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, dancing 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.
It’s easy to do when the current carp scene is so unappealing, all good things come to an end? Well not really they just get displaced and a little harder to find, just like special carp waters. When I started to get serious about fishing I got caught by the carp bug, this was just about the same time you could buy a shelf-life pack of boilies, and monkey climbers were all the rage. In truth my success was moderate but I did fish quite difficult waters, (commercial fisheries had yet to plague the country) and I did catch some good carp. Once I came within quarter of a pound of breaking the carp record set in 1952 for Haywards Heath and District Angling Society, if I had broken the record I would have kept it quiet, but that is another story.
Sadly carp fishing is now dismissed by many anglers because of the ugly commercial side, the ‘purists’ turn their noses up and instead talk of the benefits of catching roach, perch, chub and crucians which is all very good, but it is easy to over-look what is still one of the most powerful and magical fish in the British Isles, the common and mirror carp. Puffed up footballs bursting with halibut pellets is not what I am talking about, more the longer, leaner specimens that still swim in mill ponds, lost souls that lurk in canals and rivers or the occasional ‘wildie’ that can still be found all over England and Wales.
So why am I harping on about carping in the middle of winter? Well while I was defrosting from a pike trip the other day I was drawn to my old 1980’s copies of Carp Catcher magazine, to help aid the thawing process. Articles range from interviews with the old establishment such as ‘BB,’ to new ideas discussed like the hair rig from Kevin Maddocks. Carp Catcher always had a pioneering spirit that set a precedent in carp fishing but in a way it was also feeding the end of a magical time, the modern carp scene was gaining popularity and the mystery was being made more transparent and accessible to lazy fishermen.
Those who contributed to Carp Catcher went on to create some of the biggest tackle manufacturers today but equally many did it purely for the love in a manner that was personal and relatively discrete. The editorial content was honest with a real sense of problem solving and watercraft, rather than re-inventing the invented that is now all too apparent in todays angling publications. A more recent read that I have acquired is Carp Hunters a book produced by the Carp Society which has contributions from Julian Cundiff, Jim Gibbinson, Andy Little, Ritchie McDonald, Tim Paisley and Chris Yates, again this captures a real spirit of carp fishing from anglers who approached their fishing in an individual manner. It may be this individuality that made this era such fun to follow? Although many consider the Walker years to be the golden age of carp fishing, I love to read about this latter period simply because I remember it and feel in some way part of that wonderful time in fishing when I was as a teenager and dreamt of owning matching rods and Cardinal 55’s.
Reading these articles again has prematurely ignited a yearning to carp fish, normally this arrives in late spring when the waters warm and the carp appear for another season. So until the sun burns longer I will have to sit on my hands and wait and dream about a place where wildies reside not so far from London and some lonely spots on the Lea. When I eventually make it out with my carp rod there will be no bivvies in sight and it will be personal, I will use the simplest of tackle and possibly I shall write the odd post here on TTS but often not, sometimes just a snap on my phone and a memory. Carp fishing never really changes.
After a few weeks away in both the French and English Riviera I find myself back in London with a twelve-year-old to keep entertained for a few days after the devastating news that his laptop has fallen foul of a hardware failure. Next week I have a two-week stretch looking after my two-year old daughter, a much more daunting task, this week I thought a digital free two days with my stepson could manifest itself as a mini boy’s own adventure.
In my basement along with a collection of fishing tackle, pots of paint and various tools is a canoe suspended from the rafters that has for the last two years hung dormant, today seemed the right day to get her out (I think one speaks of a boat in a female context?) and take her down the River Lea. This particular canoe has taken me into the drink on a few occasions, she seems to sense a nervous pilot just like a horse. The canoe twitches from side to side until the rower relaxes or the nervousness results in a dunking! Once settled though, a serene calm takes over and the river is experienced from a completely new perspective. To sit low down in the water is really quite interesting for an angler who normally spends so much time looking at the river as it passes by, in a canoe you become an integral part of the rivers ebb and flow. The Lea was looking splendid though, the water was clear and fairly high for the height of summer, the banks over-grown and looking quite wild. Not much fishing goes on here, well perhaps a little bit?
By lunchtime the clouds were gathering and a darkness came over the river that suggested it was time to set off for home.
Once home I thought it was time to put on a ‘proper’ film!
For our second day we were to go in search of The Lost Pond in Epping Forest, travel light and catch ourselves a mid-summer crucian. The Lost Pond or Blackweir as it is also know is set in the forest away from any road which involves a short walk, this I like, it keeps the lazy anglers away. After passing by Baldwins pond and walking through ancient woodland which was just starting to turn to gold, The Lost Pond appears in a small clearing, surrounded mainly in reeds broken by six gravel banked swims.
With us both fishing, our first three casts resulted in three tiny golden crucians and then nothing, not a nibble! We only stayed for about an hour and a half, trying every swim but nothing would bite, one or two missed chances but not a fish, very strange. Then on my last cast a slight movement to the float resulted in what looked like a rudd/crucian hybrid, in its imperfections it was a perfect end to a two-day, non-digital, 3D adventure.
A river on a summers evening is a magical place, and tonight I was on the Lea in search of a lone dark one. By the time I had hooked a carp it was almost nightfall and when I managed to finally scoop the carp into a fully extended landing net, darkness was all around me. My swim (one of the secret swims) was so small that no space was free to take any decent photos as I disentangled the rod, the net, the line and the hook from one another. The carp was a lovely dark old fish of around fifteen pounds that was quickly released back into the inky blackness.
Each year around this time, the 16th June to be precise I get the urge to buy a machete and cross the Hackney plains and down onto the River Lea to clear a few swims from the giant hogweed and stingers. After much deliberation I fear that this plan could result in my body being riddled with holes from the rozzer, the machete plan is put aside for yet another year.
Thankfully this plan is never put into action as another fisher of the Lea cuts out three or four swims in a very discrete manner along a run I like to fish. From the path no one would know you are there, a passer-by would not notice these clearings or the small space created for someone to stand and cast a line. I am also impressed that I have never seen anyone fishing these swims which makes me think I have either a guardian angel watching over me (Izaak?) or more likely this fisher is a night stalker. One of my first ever posts on The Tuesday Swim was called Night Stalker on the Lea Navigation, about a young carp fisher I came across one night on the Lea Navigation, perhaps it is he? Thinking it could be the later, its good to know that someone out there shares the same desires to fish the harder places.