Monday 30 December 2013

Tony Archer and the Disneyfication of the countryside

Another week and another load of trees fallen over? An overnight hooley two days before Christmas produced some of strongest gusts to trump their way through this valley for some years, as a result some substantial trees with their roots in sodden ground cashed in their chips and leaned in to kiss the earth. A couple of ash trees in the wood play sleeping lions with the mother of all beech trees that toppled over in October, a quartet of Christmas trees that once provided a warm roost for many a bird have crashed down and a couple of balsam poplars have fallen flat across the river, an occurrence that would draw rapturous applause in quarters where the dress code is fine fleece and cutting edge walking shoes. Balsam poplars where planted by Bryant and May up and down this valley in the middle of the last century to provide a ready supply of wood for safety matches, and some people don’t like them. They were planted with a view to be harvested at a later date and I have seen some pretty murky stands of over mature trees where the sun never shone and not much grew, but the two rows here didn’t do much harm and the smell when the buds opened in spring is intoxicating. Over on the brief bit of the Itchen that I jump in and out of many Poplars were felled in the space of a few days last year in order that Victor Vole, Ollie the Otter and Dickie the Damsel fly receive their full dose of sunlight when away from the riverbank, actions that also gifted the neighbouring village an improved vista of the neighbouring M3 motorway and all it has to offer, which went down well.

But Hey Ho as long as Victor is happy.

Everyone’s a winner!

Despite protestations by the lady who sleeps on my left, the wind that blew earlier in the week across these environs has not been as voluble or strong for quite some years. Panel fences inevitably lay prone and wheelie bins wobbled over as peak wind speeds in this county were recorded at over ninety miles an hour. We lost power for half a day, not in a tin pot state coup kind of way; rather the lights wouldn’t come on. The neighbouring village was out for twenty two hours eventually hooking up to amps and ohms on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, a pole had bit the dust in the middle of the field behind our house and all the village’s electricity was piling into the earth. Ever helpful, the gamekeeper of the neighbouring estate who own the field was reluctant to provide access to the field in order that the gallant knights of Scottish and Southern Electric resurrect their poles and lines, but emboldened by the spirit of Christmas, said gamekeeper relented and drove the few miles from his home and flung open the gates allowing the power to return to the village,

Oh for a jolly farmer!

The power outage, as power cuts are now known, was relatively brief compared to the one that Mdme and myself experienced during the nineteen eighties. Michael Fish has squeezed many miles out of his performance, pre-hurricane in 1987, but for me The great storm of the last century was the winds of early 1990 which would undoubtedly be etched on our memories had Fish’s zephyr of 1987 not done for most wobbly trees. In 1987 I was living in Winchester as a student and subsequently slept through much of the blow waking in the morning to a call from my mother asking if the block of flats in which I was living was still standing as she had just seen a similar looking building on the BBC news lying on its side. The lights were still working so I got up, got in the car and after negotiating a few blocked roads I wiggled my way out of Winchester and returned to the North West of England as I had several loads of washing that needed attending to. Six months later I paid rent on a flat through weekend work in the middle river and spent many hours with a wizard of a riverkeeper planking up exotic wood that had been toppled in the estate’s ornamental garden. Slicing trunks of two types of walnut and a banana yellow acacia into inch thick planks for seasoning in his garden before assuming the shape of elaborate cabinets and chests during his retirement, he was quite a keeper and a very clever man.

Anyway, 1990 and Mdme and myself are living in a farmhouse split into flats. A first floor bedsit with no heating and windows that would regularly have frost on the inside. Burns night arrived and like all in the south of England we made preparations for a night of celebration. With the Haggis walked we settled down in front of the TV to view satellite pictures that had heralded a storm throughout the preceding week (Fish had this one covered) and then the lights went out. A high sided lorry avoiding the main road that was blocked by a fallen tree had caught the line supplying power to the farm house. We were the only house in the village without power and a low priority; subsequently we were without power for eight and a half days. Baths were taken in a tin tub in front of the fire previously used for grading fish and jacket potatoes cooked in the embers with the occasional trip to the chippy.

The river has risen but is nowhere near flooding, water is lying in the water meadows and low lying fields but no ditches are running and the briefest break from precipitation will free up the top layer of ground to soak up yet more rain should it be on offer. We are currently on a sabbatical from tinning as the lift in water is working wonders on the channel bed and sides, but once the level falls an inch or two it will be back in to shoo off what remains of the gunk that has built up in this river over the past twelve months.

Funny feathers are starting to visit this parish. For the first time we have blackcaps on our birdfeeders and with the thistles and diddy seeds done for in the wood we have today been invaded by goldfinches and siskin. A Boxing day bumble down on the common revealed the Short eared owls in fine form and eager to display their hunting routine late in the afternoon, laying water has concentrated the mice, shrews and rabbits in tight and high areas and the SEO, who are happy to hunt in the daylight, are relatively easy to locate to record their performance on camera.

Over on the Itchen, after four months of funny pills, Otis was reintroduced to the shooting environment with a twenty minute bumble about the meadows, flushing a dozen or more birds significantly raised his pecker and after four figures of purple pills he is almost back to the dog he was. At home flashes of water on the meadows are irresistible for dibbling ducks and few are currently visiting our pond.

A sure sign that we are having a normal winter is the appearance on the news of the County ground at Worcester covered in water. It sits in the valley of the Severn, a river that can rise many feet in a day and should flood most winters. My money’s on some pictures of damp conditions in the Gloucester region and the Ouse busting its banks in the middle of York at some point during the next ten days with “Outraged” of Tewkesbury demanding to know why this was allowed to happen. Some rivers are prone to flash flooding, chalk streams aren’t which is why houses such as the one over the road have stood in the flood plain for hundreds and hundreds of years without any problem, build houses in a floodplain of a river that is prone to breaking its banks and you are asking for trouble. Groundwater flooding is the real threat in chalk valleys and some houses that have cellars can acquire a subterranean swimming pool during periods of high groundwater, although houses continue to be sited in inappropriate areas, In a neighbouring village half a dozen houses have been chucked up in the last decade on a site locally known as “spring bottom” and are a shoe in for groundwater flooding should we have a very wet winter.

Returning to cricket, I caught the end of a bizarre first test match between South Africa and India. In which South Africa had reduced a world record second innings target of 448 to 18 from 20 balls with 4 wickets remaining. Unwilling to push gently for a win they shut up shop and played out for a draw with the final ball of the game being hit for a six. If it had been a team drawn predominantly from the Hindu Kush questions would have been asked.

Of England I despair, each morning Mdme and myself have turned on the radio around 5am. Short of a death in the family overnight there cannot be too many depressing ways to start the day. Ian Bell is the best bat in Britain with weakest mind, Nathan Lyon has just taken his first five wicket haul and passed a hundred test wickets yet he wouldn’t bowl his full quota of overs in our village side. There is one Antipodean bowler who can bowl at over ninety miles an hour and he has wrought havoc, England have four who can hit the ninety mark but none have been able to do so this series. Time to take a look at those diet sheets perhaps, if this performance is a reflection of a surfeit of mung beans, to quote some old french tart:

"Let them eat Cake"

or Steak

Just after Christmas, the front page of the paper that flopped into the box carried a picture of Countryside Alliance Chief, Barney White Spunner. The headline trumpeted an attack on the RSPCA and their expensive and fruitless pursuit of individuals in the courts. I don’t know too many of the details but £350,000 of money donated spent on one failed court case would have me asking if this was money well spent in the name of animal welfare. I must confess that I have met Mr Spunner, who impressed me greatly with his obvious concern for all things countryside, so I read on. Further into the piece he raised the issue of BBC bias and the rift that has opened between town and country over how the countryside is presented and perceived through the medium of all things gogglebox. Countryfile was the example given of a programme made by an urban elite with little idea of what goes on behind the hedges of those places we sometimes drive out to see. Countryfile was once a sensible programme on a Sunday lunchtime that I would take in with a pre prandial can of beer and a handful of pickled onions. It tackled heavy weight rural issues had a reasonably accurate weather report for the week and was watched by many people who worked in the countryside. Today’s programme in the “feel good” slot on a Sunday between Songs of Praise and The Antiques Roadshow has become a vehicle to further perpetuate the disneyfication of the countryside. Jeremy Clarkson on the car show on the other side has a better grasp of rural affairs than the current Countryfile team who seem to see the countryside as a place to visit and have a brief walk round in search of a hedgehog to tickle, or possibly don some lycra and take it all in on two wheels.

The signs the BBC were losing touch with the countryside were there long ago. From an early age I was forced to listen to the Archers, and after sustained immersion in all things Ambridge, I relented and admitted that it was ok. I was acquainted with the Eddy Grundys, Nigel Pargetters and Brian Aldridges of our village life and we were warned about the Nelson Gabriels of this world by our Scout leader,

An intermission:

In all my life I don't think I have ever met anyone called Shula, did it not catch on?


Sorry, another intermission:

Just googled “Shula” turns out there is a chain of steak houses across the pond bearing her name, good to know she turned out ok.

Anyway, I took in the Archers well into my mid twenties until the levy broke one summer when Tony Archer took himself off to wash his Landrover one afternoon in the middle of harvest.

At harvest time dirty Landrovers can wait.

I pushed the button on the radio and never visited Ambridge again.

How on earth Radio 4's Farming Today has survived is anyone's guess, shame it's only ten minutes long? For all those needing a field sports fix on a moving screen give "The Field Sports Channel" on Youtube a go, a regular and informative half hour slot on country sports and the environment in which they take place.

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Paul Raymond, brainchild behind Trip Advisor

Survived another year, so with a nod to Paul Raymond,the brainchild behind Trip Advisor, time for a review; bar the nudity and inordinately expensive drinks.

In an effort to be current I'll sum the whole lot up in one hundred and forty characters,

And there I’ll break off,

Bake Off, Masterchef, Match of the day, Peppa Pig and much more besides, all have succumbed to Twitter’s insidious advance. Conversation has been suppressed, and comment on cake, chef or a goal has been reduced to a series of staccato statements unrecognisable from the ebb and flow of normal communication. I don’t know the bloke, but the bumptious bespectacled cove on Masterchef who can’t be trusted to judge the professional chefs, continually spouts a series of statements of no more than a hundred and forty characters, verbal tweets you might say.

The one light shining bright through a fug of bizarre tele-visual conversation?

Ant & Dec, kings of the jungle, although Phil and Kirsty come close for those accustomed to pavements.

Sorry got distracted,

The year in less than one hundred and forty characters:

2013 on this river? Well it began full of hope, but ended in despondency, and not a little despair (phew! Made it, with several letters to spa


I am aware that my exasperation at some of the shenanigans in these valleys of chalk may have bubbled to the surface on occasion during the past twelve months. Reiki, tai chi, green tea and a lady called Li have all been implemented to quell my anger and for those reasons I will not retrace too much angst ridden turf. If you’d rather skip the angry bits please scroll down to the short video of a man driving a train while singing, a clip which I have found soothing for much of my life.

For some of the guff that has gone on these parts over the past year see list below:

1: A water company pumped filtered sewage down the Bourne, a SSSI, throughout last winter in full face of the agencies deigned to protect them

2: Europe’s premier packer and bagger of salad fined £5000 for sending oodles of diesel down the same stream, £1000 less than a similar pollution incident 16 years before.

3: A report costing close to six figures by a company of international repute that promised to highlight what needed to be done to get the chalk streams in better shape was cocked up.

4: An in-line lake in the middle of a neighbouring town was allowed to spew algae and gunk into the Anton for much of the summer, a process that was easily avoidable.

5: The Salmon & Trout Association and Angling Trust invoked European law to call government agencies to account over their failure to protect the chalkstream environment, specifically the Hampshire Avon.

6:The impending National Trout and Grayling Strategy, the most muddled piece of thinking that, on this river, will achieve precisely five eights of F*** A**

7: We’ll leave for Len

I’d better stop there as the lady who sleeps on my left has just quizzed me over the large vein pulsing on the side of my head. For more information on the above list and much more besides, feel free to rummage around the rubbish written on here in the past twelve months. It is not the ravings of a man entering middle aged grumpiness, I tend to save that for the likes of Richard Madeley et al, it is genuine concern and frustration over mistakes that continue to be made, The disjointed and complicated cabal charged with protecting the chalkstreams have proved weak and inefficient in the face of big business and the bottom line and the fear remains that they will be powerless in the face of a thirsty shale gas juggernaut which looms like Grendel’s mother over the groundwater supply to these valleys.

to quote current parlance "come on guys, we really need to raise our game"

In the spirit of reconciliation and all things Nelson Mandela, if sensible hats are worn, things are done well and mistakes are minimised I will shout it form the rooftops.

I hereby resolve in a New yearish kind of way not to get too worked up about these issues in 2014 because the Tony Blair in me (a reccurring nightmare) suggests that "things can only get better", and anyway Ron the Reiki man says I should pay more attention to my chakras, particularly the one on the side of my forehead that has come close to bursting through the skin this past twelve months.

Coming next

A train

Brian Cant.

Pre Pokemon, Gameboy and skateboards this guy was manna from entertainment heaven for the pre pubescent of the seventies, Derek Griffiths played a part, but you sensed they'd done their money when Yuffy lifted a finger and a mouse popped out.

How much was Brian Cant paid for Chigley?and why was Yuffy reduced to making paper chains from newspaper and the test card so prominent throughout the seventies?

Fishing, yes fishing; there’s a pastime to sooth the soul.

On a personal note I fished the prettiest salmon river I have ever had the fortune to thrash to a foam and even caught a few fish on a fly. Coarse fishing was intermittent. A trip to France was postponed after one of our party fell seriously ill. But thankfully a blast of grays from a ray gun that would have left Hans Zarkov slavering got him back on the bank with a rod in his hand, and a recent foray across La Manche was done for by heavy rain and wind. At home the Trout fishing season was in the words of Ron Manager ( Ron is a man of many hats} "a game of two halves". May and June were productive with plenty of water and the height of the mayfly hatch was nothing short of spectacular, but a dry summer saw this river drop at a remarkable rate and the fishing suffered. Coloured water for much of the season reduced the opportunities for sight fishing and numbers for July and August were well down on recent seasons. Fishing improved in September but the poor water quality remained throughout the year. From January to March grayling fishing was hard work as decent winter rain lifted a river to bank high for the first time in many years. October and November saw considerable success for some, but numbers of fish around the two pound mark seem to be down.

This past few weeks has seen more chainsaw work as trees continue to fall over. I have also jumped in the river and started the tinning a few weeks earlier than normal. It’s an easy job when there is plenty of water but we don’t have plenty of water at the moment. It pays not to be too over- zealous, but it is possible to move rubbish and silt from different parts of the river by diverting flow using sheets of tin. Working downstream I move them every few days, any inverts dislodged are moved to another part of the river as opposed to being removed altogether if a digger is used. Some years there isn’t much to move, but after the poor water quality of the summer there is an awful lot of rubbish and grey crud that has built up where it shouldn’t, that is best moved on. In Nana terms, It’s the equivalent of a good scrub behind the ears with a rough flannel, and I will slowly work down the river reaching the bottom boundary around the end of February.

Recent rain has done little to the level of the river, I know it is an oft repeated mantra in these parts, but we really do need a lot of rain. The weather map at the start of the week was encouraging as waves of low pressure massed out to the west, long may it continue from this river's prspective.


Monday 2 December 2013

Time, Motion and the Dingleberry

Twenty odd years of time and motion study on how to minimise the number of times I pick up a piece of wood between it falling in the wood and passing through the doors of my wood burner have reached fruition. A study necessitated by a brace of hernias has revealed that stacking last winter’s willow (that is cropped on a rotational basis) on the non fishing bank in manageable lengths to dry through the summer, before flinging it in the river pre Christmas and dashing two hundred yards downstream to some shallows where it is plucked from the drink and chucked in the back of the truck before heading back to base and the saw bench and preparations for its day in the spotlight/wood burner. It’s ain't the best wood for burning, but piled high and a year in the sun puts some heat into the room, but the process of getting it from A to B has revolutionised my loins that are subsequently in mid season form.

Still on chain sawing, cracked Aspen were felled in almost the intended place. One had to go in the river to avoid taking out a bridge or getting lodged up against a neighbouring ash, the top of the other one tickled up a post and rail fence but no damage was caused, both were hollow from the base up to a height of twelve feet and were well on the way out. Around fifty years old, only one remains where five stood only a few years ago and it isn't showing signs of great health and may have to come down sometime soon. A new chain was purchased for the job which always speeds things along and all the wood is stacked for next winter. A nearby stump plays host to several substantial bracket fungus, the ones that look like a toilet pan from below, and I have left eighteen inches of the Aspen stumps proud of the ground to encourage more. A walk through the woods revealed a substantial beech had given up the ghost and is the next target for the shock and awe of my big orange saw.

The Fen that we fire annually along with the spear bed around the pond continue to provide superb cover for all a manner of wildlife, plenty of Pheasant, and what look like some probings by snipe in some mushy spots along the periphery. Trout continue to spawn, and egret continue to stab away, there is only one heron about but four Little Egret climbed up off the middle shallows one afternoon last week; bright white against the blue sky like seagulls pushed off a bag of chips at the seaside. Further carnage was caused in the stew ponds when the first sharp frost deposited a blanket of leaves across the electric fence rendering it ineffective, in no time (I check the fence daily) the otters were in and twenty half eaten fish were dead on the bank in the morning. The very same day I was contacted by a photographer who had been snapping away at the cute little critters downstream from here, fantastic images and far better than the blurred guff that gets put up on here, but boy did those otters look full up. It was only twenty 4lb Rainbows that were probably destined for the smoker but with each fish worth a tenner it was a fairly “high end” meal for two/three that they enjoyed, and they didn’t finish any of it. Otters are fast becoming the “elephant in the room” where the aquatic environment is concerned.

On these beats grayling fishing is in hiatus as the bulk of the Brown Trout go about their business on the redds, at which point I would like to issue a reminder that this stretch of river has been stocked with diploid Brown Trout for over thirty years. The most recent survey of its middle reaches classified over half of the Brown Trout as “wild”...... whatever that is. From 2015 we will be required to stock with sterile triploid fish, a pointless exercise on this stretch of river, and one that I predict will be scuppered by the EU sometime in the next ten years, bringing about a ban on stocking Brown Trout that certain quarters have pushed for and others have predicted since the turn of the century. A substantial stretch of the middle river has been stocked soley with triploids for quite a few years now, if survey results on that stretch of river demonstrated a substantial increase in spawning Brown Trout it would be broadcast from the roof tops.

Returning to the grayling fishing the final rod to cast a line, an innovator at the fly tying vice, produced a pattern based on something he had found online that was banging out fish on some creek across the pond. Provisionally titled the “dingleberry” it was fished on the surface with half a skimpily dressed fly on a hook with the bend and barb removed, attached by what many coarse fishers would call a hair rig. If you have a dog and it has spent the day eating too much grass you will know the look, as you will if you have a camper van that drags a smart car behind. It seemed to represent something on the surface as it fooled a couple of grayling.

Woodcock are in the woods and a few snipe spring from the banks of ditches when flushed by Otis’s bumbling. He is still off his legs, and despite fifty days of posh pink pills his sore feet remain. He looks a million dollars with a shiny coat and sunny disposition, but five minutes on hard ground and he is limping on three legs. The pink pills have stopped and next week he goes under the knife to run some tests on the peculiar lumps that keep cropping up between his toes.

Europe’s premium washer and packer of bagged salad and leading grower of watercress, who last year sent oodles of diesel down the neighbouring Bourne, for which they received a derisory fine, held their annual meeting on what to do about saving the chalkstreams. Several attended and the oodles of publicity that graced both national and local press pointed the finger of the chalkstream’s travails and increased levels of phosphates at those using dishwasher tablets that drained into a septic tank and soakaway . There were some big names in the house and call me a cynic but there didn’t seem to be mention made in the minutes of any discussion on the contribution to the phosphate loads of the river caused by the production of watercress. Maybe the biscuits are good.

The report earlier this year by a company of international repute following a two year survey of the Test and Itchen river systems, is now unavailable. Its publication online in March drew howls from some quarters at inaccuracy and error. It is now being rewritten by those who commissioned it, the company were paid close to six figures. After some quarters have spent much of the past decade discrediting those who have been in long term employment on the chalkstreams it wouldn’t be too difficult to chuck together a thousand words discrediting those currently making policy in theses valleys. But I don’t think that would contribute much to the argument, another time perhaps

In the next few years the chalkstreams face an increased threat from further groundwater abstraction as the potential for shale gas exploration is explored. The recent publication of the HS2 report stated that water supply from an already depleted groundwater reserve in the Chilterns would be impacted upon, potentially well into the 2060’s an environmental impact that must be tolerated in order to forge closer links between the north and south. Environmental impact does not seem to overly concern our current governors, if push comes to shove the trashing of a chalkstream will be a price worth paying if it aids the economy. For the Dever, Anton and Bourne in the Test Valley, read the Chess, Misbourne and Beane in the Chilterns.

It may be time for the plethora of interested parties who claim interest in the chalkstreams to face up to the real threat facing these rivers and stop worrying about length of grass, genetic purity or the "Godhead" Victor Vole and focus on the the threat of increased abstraction, else the next generation of policy makers may not have much of a river left on which to issue their lofty edicts.

If you are a fishermen or have an interest in the Aquatic Environment, get on and join The Angling Trust, they are a beacon of light that has emerged from the maelstrom of confusion and obfuscation during past twelve months and are doing great things.