Dragons, Fairies and Jungles

 

“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?”

– John Lennon

 

The Bare Chested Tencher
I apologise for this blatant display of machismo. And for taking my shirt off, too.

 

Read on if you’d like to encounter dragons, fairies (and even fish) in their most favourite environment: an English jungle. Well, not so much the dragons. More like dragonflies. Actually, damsels, really. And damselflies at that. But when you’re staring at a float in the midday sun, the mind’s eye can do funny things. The damselflies’ favourite part of the estate lake at Bury Hill is the so-called ‘Jungle’; a vast collection of interwoven trees and bushes that line the distant back end of the pool like a giant horseshoe. Here there is no division between land and water; rather, the tree roots and brambles spill freely into the lake to create a boggy, leafy angler’s paradise; an electric atmosphere in which to fish.

 

dsc_0260
Welcome to the Jungle.

 

Jungles fascinated the upper classes of the era; like all the English, they loved the idea of not quite knowing what lurked beyond the end of the garden. Quite charmingly, the word itself is Hindi and translates as ‘wild or uncultivated land’. It made its way to Mother England from the Indian Raj some time in the 1800’s- and was in good company; other words we circuitously inherited from the subcontinent include ‘dinghy’, ‘pyjamas’, ‘thug’ (the name given to the travelling bandits formed during a regional rebellion), ‘nirvana’ and, most important of all, the life-giver: ‘Curry’…

So there you have it. A thug on a dinghy in a jungle. With a penchant for curry. The gods of fishing could surely not be blind to this rare alignment…

I’d arrived early for once, and soon I was drifting excitedly- but slightly uneasily- along the strange banks of this angling ‘nirvana’ (sorry- couldn’t resist that). Far from the shoreline and only accessible via punt, you cannot help but feel like Marlowe in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’: very slowly inching upstream toward some gory but compelling discovery. In actual fact, it is all a great trick. A fascinating Victorian-made folly. The ‘Jungle’ is wide but doesn’t extend further back than perhaps fifty yards in any given spot. However, you can’t see past the first waterlogged ten feet or so. And what your eyes can’t see- your brain instead begins to imagine…

This is the very quality that makes the jungle so bewitching a siren to anglers; it’s the perennial problem that you can’t quite ever solve. Still – like the boy who discovers a secret pond or an abandoned old tree house- you can’t help but keep looking and staring into it for hours, searching for signs of life. Bubbles, shadows, branches moving against the breeze etc… Periodically your trance is broken and suddenly you’re staring into nothingness. An abyss of natural neglect. At these times, you feel all washed up and abandoned in a faraway place. But gradually you relax- and little by little your gaze is drawn back in.

 

Plumbing the depths
Master tench float and ‘plumb-bob’…

 

I attached my new float that I’d bought for the trip, and cast off. I’d plumbed the depth; it averaged about four and a half feet but I’d found a deep, dark hole amongst the branches that went down to about six feet. The space had been created by the competing roots of two old oak trees and it tunneled right down into the jungle itself. Perfect, really. And very, very intriguing. Such a dark and mysterious hole is the perfect summer hiding place for a big tench. Conversely, when the weather cools and the tench leave for the great deeps in the middle of the lake, the perch will move into a spot like this and take up winter residence. Perhaps I’ll remember and return. These close-up, ‘ambush’ tactics (for lack of a more romantic term) are the quintessence of summer angling for me and most of my tench fishing involves this kind of approach; creeping up on them, basically. You plan, you prepare and you follow the basic tenets of angling, but beyond that it’s a contest between you and Mother Nature.

 

Tea
Punt Life… I’d bought along a lovely Mitchell 310 (I’m a right-handed reeler) to use with a second rod aimed at the carp, but in the end I never used it. I find using more than one rod is almost impossible.

 

So, in full stealth mode, I cast my float into the hole. I then fixed a brew and began to recline. It wasn’t long before waiting became anticipation- which only an angler can understand. Here and there, I also thought about my approach. Not quite doubts. Not yet; but even when perfectly confident, your mind will question your tactics at some point. The bait was two small worms; I swear this is a bait that a tench simply has to accept, even if it’s not particularly hungry. I was using an insanely beautiful float, styled on a vintage design. But this particular piece also possesses state of the art balance and build quality. Like the Knight in UA Fanthorpe’s poem ‘Not My Best Side’, it practically screams at the fish: ‘Don’t you want to be captured in the most contemporary way?!’

The maker, Andrew Field, fashioned it from a delicate quill that is usually employed for crucian carp fishing; he beefed it up slightly and then added the classic body and buoy-like tip of a real tench float so it could beat any ‘drift’ on the lake. Perfect for this type of depth on a big water. Big enough to stay put, but light enough not to scare off the tench when they (inevitably) take the bait. I also thought of the float as a good luck charm; there are, in fact, ancient crucian carp in this lake- some of which weigh well over four pounds. They’re not abundant enough to ‘target’, so to speak, but they are occasionally caught by tench anglers. With a tench float made from a crucian quill, I was surely going to be in the lake’s good graces…

And as I stared at its bright red tip, the rest of the picture began to fragment. What had seemed like the integral parts of a ‘whole’ landscape, slowly broke away and became distinct. Firstly I became aware of the different types of birdsong. There were goldfinches chirruping some thirty yards to the southeast of the punt; whilst beyond the float I could hear a song thrush- always later than the blackbird- finishing his morning ballad. Further into the undergrowth, I could just detect the muffled giggles of a greater spotted woodpecker. Then the smells began to grow stronger. Firstly the scent of the lilies yawning and then, as the mercury rose, I felt overwhelmed by a great shower of dandelion seeds. I was becoming badly sunburnt, but seemed powerless to move- so deep was my state of hypnosis. The float, and everything near it, seemed enormous. Trees developed distinct features that hitherto I hadn’t perceived… When it started to occur to me that the damselflies resembled small dragons, I knew that my sojourn from reality was complete.

The Jungle now held me completely in her thrall.

 

Tench float awaiting contact...
Damsel at rest on my float… Add fairies and tench for perfection…

 

After a while, some fairies came and joined us: a company of twenty or so long tailed tits (although I prefer the name ‘old red eyes’) nestled in the woods near my boat and started to gambol charmingly about between the branches of the jungle. Like candy floss on stems; their tails are actually bigger than their entire bodies. I find them very inquisitive and unafraid of humans. Fairies really, these ‘little people’ set the dragon-damsels off beautifully. The whole atmosphere of the place was intoxicating. The magical creatures, the angle of the float, the lilt of the punt… Until eventually the trance deepened into drowsiness…

 

Long Tailed Tit at Bury Hill 3
Fairies at the back of the garden…

 

… And then sleep!… As I realised my error, my flickering eyes could just about discern the tip of my float sliding down into the depths. Smells, sounds, fairies and dragons all retreated as I pulled myself out of dreamland and struck hard. Hard enough to pull slack line up, but not hard enough to connect. I cursed myself as I reeled up the slack, but then nearly jumped out of the punt when the line went solid- very solid.

The fish was hooked and it felt decent. I got it into open water and attempted to play it away from the jungle. No good. It made a series of spirited, no, terrifying charges back into the woods and would have beaten me outright if it weren’t for the strong line that I was using; much sturdier than I would normally use for tench. A necessary insurance against the malice of the jungle. The line held, but my rod perhaps wasn’t fully up to the job. It bent to the point of snapping but ultimately did hold. Just. It made for an exciting battle, but a bigger fish may have made mincemeat of me. When the fish finally surfaced, I could see it was a nice tench. Almost five pounds; an excellent size for a float fisher… But my experience with the rod had left me shaken.

 

Tench in the net
A near five pound ‘Jungle’ tench. Chunky and in perfect condition, he scared the fairies away. And nearly shattered my rod.

 

I stayed awake and alert(ish) for the rest of the day. A subpar rod is one thing, but a sleeping angler would be the ultimate gauntlet to lay down to these fish; I would soon find myself floating home if I drifted off again.

As the day progressed, I missed two further bites by striking too early. Then, an hour before rowing back, I hooked one more tench: a four pounder. Another amazing battle ensued, similar to the last. My only advantages were being more alert this time round- and shirtless, which probably frightened the hell out of the poor fish when it finally surfaced.

A clear blue sky had started to gather clouds by the time I packed the car up. Tonight I was staying somewhere else: the ancient (and haunted) ‘White Horse’ hotel in Dorking- just a couple of miles away. Tomorrow I would return and try the lake anew. But before doing so I intended to call into town and buy a new, stronger rod from the local tackle dealer. And prior to all that I had drinks to drink and curries to eat and, apparently, ghosts to see.

And all the while, the clouds kept growing. I thought about this as I drove away from the lake and back up into the woods- sorry to leave the fairies, but safe from the dragons…

For now.

 

View from the punt

Wake Not the Sleeping Tench

 

“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”

– W.B.Yeats

 

Getting ready...

 

 

I’m forty next year and I don’t like it. The overwhelming feeling that repeatedly haunts me is that I’ve been unfairly convicted of a crime which I did not commit. But without the glamour of the ‘A’ Team or the moral high ground of Jim McDonald. It’s true that I haven’t done anything to deserve it. In fact I’ve done everything I can to avoid it; I’m borderline religious with the push-ups and if I’m honest I buy moisturiser, too. If you’d told me at twenty that I’d ever do that, I’d have punched myself in the face on general principle. Really. But I’ll admit I do seem to have become a man of habit. If I’m honest I find myself in the pub more than I like. And I’ve had the same hairstyle since 1997; this is changing, though. But pathetically, only because I have no choice over it. Loss of natural resources…

 

Surrey HillsThe 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 at the end of May, when spring is at its zenith and the solstice is still a few weeks’ off.

 

Denbies 2
An English Eden- ‘Denbies’ Vineyard in Surrey

 

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 old, 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.

 

Denbies
Wine Country… But what I seek lies beyond those woods…

 

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.

 

Bouquet of Floats
A Bouquet of Floats. All very pretty- but also perfectly fit for purpose.

 

… 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.

 

Way to Bury Hill
The way to Bury Hill… The ‘Hills’ are beautiful, mysterious- and the perfect escape for a summer tench fisher.

 

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.

 

View from the boat-house
Strange but beautiful. The boat house at Bury Hill.

 

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.

 

Long Tailed
The Long Tailed Tits were out in force on this trip, and monitored me from the moment I punted off.

 

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.

 

Receeding boathouse

Wagtail Weir

 

… Nulle lux sine tenebris…

Tunnel 1
The tunnels that lead to ‘Wagtail Weir’.

 

I had just emerged from an old river tunnel when a shiny object shot past me, missing my nose by about three inches. It was dusk and at first I thought it was a bright yellow sweet wrapper dancing in the breeze, a refugee Haribo ribbon floating downstream from the nearby city. I’ve seen stranger things drift by. But this was no ‘thing’. It was brimful of anima and curiosity- exploring every part of the stream and the surrounding foliage as only a real water baby could. I had no camera or binoculars but on the way back to my car I was fortunate enough to encounter a far more experienced river walker, who solved the mystery for me.

I was informed that the creature was a grey wagtail… ‘Grey?!’- I asked incredulously. And so began my relationship with perhaps the most unfairly named beasts in all of England. Because these particular wagtails are in every way- song, dance and pigment- as full of vigour as any other native on this island.

 

wag close up from front
Wagamama (sorry) collecting insects for her young.

 

It is a great pleasure to find diamonds in the rough. In fact it’s become quite a curiosity of mine that the darkest places often hold the brightest jewels. I have recently fallen under the spell of an old weir pool in Kent, which I visit once per week in order to fly fish. So far I have caught no trout from it, although several small perch have become attached to my flies. Pretty little weir beasts, their stripes are all the more vivid in such a seat of darkness- and they never fail to raise my spirits.

 

Perch on fly 2.jpg
Baby weir-wolf rising from the darkness… Caught unintentionally whilst fly fishing for trout.

 

But despite their devilish charms, the perch have recently been forced to take second prize in the beauty contest. Because the ‘grey’ wagtail, with his delicate symmetry and indulgent, custard-coloured chest, can rival even the most handsome of kingfishers for good looks. And in terms of charisma? Well, I’m afraid that he can best them all with just one swoop of that eponymous, ever-quivering tail.

 

wag on wall
… Wag’s tail…

 

I first saw them only in the distance, raiding the weir’s rubbish-raft for flies, bugs and other goodies. Just like us, they are nothing if not adaptable. They have compromised on nearly everything yet still they beat on- in ever smaller pockets- pushed back, harried and diminished by the modern world. They are a river bird and although I have fished since I was twelve, I don’t mind admitting that I have rarely seen them. I think the last time was over a decade ago. And so when I first saw these flashes of yellow in the distance, I was hugely intrigued. Like a stargazer viewing a returning comet.

 

wag in the dump
Wag of the Dump

 

And for a while, that’s how it was. They would come no closer than the other side of the pool. But just like that first faint spectre I encountered some weeks ago- they are curious animals; thus my visits have become ever more colourful. The weir is rather a lonely place so perhaps they couldn’t resist finding out more about me. As time has passed, the tunnels that grant me access to the area have become our meeting place and from my third or fourth visit, that’s where they’ve met me- no longer flying away but rather tolerating my clumsy presence.

 

Wagtail under the bridge 1.jpg
Aurum in tenebris

 

My closest encounter thus far was when one of the birds landed upon the end of my fishing rod. I’d put it down to drink my tea- and from a distance of ten feet we stood staring one another in the eyes for about thirty seconds, which is a long time for an animal to spend gazing at a human. Most nature lovers will tell you that it’s an arresting experience whenever any wild species ‘locks on’. I can remember a mistle thrush, with its long neck and high-seated eyes, doing the same thing to me a few seasons ago. And last summer, I caught a large wild tench which stared so hard at me that I actually had to look away.

 

Wagtail on Rod 2
Rod tip wagtail winning the staring contest.

 

Since then we have become quite friendly; the birds are cheerful, intelligent and- most of all- inspiring; after all, they have somehow turned a chaos of weeds and abandonment into a comfortable home. The river is at its most unpredictable here; the pool oozes danger and its bed is littered with old tyres, bottles and umpteen bits of detritus from our own world- yet they rule over all of it like little yellow gods; the Kings of a forlorn wasteland.

 

Raging Weir 3
Wagtail Weir

 

Indeed, the Wags of the Weir are all the more fascinating because they thrive in so violent a place. I very often see the birds flying straight up the centre of the drop-off, just inches above water that would drown me in seconds. It’s hard to believe that such seeming frailty could survive- let alone prosper- so close to mortality. But as well as accentuating their fragile elegance, it also enhances the deathly nature of this dark place. Especially when you see two at a time balancing their dainty stems on the ivy just adjacent to the main sill…

 

Two wagtails!
Yellow Devils

 

A daredevil act because the pool rages at this part of the river- and affords no casual visitors. Myself, I tread gingerly. I have occasionally fallen foul of the weir and suffered my waders to be breached. But more troubling has been the persistent sense of treachery that such a location instils in a man. If ever you’ve waded a dark, lonely place then you too will know that feeling of control drifting from you- followed by the momentary dread that it’s no longer yours to regain. In those few seconds when you lose your balance, you often feel other forces at work… And they’re not always benevolent.

 

Raging Weir 2
The raging weir, across which the wagtails skim without a care in the world.

 

Tragically the grey wagtail is in serious decline. Two years ago he was granted ‘Red’ status by the RSPB and judged, just like the nightingale, to be of the highest possible conservation concern. Over 50% of the species has vanished in just the last twenty-five years.

Thus it is a bittersweet experience to watch my local birds playing so happily, because I worry that one day we may lose them completely.

 

wag on the wall bowing
Taking a bow… But I hope it’s not the end of the performance.

 

Consequently I treasure the memory of each encounter and can vividly recall our last meeting; it was at twilight, two weeks ago.

I was leaving the tunnel when once more I was accosted by a familiar, sweet-wrapper apparition. I watched in the dim and traced the yellow shape back and forth across the surface of the river until in the coming gloam it became a flash of zest. It zigzagged faster and faster until it was just a blur; a neon comet. My eyes could hardly keep up and in the day’s dying moments it seemed to me that the bird had transformed into a river spirit-completely oblivious to my presence and that of all mankind- dancing peacefully to an innocent rhythm known only by the animal kingdom.

Finally the bird melted away into the darkness and was gone forever.

 

Grey Wagtail in the coming gloam

Cherry Brandy and Brown Trout

 

“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 one’s home, an erstwhile 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 finally I popped my head out, it was a sunny day in early April, and Kent lay languorously low and far before me. A vernal Viscountess. When I was a child, lush spring greens and cyan blues were her favoured shades; but with the advent of rapeseed, she has taken to idly draping her body in exquisite, yolky stoles.

 

Kentish fields

 

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; a sophisticated adjunct to her Ladyship’s seasonal wardrobe. 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.

 

blue-tit-g-ferry-copy

 

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.

 

mill and bike 2

 

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.

 

Sarre Cherry House

 

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.

 

Sarre Cherry House 3

The inn jealously guards one of their more mischievous (though perhaps no less spiritual) 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 trout that draws anglers out of hibernation. A native just like us, but no less migratory (my local river welcomes back returning sea trout every spring), he thrives in clean water and is particularly partial to the chalky streams of southern England.

 

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 seem to 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.

 

Shadowy weir pool

 

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 stark spectacle it more than makes up for in subtle divination and 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, the 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 as opposed to heavily scaled: a brown trout. I was perhaps slightly dumbstruck; the fish was able to make two more jumps and zigzag precariously several times across the stream before I got it within landing distance. Despite my lay-off, I’d had prescience enough to fully 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.

 

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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.

 

Bridge at Sturry

The River Hunters

 

… Flumen Venatores…

 

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Grove Ferry Kingfisher

 

I started the perch season late last summer by taking a lovely great stripey from the ancient Miller’s Pool in Canterbury city centre- not too far from the Cathedral. It was a real monster and my beautiful old cane rod had to be angled high and hard to get the fish past all the snags. Afterwards I drank some delicious, hoppy Kentish ale in the local- the Miller’s Arms- and promised myself I would go back for more. Both to the pool and the pub. But I have done neither.

 

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The Beast of the Old Miller’s Pool… With a perch

 

In the end, and as usual, I found more fascination eastwards- out beyond the city walls and into the open Kentish country. One of my favourite haunts is the so-called Grove Ferry, a beauty spot on the tidal Stour, nestled somewhere in the fields between the coast and the city. In August great tribes of fry gather in the deep, cool pools underneath the willows there. If you arrive at noon you can lay flat and have a snooze. It’s not difficult. Particularly if you’ve already had a cider or two at the ancient riverside inn. What’s more, the whole area used to be a lavender farm and you can still sometimes smell it amongst the various water mints. It can be a precarious business to lay your head down in any part of Southern England in the summer. But to do so by the riverside at this time of the year invites deep slumber. For most of the season you are very quickly stunned to rest and so cannot even fully savour your repose. You lay dumb and tranquillised among the dry scrub before waking up feeling slightly cheated, with a wet mouth and numb cheeks. The bankside herbs are half-baked and the earth is scorched.

 

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Grove Ferry

 

But then in those last days of August, nature leaves her oven door open and great balmy draughts rustle their way through the willow leaves and you fall asleep with the river. You wake up refreshed and it is mid-afternoon in late summer. Gone is the mass hysteria of every living thing in the vicinity. You can actually detect individual insect sounds. Any remaining birdsong is subdued and slightly dolorous. And as you look into the river you can focus and see deep down into its belly. You can see the shoals of fry, turquoise and serpentine in the black underneath the willow branches. Millions upon millions of tiny fish grouped together into tight globules, moving as one in the current and performing spectacular underwater murmurations just like the great flocks of starlings do over fields… Protection from predators. Protection from the beautiful deaths that hover above and lurk beneath them. As the attacks begin, then the angler sees his chance. A brightly painted bobber is tossed down into the stream, baited with a worm or a prey fish… The perch and kingfisher season has begun.

 

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Bobber in the Reeds

 

During the last few weeks of the real sun, I intercepted several lovely perch on the edges of these fry schools- up to about a pound and a half in weight. None quite as big as the ‘Miller’s Pool Beast’, but just as aggressive and lithe. The smaller perches are the prettiest and can rival a kingfisher for beauty. In common with their avian cousins they sport cute, inky eyes- and possess a plumage equal to that of any kingfisher. I even managed to catch one on a float inlaid with kingfisher feathers. The perch was on the cusp of adulthood; when I hooked it, the fish exploded into a weed bed and I had to take my time angling the rod back and forth until I wedged it free.

 

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Kingfisher Bobber with Grove Ferry Perch

 

But the real joy of a place like this is to watch both the kingfishers and the perch at work. A few hours after the sun starts to cool, they both appear. The kingfisher at various ambush spots in the trees around the river, and the big daddy perch nestled in amongst the roots beneath them. One lives in the sky and the other lives in the water. But they both hunt the river- and are experts at it. I could never catch as many fish as they do- nor be so adept at it… So I don’t try… But I do try my best to understand my prey… And my prey they are- although I mean neither any harm. The kingfisher least of all- since I only mean to watch him and perhaps take a photograph.

 

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Waiting to dive…

 

As the season turned colder, it meant I couldn’t turn up early and take a nap. And naturally I had to change my drinking routine to after my visits. But in general, the game stays the same; it’s just that the active window for hunting gets smaller. In the early stages, when it’s warmer, the birds and the fish hunt for much longer- maybe several hours. In the cooler months you have perhaps two hours- at a maximum- to see your kingfishers and catch your perch. And it all usually happens in the two hours before dusk.

 

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Dusk on the Kentish Stour at Grove Ferry

 

In mid autumn I caught my biggest perch of the season. A giant river fish of almost two and half pounds. Bigger than my flat cap! And I take a 7 3/4- only certain styles by Olney and Christys’ actually fit me. The perch took a roach bait fished underneath a big, bright red bobber… I hooked it below an old willow tree situated on a bend in the river. It disappeared, running deep down into the centre of the river with the bait and the float. At first I thought I’d hooked a pike (a possibility and as a precaution I’d used a wire trace)… But then I saw its wonderful flanks flashing and striping in the gloam. Big perch coming out of cold water are an amazing sight. And it’s a lovely experience to be their captor; the nearer it gets to the solstice, the more and more they seem to sparkle. The water gets darker and more impenetrable; when you do catch a giant, the full, opal spectrum of their colours is revealed. When at last I got the fish into the shallows I realised it was probably the second biggest river perch I’d ever caught. As such I treated it with the respect due such an old champion. When I couldn’t find my unhooking mat- I used my flat cap as a resting place for the creature. I washed the hat afterwards in river water and still wear it most days. A badge of honour, I suppose.

 

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Flat Cap Perch

 

In the couple of months since, I’ve fished and walked the river but have had a hard time locating the bigger perch again… However I have encountered many more wonderful kingfishers…

With or without the cap, I never fail to feel a little silly in their presence.

 

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Rex Fluvium

 

The Ramsgate Parrot, Squirrel and Whiting Run

 

Ramsgate’s chief seat of Squirreldom is undoubtedly King George VI Park. The whole estate used to be owned by Sir Moses Montefiore and I suspect he imported them to lend the place some transatlantic charm. Anyway, they drove out the native ‘reds’ and ruled with an iron fist until the parrots turned up a century later. Well, the ‘rose-ringed parakeets’ to be precise. Fugitives from private aviaries, they turned up about thirty years ago and are just as ambitious as their nut-munching nemeses. But they are far more colourful, much louder- and can fly. I have a bizarre theory that the two species cancel each other out; I can’t prove it, but I think they compete on some level and that this allows the park’s other poor species some breathing space. Despite the opposing green and grey goliaths, the smaller creatures- the finches, tits, woodpeckers (green and greater spotted), thrushes and starlings- all seem to be prospering. But then I’m an eternal optimist.

 

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King Squirrel in King George VI Park, Ramsgate

 

My own family arrived in Ramsgate during the 1940’s. My grand-father came from Wales to mine the local area, which is rich in coal. And my nan met him whilst on a day trip from London. In turn, her family had emigrated from Ireland. In any case, we beat the parrots here. But yet we lack the nutty grandeur of Ramsgate’s ancient Squirrel Families. And can only look on in awe at the pedigree of the mighty Whiting Clans, who have been wintering along the town’s shore-line for millennia. I maintain an annual tradition of trying to catch the latter creature from the local pier. I only go after them two or three times in a season and usually make the first trip in early November- just as the autumn is ending and the long, cold nights start to draw the fish in closer to the shore. I look forward to catching them- and even more to eating them as I prefer the flavour to cod (which is just as well these days). But I’ve been busier than I like to be and couldn’t make it out this year until last week.

 

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Ramsgate Custom House

 

The view from Ramsgate’s Kent Steps is lovely. I bought my bait from ‘Fisherman’s Corner’- an Aladdin’s Cave for anglers where three decades ago I bought my first sea rod- and then climbed the ‘Steps’ up to Madeira Walk so that I could look down over the harbour; it’s impossible not to look back when you reach the top. The terracotta brick work and copper dome of the Ramsgate Custom House were built in the late 1800’s. Around the same time old Moses was releasing the Grey Scourge at King George VI’s- just a few hundred yards eastwards. I was thinking about this and decided it was too early to go fishing. It was an hour before dusk- the whiting feed better after dark- so I decided to stroll along the cliff towards the park. I love this walk- not least of all as it enables me to pay a visit to one of my favourite places in Ramsgate-the Art Moderne lift on the East Cliff. During the summers I used to ride up and down in it with my nan and my mother, having walked and talked along the local promenades.

 

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Art Moderne Lift, Ramsgate’s East Cliff

 

England will never get over the Victorians. The scale of their ambition persists in our attitudes, survives in our pursuits and dominates our vistas. They installed the blueprint for much of today’s country, including its parks. Queen Victoria herself used to walk in this one. Well, back when it was an Estate, anyway. She used to stay as the guest of Montefiore. I wonder what she’d make of the modern entrance…

 

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Entrance to King George VI Park

 

I suppose it’s seen better days, but then Ramsgate itself has seen far worse. In 1941, Moses Montefiore’s Estate was made public and renamed King George VI Park. Not so long afterwards, the Luftwaffe destroyed 3000 of the town’s homes in one day alone. The town boomed in the 1950’s but by the 1980’s it boasted one of the highest unemployment figures in Europe. Crime rates soared, the cold war started to freeze and leather-clad Mohicans staked out the town centre in-between dole interviews. One by one the shops all closed. Pubs, too. Whatever ‘boom’ was going on in the City of London- it had a far worse effect on the prosperity of the town than all of Hitler’s bombs put together. For a boy, the Ramsgate of my childhood was a romantic paradise of abandoned buildings, hobos and social decay. I’ll be honest and say I loved it. But the experience would have been very different for many grown-ups. Roll on three decades and the town is again fashioning itself a new identity. Global populations are shifting. London cannot hold etc… We’re being invaded by hoardes of city-quitters who bring money, stories (many untrue), hope, glamour and despair. Dangerous new cliques are forming. They shop at Waitrose, drink Kentish Ale and talk about the nouveau-left in the corner of newly (and beautifully) restored Victorian pubs. Clashes with the provincials are (and have been) inevitable. Personally, I say good luck to them.

 

For the animal kingdom, ignorance is bliss. The park soon shook off all my cliff-top reminiscences and petty nostalgias. I was instantly greeted by a squirrel who thought he was Tarzan; I stalked him for thirty minutes as he bounced about from tree to tree.

 

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Tarzan of Ramsgate

 

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Disgruntled of Ramsgate

I saw parakeets. Lots of them. But I couldn’t get close to one, even with my tele-lens, until dusk started to come on. Then they became docile. They stopped flying from me and started simply to watch me. Almost disbelieving that I should still be there. Finally they settled in the thicket nearest to the park’s Broadstairs entrance and began to move in and out of a series of holes in the trees. I saw a flash of green between the branches and aimed my camera at it; after about thirty seconds, a bird came out and stared right at me.

 

 

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My catch of delicious Channel Whiting

By now, dusk was in deluge. I had captured a parrot- so to speak. And a squirrel. Now it was time to catch my dinner. I walked back to the Kent Steps and then hurried down onto the so-called Ramsgate Pier (in reality it’s the harbour’s outer wall). When I arrived I could see the pilot boat going out to sea. Both the sea and the sky had that lovely Arctic tinge they seem to develop locally in mid-winter. Just as the day was ending, I set my tackle up and waited for black-out. Observing winter dusks seems to be as much a habit for me these days as the ‘dawn watch’ is in the summer. I feel more alive at these times than at any other. Like the whiting, I’ve been returning to this spot for nearly thirty years; life gets in the way- but I always come back… To a rhythm so familiar it feels as though I never left. Like it has all been one long dusk and that it won’t ever end. But then the sun starts to dip and the rod tip starts to rattle. The full romance of the night comes upon me and I’m not so sure I feel the same way I did as a boy. However I still always think I’ll catch a fish… But then the angler is an eternal optimist.

 

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Séance with a Pike at Dusk

 

Yesterday I walked the Kentish levels in search of a pike. I love towns, but it’s important to celebrate where they end. I treasure those wonderful sensations of ellipsis as buildings, trees and factories pass you by and magically become fields, woods and rivers. Then all of a sudden you’re there… Out of town.

 

The same concept applies to daytime- especially in the colder months. A winter’s dusk is like a fine wine. You need a whole bottle if you are to experience its full romance. Hours in the making, it must be lived through; I like to arrive just prior to the first hints of rose on the horizon- about an hour after midday in an English December. Yesterday I packed my pike fishing gear and drove just west of the old Kentish village, Sarre. I was about six miles inland as the crow flies (around double that as the river winds) but just a few hundred years ago the whole area was seafront property. The Wantsum Channel has since silted up and provided a land connection to the rest of England. But the country here still has the feel of a lost nether region; its levels stretch far, wide and low- providing a sublime vantage point for dusk celebrators. Be they birders, ramblers or would-be pike catchers.

 

I arrived slightly later than usual. Dusk was already underway, albeit with a few hours left before nightfall; I parked up in a lay-by, walked twenty or so yards beyond some trees and promptly disappeared from the civilised world. It was cold and the river ran a dark, inky shade of navy; the bordering trees, denuded of their autumnal leaves, stood guarding the river bank in bare bones. Between their branches the sky was already tickled a lovely, delicate pink and above them it turned by degrees into a faint, baby blue.

 

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On an afternoon like this, I like to stalk out in the wild. Usually angling or wildlife photography are fine ways to fulfil the ‘urge’. I don’t fish for pike too often- and certainly never in the same place for all that long. But their pursuit is emblematic of the winter season and can be one of the most thrilling ways to enjoy an English dusk. I like to make a few special trips throughout the season. This one was a spur of the moment decision; I’d finished my Christmas shopping that morning and was having an early lunch when I felt an overwhelming urge to go out into the countryside and do battle with a pike. The logical and learned part of my brain told me this was stupid; it was freezing, after all. But- typically- a deeper, more primal voice won me over. Within 15 minutes I’d rejected my cosy hibernaculum in favour of an icy river walk. In earnest, it had been building up for months; the dream of a real winter pike session where you can see your breath hanging in the air- and the cold takes on a personality all of its own.

 

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I soon warmed up as I walked the river. It was cold but it didn’t hurt like it can in some Decembers- and most Januarys. I took very simple tackle (rod, centrepin reel, float) and kept moving to stay warm, looking all the while to drift a small, dead ‘prey’ fish (on this trip a roach) into various tempting looking spots. Eddies, slacks, overhanging trees and undercut banks all being prime pike habitats where they like to hide before pouncing on lesser fish. Beneath my feet, autumn’s detritus was starting to turn black. The leaves logged high in places, smothering my path and choking up the river bed; but I enjoyed trudging through them. The pink continued to rise; it had floated above the treeline and into the sky proper, which had now turned a darker shade of blue.

 

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A float is a medium for connecting with nature. The process of float fishing is itself a type of séance. You cast into a pool. You watch and wait for a response. Sometimes for hours. It may look outwardly idle but in actual fact the angler is mentally perched and waiting for contact from ‘the other side’; an older, more primitive world. Pike floats are huge- in order to support the larger baits involved- and when you receive a bite, the float usually bobs around a lot before moving off. It’s a highly visual art form- and it’s never short of electrifying. The pike at the other end might weigh three pounds or it could be a ‘forty’.

 

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I only had one chance to make ‘contact’ yesterday. Some time had passed and dusk was reaching its third act. I’d walked a fair amount and it had definitely gotten colder. I also bitterly regretted my decision not to bring some of the chocolate cake that was sitting on my kitchen table; after a while I began to see apparitions of it in the water. And in the sky too- where the baby blues were now long gone. Behind me on my side of the bank, the roses were now receding as the gloam advanced rapidly. But on the other side where the sun was setting- the pinks had exploded into great mauve ribbons, streaking and vandalising the exposed vista.

 

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The bite came as I started to think about heading home; the thought of the pub- or a slice of that cake- had become too strong to resist for much longer. Also I’d started to reproach myself for dawdling too long along the way. Too many casts in one spot; waiting around in another place for a kingfisher to reappear etc… Now I wouldn’t have the time to get to my intended destination of ‘Blood Point’- a large bend in the river where Alfred the Great saw off a huge Viking army over a thousand years ago. In fact Alfred killed so many of them that the river ran red with blood- hence the name. I had reached a large submerged bush a few hundred metres downstream from this spot and decided to make it my last stand.

 

The roach and the float hit the water about five metres before the sunken foliage and I intended to let them drift to within an inch of it before hauling in. I did this, albeit to no avail. But as I was pulling in, some fry scattered on the surface- just ahead of the bush though still in fairly slack water; no pike angler in the world would ignore a sign like this. I cast my bait in and again watched the float descend. It showed up well in the dusk (it’s a big, bright red float- inlaid with kingfisher feathers to satiate my ridiculous angling superstitions) and this time I let it drift deeper and to the front of the branches. As it reached the spot where the fry had leapt, it stopped and bobbed under about four or five times. It then slowly sank about two feet into the river and started to travel to the other side of the bush- into much deeper water and nearer still to underwater tangles and tree roots.

 

I struck hard and thought at first I’d hooked a snag. But the snag then started to move violently back and forth. It wasn’t a huge fish- but it was clearly no ‘jack’ (the name we give for pike up to about five or six pounds). I let some line release from my centrepin as the pike made for midstream and then submerged my rod as I guided it back and across the front of the bush. When it reached the net, it did what all self-respecting pike do and ran off again for open water. I was using strong tackle but I was forced to give the fish line in stages until his charge softened. He then came grudgingly in; once near the net he again went beserk- soaking me with huge, violent tail splashes- but I was able to land him and bring him to the bank. He looked to be about nine or ten pounds- I didn’t weigh him- and was an immensely handsome creature.

 

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I released the fish and paced about beaming. I was mildy adrenalised and gradually realised that I didn’t want to go home any more, so I poured a tea and sat on the river bank with my legs in the water. Drinking it slowly, I thought about the pike. And then about Alfred. By now the landscape behind me was shadow-clad but ahead of me, towards ‘Blood Point’, the thuggish pink streaks of half an hour earlier had graduated into violent, purgatorial purples; the diurnal consummation was now in full swing and the land had entered that glorious window of time when it is neither day nor night. I decided to postpone a later social engagement and head for the point- if for no other reason than in honour of Alfred.

 

I got there a few minutes later and all that was left of the dipping sun was a pulpy mass of blood orange which was slowly melting into the horizon. I switched to an even bigger float, a huge great old thing that resembles an estuary buoy, and cast it into a slack just before the bend. After a few minutes the sun disappeared completely and my ears adjusted to a different type of silence. And for what might ascend. For what horror might unfold. A great mist rose from the river and shrouded the field behind me. In my mind’s eye, the opposite bank became an alternate reality. Its trees seemed like spectres whilst a solitary, late bat danced among their branches as I sat and waited in this old corner of England- staring across the abyss.

 

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