Ghosts of the Winter Marsh

‘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

Moon o' the Winter Marsh

Dusk brings many deaths to the marsh. In midsummer, I headed off to the southern drains to fish for tench and watch the harriers hunt; I saw the latter stalk skylarks on a rising moon. This past autumn, I drifted north to hunt 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.

The owl marks the spot

There is something roguish about pike fishing. I grow a beard most winters. It was easy this season, as I never shaved off last year’s. And I own a 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 piker 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.

The cold season is now upon 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 old 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.

Dyke by night
Escaping the marsh before nightfall, last autumn

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.

Marsh sheep ‘locking on’

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.

The Marsh Country

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.

Redwing eating berries, marshes
The redwings arrived on the marsh just after the swifts departed, in September. They come for our berries. And to watch pike anglers.

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.

Jack Pike, Eastern Marsh
Craddock avec pikelet. It’s always nice to catch a pike from under a bridge.

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.

The north-western vista. The sun is waning. The moon is waxing. The marsh is waiting.

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.

Wantsum Channel
The Wanstum Channel as it was, to the west of ‘Tanatus’ (Thanet). My current location would have been completely underwater just a few a hundred years ago. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Barnie hovering, northern marsh
Ghost haunting the copse at the deep end of a long dead dyke

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.


22 thoughts on “Ghosts of the Winter Marsh

    1. Ray! Thanks, my friend. I mean it when I say I’m so glad you enjoyed reading this- it makes it more than worthwhile to write it. See you shortly and best regards!- Gazza/Black Elk


    1. Without question, Tim! The marsh’s finest spirit… Thanks very much for taking the time to comment- Really appreciate it- Best Regards, Gazza


  1. Again I’m kept up at 1/30 in the morning having to read yet another Gaza classic. Very enjoyable the pictures are a bonus, but I can see the scenes just by your description , marvellous writings.
    Best wishes for Christmas & the New Year, looking forward to your spring adventures.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great! Thanks, Derek- So glad you enjoyed it. We’re in for it now, aren’t we? Three months of winter dead ahead but like you I’m already thinking of spring… We’ll get there! Merry Christmas, mate!


    1. Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave such a nice comment, Roy! ‘Yon’- I’ve heard of that, too- the Yorkshire dialect fascinates me. Kent has its pockets where you still hear a little of the old tongue; Dickens picked up on quite a bit of it. Best Regards, Gazza


  2. An early Christmas present and the perfect read for a winter afternoon as the rain whips its staccato beat against the windowpane.

    There are lots of places where I’d love to go fishing., even just the once. They’re mostly small rivers, and it’s usually an imagined autumn of golden leaves and pewter glides, barbel and chub. Reading your blog – and I’ve worked through all the posts – conjures-up a hauntingly tangible image of somewhere else entirely.

    A brooding, sepulchral place, wrapped in its daytime twilight where the sense of being watched seems all pervasive. I think I’d like to fish there too: a gothic waterland where past nightfall you might not dare cast.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Kate, What a lovely comment! I’m searching for this place, too. A gothic, less travelled England; my use of the term ‘Outback’ has always been figurative. And I also believe in the animal spirits, much as Ted Hughes did. Catching a large fish often seems secondary- the primary objective is to lose oneself and come back to town refreshed. So I fish simply, with only one rod but two eyes open until in the dusk, the older senses guide me towards the dream… Hughes summed it up best…

      ‘Owls hushing the floating woods
      Frail on my ear against the dream
      Darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed,
      That rose slowly toward me, watching.’


    1. Hello David, Thank you so much for your kind words. Enjoy the stories and have a Merry Christmas! Best Regards, Gazza


  3. You’re a modern day master of storytelling Gareth, wonderfully written as always, your stories bring back deep hidden memories stored away in my mind of a childhood long forgotten..
    Look out for those goats…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Terrific!- Cheers Stuart- Really appreciate it, mate. Damn those goats! There’ll be a follow-up to this, hopefully tomorrow… I’ve had quite an adventure with this owl… See you soon, mucka- Gazza


    1. Hello John- Haa! That’s excellent to hear. A story a day, perhaps. Mind it is Christmas, John- so perhaps a binge is in order! So glad you’ve made the time to read and comment- Keep on rationing! Gazza


    1. Nice one, Nige! Been seeing a lot of this bird. It looks like she might have a mate, bless her- I’m convinced I saw two birds when I was last over that way…


    1. Thanks, Justin- Very kind of you, mate. This particular owl turned out to be a female and she’s now got herself a mate. I usually only see barn owls once every few seasons but this past winter has been amazing for it. I’m looking forward to seeing if the ‘Lady’, as I enjoy calling her, becomes a mother… Today was my last available day to fish the marsh before the close season but it was far too windy to get out there… Here’s to our dreams- and June 16th…. Best Regards, Gazza


  4. gareth

    beautiful writing as usual …i read somewhere in your blog you thought you had run your course re fishing writing ?????

    nay lad … i have been reading angling and associated scribblings countryside related since the mid 1960’s … including all the ‘masters’ and believe me you don’t just hold your own ( ooh missus !) but give a good run against the very best

    including fishing, nature,countryside , beer, etc etc you have in you a superb book or three

    i scratch my fishing in the north west drains around me … shallow, a couple of sewage catastrophes , poor water quality and duckweed/azolla hit .. i am very jealous of your stomping grounds and unspoilt swims

    long may it last…don’t let ’em grind you down


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Ron- genuinely- what a lovely message!…. I think I’m just slowing down a little but fear not- the ‘postcards’ shall continue. Especially with support like this.

      The angling press doesn’t have many homes for writing like mine any more. It’s all to do with what tackle/techniques are used. Don’t get me wrong- I’m not a snob and I grew up on the Angler’s Mail. But some of the modern scene kills the romance. I like things like Crabtree and Fallons Angler. And all things Yates. I always believed the best fisherman to be the one who enjoyed his day out the most…

      Outside of angling, I’m not hugely adventurous. I don’t rock climb or abseil (!)… But put a rod in my hand and the country opens up to me… So yes, I’ll keep telling my tales…. And a book or three, you say?! Well, who knows. Wouldn’t that be lovely one day?

      Thanks again for the kind words- they’ve raised my spirits enormously. Be sure to stay in touch,

      Best Regards, Gazza


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