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 301 (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...
Dragon 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