Obituary: Johnny Kingdom
The gravedigger, poacher and wildlife photographer died on September 6th, aged 79
THE hints were all around Johnny Kingdom, if he gave it thought. Whenever he dug a grave, there was always a robin about. When he took a break, laying down his spade, pick and shovel, he liked to watch the ivy-clad churchyard walls where the blackbirds nested and where snails took shelter in the heat of the day. He even got grudgingly fond of the old cock pheasant who kept jumping in his graves and, if he hid behind the headstones, would perch on the edge as if to say, “Where’re you to then?”
Truth to say he was watching wildlife long before a friend put an 8mm videocamera into his hand and encouraged him to use it, after a tree-felling accident in 1971 that nearly did for him and left his mind in pieces for some time. His home-made nature films brought him fame all over the country and led to several series on TV, as well as books, but he remained the man he always had been, whose chief enjoyment (once he was past the girl-chasing-motorbike-crashing-cider-soaking years) was to stay in one place, and watch.
His place was Exmoor, a land of rolling heather hills and steep coombes in north Devon. The sweetest place on Earth. The water was like gin there; in spring the woods were white with snowdrops, then yellow with wild daffodils. You wouldn’t have a prettier scene. Except for National Service in Hong Kong, he never left it. He was born, the only boy in a family of five girls, in High Bray, and moved about 11 miles to live in Bishop’s Nympton, in a council house. There he starred in the darts and football teams and was a fixture at the Bish Mill pub over the hill. If his wife Julie made him take holidays he spent them wishing he was home, with a lovely slice of bread and syrup and the moor outside.
As for watching, he was a past master at that, patiently observing and easing himself closer and closer to a creature. From boyhood he had learned how to creep up on wildlife, mostly to catch it for the family table. He knew how to tickle trout, slowly stroking their cold smooth bellies and sides before hooking a finger under a gill to pull them in; he could camouflage himself under trees, waiting to spear salmon with his dung pick, or creep to kill a deer. So he could also lie on his belly for four hours with freezing feet to film fox cubs, or stoats playing. He would crawl forward, a fair old crawl at times, making sure he was downwind and that nothing, whether his chubby cheeks or his lens rim, was shining up to give him away. At some point he might just cast in (fishing parlance), to see if he could pick up something. Then he shot, not with a bullet, hauling the bloodied bodies home in the van, but by tagging a button to set the tape going: his favourite red deer, such beautiful fine beasts, coming out of a wooded cleave through the mist, or a rare mistle thrush pitching on rowan berries right in his front garden.
He kept trying to get closer. When he was not gravedigging (sometimes stripping off to reveal his tattoos), he was usually in green camouflage, with only his cameras, bigger and heavier over the years, giving him away. Even the feathers in his hat, buzzard’s and pheasant’s, served a purpose to lose him in the heather. He once got three feet away from an adder in the brambles, which yawned its pink mouth fit to swallow him.
South Molton on Thursdays
Several hides were built, most of them on his very own 52-acre woodland patch of Exmoor. One was made from a fallen-down pylon, 29 feet high; from this he filmed badgers running along an assault course he had built for them or eating Julie’s badger cake, made of peanuts, Sugar Puffs and fat. Another hide, with armchairs in it (where he once served cream tea) was especially for watching nesting boxes via a computer. Here he broke his record for birds in a box, 18 wrens all piling in. Yet another hide, made of wooden boxes yoked on his shoulders with a camouflage tent on top, was meant to float; from this he filmed 50 dunlin just beside him, out on the estuary, until the blasted thing sank.
All this made great TV, when his Devon burr and twinkling smile were added to the scenery and the animals. If he could have filmed the legendary Beast of Exmoor, which Julie had seen and he had certainly heard, it would have been even better. But it seemed a funny sort of fame. Everything started very suddenly, when he appeared in a programme called “The Secret of Happiness” in 1993, and his home-made DVDs flew out in hundreds from his front room; and then it passed over until the next spurt, in 2006-15. In the interval he went on with life as usual, selling his DVDs at local markets (especially at South Molton on Thursdays), showing them in village halls, and digging graves.
He had other jobs, including setting explosive charges in quarries and helping on farms, but gravedigging was something both his father and grandfather had done. As a small boy he went along to light their night work with a tilley lamp, shivering at ghost stories and terrified by the skull his father thrust up once on his fork. It got to him sometimes; he had buried friends, and his parents. But he learned to look death square in the eye. Under the church tower at Bishop’s Nympton in 2006, where the ground was always hard, he had dug a last grave, his own, filling in with soft earth to make a nice easy job.
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