“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it”
– Norman Maclean
The winter is over. Up until a few days ago, I hadn’t got out of town (or in fact shaved) for a long while- but it’s reached that time of the year when my home, a once warm and inviting hibernaculum, becomes a chilly sepulchrum- colder inside than out. Eventually, like Kenneth Grahame’s ‘Moley’, the light gets in and your whiskers start to bristle.
When at last I raised my head, it was a sunny day in early April. I decided to drive out of town and do some fly fishing in the countryside between Canterbury and Thanet. Kent is amazingly pretty at this time of the year and after the barrens of winter, I’m always slightly awed when I reach the high point of the Canterbury Road. From the Thanet end, the fields stretch as far as the eye can see. When I was a child, lush spring greens and cyan blues were the county’s favoured shades; but with the advent of rapeseed, she has taken to draping her body in exquisite, yolky stoles.
These zesty ribbons now punctuate much of the Home Counties, a fact lamented by some, yet the crops only constitute a small proportion of our farmland. For me they’re a golden thread amongst a sea of emerald. In any case, I don’t hear the local blue tit tribes complaining on the sartorial front; the new fields are a beautiful complement to their lemony flanks.
But if you seek subtler treasures, you have to dig below the surface. Kent’s outward appearances are stunning, but they are merely a diaphanous veil to her many secrets- some living, some dead.
At the highest point of my local river valley, an old windmill stands vigil. During the Battle of Britain it was used as a lookout post to spot incoming German bombers; the resulting dogfights left much detritus that is still cocooned in these old fields and occasionally a farmer will plough into a piece of Spitfire or Messerschmitt.
The war haunts Kent like no other county. When I was a child, an elderly German farmhand used to deliver the football pools coupons to our house each week; he was a lovely old fellow, full of stories, and always brought sweets for my brother and I. He had arrived in Kent in the summer of 1940 by way of parachute. Aged 17, his incoming bomber was hit by a Spitfire and he bailed out, landing in a cauliflower field just outside Dover. He was arrested by a group of farmers armed with pitchforks and spent the remainder of the war in a local P.O.W camp. He subsequently fell in love with the area (as well as a local girl) and never returned to his homeland.
When you reach the mill, you begin a steep descent into the lower valley and are borne back ever further into the past. The way is old here, and many have passed through it over the centuries- some pilgrims, some seekers of refuge. Submerged below the fields, there is an ancient halfway house; a signpost that tells me I am near to trout country.
But for many others it has been a beacon of safety and English hospitality- not least of all the continental Huguenot refugees, who settled here in great numbers in the 17th century to work as weavers and silversmiths. Every Sunday in nearby Canterbury, the Cathedral still holds an entire sermon in French.
The inn jealously guards one of their more mischievous mysteries: Barrels of ancient Huguenot cherry brandy, whose recipe dates back centuries and is a secret known only to the tavern-masters and their successors. On my recent foray into the country, I decided to buy a bottle and see if I couldn’t combine it with another of the valley’s treasures. Perhaps the most precious of them all.
For in the deepest part of the valley, far beneath the rape fields, oast houses and taverns, there lay wonderful creatures that pre-exist all of these human histories. Wagtails, woodpeckers, kingfishers, grass snakes, roach, perch and trout have all played peacefully in the lower water meadows for centuries whilst humanity has been distracted with money, war and religion.
In spring time, the coarse fishing season is closed. But the game season is just beginning… As is the world. And it is the brown trout that draws anglers out of hibernation. A native just like us, he thrives in clean water and is particularly partial to the chalky streams of southern England. My local stretch has a decent population of wild ‘brownies’ with a run of returning sea trout each year, too; indication enough, that the river is working- although this still requires an enormous amount of vigilance and conservation. The club that controls this part of the river plays a key role by maintaining a close relationship with the environment agency and ensuring wild fish are strictly ‘catch and release’ only. In addition, members carry out little picks, fly life surveys and wildlife monitoring.
And so on Tuesday last- having not held a rod for nearly two months- I found myself ensconced by the riverside, hunting for one of the county’s last living secrets. I started in perhaps one of the least likely spots- a shadowy old weir pool. As much as anything else, these parts of the stream act like a magnet to the boy perch fisherman hidden within me. The mystery of the overhanging branches is like a siren and I find a fiendish delight in the constant scanning and probing into dark and forbidding places.
I had no luck with the trout but what a thrill it was to stand chest deep in such powerful water after a winter of too much sitting and supping. I found it hard to pull myself away, but eventually I wandered too deep and some of the weir-water burst through the bib of my waders. I took a minor soaking but it felt good. It was enough to remind me to take better care, though- and like all anglers I interpreted this break in the pattern as an auspicious signal that it was now finally time to change tactics.
I sat by the bank for some time and gradually I could feel myself drying off. The breeze was tepid and the sound of the water gurgling along was enough to soothe my pride-inflicted ailments. Presently I began to think about trout again. The river was quite cool so I wasn’t using a dry fly but instead a nymph. This complicates matters slightly as you can’t see the latter, it being the underwater predecessor to the former.
But nymphing is much misunderstood, to my mind. It may not offer the halcyon day delights of surface smashing salmonids but what it lacks in spectacle, it makes up for in cunning. With a nymph, you are submerged even further into the stream, rushing deep with the current and bumping into weeds, rocks and flotsam until, if you are lucky, you connect with your quarry. Which eventually, I did.
I’d wandered for a while and saw what I thought could either be a chub or a brown trout lurking underneath a willow tree. The shade and the surface current were too strong to accurately identify which species it was; a fair day’s angling is a series of ever reducing odds. Thus I waded downstream of the willow and started to cast the nymph a few yards ahead of the mystery fish. It took me several attempts before I found my mark; I always make a point of hooking half of the nearby foliage first. I then started to repeatedly inch the cast a little further upstream until the nymph was running naturally back in the current over the desired area.
The take was confident and I didn’t need to strike. I stripped and tightened the fly line before harrying the fish into open water, upon which it leapt completely clear of the stream. After spending so much time indoors, this moment is seared in my mind more clearly than any photograph could be. The fish was about fifteen inches long, weighed well over a pound and was beautifully spotted: my first brown trout of the season. I was dumbstruck; the fish made two more jumps and zigzagged across the stream before I got it within landing distance. Despite my lay-off, I had instinct enough to extend my net and place it within easy reach before I started casting off. After one botched attempt, I broke the angling rule book and thrust the mesh out under the fish, rather than bringing him to it. A silly thing to do. But I was lucky.
I sat under the willows and watched the river melt by. After a while the sun started to glow and then dip. I could hear but not see a green woodpecker yaffling. More trout or chub jumped, but I had no further need to fish.
It was dark by the time I passed the halfway house, but I stopped and bought a bottle of the Huguenot potion I’d been promising myself all winter. When I got home, everybody was out; the house was empty and cold. I pan-fried the trout in the cherry brandy before baking it in a butter sauce consisting of cherries, almonds, mushrooms and garlic. It was delicious- and a superb way to consummate the start of spring.
Some time has passed now and that meal is just another memory… But the river is still flowing. And if I sit still and close my eyes, it feels as though I’m back underneath the willow trees again. I can even hold my fingers close to my nose and they smell just like the trout did- of fresh water mint and thyme.
The stream is quiet now and I can hear it lapping gently at the bank.
The sound is low… But constant.