Without the people affiliated to Caught by the River such as Jeff Barrett, John Andrews, Will Burns and many many more, I’m sure The Tuesday Swim would not had found the depth nor the talented people that I have collaborated with over the last few years. CBTR has always held its integrity, a soft approach that people are drawn to – be it online, at a festival, or through books, music and film. CBTR supports and promotes like minded artists, there is no defining CBTR creative, it’s simply a place where their imaginations sit side by side.
Last autumn I visited the North Kent Marshes for the first time, an invite from musician Adam Chetwood. He spoke of wildies that were spread throughout the fleets. A journey began that has taken a year, lost landscapes, broken houses, a hidden moat and the feral carp. But it has been a tough year, in six months I had lost both parents – this landscape now holds a special place for me, a breathing space during some sad times. I hope the film translates the sense of openness, and of wilderness that lie just 35 miles from London.
The film will be released on the Fallons Angler YouTube on Friday 17th September at 5.00pm
My wife Lucy has created a limited edition A2 poster which can be purchased here https://fallonsangler.net/product/wildie-film-poster-limited-edition-print-by-lucy-merriman/
Strange days indeed, as lockdown lifted myself and Garrett Fallon of Fallon’s Angler Magazine headed down to see Mark Walsingham the owner of Ashmead Fishery nestled somewhere in the Somerset Levels. It was my first time out of London in months and it was indeed strange. We met up with some old faces on the bank and moved around the lake hoping to snare a huge carp. Looking back I don’t think we had our hearts fully immersed in the fishing but we were certainly entranced by the time spent amongst the overgrown islands and hidden bays, the fishing was incidental but the location was magnificent. Once I returned to London and started to edit the film most of the footage was left on the virtual cutting room floor, we thought about calling this film ‘Timed Slowed – A Film about Ashmead‘, in a way this would have made sense but we left it simply named ‘Ashmead.‘
We will be returning soon for issue 20 of Fallon’s Angler, this time we are looking to film the Dorset Stour in Autumn, if the doors stay open long enough, time will tell.
I am drawn to the bike’s simple engineering, uncomplicated, it’s silent gears take me from east London along the Lea Navigation and out into the open space of the old flood plains that still line the Navigation. I know the Lea from Broxbourne to its exit into the Thames at Leamouth, it harbours a familiarity that offers me comfort, a place that I have known for thirty years. Certain stretches have been altered, the Bow Back Waters were mainly filled in for the 2012 Olympics but this artery from Hertfordshire flows true to itself since the natural river was made navigable over two hundred and fifty years ago. It is a complex network of old river, navigation, flood relief channels and tributaries, but this is still very much a river that is alive, the constant cruisers have brought a new vibrancy to the place and it has become a playground for modern London, re-vamped pubs, new-builds, joggers, cyclists, canoeists, dog walkers, birdwatchers and young families have contributed to the rivers new found personality. Only twenty years ago I could fish many stretches of the canal for hours and not meet a soul, today things have changed.
When I ride I leave early while the tow path is quiet, as the canal opens up past Ponders End by the King George Reservoirs the wind often intensifies here on Rammey Marsh, the metropolis is on my back as it gets blown to the horizon. At Pike Pool by Enfield Lock I turn right and leave the Cut and take a tributary more akin to a Hampshire chalk stream. It’s late February, the river looks alive, streamer weed still hangs on from last summer in the middle flow, blossom and birdsong is starting to show, despite the cold start spring has come early this year. The river looks very inviting to the angler, today I see two fishermen but they are not the usual aimless lure anglers but float anglers carefully running floats down the inside crease, as I cycle past I hear their conversation, like their fishing it is more focused, their voices clipped, I want to ask how they are getting on, but on this occasion I restrain myself, instead I wish them “good morning” and cycle on. Soon after I leave the river, cross a nature reserve and head to the hills of Epping forest. Lungs burst as I take on Mott Street until I reach the comforting sight of Holy Innocents Church at High Beech and the thickly wooden lanes of heavy oak and beech that meander on a level that leaves the heart a chance to recover.
The temperature is still cold, the sky is cloudless, vapour pours from my lips, I am reminded how important the changing seasons are to me, just seven months ago I was on the Lower Lea, then it was hot, the air was thick with the scent of summer. I was fishing with Tony, we had met at the pub for a quick afternoon pint, I was tempted to have another but Tony was eager to go and fish. I had recently discovered a new swim, it was tricky to get to but once in place we were hidden from any passers by and any annoying questions, the same questions that I refrained from asking the two float anglers. Tucked away in our hide out, the sun battered down all around us but under the tree and next to the flowing water it was cool. I had not fished this swim before I had often seen carp patrolling, moving out from this deep trench into a more familiar swim where I had previously caught carp. I was quietly confident that this was an timeworn route, as familiar to the carp as the trodden paths taken by the old drovers on Hackney Marsh and beyond.
With ours rods out we settled into the swim, as I turned to speak with Tony I saw from the corner of my eye my rod tip bounce down, then again, I struck and felt a heavy weight heading out and into the full flow of the Lea. Ten minutes later I was cradling a carp like a new-born baby, near to twenty pounds in weight. It’s a hard thing to explain, perhaps it’s an feeling only anglers experience, but catching these old creatures somehow warrants a close affiliation to the place, each time I catch one of these carp, my relationship with the Lea becomes more intimate.
From Epping Forest I re-join the canal, it’s still early but people are starting to embrace the day, cat-ice still covers the canal. Once again I think back to that warm July day, I think of the other anglers who have fished the Lea in the past, anglers leaving the east-end and disembarking at Lea Bridge, Ponders End or Enfield, rural outposts from the stink of the city. I picture them lined up along the tow path perched on their creels, puffs of smoke rise as they gaze out and onto the canal and dream. I try to re-capture their thoughts now decades old, buried deep into the silt of the Lea.
As my ride comes to a conclusion I pull off the canal at the scene from a postcard I found in a local market, in the background there is a house now raised to the ground and replaced with a electric power sub station. The rest of the landscape remains familiar, the Lea runs strong, a bloodline from the heart of the city to the wheat fields of Hertfordshire. Written on the postcard it says ‘don’t you think this is a pretty river, it puts me in mind of the Guilford scenery rather than that of a London suburb…’
An email arrived from Dexter Petley last Monday, the email began ‘hope the new moon is still working for you. It’s the only time I bother now, especially on these big lakes. I blank for 28 days every month, then get three runs at once on new moons.’
I have not kept an eye on the moon phases for a while, normally they are in my psyche, a glance to the heavens re-align my monthly cycle but recently I’ve been distracted, the hot weather doesn’t help although I love the current heatwave, early mornings are fine, still and cool, but as the temperature rises I loose focus, days are drawn out, they slow and I meander:
A few days after Dexter’s email there was a new moon, an opportune moment to cast a line on my local River Lea for an hour or two before the sun takes too high, I wanted to see if the carp were once again under a spell? On two occasions (once with Dexter) the carp responded freely under such conditions, almost instantly, somehow the moon made carp fishing easy, as if that was possible? It was 9.15am when I arrived by the river, I watched a favourite spot for a while, although I sat in the shade I could feel the heat, this was a summer to remember and I wanted a new moon carp to grace my net just like the previous year and the year before that. Normally I can see cruising carp as they move from deeper, cooler water into the shallows, I was hoping they had their tails high in the water levitated by moonbeams as they sifted through the silt. After thirty minutes, nothing, no carp stirred, the spell had not been cast on these river monsters, I didn’t wet a line. As the heat intensified I decided to take a wander, perhaps they were holding out further down river. The path by the Lea was dabbled in shade and light, the heat was still building, only the river flow and the high branches showed any signs of movement, everything else was still, caught in the spell of high summer, alas the carp were nowhere to be seen.
Last summer I spent the day with author and angler, Dexter Petley, searching out river Lea carp. After many emails sent back and forth from his base camp in Normandy, Dexter finally made it to London while promoting his new book – Love, Madness, Fishing after a thirty year absence. It turned out to be a memorable day (Dexter writes about it in Fallons Angler issue 9) success came in the shape of a large Lea common. I was happy that it was Dexter that caught the near twenty, he only had one chance while I could return anytime, I felt it was the only outcome. What stood out that day was Dexter’s boyish excitement and confidence in catching a carp, gifted by the fact we had a new moon, perhaps his whispy grey hair and talk of moon phases captured me, spellbound in some form of carp wizardry? It was a great day, the new moon cast its spell and I became a moon child.
Almost one year on and the river season has commenced, I have been keeping a close eye on the river but the carp have disappeared, perhaps the dry spring sent the carp to deeper more oxygenated waters? On opening day I met with friends Garrett and Tony for a traditional 16th and despite many bream feeding on our groundbait our carp baits only spooked the twitchy bream, the carp were merely ghosts.
So last Saturday we entered a new lunar phase, I woke feeling half-hearted about getting up but the celestial pull took me to the river at a respectable 8.00 am, if the carp were enchanted then hopefully they were still under a spell. I arrived at a usual spot and looked into the river, below were three large carp, boisterous in their swagger as they pushed their way around the swim searching for food, it was the first carp I had seen in a while, their tails in the air, the moon had switched them on, they danced on moonbeams. River carping is not easy but sometimes it all drops into place, it did last year with Dexter and today it looked hopeful. I lowered a bait just one foot from the bank, I felt the line and watched the rod tip, thirty seconds passed and then wham, like a sledgehammer hitting the rod, the tip pulled down as the carp headed downstream, for five knee trembling minutes I fought the carp and finally landed a common, probably just under the twenty pound mark, just like Dexter’s common from last year. The wizardry of carp fishing strikes again!
I’m compelled to write a few words on the solstice, a date I regard highly, the longest day and also my daughters birthday. Fallon’s Angler 10 is at the printers and will be dropped through the subscribers letter boxes within the week. This issue we headed towards Wales and shot two films, we rediscovered Cregennan Lakes after a forty year absence, and met a special lady who has spent a lifetime on the Usk.
Also in issue 10 Chris Yates celebrate his glorious 16th and some new contributors play their part in the Fallon’s story from Wales and beyond.
For now there is a pleasant lull, I’m not racing around the country, I’m fishing locally for river carp, but being nomads they seem to have disappeared, perhaps seeking deep cooler pools while we sit out the hottest heatwave since 1977; I’m happy to sit it out with them…
My canoe is also ready for launch, this may help in seeking new swims that only before I could view from afar, over grown banks and fallen trees obstructing my passage, but first I will have to see if the canoe is stable enough to land a ‘river lurker.’
Having no car to drive for the first half of this year focused my attention on my local river – the Lower Lea, potential swims were scrutinise more closely than ever before. The trips planned were to be frequent and short, tackle was set up and ready to go, a bicycle permanently rested in the basement, attached to the cross bar – a modified 42″ landing net, a three piece 10′ Allcocks spinning rod strong enough for hard fighting carp and a very long bank stick – in fact its a storm pole off a bivvy door, although I must confess I’m not too sure what the original purpose of it is, I’m guessing it is a method to sure up the door on a bivvy when a tornado hits? Anyhow I saw it in a tackle shop a few years back and thought it perfect for holding a rod high on the river bank, it has proven very useful when barbel fishing. A shoulder bag contains a reel, camera, polaroids, and an old bait box with all the accessories that a modern angler needs to trap a carp. Finally an old green bucket holds a mixture of baits and doubles as my seat.
Before the season began I kept a close eye on the river and by mid May I could see signs of carp, I also came across one or two other anglers discretely looking with intent, on occasions a few words were exchanged but generally we all kept to the unwritten code of ‘keep quiet and carry on.’ You can find carp quite easily from Broxbourne (and probably beyond) down into Hackney and through central London and out the other side, all you need is a warm sunny day, a bicycle and a some polaroids, I will guarantee you will find carp within a few hours of riding, whether they are feeding though is another question.
My time on the river since June 16th has probably totalled to about 7-8 hours, each trip amounts to only a couple of hours but it suits my freelance routine, I can drop my daughter off at school and pop down to the Lea or nip out during lunch time. So far I have not managed to get on the river early morning or at dusk, something I want to remedy in August. The Lower Lea also holds a large head of good sized bream, the ‘silvers’ have all but vanished but I had heard that 5000 dace have been introduced by the EA to the lower Lea catchment in the close season, lets hope that they thrive.
To date I had a couple of carp at the start of the season, notably a linear on the 16th June, and a few days later a common, both fish were around 7-8 pounds, these fish are very long and strong fighters, but these were the smallest of the carp that I have seen. I have observed a few fish well into their twenties and one or two that could be in their thirties, I had some heart-stopping moments with the polaroids when these larger carp were feeding hard on my bait, frustratingly these moments were cherished under the cloak of the closed season.
August will soon arrive and after a short holiday I will attempt to get back on the river to continue my quest to catch one of the larger fish, but I must confess after cycling down to the river over the last week I have not seen a fish, my theory is that after a heatwave they move into faster flowing and deeper water where oxygen levels are higher, making observations next to impossible. But I have a cunning plan…
Growing up in the seventies and eighties, the local woods was my playground, a place of freedom and discovery, a real living breathing Xbox, where armies were formed and disbanded, explorers lost and found, a place of endless possibilities. To get my band of brothers to the woods we had to negotiate ‘no mans lands’ – a hundred yard track that led up to the gates of Sunte House, a seventeenth century manor house and its custodian, Mr Gorer or ‘Old Man Gorer’ as us brothers of the woods called him. Unlike many manor houses, Sunte House was not austere, its large windows gave it an airy appearance, the slate roof tiles enhanced this, in bright sunlight they sparkled a silver-grey, echo’s of past garden parties resonated in the grounds , there seemed to be an air of happiness about this place in the not so distant past. At the start of the track was a cattle grid with a hand painted sign in black and white now flaking away, it read ‘Sunte House – Private – No through road.’ The cattle grid was ‘ours’ a place of safety, a look-out for Old Man Gorer, it was a game of cat and mouse that we played out for years. Old Man Gorer was an elderly man, always dressed in a three-quarter length beige mac, normally undone, he looked dishevelled and always aided by his scruffy collie dog. For years I feared he would collar me, in hindsight he was frail, he was quite elderly and never posed a threat .
As we grew so did our courage, one evening we decided to break into the gardens of Sunte House and explore, dressed like commando’s we entered on the west side through a gap in a barbed wire fence and found ourselves on a meandering path, a canopy of exotic shrubs grew up high and blocked out the sky, many of the plants were labelled, lead tags etched with their botanical names. The west side was dark and quite eerie, somewhat neglected, but still maintained a certain order, someone had curated this garden in the past, there was a sense of Victorian plant collector about this place. We were relatively well hidden on the west side but to gain access to the east side and the main garden we had to dash across the front drive across a manicured lawn in full view of the house and potentially Old Man Gorer. It was still daylight, there were no lights on in the house, we waited until dusk, then made our move. As the light dropped we edged out from the shrubs on our hands and knees and onto the lawn, quickly we sprinted across the open fifteen yards. Once into the cover of the main garden we found more labelled shrubs and another perimeter stone path. We followed the path around tentatively in case we encountered Old Man Gorer coming around the opposite way. As we crept along the light through the shrubs was changing, it was getting lighter and it was moving, it was unclear what I was seeing and then I could sense water, the garden was hiding a secret, a large pond. Pushing through the undergrowth I could see a rectangular pond with an island in the middle, lily pads everywhere, and moss covered stones and rhoddendrons lined the edge. It was still and quiet, the distinctive smell of water was present, huge Scotts Pines towered above creating a high canopy, it was reminiscent of a Japanese garden but with an English accent. Suddenly the wind started to pick up and sway the trees, a barking dog in the distance un-nerved us, could it be Old Man Gorer’s dog? We decided to retreated and return another day. For weeks the pond played on my mind, I sometimes questioned if the pond actually existed, it was so enchanting and I was so fanatical about catching carp from lost ponds, I thought I may have imagined it.
The rest of the summer was spent seeking out carp ponds within cycling reach of my house, scanning Ordnance Survey maps for little blue dots often nestled in patches of wood in the middle of open fields, these were forgotten hammer ponds. Once located I would jump on my bike and see if I could gain access, permission was rarely asked for, just some discreet commando style fishing. Hammer ponds are abundant in Sussex and often go back to a pre-Roman era. Sussex geology was rich in ironstone, the main material for iron production and water was essential to the cooling of the iron. During the Stewart and Tudor times iron production boomed and more hammer ponds were created by the damming of small streams and rivers. Often these ponds had a small population of carp, tench and roach not giant carp but a five-pounder was a real prize and I always hoped to discover a pond with wild, un touched Roman wildies.
My quest for hammer ponds took my mind away from the Sunte House pond for a while but soon I had to return, I would have to try to fish the pond, this was going to take all of my nerve. I decided to return to the garden alone, not with a rod but with some bread and see if there were any carp. Once again I arrived at dusk, I was about to step over the fence when a figure silently walked past literally only a few feet from my face, I froze and he continued on, it was Old Man Gorer inspecting his garden, probably enjoying the late evening air. I was convinced he saw me, the woods were dark but he decided to walk on, I was after all just by the public foot path, and he probably encountered the public there on many occasions, I imagined he had no interest in me, the public and knew nothing of my intentions. I returned home thankful that I had not gone into his garden a few minutes earlier and become trapped on the west side by the pond. After that rather uncomfortable close call I decided to have a break from the pond and concentrate on trying to catch a double figure carp elsewhere, I still had a few weeks left of the summer holidays, this was a target I set myself and had yet to achieve.
It was a couple of years later when one evening after messing about in the woods that I decided to return to the garden with a friend and see if we could locate any carp, it had been a hot summers day and if the pond contained carp then tonight would surely be the night to find them feeding? Our access to the garden was easier than ever as much of the perimeter fence had fallen down, the house looked neglected and the garden more overgrown than usual, we darted across the lawn as we had done before and into the west side. Making our way round the dark perimeter path I felt something was not right, the light was different and the smell? As we approached the pond I peered through the shrubs only to discover a flat lawn, no pond, no island, just green grass, it was as I feared, my imagination had run wild, it was a ghost pond. We left the garden dejected and I was somewhat embarrassed after dragging my friend into danger to see the pond that never was.
In 1985 Geoffrey Gorer died and the house was sold, every now and then the new owner could be seen driving past in his beige Mercedes, he looked fairly en-friendly, new fences and ‘Private – No through way’ signs were put up, it was clear the new owners didn’t want any funny business, once again I forgot about Old Man Gorer, Sunte House and the ghost pond.
Thirty years on it is 2016, I still think about that pond, did I imagine it, did I see Old Man Gorer that night, the more I contemplated it the more I doubt it’s presence. I decided that I was to make one final pilgrimage to the garden, my plan was to walk up on the Sunday morning after a family gathering on the Saturday night. Today access can only be made via the public footpath, the cattle grid entrance is now blocked. I set off on a cold wet morning, the mud underfoot was eight inches deep in places but for the sake of an hours nostalgia I was up for it, I soon came to the two open fields in front of the house, now fallow and quite overgrown with brambles, to my right was the ten foot high hedge that hid the garden. The hedges had been thinned to encourage new growth from the base and I could see a way through and into the inner fence. Pushing through the hedge I got to the old iron fence and could see the familiar stone perimeter path, beyond that I could clearly see the ghost pond, a Monet style wooden footbridge spanning over to the island, this time in the plain grey light of a bleak January morning I could confirm that the pond was a ghost no more.
While writing this piece I decided to do a online search for ‘Sunte House’ and ‘Gorer’ and was pleased to discover that Old Man Gorer or Geoffrey Gorer as he was known, was one of three brothers from a well to do jewish family from Hampstead, all educated at Westminster college, with Geoffrey and his younger brother Richard both going on to Kings College, Cambridge. Richard studied music and horticulture and moved in to horticulture professionallly soon after Geoffrey bought Sunte House in the 1950’s, the house must have been the spark to change his career. One day while walking in the grounds Richard noticed a spontaneous hybrid of the shrub Abutilon which is now a popular species that still exists today called ‘Suntensis.’ It is probably Richards influence that made the gardens more a botanical collection of some repute. Throughout his career Geoffrey had been a prolific author on the subject of anthropology, he had a passion for the arts and mixed in some rather interesting social circle including George Orwell and the poet Edith Sitwell. His body of work including 10,00 letters and manuscripts are now preserved in the Kings College archive.