“I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core”
I’m forty next year and I don’t like it. It feels like I’ve been convicted of a crime which I did not commit- and that there’s nothing I can do about it.
The older I get, the more powerless I become over many aspects of my life. For instance, I am the prisoner of a long list of self-imposed traditions. Some of which I question… Others, however, I cherish and could never consciously break with. One of my most precious rituals is my strict adherence to commencing the tench season with an annual trip to the Surrey Hills.
There I can punt-fish the grand estate lake at Old Bury Hill and join with the seasonal advent of bugs, birds, flora and fauna that, like me, are so reassuringly set in their ways. The tench, in particular, never let me down. They arrive promptly with the cuckoo in the spring time and then depart punctually with him in late summer.
Both creatures then go south: the bird flies to Africa whilst the fish finds himself a nice deep hole and there he lays in suspended animation for the best part of the year. But when his hibernation is over, he eats, mates and makes merry for the duration of the warmer months. I like to join him in his revelries in the very early summer time, when spring is just past its zenith and the solstice is still to come.
In his book ‘Confessions of a Carp Fisher’, the author (and naturalist bon-viveur) ‘BB’, wrote a lovely passage about the pleasures of encountering new inns and taverns whilst fishing away from home in the summer months. I heartily agree and have stayed at many lovely locations whilst on some foolish quest for angling glory- ranging from grand hotels to haunted pubs.
This year I started my sojourn with a night at Denbie’s Wine Estate, Britain’s biggest vineyard, just outside of Dorking. I’d slipped into Surrey late the previous night (I like to imagine myself as a fugitive or perhaps a secret agent on all such trips) following an exhausting few weeks of teaching and study.
It was dark as I drove up the winding country track but I was able to trace the contours of the surrounding hills and could detect the outlying trees belonging to a huge, ancient wood that borders the edge of the estate. Having kindly waited up for me, the landlady showed me to my room, gave me two bottles of beer and bade me goodnight. I awoke early the next morning and opened my curtains to a kind of English Eden. I arose and took a walk around the estate.
The scenes washed away all thoughts of my former, regular life, and reminded me that I was now an escapee of sorts… A runaway from reality… The ‘High Plains Tencher’… And so I stomped around gleefully taking photographs and getting carried away with visions of England in the summer time until, as always, I became extremely hungry. All subsequent thoughts were sharply reduced to images of food, so I checked my childish fantasies and retreated for an enormous breakfast back at the farmhouse.
The lodgings themselves were divine. The landlady, as all hosts should be, was wonderfully eccentric- big, booming, generous and cheerful. And hysterically High Tory, in the most innocent sense possible. Not one copy of any left leaning muck whatsoever in the newspaper selection. And frightfully posh anecdotes about imminent village fêtes etc.
The purpose of my visit being to ‘start the tench season’, I fitted right in with this rather quaint, alternate England, and attracted a series of questions from curious breakfasters. I smiled, but answered as laconically as I possibly could (which is always difficult for me) in an attempt to add glamour and mystery to my cause… These lovely places always deepen my sense of adventure. Having eaten, I bought several bottles of the estate’s famous white wine- ‘Surrey Hills Gold’, packed my car and headed for the other side of the forest.
… As I drove, I performed a final mental checklist of my equipment and tactics. Just as I’ve done since I was a school boy, I’d spent the previous few weeks devouring various angling books and getting my tackle ready for the new season. My most important tools are my floats, which I buy from a small group of British craftsmen who make them to order; these men are a rare breed and carry on a tradition that mustn’t ever be allowed to die.
I now use handmade floats for the vast majority of my coarse angling; they are a highly romantic indulgence, I suppose- but then float fishing is an ancient and venerable art form. And the very finest way to take a tench. As such it should be accorded a fitting level of prestige…
… The approach to Bury Hill is stunning and takes you far into the Hills. Before long I was held captive by the beautiful summer song of the woods. To get to the lake you have to travel for some time underneath the huge canopies of an ancient forest, whose leaf-filtered light creates a beautiful, jade half-world.
The effect is entirely soporific. Combined with the anticipation of what’s to come, the process of detachment becomes deeper and deeper until finally you find yourself waking in the bosom of a vast, lush valley… You have reached a very different England. And you have arrived in tench country.
Like all true estate lakes, the boat house is stationed so that the sun faces you at dawn. When you look out in the early hours, you are almost blinded but what you see is nothing short of glorious- and very spooky, too; for here exists one of those strange pockets of the old country where the English ‘eerie’ dominates one’s senses.
Today it was strangely quiet when I arrived- a highly unusual state of affairs. But, for whatever reason, I have learned that lakes (in particular the well-established, older waters) can have different ‘moods’, for want of a better word.
This particular pool was one of many Victorian attempts to exert some kind of aesthetic control over nature… They almost succeeded. But the fact is, they’ve only accentuated the power of the wild by super-imposing such a beautiful landscape.
The flooding of valleys up and down England in the 18th and 19th centuries may well have been done to provide a tranquil juxtaposition with the Great Houses and their gardens, but the resulting lakes’ real majesty is in their ability to foster wildlife.
A flooded valley is likely to hold ten times the amount of creatures that it did when ‘dry’. They’re jam-packed with insect life due to their excellent positioning and weed growth; as a result, the few fish that were introduced centuries ago have bred healthily and happily to the point where these lakes now hold huge natural stocks of pike, rudd, tench, bream and perch. And being densely tree-lined, they give cover, sustenance and habitats galore to an amazing variety of bird species.
So when you arrive and load up your boat, you may well feel ‘alone’. But to the contrary- you have awoken a host of curious listeners. Many walk the bank and the local meadows. Some soar above you in the trees. All took heed as I began to punt out. I went as quietly as I could, but it didn’t matter. The splash of the oars echoed out all around the lake, smashing its hitherto unseasonal silence.
But below all this surface noise- there lurk other, far more mysterious listeners. These creatures live not around the lake- but in it. They are less seen, other than in one’s imagination. But they are real- and it would be my mission today to prove that.
I punted further and further out until gradually the boat house receded from my view.