“this world is too abrasive for sensitive people”
This post is to remember and celebrate the life and times of Martin Gilbert who died 10 years ago today (updated 2020) written by just a few of his many friends.
Martin Gilbert Remembered
I can’t really remember when I first came across Martin (‘Gilly’) Gilbert? I would guess it was at the local North Cheshire RSPB members group led by our field officers Doug Percival and Don Weedon. Then a group of young birding talents like Roy Taylor Jnr, Peter Brash, Paul Derbyshire and Martin Garner were chomping at the bit to taste the delights of a prosperous birding scene, a collective group of imaginations ignited by grips, ticks and birding flicks.
Martin Gilbert was brought up in the industrial area of Weston Point, Runcorn in north-west Cheshire during his late teens/early twenties. The ‘calling’ of the natural world and the birders playground at Frodsham Marsh beckoning him down the road from which there really was no turning back! It was here that he would spend most of his time birding the ‘bend’ and the various deposit tanks when most were toiling away at work. I should know we were birding there together.
Martin was obviously different from the normal ‘geeky’ anorak that the layman associate with youths who go birdwatching. He had an anarchic and impish approach to normal life not just being laid back but borderline comatose. Later he developed a unique approach to life going the whole hog and experimenting his look with black painted finger nails and a shabby decor which aped his Robert Smith and ‘The Cure’ fascination. Later developing his musical tastes to Captain Beefheart and sharing it with friends. The hippy values he treasured were a generation ago and a place and time which would have embraced him equally but the legacy of that culture lay ahead.
Leaving home at a relatively early age and being unemployed made him grow up faster than he would have liked. He tried different hobbies before he finally found an outlet suited to his real interests and passion. I remember only to well hanging out at his flat talking about birding with his unopened Giro cheques littering the floor If he needed money he would simply cash one in. Then groping around for an excuse to leave while attempting to understand his thoughts on Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism . The pressure of life eventually forced him to seek work and then surprisingly managed to secure employment (albeit briefly) with the developing rangers services locally. The interview was quite an informal affair as Martin attended it with strands of dried grass braided into his hair, the after effects off spending that morning investigating a newly found Willow Warbler nest. Soon after It became apparent to both parties that the job was stifling his freedom and offered him few stimulants so he simply decided that he wouldn’t turn up for it any more and left.
When three Black-winged Stilts arrived one spring day at the marsh two of them settled to breed and Martin was approached by John Armitage (RSPB Northern England officer) to warden the breeding site. He jumped at the chance and with a tent/stove and telescope supplied, he quickly settled and established a focal point for the continuous flow of visiting birders. He adored the adulation and generosity given to him by the public and birders during the period that the Stilts stayed. This for him was character building and was tantamount to the work and hours he and friends put in looking after these birds that would shape the relationship and fondness people have for ‘Frodders’. Unfortunately the Stilts with a combination of heavy rain and inexperienced by the birds resulted in a nest failure. It was during this time that Martin excelled and made many long-lasting friendships with birders from near and far.
The 1980’s twitching scene was gathering pace and the call of far-flung places and bizarre sounding bird names was too much for this Runcorn lad. He embraced the twitching scene and the camaraderie and comradeship that it provided and he flourished with enthusiasm. Martin formed a close bond with a band of Runcorn birders notably Paul Derbyshire, John Gunnery, Peter Brash, Barry Starmer and Richard Stratford They went for everything they could afford to go for and quite a few they couldn’t. I remember one occasion when we met up with him in a Winter Suffolk landscape twitching a Nutcracker there. It was bitterly cold with a heavy ground frost and he stood in the waiting throng wearing a thin jacket, open fronted shirt, inadequate trousers and a pair of open toed sandles. It wasn’t because he couldn’t afford decent shoes it was likely he couldn’t be bothered changing them before they left to twitch the bird. Someone in the crown light up a fag and he managed to borrow their cigarette lighter so that he could ignite the soles of his desert wellie’s to warm his feet up!
This was something that he was to adhere to throughout his life, with casual work involving Mussel picking on Shetland and within sight of the dole office he was ‘signing on’ in. Martin literally took to the Hermit life utilising a variety of cave dwellings (one of which is pictured above) when I last spoke with him it was from a phone box at the Penzance Cricket Pavilion where he was doing some gardening work to pay his way and living in the pavilion scoreboard shed using a car battery for heating and eating. A spell waiting the tables close to Cape May in USA didn’t last long but made up for it by birding there.
We all have dreams of finding or being there at the discovery of a mega rarity. Martin took centre stage on 12th May 1987 when he discovered a pair of Slender-billed Gulls at the observer saturated Cley Marshes. A British tick for virtually every birder in the country. We all chuckled when luminaries of the day were name dropping his name but Martin took it all in his stride and milked every last ounce out of it. A great find and a cracking piece he wrote for ‘Twitching’ magazine (reproduced at the bottom of the post).
It’s always easy when looking back through rose-coloured spectacles on events and people we have had experiences with. But in Martins case the spectacles certainly didn’t blur the vision of his mates, he was an infuriating and frustratingly bloody minded non conformist and a wind up merchant par excellence! However, he was generous of mind and an inspiration often ploughing a lone furrow but enjoying the company of his friends. I could write a whole lot of similar stories and each would eclipse the other but Martin lead a life on his terms and was an intelligent lad (attending Portree University again for a short period) the confines of a routine life were beyond his capabilities but he was an original free spirit.
Martin died in tragic circumstances at the foot of his beloved Aber Falls on Tuesday 13th April 2010 at the young age of 45 and was living at the time in the beautiful setting of Abergwyngregyn in North Wales. He had an inquisitive mind and local to his last address he found plenty to occupy his interest there. Discovering a Slow Worm in a local valley would have had him whooping loudly through the village and disturbing the ‘locals pensioners’. I hadn’t seen him for a few years and often wondered where he had got to. If I had known that he was an hour away then we could have met up and swapped birding tales, who knows?
“Self Proclaimed Guru of Frodsham Marsh”
Although no words could really describe the enigma of the ‘Gilbert’, French pronunciation of course and insisted on by himself. I presume one of the ‘wind-ups’ you refer to (above) is regarding the Red-eyed Vireo we “found” in your name in Abergwyngregyn. It never ceased to amaze us how fast your investigation trail led back to our smoking gun? I have many more stories I could add and some of yours I could embellish further. The truth is it saddens me too much. “The self-proclaimed guru of Frodsham Marsh”, I think that was one of the Git’s statement was it not? He was my far the best birdwatcher I have ever met without binoculars. I remember he had a pair of binoculars that hindered rather than helped. He eventually threw them into Holyhead harbour, Anglesey in front of some scuba divers and asked them to retrieve them for him and when he eventually got them back he continued to use them. Some would see this as mad, Martin saw it as non attachment. I remember the last thing he said to me: “this world is too abrasive for sensitive people”.
The Man’s an Exclamation Mark!
I was first introduced to Martin ‘Gilly’ Gilbert at a local RSPB meeting in April’85. I found him a bit unruly, quite scruffy but rather good fun. After a few excursions into various local birding areas we hatched a plan to travel to Shetland to see the ‘Albert Ross’ the Albatross and a Snowy Owls, all sounded great but there was one major hurdle! I was a 16 years old boy, who had just left school and my parents didn’t think hitching the 700 miles to Aberdeen and back was the best career plan ever! I managed to persuade them on the basis that I would be with this older, more mature chap who would no doubt go to any length to protect my well-being, they agreed and a date was set. My father offered to take us both up to the motorway services near Preston to get an early start and we arranged to meet near Runcorn railway station at 0700 hrs. to start our journey north.
The 0700 hrs rendezvous quickly came and went and that’s when my alarm bells started to ring – No Gilly! A quick phone call to his landlady’s landline (no mobiles then of course) and a sleepy Martin came to the phone. “5 minutes and I’ll be ready” he said. Five minutes I thought! It had taken me at least 3 hours of packing and unpacking my enormous rucksack before I was happy. A rather awkward 15 minutes past as my father ran a series of questions past me and insisted on pointing out that this was not the best start to our plans and my hitching career. Eventually ‘Gilly’ appeared, carrying only a satchel containing a Book of Poetry, a Blanket, a Post Office Account Book and his Bins – and that was it! Oh, and wearing wellies… in June! And I could barely lift my bag up to get it on my back. This was perhaps the first lesson I learnt from my mate Martin, – to travel light.
The hitch north went very well and we made it up to the ferry terminal in record time, the trip almost came to a grinding halt when the ticket officer refused our request for two half-fares for the ferry (I was 16 and Gilly 19!) Not only were we unaccompanied by an adult, we needed to be under 14 to qualify for the fare reduction, bugger!! We decided to spend an extra night in the Aberdeen and try our Plan B tomorrow. This would be going for an adult and child rate, a saving to our considerable funds (about £20 each and a week extra on Shetland). We ended up spending the night in a beach shelter with a group of drunks, the cider flowed and all was well – until a fight nearly broke out over the alleged ownership of one of the benches. We scarpered and made it onto the ferry for the 14 hour crossing to Lerwick.
Shetland did not disappoint with the owl and albatross falling on our lists on the first full day, followed by several new birds including White-billed Diver, Red-necked Phalarope and Storm Petrels. Martin had a fit of ticking frenzy as it was his first trip north of the border The extended views of an Otter sunbathing on Fetlar are still as vivid today as they were in 1985. We had 18 days on Shetland for about £90, including the ferry – Bargain! This was largely made possible by the lovely people of Shetland frequently feeding and accommodating us after hearing our tales of woe and poverty-stricken adventure – one family in North Roe even wheeled a neighbour’s spare bed down the street for us and we spent a night in the front room, along with several abandoned lambs that needed regular feeding. Another night was spent in a house of an aircraft mechanic, who fed us on locally caught trout, loads of beer and a lift down to Lerwick the next day, we missed out on the offer of a free flight around Unst later in the week as we had to leave.
We eventually headed south across Yell and down towards Sumburgh Head but never quite made it as a Ring-necked Duck was found up on Unst and Gilly wanted to twitch it. I had seen one before so wasn’t that interested, I suggested we split up for a few days. There was one little problem and that was we had only one return ticket for the ferry with both our names on it. I had carried it throughout as Gilly didn’t want the responsibility, at least initially! When I refused to hand it over things got quite heated and all manner of threats were issued both ways, such is the way with adolescent, ego saturated youth! We parted company on the dockside in Aberdeen a few days later and I made the long hitch south alone! I had 50p in my pocket, no map and no pen or paper to write hitching signs on – the first rule of twitching are there are no rules to twitching – be prepared for the unexpected. This was the first of many, many disputes that we would have over the next 25 years and yet we remained good friends until Martin’s untimely departure in 2010.
Most birders who met him have their own ‘Gilly ‘stories and there a few that fail to bring a smile to people’s faces, like the time he spontaneously hitched to Scilly after a mate (Bill Morton) lent him a £10 (a lot of my dole money then and I’m still waiting for it back! Bill), he stayed on Scilly for two weeks on 50p after getting a half-fare on the boat (in 1987 a half fare was £9.50), he survived by sleeping rough, eating blackberries and supplementing his diet by mine-sweeping uneaten food on discarded plates in the Porthcressa with the odd bit of shoplifting (tut tut you might say – these were the Thatcher years you know!), he saw all the rarities that I saw and probably a few more – all for 50p. Another lesson learnt – just get to where the birds are and worry about the finer detail later. In more recent times I returned to my North Wales home in March’09 from a winter trip to Thailand to discover he had been living in my local bird hide for a week, he didn’t know I was away and had lost my phone number. The temperature fell to below -9 that week!
Martin is still very much missed by his friends and will be an inspiration to many for some time to come, I still occasionally sacrifice a portion of a pint / shot of whisky in his honour – known as ‘Gilly’s bit’ . From an occasion when making some bold statement he poured his share of a beer on the floor, stating “it was mine to do with as I please, as it belonged to him”. Another lesson, although I draw the line by setting fire to my last fiver to prove the unimportance of money! I for one expect whatever it is he’s doing in his next life (he was a practising Buddhist), he will be winding someone up or making them laugh or probably both.
“Martin you’re a Kultz!”
Two fond memories spring to mind of birding with Martin Gilbert. On one occasion we were heading on a long twitch to the West Country Devon/Cornwall and I arranged to pick Martin up at around midnight. I arrived at Weston Road, Runcorn near his flat to find he’d been waiting on the roadside for the previous four hours he was so excited he didn’t want to miss his lift. Such child-like enthusiasm is in all of us it was just liberating to hear Martin express it more than most. In 1986 we spent a much longer time together over a three-week period at the migration hot spot of Point Pelee, Canada with Bill and Ian Igglesden. For all four of us it was our first foreign birding and a trip of our dreams. Camping outside of Leamington, Ontario and sleeping in tiny two-men pup tents amidst plush trailers and Winnebago’s in freezing conditions. Spending each morning walking and hitch-hiking into the provisional park for the Spring migration. We were temporally adopted by the ex-pat Brits in the town and they offered us an endless supply of lifts and evening dinners. One lift we were eager to take was those offered by Tom Hince and Alan Wormington at the prime of Pelee birding and a good source of local rarities. Martin nearly put an end to all that when he spilled a carton of chocolate milk on Alan’s prized MG midget car seat and left it in the warmth of a Canadian summer! It soon turned sour and the smell crept into every crevasse of the car upholstery. When Alan found out what Martin had done he just called him a ‘Klutz’ and after that incident we did borrow that name for him occasionally! That trip was one of the most memorable and significant travel journeys in my life and Martin’s company and endless enthusiasm was very much a part of it. I was shocked and saddened to hear of his death three years ago leaving fond memories.
Gilly in Cape May and Scilly:
Jonathan wrote: “Wonderful stuff, I was almost in tears. I love the Cape May one where the proprietor of a restaurant found him living in staff quarters for free so he gave him a job washing up. Gilly asked if he could eat first from the buffet as,all staff were allowed. The boss agreed. Gilly piled his plate up to the maximum possible, took ages to eat everything, got up, washed his plate and then said “I quit” and walked out.”
Jonathan wrote: “I remember finding him on St Mary’s in 97 ‘looking’ for the Yellowthroat by lying in the middle of the road looking straight up at the sky. He was sleeping rough in Cearreg Du Gardens and his mission was to find the plug on St Mary’s and pull it out to ensure the island would sink. I rented a flat for a second week for myself, ‘Pod’, Lee Amery, Laurence and unofficially Gilly who we invited to stay and looked after him for the week, buying him food and Guinness in the evenings between us and going stargazing up by the hospital after pub hours when drunk as skunks. Looking back it’s still one of my favourite weeks on Scilly,
Anyone for Cricket?
Just read the lovely tributes to a lovely person-very well done.
Gill, Paul and I will never forget those few weeks Martin wardened the Stilts. The remarkable patience he showed trying to ‘waterproof’ his overcoat with candle fat and his indifference when it didn’t work. Also the impromptu game of cricket on the track along No 5. Happy days with a remarkable character.
A Personal Poem
Maybe Martin became a marten, a vole or a three-toed sloth,
Maybe he’s in the ethea and gets out quite a lot
Could it be he’s really me and I ate him for my tea?
I’m so surprised he died you see and that Aber was his exit,
Forever that name will mean his name, but words can ne’er reveal,
How a likely lad like Martin Gilbert came with so much zeal.
I’d of willingly let him tend my light born whist I was away,
and by a stream or a babbling brook they’d play till dark of day,
What’s good comes from a good place. You came from a good place.
If your out there omnipotent and scrambling this you old sly dog,
Be warmed to hear we have no fear of joining you through the fog,
Though many of year will pass before one of us raises a glass.
Gareth Walker (college friend).
I’d say ‘Really?’ and he’d say ‘Nah’
I’ve just heard this sad news, I haven’t seen Martin for a good 13 years, I always thought that our paths would cross randomly again like they did when I was on holiday in Cornwall in 2002.
I met Martin in Chester around 1998, he was always a teller of tall tales and happily admitted so too. He used to spin a yarn and just when he had my full attention, I’d say ‘Really?’ and he’d say ‘Nah’
I had some wonderful days with Martin mooching around Chester, people watching, a spot of naked river swimming, we even broke into the zoo a couple of times too.
I also spent many an evening with Martin sitting around camp fires in Hawarden woods, he was the perfect companion for such adventures.
We lost touch for a few years and then in August 2002 i bumped into him in a park in Penzance, we spent the day together and he showed me around Penzance, introduced me to a traveler’s site and I met some amazing people.
I always thought our paths would cross again and we would simply pick up where we left off, it makes me very sad to know that will never happen, but I feel blessed to have known such an amazing character.
The First Twitchable Slender-billed Gulls Since 1971 by Martin Gilbert
Wilsons Phalarope at Cley provided the inspiration to hitch from Cheshire to North Norfolk for a week of intensive birding. my lift into Cley was with Norwich birder Barrie Cooper, and it was with him that I entered Teal Hide on the Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust reserve of Cley marshes at about 4.30 pm. on 12th May 1987. a brief scan located this elegant wader which warranted a thorough grilling.
I then decided to systematically search Pat’s pool, casually focusing my ‘scope’ on the first two white blurs I came across. It took about 15 seconds before I realized that I was looking at two quite unfamiliar gulls. a process of elimination ensued but nothing plausible fitted the bill: the name Slender-billed Gull skulked patiently in my mind. Excitement began to grip me and it became an effort to concentrate. An adult Black-headed Gull joined the two preening birds and excellent comparisons were made. The birds were obviously adults due to the pure white tail and pearly grey wing coverts which were a shade lighter than the accompanying Black-headed Gull. They had long, sleek almost tern-like blood-red bills, unblemished white heads, with small beady, apparently dark eyes giving them bland expressions. Their white underparts were suffused with a most apparent light pink.
After about five minutes, I turned towards Barrie and put him on the birds., tentatively suggesting Slender-billed Gull but still finding it very hard to believe, particularly as two individuals were involved. Barrie was very confident , but I still didn’t have the conviction to alert everyone. I informed the elderly couple seated to the right of me, and after a quick glance they continued to search for Curlew Sandpipers. At this point I began to ‘buzz’ with pleasure and made the decision to race around the two nearby hides with the news. Only two people were present , however, and they were not particularly interested so I returned to the Teal Hide to the comforting ‘click’ of Barrie’s camera. Suggesting to Barrie that Nancy’s must be informed but not wanting to leave., I tossed a £1 coin (the occasion warranted no less) and cruelly lost. Still wishing to remain. I looked pleadingly at the elderly couple on my right: they cracked and left immediately to take the news to Bernard Bishop, the warden.
Whilst waiting for the crowds to arrive and willing the birds to stay, Barrie and I settled down to enjoy these elegant, long-necked southern wanderers they fed ankle-deep in water, pecking delicately from the surface. The difference in size between the two birds was astounding, the smaller one being about the size of a Black-headed Gull whilst the other was 15% larger.
Typically, before anyone came the birds took flight revealing their long pale wings and noticeable contrast between sharp red bill and clean white head. The first people now began to arrive and carefully quiz me. After a brief search from Avocet Hide, where a single person had a second’s view of one bird in flight, we raced to the cars and just in time to the two birds fly towards us and land immediately in front of the hide. As the crowd swelled and admiring comments were flung around I was filled with relief. Fortunately this superb pair of adult summer-plumaged Slender-billed Gulls remained in the area for the next three days giving many people such pleasure.
Reproduced here by kind permission of the Birding World team.
Martin (right) with Ian Igglesden and Bill Morton at Niagara Falls on the way to Point Pelee, 1986.
Thanks to Steve Barber, Paul Derbyshire, Martin Garner, WSM for use of their images.
If you’ve got a story and photographs of Martin and you would like to share it with Martin’s birding buddies please forward and I’ll try to fit them in this post.