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.

 

Brownie 4.4.17 4

 

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