‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door…
Walter De La Mare
Ghosts of the Winter Marsh
Part One: Wraiths on Wings
There is something very pirate-like about winter pike fishing. I’m yet to acquire an eye patch or a hook replacement for my hand but these are things I seriously covet. I do grow a beard most winters, though. It was easy this season, as I never shaved off last year’s. And I own a really fancy knife. A Lappish blade, complete with an owl’s head fashioned into the handle. I couldn’t pike without one. I use mine for whittling damp wood, cutting awkward brambles, and chopping up bait. A proper pirate wouldn’t be seen dead with a mere pair of scissors. It sometimes bothers me that I haven’t got a boat, though… But I don’t really need one; the marsh is my ocean and its mercurial winds are the waves I sail upon. Recently, they’ve been blowing me into new territory.
Dusk brings many deaths to the marsh. In midsummer, I headed off to the southern drains to tench fish and see the harriers hunt; I watched the latter stalk skylarks on a rising moon. This past autumn, I drifted north to hunt the perch. And looked on as they themselves hunted anything they could stuff down their gullets. I’ve often thought of them since- and of the hobbies who haunted the sky above us. But there was another, unseen presence in our midst. Last October I was fishing the deepest hole in the system- next to an old sluice on the northern marsh- when I heard an almighty crash at dusk. Purple waters parted and in the gloaming I saw a large shadow retreating back down into the hole.
It’s winter now on the marshes. Night-time comes early, with long dusks that stretch from one in the afternoon until gone four. I’d usually be fishing the tidal river in December but instead I’ve felt drawn to give that shadow some physical form. It’s the same, primeval story- I wish to catch the pike and hold it. I want it to stop being a shadow. So this year I’ve stayed on with old Mother Marsh. I’m fishing her northern reaches, not far from where I went perching in the autumn. I’ve found some nice spots on the local farms where I can craftily park my car before disappearing for a few hours’ escapism. I’m never quite sure whose land I’m on or if I’ll get back to find my car clamped but this is all part of the game if you want to fish for free. There is lots of unmanaged, wild fishing on the south coast but it comes with the eternal caveat: don’t ever get mistaken for a gypsy.
Last week I set off for a mark that I originally found on a map last year. I was teaching geography to a Year Seven class. The pupils were learning how to use Ordnance Survey maps and I remember asking them to calculate the coordinates for this location. The spot screams out to the would-be wild piker. Two dykes meet and it creates a three way run-off, with deep grooves at the intersections, where the opposing currents converge. I’ve named it ‘Three Dyke Hole’. It’s not hugely remote. Not like the southern marshes, which necessitate a long, winding drive down country tracks, followed by a huge walk along an ancient bridleway. This is different. These areas are off-road but not too far a stroll. This end of the marsh has more dog walkers, too- which is not always a disadvantage; after all, people who regularly walk a section of marsh will know all about it. Pike often come to the surface, chasing fry. Also, they have a tendency to bask in the summer months. A ‘civilian’ only has to see a pike once and they will always remember it, so dog-walkers, hikers and ramblers should not be ruled out as a source of information.
Having parked up, I began at southern end of what I term ‘Black Dyke’- my autumnal stamping ground- before strolling alongside a winding drain, scanning for signs of pike as I went. And trying to avoid sheep. They have an awful habit of staring right at me, which is doubly unnerving when you’re not too sure about your land permission. But thankfully it was a rod I was carrying, not a rifle. I’ve yet to meet a farmer who cares all that much about pike. Usually they hate them, ranking them somewhere between a fox and a weasel. Incidentally, I love all of these supposedly ‘vermin’ species; they’ve each given me endless amusement, not to mention stories to tell.
Eventually I crossed a road and reached a long straight dyke that led into open marsh country and onward to my much dreamt of ‘Three Dyke Hole’. It wasn’t long before I saw a wild, flailing figure approaching from the south. In the distance, I thought at first an old scare-crow had become dislodged. But instead it was a rather irate farmer; his gesticulations were aimed at me. And he was getting closer. It’s important to appear calm in these situations; to listen and if need be- to duck. The farmer spoke first. Loudly.
‘Are you the fella that just wandered through yonder field?!’
I was speechless at this, chiefly because I hadn’t heard the word ‘yonder’ in real life before. Presently, I replied ‘Yes’. To which I received a (well deserved) lecture on disturbing the sheep etc, etc. As we got talking, I was able to communicate that I was out for a bit of pike fishing. Gradually, the old man relented and grew less pink. I apologised for walking on the wrong side of the sheep field and by the time the conversation ended he was borderline civil. He even told me of the best pike mark locally. It turned out to be the exact hole to which I was heading. He also confirmed what was public access and what wasn’t. Then before he went, he muttered something very strange:
‘Watch out for the ghost…’
Or did he say ‘goats’. I called after him: ‘Goats or ghost?’ but he didn’t hear. Or just didn’t respond. To be fair he was very old, and I’m assuming he was the father of the current farmer. But his final words sent a chill down my spine… I’m okay with ghosts, but I’m terrified of goats. Nasty buggers. I’ve had to climb trees before now to get away from them.
I saw nobody else all afternoon. As I walked, I became dimly aware of the drain separating on the horizon. By the time I got to the ‘Three Dyke Hole’, I’d seen no goats of any kind. I did see some lovely redwings, though, enjoying the last of the sun and filling up on berries. Well deserved after their long journeys to get to this marsh.
I caught nothing from the intersection and after half hour I doubled back to a bridge I’d seen earlier on from the other side of the fields. Bridges call to anglers like sirens to a sailor. In my mind, there is always some giant, ogreish pike lurking underneath them. Unfortunately on this occasion, the beast stayed firmly a figment of my imagination. I did however catch a couple of small, jack pike. The biggest went all of three pounds and took a dead roach that I floated about under the bridge. I always take a float, but I like to move the fish every few seconds. Anglers call it ‘sink and draw’. The take almost always occurs when the fish is floating back down, lifeless, to the bottom of the water.
Pike fishing really is the darkest of all country arts. You use imitation fish (lures) or actual dead fish to coax a violent predator into attacking. I was pondering this as the day drew to a close and it put me into a delightfully dark frame of mind. Not a black mood, but an inquisitive one. And as dusk grew nearer I tossed my bait down to every sunken tree root or undercut bank I could find. The pike love these hiding places so they can jump out at any moment and attack their prey. Ted Hughes called pike fishing ‘exhilarating’ and he wasn’t wrong. It livens your nerves and calls out your inner, ancient hunter spirit. As it got darker still, I began to remember the farmer’s final, misheard threat.
‘Watch out the for the goats/ghost!’
Well, I hadn’t seen any goats. So now my mind started to think about the second possibility. Back when he said this, it was broad daylight so I didn’t much care about ‘ghosts’ nor particularly believe in them. But now it was almost nightfall I was becoming more open-minded… And curious, too. The same ancient curiosity that drives a man to pike fish, was now activating whatever ghost-hunting gene remained within me. I determined there and then to walk back up past ‘Three Dyke Hole’ and around the bend on its southern side. I could make it there and back before it was pitch black and it would give me a vast view of the north-western flank of the marshes. Not to mention any ghosts that happened to be abroad.
When I got to the hole, I stashed my fishing kit in the bankside bushes and went on ahead with my rucksack. I continued up the bend and in another five minutes, it straightened out. The view was wonderful here, stretching as far as my eyes could see in the semi-darkness. I shall return on a clear day and see if the horizon goes as far as the Roman castle at Richborough. The old fortifications stand on higher ground, far to the north from here. Everything south from there would have been underwater just three hundred years ago- including the land I was currently stood upon. This entire marsh was all part of the Wantsum Channel for millennia. It’s what kept my borough- Thanet- separated from the rest of England.
Back to the present day, I became more interested in a copse that lay ahead of me. There aren’t many groupings of trees on the marshes. There are some coppices in the south, but nothing as large as that in the north. When I do see a copse, I want to investigate it. This one took me away from the drain track and into lower ground. However, the brambles slowed me to the point where I couldn’t continue. This was a shame because the ground ahead of me lowered into what seemed a deep hole, of which there are hardly any on the marsh- save for those that are underwater in the drainage system. It gradually dawned on me that I’d walked down an earlier version of one of the dykes. At some point, the drain must have led off this way. In fact, when it floods (as it does every year), this ‘dry’ drain would be the first to fill up. I would love to have seen how deep the hole went and what lay at the bottom but it was no use- the foliage was too thick.
It was then that I saw what the farmer had warned me about. Just as I was putting my knife away and was about to turn back from the brambles, I witnessed it. White as the moon and flickering away like a phantom in an old silent movie. This was no goat. The country term for the barn owl has always been quite simply- ‘ghost’. And with good reason. I might as well have seen one- for I was utterly transfixed. The owl circled the hole like a moth does a flame, unable to pull itself away from whatever had caught its eye. It was seemingly oblivious to me. Partially hidden as I was by the undergrowth, I took out my camera, focused it and took a few shots. I then stayed on for as long as the owl hovered over the copse. It was probably no more than three minutes but it felt like longer. At last he dove, coming up with some dark matter in his claws. An ex-vole no doubt.
After a while, I pawed my way out of the thicket. I then lay in the long grass for some time, paralysed by a mixture of excitement and fear. Walking back to the car in total darkness, I suddenly became aware of the various night-noises of the marsh. A fox called out twice. The trees creaked in the now-distant copse. But then, as I got back past the Three Dyke Hole, everything turned dead silent. This can happen on the marsh. Personally, I find it infinitely scarier than the sounds of the darkness. I began to wonder if the farmer had definitely been referring to the owl when he’d said ‘ghost’.
I hoped he had.