Tuesday 22 September 2015

Huge Cajones and a Poor Choice of Font

Well the rugby world cup's good,

At tea time on Saturday, it was out with the turn table and on with The Vapors and a rousing chorus of

"I think I'm turning Japanese, I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so"

Didn't see that one coming and what huge cajones (I believe that's Japanese) to go for the try with the final play of the match.

Not too keen on the Kiwi kit, which seems to channel the puritans or possibly downstairs Downton, and that font they've picked for the numbers is all a bit 1970's Atari.

The pig thing went well, and the evening passed without real incident bar the death of a pig and a pool of pork dripping on the west bound carriageway of the highway to the sun.

Fishing is slowly improving, we have had a week free from Tarka and the trout are a little more at ease. We have had some super hatches of sedge throughout the afternoon and a bumble through the long grass sends hundreds of daddy long legs into the air. The seven fish caught over the weekend all fell to a daddy on the top, but what would be considered a small daddy these days, I don't know why but artificial daddies seem to get bigger year on year. We've only a few weeks to go until the end of the trout season and fishing will only improve. The rain has imparted a freshness to the flow, and the cloudiness that has hung around for much of the season is definitely on the wane. I have been aided in my tasks for a fortnight by two rugby playing year eleven pupils. We got a lot done and they made a good job of tackling the crack willow on the mill stream, as well as learning the technicalities of attaching a pig to a spit, it's a lengthy process, the beast doesn't just run head first onto the spike. It takes about an hour and it needs to be done right because a half cooked pig falling off the spit three hours is a culinary disaster that I have heard about, but do not want to experience.

For a few days I have been dealing with some willows that gave up the ghost in the rain at the start of the week and slowly stooped towards the river. I may have made mention of it, but I spent much of last winter tackling christmas trees that fell over in the floods. These trees that have just gone over are a legacy of the christmas trees cashing in their chips, tall and leggy after competing with their bolshie evergreen neighbours, whose demise left them exposed and vulnerable to the merest zephyr. I am amazed they lasted as long as they did, and like all trees they are always much bigger when laid on the floor than standing tall and proud. My mates the mushrooms are on the up, I've had a few pickings so far and all the interesting and colourful ones that grow up the river that do not make the pan are starting to poke through. We've done ok for apples, the pears are passable, as are the plums and we have enough blackberries frozen for the next ten years. The tomatoes aren't bad either, We seem to be getting over the blight that used to reduce my crop to mush each year. Sungold remain the favourite, full of flavour each one is like a little drop of sunshine. Runner beans were a bit of a letdown, although our second crop of french beans are just coming on stream, we have a surfeit of lettuce, courgette and cucumbers but we've done the potatoes, asparagus and shallots

The garlic is the undoubted success of the year, the pulled bulbs are so strong that they can't be kept in the house, we left them in the workshop overnight, and now even my neoprene waders smell of garlic. It may be a little "niche" but if anybody is afflicted with thieving vampire wader raiders (this may be a title of a Russ Meyer movie) I have just the pair for you.

While going at other guff elsewhere, I revisited Charles Bingham's book "The River Test" that was first published in 1990. I seemed to shadow Charles as he compiled his book as for three months I was seconded to what was the National Rivers Authority, and charged with updating their river ownership and boundary records. This involved visiting many people on many stretches of river to ascertain who owned what bit and it was not unusual for someone to comment "Charles Bingham was here last week, he's writing a book about the river you know". I could go on at length about some of the people I met, and maybe one day I will, but here's a few quotes from the book written in the late 1980's:

"Water quality is of concern, the colour being rather cloudy this summer"

Maurice Jones, retired Chief Executive of Leckford Estate who'd happily chat with the lowliest student in The Peat Spade Pub.

" The greatest threat to this part of the river is increasing population and the over abstraction that results"

Fred Kemp, keeper on the Upper Test at Whitchurch where I once stood in for a month while at college when Fred and his family headed off to the USA.

"If you have big stocked fish you have no small wild ones, stocking bigger and bigger fish results in a shortage of natural browns in the future"

Alf Harper, long gone, but a bear of a man, who worked on the Test at Longparish.

"He is young, fit and resourceful"

Brian Parker - headkeeper at Bossington, part of this statement may no longer be relevant, but thanks for thinking of me all those years ago.

"Today's storms flush soil from cultivated fields into open ditches and on into the river"

Brian Parker again, and spot on, all those years ago

"We then drove to Nursling Mill on the Main River to be met by two Alsatian dogs. "Don't worry. They only bite Southern Water employees, as they taste sweeter and have fingers like sausages."

The genial Vic Foot at Nursing Mill, who kept me at his table for hours, tea in hand, before a tour of the river.

There are several employed by trusts and agencies who have since discredited the work of keepers in the last few decades and mutter darkly about "old school ways" but these statements bear a remarkable similarity to today's purported "new" way of thinking.

At home, Child B is engaged, deep cover in the world of planning, and seems to be having a great time while receiving wages in return, which is a good thing, and the denouement of Child A's MSc is upon us, and in sprinting terms she is currently dipping for the line that will bestow on her the status of most qualified person in the house.

And so to Jeremy, and how on earth did the Labour Party end up electing an unelectable leader. Donning my hat of conspiracy theories, how many of Flashy's followers paid the £3 to join the labour party in order to get a vote. Last week's Prime Minister's question time was the cricketing equivalent of milking a mediocre spinner. Labour were unelectable at the last two elections on economic policy and are unelectable at the next if they retain Jeremy Castro, my money's on another labour leadership election within the year, whatever were they thinking.

I reached once more for my hat of conspiracy theory as I took in the opening lines of the news story regarding the world's biggest motor manufacturer - Volkswagen, but was stopped in my tracks by the admission from top brass, that yes, all of their models for the American market had been fiddling the emissions test. Many, many people at the company must have known about this, at some point meetings must have been had about this being the way forward, and if this was Toyata the CEO would now be reaching for the sword, how did it stay secret for so long and what does it say about the ethics of the world's uber industries and their regard for environmental matters?

Vorsprung Durch Technik indeed,

Oh no, that's the other one with the Olympic symbol with one hoop missing on the grill,

or is it?

You can always rely on a Volkswagen............to get through an emissions test.

News just in: Flash's mob have just announced that they will make moves to limit roadworks on major motorways to a maximum length of 2 miles.

Well done Sir! I'm guessing you, or someone in your gilded cabinet, was forced to mix with the masses recently on the M3 or M1, were all the helicopters at the menders?

Friday 11 September 2015


Well, ever since I adopted a hirsute look to the fizz, a litany of disaster has ensued.

First day back from Croatia, I boarded the tractor reversed ten yards out of the workshop and the guts fell out of the engine as the entire contents of the sump left a thick black line across the workshop floor and gravel. We are approaching the end of the season and I will cut the banks with a push along mower and strimmer for the remaining few weeks. The next day, with two rugby playing work experience lads aged sixteen and bursting with energy about the place, I decided to tackle the substantial piles of wood we have about the place and fill the log storage facility. A new chain was purchased to replace a tired old set of links, and during fitting the chain brake spring went piff, and jammed the spinning wheel thingy, outside the cog on the drive shaft from the engine. The long handled hedge cutter that has become such a vital piece of equipment for riverkeepers was the next thing to falter, as I inadvertently soaked the engine while working chest deep in the river and the thing is now in pieces on the bench drying out. Next I received an email from the new editor of The Shooting Times, explaining that the rubbish I write was being refreshed from fortnightly to monthly, and half as many cheques would be dropping onto the mat, which I kind of expected as I always expected to be found out, but we shall miss the pocket money all the same.

Today I must cook a pig for the cricket club presentation do, no pressure, but there are many mouths to feed, I've just realised it's Friday the 13th, goodness knows what will happen, it's either have a shave, or pop the takeaway menu for Wayne Wong's into my back pocket just in case.

It's not Friday the 13th, my watch isn't working.

Anglers are still commenting on the colour of the water, and we still have foam. I have just learnt that somebody in the village upstream from here noticed water running down a farm track and onto the meadow that seemed to be emanate from the water treatment works. It may have been nothing, and I don't like to point fingers, but it is a shame the chap in question didn't report it at the time, but then he is not a fisherman. Public awareness needs to be raised with regard to this sort of thing.

Fishing remains difficult, we have had some good hatches of sedge and olives bar the blue winged ones and there are some canny fish in the river, but they rise from the depths to nose any offering and are non committal when it comes to the actual take. This may be a result of the high number of fish that were pricked or lost in the first months of the season, or they may have been feeding hard below the surface.
The otters haven't helped matters who still visit periodically, it was a fourteen pound pike that ended up needlessly on the bank this week and I fear for our two pound plus roach and grayling who no longer seem to be about. Heron seem to have had a good breeding year and are also making a nuisance of themselves, but hey the freshwater fish population can take the hit, can't it?

Kick samples this week threw up the expected numbers of most things, bar mayflies. It wasn't a cause for alarm, as it has happened before and a second sample a few days later found quite a few, but the mayfly nymph does seem to gad about a bit on the bottom of the river.

With the chainsaw repaired, all wood storage facilities are now full of the beech and oak that fell during the floods in early 2014, which inevitably instigates a warm glow inside...... me and the house. After the errant limb of a conker tree dumped the electric lines on the roof of our home, an inspection by an eminent tree surgeon has declared that the tree is in rude health and this is what two hundred year old conker trees are prone to do. The beech of a similar age is also doing well but its contemporary the ash on the edge of the road is on its way out, rotting form the base up with the crown in retreat. The jackdaws love it and each year nest in the hole half way up the main trunk and last year the top twenty feet fell off onto the road in the middle of summer. If it was up the river or in the wood, I'd go at it myself, saw a buzzin, but it is right on the road, in amongst the power lines and a bit beyond me. A gang are booked to take it down bit by bit from a cherry picker as the upper part is unsafe to climb. They will leave the logs as it stands fifty feet from our log storage facility, so that is next winters' logs taken care of which renders the six substantial balsam poplars that fell over in the floods redundant. They are not the best logs and we chopped and stacked them thinking that we would need them for next winter, but now we don't so this week we have been conducting experiments with the medium of fire to try and incinerate the unsightly stumps that remain. It kinda worked, and a leaf blower fanning the flames undoubtedly intensified the heat sufficiently to char the stumps, even if they are not reduced to ash they will be dead and done in a few years.

It looks like it will be tree work again this winter, with the bank-side trees left alone for two years now following the carnage in the wood that had to be dealt with last winter. Two years unchecked growth on some of the crack willow has certainly affected the fishing and highlighted the importance of regular willow management. I have said it before, but this stuff could conquer the world if left unchecked and is one of the key roles of the chalk stream river keeper.

Believe it or not, and today's local paper is the first time it has come to my attention, but this valley and the next have received government recommendation for licences to frack. It comes as no surprise, and I won't go on, as I have already on many occasions, but the consultation period, which somebody seems to have forgotten to publicise, ends on 29th September, when a licences will undoubtedly be granted and this river and our water supply will be in the safe hands of the government agencies and the industry's regulatory bodies,

and yes that's you Generalissimo Smith,

In the words of Stevie Wonder,

"I just called to say I love you"

No, not that one

"Heaven help us all"

And there we have it, I may post a little more regularly now I have been "refreshed" for which I apologise in advance. Ok I have the added pressure of featuring on the "ask the experts " panel for the magazine, and trumping up ideas for feature articles that may merit publication, but I don't anticipate anything too taxing. If anybody out there in magazine land needs any written

Now may be the time to get my head down and come up with some other such guff, but if anybody out there in magazine land needs some written rubbish, don't be a stranger, I'll have a go at anything.

Tuesday 8 September 2015

On the Somme

Well I don't mean to come across as a bit of a "gadabout" and forgive a second post without fishing, and feel free to look away, because I need to write this one for myself more than anything, but we've just conducted a 48 hour whistle stop tour of World War One sites in Northern France.

I may have made mention before, but throughout my secondary school education, I did not receive a single History Lesson. The "Mad Monk" Keith Joseph was in charge of education at the time, and history was deemed to be a bit of a duff subject with no relevance to the future.

Keith was known for this kind of thing, give him a google he said some interesting things.

Anyway, we received a kind invitation to tour the WW1 sites from a couple well versed in such matters, which we were keen to accept. Because yes Keith, History is not only interesting, it is important, and was sourced firstly from Ladybird books (no longer available) through Asterix (thankfully available) to the miracle of internet (one of its principle virtues)

Under the tunnel just after dawn, we tooled on down the coast to Wimereux, to take in the grave of Lt Col John McCrae.

A Canadian, he had been inspired to write "In Flanders Fields" after the death of his pal at Ypres in 1915. McCrae died of Pneumonia in 1918, while in command of a military hospital at Boulogne, and the visit was particularly apposite for Madam as they had been studying the poem at school only last year.

On down to Etaples, a new name on us, but the site of the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in France. It's of Lutyen's design and of the 11'500 soldiers interred, over 10'000 were casualties of WW1. The area was the site of many military hospitals and many nations from both sides are represented.

Beer, Frites and Coffee in Le Touquet and a quick peruse of a super market, before the heavens opened and we made our charge for Amiens. Where we filled the car with diesel and wine, ate an excellent meal alongside the Somme, slept, breakfasted before resuming our tour at 8.32am the next day.

The Newfoundland Memorial first, where a Newfoundland regiment, plus a heap load of Highlanders suffered many casualties in July 1916 attempting to breach German lines.

An artillery barrage had not had the desired effect on the lines of wire fronting the German trenches and as the Canadians and Scots crossed No Man's land, hundreds and hundreds of soldiers were cut down by enfilading machine gun fire in very little time at all. It's an evocative site and set the tone for the rest of the day.

Remaining in the Beaumont-Hamel environs, we drove to the Sunken Lane. Give it a google and look into the eyes of the guys, bayonets fixed, in readiness to attack. George Malins was on hand with his camera to record the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers as they prepared to assault the wood fifty yards away across open ground.
He also has a film on You Tube of the detonation of the mine at Hawthorn Ridge, but the eyes in the faces of his stills convey far more feeling, coupled with the knowledge that many of them were gunned down by machine guns in the wood within an hour and lie in the cemetery equidistant between the two lines.

The Ulster Division Memorial next, the genesis of the UVF, and Orange men arrived to parade as we took tea on board in the cafe. The Division lost over five thousand men in the first forty eight hours of the battle of the Somme, but achieved their objectives, War correspondent, Phillip Gibbs, described their actions as "one of the finest displays of human courage in the world"
Of the 9 VC's awarded to British soldiers in the battle, 4 were awarded to soldiers of the Ulster Division.

A short way up the road to Thiepval, passing the points at which the Salford Pals, and Grimsby Pals were pinned down by German positions in buildings on the brow of the hill,

to the monument that dominates the skyline and commemorates the soldiers with no known grave, obliterated, unidentifiable, or yet to be found.

Over seventy thousand soldiers are commemorated, and the scale of the thing is quite affecting. Of Lutyens design, it is currently being buffed up for next year's centenary, but despite the poles and scaffold the impact remains. I couldn't find the chap I was looking for, my Grandad's brother, J Ismay, but I picked out Percy Jeeves, who was in the same regiment, was professional cricketer and the inspiration for the P.G Wodehouse character of the same name.

A brief pit stop at the Tank Corp memorial, before lunch at Tommy's bar in Pozieres and then on past Sausage Valley (careful if you google this one, not to miss off the "v") and Mash Valley to The Lochnagar Crater.

On the first day of the battle of the Somme, several mines were detonated beneath the German front lines. The logistics of setting these mines are incredible, with tunnels being dug with small hand tools over a distance of many hundreds of yards, and the spoil generated disposed off without detection from spotter planes.

The subsequent explosion was heard at home, and the substantial crater remains as an inverse monument to the first day of the Somme. The accompanying photograph does not do justice to the site, it is very difficult to take a photo of a big hole in the ground without the use of an aeroplane, helicopter or kite for which I apologise.

And so to Delville Wood, and the South African Memorial. The scene of intense fighting throughout the summer of 1916, it's worth a google (and well done again the internet) after a couple of months of fighting, like so many places on the Somme it was reduced to muddy holes and a series of stumps.

Today the site has been replanted with oaks out of Stellenbosch, many South Africans died here in the empire's cause, and the site is now full of wild life, mature trees which match the monument as a symbol of remembrance.

On our way out we passed the memorial to the professional footballers who fought in the area and we left the Somme, and pitched up on Vimy Ridge,

parked near the memorial honouring the role of the Zouaves who fought bravely in a fez,

and made for the memorial to the four Canadian Divisions who successfully took the ridge in 1917 after a brilliantly planned and courageous attack in which three and a half thousand Canadian soldiers lost their lives and twice as many were injured.

Half way through the afternoon, I went a little quiet.

Now this has sometimes been interpreted as sulking, or a sure sign that the lunchtime beer is wearing off. But not this time, because my head was starting to spin. I'd hoped to try and make a little sense of it all, find some answers so to speak, that could be applied to mankind's mess that it is currently creating for itself. The sheer scale of the slaughter is mind boggling, you could spend months visiting different cemeteries in the Somme alone, and the conditions and courage that existed in the trenches is difficult to comprehend.

Ok it was a case of new technology causing carnage on outdated methods of making war. Machine guns, gas, aeroplanes and tanks, made a decisive cavalry charge which had served in many battles throughout the previous century redundant and was replaced with defensive attritional warfare as methods of coping with this new means of waging war were hastily devised. Communication was obviously key and, and the "send reinforcements we're going to advance, - send three and four pence, we're going to a dance" parable seems to have some truth about it.

I seem to have come away with even more questions, rather than the few answers I had hoped for. The one thing that does stand out, is that a few circumstances conspired in a short space of time to shape the course of much of the last century. Countries were forced to take sides, go to war, millions died, and when the war ended, a movement was begun in the defeated nation whose populace had been brought to its knees, and out of the German Socialist Party, sprang the Nazi movement and the die was cast for a repeat performance.

Apologies for another post completely free of fishing, but this guff started out as a means of remembering what I am supposed to be doing from day to day, and I had to write something down for no other reason than for myself. If the tone slipped into the flippant at any point, I apologise, but flippancy and irreverence are qualities that I value about living in a "Free Society" and for that I give thanks, and will now, never forget.

A million words wouldn't do justice to the actual impact of visiting these places and once again, well done The Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

If anyone needs a guide to these places, I can recommend our hosts. Driver McGyver delivered us to each destination directly and smoothly and the chap in the passenger seat who is a defunct decorator to the "Rich and Famous" and is now breaking new ground in the world of breakfast beverages with a crossover cuppa whose actual recipe, like that of Coca Cola shall remain under lock and key, but whose principle components comprise a teabag in a cup of coffee. (Many in the room raised their eyebrows at this concoction, but the seers amongst us quickly singled this out as a "Dr Pepper" moment and the future of liquid refreshment). was a mine of information for laymen such as ourselves, just don't ask him to source a trolley in a French Supermarket - completely bamboozled.
Thanks again it was a terrific trip, and I hope this proves that I was listening.