Former Advertiser reporter remembers finding a rifle on the banks of the River Swift

Former Rugby Advertiser reporter John Phillpott discovers a mysterious object hidden on a north Warwickshire riverbank…

Thursday, 29th July 2021, 9:24 am
Updated Thursday, 29th July 2021, 9:26 am
Mystery of the hidden rifle on the banks of the River Swift.

Most children growing up in the 1950s and 60s loved to explore their surroundings.

One of the tragedies of the present age, and its risk-averse mindset, is the fact that youngsters no longer climb trees, make dens, or wander for hours out alone or in groups.

Mind you, there are several perfectly valid reasons why most of the activities for today’s children are co-ordinated by mums and dads.

Cynics call this ‘helicopter’ parenting, but previous generations perhaps need to reflect and maybe not be too harsh in their criticisms.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine the following happening today…

One early spring morning – I would have been aged eight or nine – I was sat underneath a spreading willow on the banks of the River Swift, near my home in Churchover, when I noticed what appeared to be a metallic object sticking out the ground.

Upon further investigation, it proved to be a hexagonal tube of some sort, so I decided to do a bit of excavation in order to find out more.

It didn’t take long to solve the mystery. The soft sand and river silt soon came away to reveal a rifle, minus its stock. The barrel, breech mechanism, trigger and guard were plain to see.

This was a real firearm, not a discarded toy like the pop gun or a ‘pretend’ Winchester repeater like the ones I had back at home. But how did it get there?

Down the years, I have occasionally wondered how it came to be buried on that river bank. The only logical explanation for its presence on that bend of the Swift is that the weapon was part of the loot for some long- forgotten house robbery or burglary.

And for some reason, the thieves had been obliged to hide it, perhaps intending to return at some stage.

But why on a river bank - did this suggest that the criminals had been fleeing across fields, perhaps after raiding a nearby farmhouse?

The other thing that struck me about this weapon was the hexagonal barrel, not spherical, like other rifles or shotguns.

During the 1950s, in common with most villages in the Rugby area, quite a few men owned guns. Seeing someone walk down School Street in Churchover with a ‘broken’ 12-bore or .410 was not unusual and would pass without comment.

Unlike nowadays, with many of the fields now covered in roads, homes, and warehouses, there was a much greater variety of free food around in the form of game birds, hares and rabbits.

Sadly, most of the hares have been poached by ‘lamping’ gangs, some of whom gained easy access to the fields adjoining the Watling Street A5, killed the animals, and then sold them in pubs.

So years ago, when gun ownership was common, the existence of a fancy sporting gun with a hexagonal barrel might certainly have attracted the attention of the criminal fraternity.

Meanwhile, back on that riverbank, I couldn’t believe my luck. To my childish mind, I now owned a real rifle, just like the cowboys and Western outlaws who constantly fired – pun intended – my imagination.

Somehow or other, I managed to sneak it back to Woodbine Cottage without detection via Old Yard and a convenient hole in the garden hedge, and then finally to its hiding place in an old pig sty.

The first task was to clean off the river mud, a process which revealed a pattern of sorts on the breech cover. I then fashioned a crude ‘stock’ from a chunk of willow wood which was attached, not entirely successfully, to the breech and then stapled firmly above the trigger guard.

Unfortunately, my joinery skills were somewhat lacking, and so the resulting article was rendered not all that convincing. And so the rifle remained hidden in the pig sty, occasionally being used for mock shoot-outs in the Old Rectory gardens with Mick Chadwick, or on the Green, where the Cobby Tree provided suitable ‘cover’ for desperados such as ourselves.

Years later, after having left the area to seek my fortune, I discovered that the remains of the rifle had been found by the then owner of former family home Woodbine Cottage.

And perhaps, for all I know, his children also had fun playing with it, just as I had, all those decades ago.

The years went by. And then one Sunday afternoon, I was walking around a National Trust property in the wilds of Herefordshire, when I saw this rifle hanging on a wall.

There it was, or what seemed to be an identical model to the weapon I had unearthed on that Warwickshire river bank back in the days of my boyhood. The same breech mechanism, that hexagonal barrel… talk about déjà vu.

But seeing this merely posed fresh questions in my head, adding to the mystery of who had hidden the rifle, later destined to be found by a small boy underneath that River Swift willow tree… all those years ago.

John Phillpott’s book Beef Cubes and Burdock: Memories of a 1950s Country Childhood can be ordered from publishers Austin Macauley, from booksellers, and also bought online.