"Pungers," Local Name for the Huge, Edible Crabs found along Britain's Shores.
We Lads Had Cojones Back Then!
The Pungers of Broadstairs.
There are many happy memories of my childhood in Broadstairs, up until about age 12. For a start, it is a great place for a kid to grow up in. One of the healthiest towns in the whole world, it has everything a kid needs to keep it happy from dawn to dusk: there are seven excellent beaches, they are (or were) lots of wooded areas and open fields, chalk cliffs to bung stones at tourist-bugs from, a jetty to fish from, or to gather in groups with other monsters on bikes.
With lots more…and then there were the pungers.
I don’t expect many readers of this unpretentious article have come across the word “punger.” Kids from the Kent coast will have a certain gleam in their eyes; the rest, no cheating, get off Google and let me explain.
And first, let me inform that the pungers we knew had nothing to do with the sagging drugs of a woman over 45!
The punger, sometimes spelled “ponger,” (as they smell fresh as the sea, I dislike that spelling), is a large, edible “Heaver,“ crab found along the south-east coasts of Britain. They are caught in pots by crab fishermen, but that’s the sissy way to get them. Every kid in Broadstairs with “cojones” caught pungers like real men should: with their hands, in deep, horizontal holes in the rocks at low tide…and we also spoke enough Spanish to know what cojones meant!
Pungers vary in size from about 4 inches across the shell, to monsters of eight inches or even a bit more. They had claws like something out of Star Wars and could easily cut a finger to the bone if not remove it all together. But they were, I have to admit it, defenceless when they were wedged in the holes they inhabited while waiting for the tide to come back in. They weren’t able to lift their claws and nip out exploratory fingers, but, heck, they were strong! They strained upwards with their legs, pushing themselves against the roof of their rocky sanctuary, making them the very devil to lever-out. And they often got your finger between their hard exoskeleton and the rock, causing you to emit a credible Swiss yodel as the cojones started to wilt. No kid had been held there until the tide returned and drowned him, but many had the back of their hand scraped raw extracting it from the pungers embrace.
Some other sissies used punger hooks. This was a wooden handle with a sturdy straight iron shank, hooked at the end. This was inserted behind the crab and used to pull him out, spitting, (well, bubbling) into the harsh glare of Stone Gap beach. The trouble was, you had to find the crab by hand first, as the hook wasn’t sensitive enough, and you could damage the crab hauling him out; no good if you were going to sell him to Mr Anderson for a few pence at the Fish Shop in Albion Street.
True pungerers, or crabbers, were disdainful of using hooks and battled-on with scarred hands. I have had as many as 20 crabs in a couple of hours before the tide turned, with my hands covered in blood from the sharper rocks.
The occasion bringing joy to the heart of ever punger catcher was the news of a Spring Tide. I am sure you know this means an especially low and high tide caused by the forces of the dark side working together! These tides, especially the really low ones when the wind also helped, exposed rocks we didn’t usually have access to, about three hundred yards offshore. Particularly fancied by the punger, poor things, were the “sugar rocks.” Ecologists reading this will despair when I explain that these formations could be broken-off like icing sugar on a cake and the unsuspecting punger exposed like a kernel in a nut. That it had probably taken 300 million years for the rocks to form was of little consequence to us back in 1950. Ecology and conservation weren’t words we heard much. Heck, people even though it was healthy to smoke!
Scraped hands, bloody fingers, sun burnt noses and the rest. It was all worth it as mum ended the pungers misery by tipping the poor creatures into a bucket of boiling water. Even the “scream” we heard didn’t faze us. Mum said it was caused by the heated air escaping from the punger’s shells. Today I wonder about that, I haven’t seen any evidence pro or con. Ten minutes later, the crabs lay steaming on a platter along with liberal amount of bread and butter. We damaged the hands further getting at the meat before they were cool. Boy! Was that fresh caught crab meat delicious and didn’t cost the weekly pay-check to buy from Tesco.
Note: Crabs are a crustacea; have ten legs, two of which form their pincers or claws. On a large punger, they have enough force to break mussel shells. The shells, or exoskeleton, does not grow but is discarded regularly exposing the soft shell underneath. During this period, while the exoskeleton in hardening, the crab is defenceless and they hide. We generally left ones we found like that and also females carrying eggs.