Saluting a much-loved Norfolk naturalist

Bedtime afloat. Arthur Patterson, writing as John Knowlittle, prepares for a rest during his epic j

Bedtime afloat. Arthur Patterson, writing as John Knowlittle, prepares for a rest during his epic journey Through Broadland on a Breydon Punt - Credit: Archant

Despite the surname reeking blatantly of nautical adventure, I'm a poor sailor. A bumpy ride on Cromer lifeboat in the early 1990s convinced me I would still rather read about Treasure Island than visit it.

With a less-than-sympathetic Richard Davies at the helm, I was subjected to a deluge of "lily-livered landlubber!" jibes as the craft - and my entire nervous system - lurched up and down. We were too far out for me to paddle back.

Perhaps my upbringing in the middle of agricultural Norfolk in an era long before swimming pools came into rural fashion is at the heart of a lingering unease on and in water. Living on the coast for over three decades has done little to tempt me to take the plunge.

I have far too much respect for an old adage that the day a man buys a boat is the second happiest day of his life. The happiest day, of course, is the day he sells it.

For all this scepticism about life on the ocean waves, I do drop anchor regularly at this time of year in literary pools stirred by celebrated Norfolk naturalist Arthur Henry Patterson, widely known and lauded as John Knowlittle.

It's impossible to go anywhere near Breydon Water, Great Yarmouth or the Broads in general without giving the old boy a hearty holler. He died in 1935 but his books are still eagerly read and constantly sought after.

Wildfowlers and Poachers, first published 90 years ago as he reflected on half-a-century along Norfolk's east coast, catches the smell of salt flats, the sight of vast, vaulting skies, clouds of wildfowl and the bustling self-absorbed village life of the late Victorian period.

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Rough but endearing characters abound, most of them engaged in a ceaseless warfare between gunners nabbing rare birds to sell to collectors and "The Watcher", first warden appointed when the Close Seasons Act came into force.

Little Pintail Thomas, for example, roamed the marshes for avocets or spoonbills but returned from each foray apparently empty-handed. Then the little rascal would collect Mrs Pintail from the Bowling Green Inn, row her upstream for a spot of fresh air and then back again under the eye of "The Watcher".

However, on that return journey the inside of her petticoats would be laden with Pintail's feathered spoils. Just to keep the cold out, presumably.

Patterson used his gloriously self-effacing pseudonym of John Knowlittle when he passed Through Broadland in a Breydon Punt. These adventures afloat may be related in rather flowery fashion, especially when he breaks into romantic verse or bumps into old friends of similar tastes.

Nevertheless, they remain a potent evocation of time and place with a suitable fanfare of an introduction from George Christopher Davies, dubbed " the man who found the Broads".

Patterson also left an impressive mark as dialect writer with a highly individual style and twinkling sense of humour. He contributed Melinda Twaddle's Notions on a weekly basis to the Yarmouth Mercury from 1893 until 1931.

This long-serving record inspired several others towards regular columns for their local newspapers. As with his books, he illustrated articles with sketches in pen and ink.

Born in a humble Yarmouth Row, he had a variety of jobs including zookeeper, relief postman, taxidermist and sewing machine salesman before taking the role of truant officer. He won countless youngsters over with stories of birds and animals.

Just a few months before his death in 1935, he was elected an Associate of the Linnaean Society of London. The Duchess of Bedford, who had put his name forward for the honour in 1906, wrote in her letter of congratulation: "It is rather a pity they wait quite so long to give these awards as they would be more appreciated when one is a little younger".

A young Ted Ellis, destined to become the People's Naturalist in Norfolk during the second half of the 20th century, was Arthur's keenest disciple and typed Wildfowlers and Poachers at his dictation from a rough manuscript.

Ted recalled his old hero's advice to aspiring writers: "Start writing and what is in your mind will flow out with the ink, like a spring out of the ground; be sparing with adjectives and keep something in the locker for another time".

The Patterson salute for his star pupil: "He hath eyes of a falcon and the optimism of a Sancho Panza". Naturally.