‘Wildlife photography saved my life’

PUBLISHED: 12:28 04 September 2020

The August calendar photo; a pair of bearded tits. Photo: David Cullingford

The August calendar photo; a pair of bearded tits. Photo: David Cullingford

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Wildlife photographer David Cullingford from Norwich reveals how charity St Martin’s Housing Trust helped him escape from addiction

An amazing picture of a Great Crested Grebe with a chick on its back. Photo: David CullingfordAn amazing picture of a Great Crested Grebe with a chick on its back. Photo: David Cullingford

For many people, wildlife photography is a hobby, an engaging pursuit with the reward of being able to spend time out in the countryside. For Norwich man David Cullingford, it is a life-saver.

“I used to be in a lot of trouble with addictions,” he says, candidly. “And I got locked up in 2012. When I came out, I had no email or internet access, so my probation officers sent me here.”

‘Here’ is St Martin’s Housing Trust, a Norwich-based non-profit organisation which works with the homeless and vulnerable to offer what it says is a hand-up – housing, support and care. It helped David with his immediate needs – he had been ‘sofa-surfing’, staying with friends with no place to call his own - and then introduced him to a hobby which has transformed his life.

“I’ve always been into my birdwatching,” says David. “I used to be known as the ‘Drunken Twitcher’ because I’d be carrying cans in my bags as well as binoculars. I always took my empty cans home by the way – I was a responsible drunk!

A kestrel hovers in flight. Photo: David CullingfordA kestrel hovers in flight. Photo: David Cullingford

“They were doing a little digital camera course up here - I’d never taken a picture in my life - but I got a little compact camera to get a picture of the otters and kingfishers I’d seen on the river.

“I managed to get a shot of a kingfisher - believe you me with a two-and-a-half times zoom that wasn’t easy – and I also managed to get a picture of the otter as well. And that got me started.”

He roamed the green parts of the city’s woodlands and riverbanks with his little camera, capturing images of all the wildlife he could see. It was a transformative time for him.

“I love it, it’s been brilliant for me. I packed up all the drinking and that eight years ago and it fills the void a treat. That sorts my head out; I’m fairly hyperactive and it’s all well and good just sitting there but it’s nice to have something to do to get out.”

David Cullingford with his camera at St Martins in Norwich. Photo courtesy St Martin's Housing TrustDavid Cullingford with his camera at St Martins in Norwich. Photo courtesy St Martin's Housing Trust

In the years since he picked up the camera David has modestly upgraded his equipment to a Nikon and a couple of lenses and extended his range; he travels all around Norfolk in his Smart car, photographing the wildlife he sees around him on his long walks, though he rarely strays beyond the county boundaries

“I don’t like driving too far,” he says. “Because of lockdown I’ve been staying very local; Strumpshaw Fen, Rocklands, down the woods along here [the Wensum in Norwich] for the otters.”

He loves the north Norfolk coast too, especially in winter when the crowds have gone. Going out into the countryside calms him, he says. “I always feel the anxiety building up as I drive towards Norwich.”

He says he has no particular favourites among the creatures he photographs. “I love them all, really. Even a sparrow - they aren’t dull when you look at them closely, are they?”

A fabulous shot of a murmuration on the coast at Snettisham. Photo: David CullingfordA fabulous shot of a murmuration on the coast at Snettisham. Photo: David Cullingford

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The hedgehogs in David's garden, making new hogs! Photo: David CullingfordThe hedgehogs in David's garden, making new hogs! Photo: David Cullingford

David has turned his hobby into a money-spinner for the trust, as his photos have been used to make beautiful calendars, cards and coasters for them to sell. He takes no payment for this: “It’s nice to give something back,” he says.

He also gives back by taking part in the St Martins Reality Check programme, visiting schools and groups of young people to tell them, with brutally disarming frankness, how and why his life unravelled in the hope that it might persuade some not to follow the destructive path that he was on until 2012.

He is aware that many in his position don’t make it. They can kick the addictions for a while, but without something else to focus on they fall back into old ways. He has lost many friends that way, he says.

Meeting David is an inspirational experience. Here is a man who has stepped back from the abyss and been saved by his own determination – and Norfolk nature.

What is St Martins?

St Martins began in 1972 with an 18-bed night shelter offering basic accommodation for people sleeping rough in Norwich. Since then is has grown, with a wide range of shelters, hostels, support, outreach and education programmes.

But it also has a strong focus on the bigger picture for people in need of its help. “We nurture their self-esteem and trust in other people. We empower them to make positive choices. To some, we are a lifelong solution. To others, we are a stepping stone to rebuilding their lives,” it says.

Over the last few years, says the trust, the characteristics of homeless people have changed dramatically. It is now seeing a growing number of young people, women and people with mental health and substance misuse problems.

In addition to directly helping the most vulnerable it works to ‘enhance understanding and compassion towards homeless people in our community through education and advocacy.’

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted on the usual fundraising activities of many charities, including St Martins. St Martins is selling wildlife calendars, Christmas cards and coasters featuring David’s photographs in their new online shop from mid-October. All proceeds will go towards providing more accommodation for homeless people in Norfolk.

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