BB (Denys Watkins-Pitchford) - the life and art of

The treasured man himself, who brought joy to so many with his inimitable sporting writing and artwo

The treasured man himself, who brought joy to so many with his inimitable sporting writing and artwork - Credit: Archant

Many readers will have enjoyed the writings and artwork of ‘BB’ (or rather, Denys Watkins-Pitchford). Tony Jackson pays homage to one of the finest sporting writers of the last century

Under normal conditions, I should, I suppose, be writing about the shooting season, but the exigencies of publication and the pandemic ensure that I am well ahead of the days of driven and walked-up pheasants, of hedge-topping partridges and sky-scraping duck. No, instead let me recall my memories of one of the finest from shooting history, who embodied the very best elements of sportsman and naturalist, writer and artist!

Denys Watkins-Pitchford, who wrote under the nom de plume ‘BB’, has left us a legacy of inspired rural and sporting writing, of outstanding art and, perhaps best of all, the ability to conjure up for the reader the very essence of the rural scene, be it a rough shooting stroll in search of a cock pheasant or, his greatest love, an annual visit to Scotland in pursuit of the grey goose.

In an earlier life, when I worked for Shooting Times, one of my tasks was to deal with articles submitted by ‘BB’, each accompanied by an exquisite scraperboard illustration. They were indeed outstanding, for Denys was an accomplished artist in several mediums, including oil. However, to my lasting shame, when I returned from the printers, I discarded each drawing without giving it a second thought! It was crass beyond measure!

Denys was indeed a very rounded man. A fine artist, he was also a brilliant, evocative writer and anyone who has enjoyed, among others, Dark Estuary, Tide’s Ending, Confessions of a Carp Fisher and Wild Lone will have begun to understand something of the brilliance of the man. If you have a love of shooting, and wildfowling in particular, you cannot fail to have been inspired by the two books devoted to wildfowling and the tideline, while his works on coarse fishing and hunting are in a league of their own.

Yet there was another side to BB. Did he believe in gnomes, fairies or little people who live in a world of which we have no knowledge? Read The Little Grey Men stories and you will encounter another realm, one conjured up by a man who managed to retain a childlike ability to more than half believe in a magical landscape inhabited by animals and a race of tiny folk. Indeed, Denys swore that as a four-year-old, sharing a nursery with his twin brother Roger, he saw a diminutive ‘being’. It was early evening and still light when, suddenly, lying in his bed he saw a tiny figure with a round, very red, bearded face the size of a small crab apple, and wearing a hat. The creature, whatever it was, swiftly bobbed down under his brother’s bed to be seen no more! He never forgot the little gnome and it became the inspiration for later writing.

The key to ‘BB’ was his extraordinary ability not only to combine and enjoy so many rural interests, but the ability to convey their very essence to the reader. An enthusiastic and knowledgeable naturalist, a carp fisherman, a wildfowler, a rough shooter and both a brilliant artist and writer, it was hardly surprising that in 1989 he was appointed MBE in recognition of his literary work and contribution to conservation.

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Denys had impeccable manners and was incredibly kind, virtues which were not tainted by the loss of his wife or early death of his little son Robin. He and his daughter Angela lived in a handsome cottage where a tame bullfinch sang from its cage and carp swam in a garden pond. It was a haven of peace and tranquility, reflecting the very essence of the man. There was also in the garden a wooden framework enclosing planted sallows (small willows), and in which were reared, from eggs, purple emperor butterflies, his pride and joy. These beautiful creatures, when adult, were then released into extensive woodland hard by Denys’s home in Northampton.

So it was that one day I drove north to visit Denys, a visit I was to repeat on several occasions. The cottage, a former toll house, was called The Round House. It was a delightful haven of kindness and simplicity. Denys could not have been more welcoming to a stranger, for until then we had only communicated by pen. However, he knew of my interest in butterflies so I was naturally enthralled when he offered me a purple emperor caterpillar. By good fortune, I had a small sallow planted in the garden at home and, on returning south, netted the green ‘BB’ caterpillar on the sallow and hoped for the best. By good fortune, the caterpillar hibernated on a pad of silk to over-winter and, in the spring, mutated into a pale green chrysalis which resembled a sallow leaf. From this, there was to emerge a female purple emperor.

If you have not enjoyed the good fortune to encounter the writings of ‘BB’ and would like to know more of this remarkable man who, in my opinion, was the most outstanding sporting author of the last century, then let me point you towards a book which was published in 2010. Entitled BB, A Symposium: A life in words, it was compiled and edited by a ‘BB’ enthusiast, Bryan Holden, under his Roseworld Productions Ltd company, and is packed with photos and illustrations. This superb work contains vivid contributions from a score of contributors who had known, met and loved the man.

For further information on the book ‘BB A Symposium – A life in words’, contact Bryan Holden on 0121 704 1002/07919 2122312