Wednesday 1 June 2016

Sir Peter Scott, A Lighthouse and a Snow Goose

Let me tell you the tale of how I ended up staying the night with a wonderful couple, Sue and Doug Hilton, in the bedroom of Sir Peter Scott.

Last year I found out one evening that after a day birding at Cliffe Pools and Northwood Hill, both RSPB reserves, and whilst being on a tour of all the RSPB and WWT nature reserves, I had missed three RSPB reserves that were back at Cliffe.
I retraced my tracks and found them all and decided that as a reward I would have a full English breakfast in a cafe I had seen the day before located beside a huge chalk pit.
On entering the esptablishment I noticed one of my favourite books, Paul Gallico's Snow Goose, on a top shelf. It was the special edition illustrated by Sir Peter Scott's beautifully painted plates. Back in the day when I was a Primary school teacher I used to read this story to the children. A very special, beautiful and heart-rending tale, the story tells of an disfigured artist, Rhayader living alone in a lighthouse far out on a lonely saltmarsh in Essex.
(interesting side story to this portrait taken from the book . . . )
A young girl, Frith, scared because of village gossip, overcomes her fear and takes an injured bird to him, a snow goose. Rhadayer heals the poor lost Princess and a friendship grows between the girl and man but only when the snow goose is present. As soon as the snow goose returns to the North Lands, the girl leaves.
The story develops until one day Rhayader goes to help rescue the British soldiers on the beach at Dunkirk.

The Wildfowl & wetland Trust are re-issuing the book with the same artwork by Sir Peter later in the year and I urge you all to get in touch with the WWT and buy a copy.
The fundrasing by the WWT in order to reissue was very successful and from their webpage detailing this is the following text:

The Snow Goose
A novella no thicker than a love letter, in which every sentence seems to shiver with the salt-laden chill of the desolate landscape in which it is set.
It is a love story between an uneducated village girl who comes to visit the hunchback outcast artist in his lighthouse bearing a wounded snow goose for him to heal is so well-known, perhaps because of its fable-like quality. The silence and growing sympathy of the first two-thirds of the novella, broken only by the cries of the wild birds, is in stark contrast to the noisy clamour of the conclusion, related entirely in dialogue between soldiers in the pub and officers in their club, who witnessed the man in his little boat and his heroic attempts to rescue the stranded men from the Dunkirk beaches.
It has been hugely influential to work over the years and we believe it still has the power to inspire today:• Michael Morpurgo cites it as an influence on War Horse• The inspiration for William Fiennes’ The Snow Geese• Lisa Allardice’s Guardian Winter Reads 2011 - “It may not be free from sentimentality, but this sad, sweet tale has an elemental power that makes it soar”
Peter Scott
Peter Scott was the father of modern conservation founding WWF, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species & WWT, whose 70th anniversary is this year. 
Not only did he illustrate the best selling 1946 edition, but he also inspired the book itself as an Olympic medallist in sailing who kept a wildfowl collection at his lighthouse before the war and served at sea during it.

My breakfast ordered, I chatted with the ladies behind the counter and asked why the book was on the shelf. They explained that the owner of the cafe and lake ran a nature conservation charity called the Snow Goose Trust. They phoned the owner, Doug Hilton and despite being very busy and needing to get to the House of Commons to lobby the MP Eric Pickles over a local environmental issue, he came and sat with me for over an hour telling me the story of why The Snow Goose.

Doug told me the whole story of how Sir Peter met Paul Gallico and invited him to stay at a lighthouse, a lighthouse far out on a lonely saltmarsh.

Here the two collaborated on the Snow Goose story and book. Doug embellished the story with many details of a love for an American ice skater unrequited and made the links between the story of Rhayader and the life of Sir Peter in the lighthouse; artist, wildlife lover and WW2 hero.

Back in 2010 Doug had bought a lighthouse far out on a saltmarsh in Lincolnshire, the home of a certain Sir Peter Scott from 1933 to 1939.
Then Doug repeated Sir Peter's invitation to Paul Gallico by inviting me to stay at the lighthouse.

So here I was, over a year later, cycling up the long lane towards the ex-home of my childhood hero.

Into the beautiful home that Doug and Sue, his wife are carefully and painstakingly restoring to former glory. Into the lighthouse with dining table in the bottom floor room and misshapen door and stairway to access the upper rooms. Up the first flight of stairs and into Sir Peter's bedroom.
Up a steeper set of steps and into another empty room and up an almost vertical set of steps and into the light room.

Outside where a long pool with attendant wildfowl could have been taken from Slimbridge, the HQ of the WWT, itself. A bridge over the lake is modelled on a Monet picture and the one end landscaped to take on the southern features of The Wash.
Red-breasted geese, a small group of pink-footed geese showing still the effects of the guns that brought them to this sanctuary and …..

snow geese.

An evening with Doug and Sue flies by as conversation about aspirations for not only the lighthouse, with a planned visitor's centre about to be built but also of Doug's conviction to help nature in practical ways through future housing development planning laws, is one of those wonderful experiences where one could listen forever and wonder at the energy and commitment.
To bed and where else could I sleep but on the first floor of the lighthouse, Sir Peter's old bedroom.

The morning tour and photographs and goodbyes. I cycle off towards the next bird but stop after just a few hundred yards. There is a pair of barnacle geese beside the river and with them . . . a snow goose.


  1. I've a copy of that book I picked up many years ago in a second hand bookshop.
    It is indeed a beautiful story & beautifully illustrated.

    Keep up the good work, fate works mysteriously & meeting the new owners & staying in his very room sounds almost fated. :)

    1. Sorry I haven't seen your comment in the intervening years. Fated indeed, a magic encounter. All the best, Gary


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