over to him and introduced ourselves and explained what we were about and were even more surprised to find out that the RSPB had leased the whole of Spitend to create a new bird reserve. Our man turned out to be Peter Makepeace, the new Warden of the reserve and the story of how we went on to help him start to create what is now The Flood has been told before on The Forum so I won't repeat that. Meantime Peter was perfectly OK for us to carry on with our two seasonal activities, eventually for the whole time that he wardened there, and some winter mornings even came down to Windmill Creek and spent a morning rabbiting with us. The only thing that changed as the reserve began to take shape and attract visitors was that we had to carry out the rabbiting before visitors began to appear and our eeling by then had mostly moved on to other parts of Elmley.
And what of Peter Makepeace, well he could be a little short-tempered and from what I've heard since, he wasn't everybodies cup of tea, but I liked him and I became quite friendly with him and his wife. I recall one day down at Spitend witnessing him break the shotgun of a mis-behaving shooter over his knee and he took on hero status then - how I'd love to be able to do that on the seawall these days!
He was an ex-carpenter who prior to Elmley had been working as assistant to the great Herbet Axell at Minsmere and he features in the excellent book at the time, "Minsmere - Portrait of a Bird Reserve." I began to take odd days off from work and wander around with Peter on Elmley and by pointing out birds that until then had been a mystery to me, he re-kindled my lapsed interest in birds and I joined the RSPB and began to start recording birds that I saw.
Peter was a talented artist and sometimes when my wife and I went up there for a meal Peter would be found at his easel, classical music playing, happily painting away. I also recall that in those days the gardens and orchard at Kingshill Farm held numerous plum and greengage trees which habitually had bumper crops and we and some of his other friends, would take away plums by literally crate fulls.
After painting, Peter's other great love was fresh water fishing and a few times, he and his wife took me with them to the fishing lakes at Murston, nr. Sittingbourne and I saw my first Bearded Tits and Great Crested Grebes there with him. A few years later, as the water levels increased and expanded on Spitend, my friend and I whilst netting a particually wide and deep ditch there for eels, were surprised to find in our nets several carp and other fresh water fish. We reported the fact to Peter only to find out that we had stumbled on an unofficial fishery that he was creating for himself. We fished that spot no more and as far as I know Peter escaped down there when he could and enjoyed a spot of uninterrupted fishing.
They were both happy and educational days out there then and Peter was instrumental in introducing me to conservation proper and I hope that I with my local knowledge was able to give him something back. However all things good come to and end sometime though and eventually Peter was chuffed to be given the opportunity to Warden at Dungeness, where his mentor Herbet Axill had begun prior to Minsmere. For a while after he moved my wife and I stayed at Boulderwall a few weekends with Peter and his wife and Peter introduced me to that great reserve.
Back at Elmley, Les Street had taken over, attitudes quickly changed and I found it easier to continue my birdwatching at Harty, eventually becoming a Voluntary Warden of the Swale NNR for the last twenty-three years. I have been to Elmley RSPB just twice in that time, when the excellent Bob Gomes was there.