Friday 20 December 2019

Friends, Romans, Countrymen

Lend me your ears.

The left one if possible

and I promise to give it back when my own left ear is back in mid season form and brim full of vim, vigour and not snot.

Half blind without my glasses, half deaf with only one ear working and a failed sense of smell that doesn't pick up when a lazy feline has taken its ease on the dog bed (apologise to visitors who had to take coffee in our kitchen one day this week, particularly the one with the highly refined professional nose, the house doesn't always smell like that) the wheels do seem to be coming off thick and fast as we progress through life. I now make a point of checking other faculties most mornings before I rise from the bed just to make sure something else hasn’t gone in the night.

I’ve just read that last paragraph again and it sounds wrong. What I am trying to convey is that each morning on waking, I wiggle my fingers and toes, turn my head to the left and then the right before undertaking a few gentle stretches.

Anyway, I’ve not hurt myself with my chainsaw yet, but then with all the rain we've had I haven’t picked it up much this week. It really is having a tremendous effect on this valley and the groundwater level continues to rise. The Dever remains within its banks but the sight of substantial puddles on the meadows serves as a fabulous filip after previous dry winters, as do creases in the main river flow (see top picture). It’s conditions such as these that cause the chalk streams to have an extra sparkle when spring kicks in. Some parts remain a bit too mushy for vehicular access and wellies that work are a must for heading on up the river, but this is all that conditions should be and the more water that soaks down into the ground between now and March the better this chalk stream’s condition will be throughout next summer.

Last night I went to Manderley again,

No I didn't, and this may be another sign of failing faculties.

Last night, in heavy rain I went over the road and opened the hatch on the house one notch to get rid of water.

It had remained firmly shut since July 2014.

It's an old piece of equipment formed from iron at a works in Andover in the 1840's (The hatch on the house, not my good self)

but it still works (The hatch on the house not my good self).

It has 34 teeth (The hatch on the house.....Ok, Ok I'll end it there)

The hatch on the house has 34 teeth pinned to its spine of oak. It was installed to control the speed of the spinning mill wheel and divert any excess water that would make the the mill spin above the speed required.

Today it is open to the one tooth mark. If we start the season with the rack and pinion mechanism fixed at ten teeth or more we should be able to run the mill stream up to mid summer, and if we were still in the business of grinding corn, there would be bread for all.

The place may be a muddy morass, but keep the rain coming.

Popped over to the Itchen at Easton a couple of days ago where conditions are the same. The main river is is carrying more colour than the Dever and the grayling fisherman I spoke with on the far bank had experienced a blank day with little fly. He bemoaned the fact that grayling numbers seemed to be down on most rivers in the region. Numbers in the Dever are certainly much diminished from what they were five or six years ago, although several of our regular grayling anglers who have fished here for many years insist that numbers are up this winter on last winter and the winter before. One angler last week passed double figures for the day, all caught in the afternoon, when a few olives put in an appearance. Triploid trout have attained a nuisance value of “possible pain in the arse”.

Sterile fish they don’t suffer the hardship of going off the feed at spawning time and will happily snatch a carefully presented pink nymph on ultra fine tackle intended for a one pound grayling. Some of the sterile lumps that have rocked up this year are pushing five pounds and look a little out of place in a river the size of the Dever.

All the wood for a new bridge is now cut and treated and is slowly being moved into place.

I’m holding off felling any more Christmas trees for stacking and seasoning as there is a chance several mature specimens could wobble over in wet water meadows early next year.

I'll just break off there to deal with some parish messages.

It has been pointed out on at least two occasions that in my pitch for shifting some cheese boards with a tale, I only featured cheeses from France and this was not in the spirit of "Getting Brexit Done!!"

By way of balance here's one of a new board with a tale

(Beech tree known locally as Ophelia - fell into the river on a windless night in high summer)

with some 36 month old Davidstow Cheddar and a knife forged in Nirosta, which I believe is a region of Sheffield.

It's just cheese folks, lighten up.

The benefits of delaying rainfall making an entrance to a river system is oft promoted in recent times.

There are several examples of ditches being partially blocked to hold water back and prevent incidents of high levels of direct flow following heavy rain causing flash flooding. Pickering Beck in North Yorkshire is often cited as an example of a such a scheme introduced. The small town of Pickering now suffers fewer incidents of flooding following heavy rain on the moors north of the town as a result.

At which point Beaver enthusiasts will be experiencing ants in their pants,

but I’d back myself and those employed in the same field, against a bunch of beavers to make a better job of such a project and its subsequent management.

True chalk rivers don’t flash flood, so making a case for delaying the impact of direct flow following heavy rain to prevent flooding is not quite applicable. You could make a case for delaying rainfall making an entrance to a chalk river system to allow as much water as possible. Networks of hatches and sluices were once used to push water around the valley floor and hold water back in late winter to warm grassland and provide a flush of early grazing.

In the winter of 2013/2014 when we last experienced rain during winter time, the M3 and A34 were closed and the army deployed to spend a weekend lowering one ton bags of gravel from a road bridge into the main river Itchen above Winchester.

It was the weir that Wickes built (It’s on here somewhere) and the plan was to prevent water levels in Winchester rising by holding water back on a meadow system between the M3 and the Easton road. I popped over to take some photos and bumped into a keeper friend of mine who was also taking in the scene. He remarked that he was sure there was once a set of hatches on the main river and also on the carrier at that point to perform that very task.

I replied that there probably was until those guys over there in the fine fleece jackets and cutting edge walking shoes advised that they should be removed as they didn’t sit well with the current purge on perched streams.

There is a wealth of lost knowledge when it comes to moving water around these chalk valleys, which is never more apparent than when it rains a lot in winter.

Not all sets of hatches will have a positive impact on the today's chalk streams. It is important to examine the impact of each hatch or sluice, weigh up the the pros and cons of each “in stream” installation, question why the thing was installed all those years ago, and decide whether it can be used in a positive or negative effect with regard to today's chalk stream management.

Reading some of this guff back it is clear that a plethora of grammatical errors infect the written piece.

Which is an occupational hazard of the online offload (there's no clever sub editors here), as much of the mid summer guff was chucked up in a state of high bate in high heat and to a back ground of indifference by authorities charged with protecting this unique aquatic environment

Apologies again for getting cross.

Thanks as ever for reading the rubbish that I write and for all those who get in touch, happy to hear from anyone, agreeable or disagreeable, on the this blog or by direct message

Happy Christmas and look forward to touching base in decade number three of the twenty first century

In your face millennium bug.

Oh yes, at this time of year we are duty bound to close the show with this

Happy Christmas

Friday 13 December 2019

Kenneth Williams, Board Butter and Cheese........Pardon!


A word that has been worn out in this house since we returned from Toronto.

Turns out my ear drum went pop during the flight.

I then picked up an ear infection with an ear eczema chaser.

Judith Chalmers never mentioned this kind of thing when promoting the case for whizzing around the world back in the Eighties.

My west ear doesn’t work at the moment, so like referendums, elections and the general doings of everyday life, I am subconsciously influenced by mutterings from east of here.

A consultant has been consulted and the combination of the ear infection and ear perforation has done something to my middle or inner ear.

In future conversation could all "Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf".

A scan is booked for the new year and fingers are crossed that any action required is not booked for the Ides of March.

Bugger my ailing ears, David Bellamy’s gone.

During my A Levels I travelled by train to Sheffield with three pals to take in one of his lectures.

An entertaining speaker, the three hours he drew the spotlight bounced along tremendously.

In an unexpected twist to the end of our day, the train home was delayed. We subsequently sought out the station café for succour.

The cafe was very much "of a piece" for the era, and most tables were taken, but only one sound could be heard.

Sitting at the centre table in a Gabardine mac talking to/at an acquaintance, was Kenneth Williams.

For fifteen minutes (more than Parkinson got) we all sat silently sipping tea, pretending not to listen to the monologue delivered by Kenneth who barely drew breathe.

He was everything you would expect, and want Kenneth Williams to be.

Two great orators in one day, and to cap it all the nice lady who checked our tickets on the late train home looked a bit like Tessa Wyatt.

Been engaged with the forces of crack willow for much of the week.

Principally an errant salix that had sent limbs crashing to all four points of the compass. It is now pollarded back to its base, and room for half a dozen hard woods has been created.

We also coppiced an old Hazel that had fallen over to one side a few years back. Still very much alive it also freed up space for a similar number of trees to be planted in March.

I believe the Victorians were keen on planting Hazel.

Some of the hazel in the belt alongside the track at the back are definitely lined up in rows and are now a substantial size. Management of the Hazel would have been far more intensive than today. Nuts would have been harvested as a plentiful source of protein. Spars and strong straight sticks had many uses and then there’s the charcoal.

Charcoal burners turned up each summer on the estate on the middle river where I first fell into this business.

They would spend weeks in various belts of hazel around the place slowly cooking hazel in a mobile kiln.

I think they were a family, they all looked similar, but more often and not they were covered in charcoal dust. They camped in the woods for several weeks, coppicing and stacking green hazel while the previous years hazel simmered away in the kiln.

Groundwater is on the rise as the rain continues to fall. Puddles in the wood are always a good sign although the aquifers could take a few more months of rain yet. There are still ditches in this parish without eau, and you can take it as read that there is no spring yet in the field known across the ages as Spring Bottom.

Immersing ourselves further in the drive for sustainability. Regular readers of this guff will remember that five years ago a substantial field maple fell on the roof of our home (It’s on here somewhere)

Disaster, disaster one may think,

but looking up not down the thing couldn’t have fallen to closer to our wood burner and accompanying log basket.

For the Time and Motion department, and their obsession with the number of times a piece of wood is picked up, moved and put down on its journey from the outside world to our wood burner, things could not have gone better.

We just made do with a garden full of stacked logs for the summer.

The main trunk proved problematic.

A couple of tonnes of field maple, it lay on a steep bank and was unstable, it slipped eighteen inches down the bank during my opening gambit to chop the thing up.

On such occasions I find the best policy is to walk away, do something else and forget about the problem.

Which I did, after driving a few stakes into the bank to prevent the thing making further passage down the bank.

Last week I went at the fifteen foot trunk with the chainsaw mill and removed some superbly seasoned maple planks that are currently being turned into cheese boards.

We like cheese,

but not enough to merit the number of boards that could be produced from this substantial piece of field maple.

If anybody would like cheese board of irregular shape formed from the field maple that nearly did for Maisie (Child A as was) and myself, don’t be stranger.

Ten pounds plus a couple of guineas for postage should cover it.

Sales pitch:

Yes the jewellery crafted from the cannons of the Armada, and Ok the handkerchiefs torn from the shroud of Turin,

but what’s not to like about a cheese board with a tale behind it?

There now follows an account of the chain of events that led to the production of these unique and historical cheese boards.

It was a cold dark night,

Well three thirty in the afternoon actually on a Friday in early 2014.

There was a high wind blowing from the south and the rain that had fallen incessantly throughout that winter continued to pound the windscreen of our car. I’d just collected Maisie (Child A as was) from the station, as she was home for the weekend from University. With wipers set to frantic we made our way slowly down the lane alongside the river. The last balsam poplar left standing on the place appeared to be undertaking its final death throes in the middle of the meadow.

I remarked to Maisie (Child A as was)

“I reckon when we get home, if you take your bag up to your bedroom and look out of the window you’ll catch that big balsam poplar falling over”

It’s the sort of event I’ve a keen interest in, but not so much a third year Uni student fresh up from the city environment,

but she agreed grudgingly to humour me.

I set to the sink preparing vegetables for tea while Maisie (Child A as was) climbed the stairs, put down her bags in her room and looked out of her window. Within thirty seconds there was a report of krakatoan proprotions and the field maple that stood in our garden, the opposite direction from which Maisie (Child A as was) was instructed to look, toppled onto the roof of our home. The roof above William’s (Child B as was) neighbouring bedroom was demolished.

Down at the sink with the vegetables, the room shook, the clock fell off the wall and the uniformity of my cut carrots went seriously awry.

The balsam poplar stood for another couple of weeks before cashing in its’ chips. The field maple remained on our roof for a week or so until the insurance assessor visited. Other visitors to this fabled tree that is now producing cheese boards for sale included: King Arthur, Elvis Presley and several Cornish Pixies. The Loch Ness Monster even put in an appearance in the small pond into which part of the tree fell.

There is a certain degree of satisfaction in turning the tree that came close to wiping out Maisie (Child A as was) and myself into cheese boards and logs.

The provenance and celebrity attachments of these boards are established (cheese not included)

If you would like a message inscribed on your cheese board, please state clearly in your order.

If you do not require a message, your board will be inscribed “In your face field maple, vengeance is mine!” with a small sinister laughing face and chainsaw emoji alongside.

We also stock a wide range of bread boards, large coasters, substantial table mats, ping pong bats, paddles, boogie boards and irregular shelving, a bit like Ikea really, only its real wood.

There is a limit to the number of products that this historical tree can produce. It’s an orange sticker Lidl like WIGIG, get it while you can (won’t be ready for Christmas)

To quote Hughie Green I mean that most sincerely folks!

But I do have a lot of maple cheese boards in irregular shapes and sizes.

Sealed with high end "board butter" they were formed by my own fat hands from a tree that nearly did for myself and Maisie (Child A as was).

I feel it is only right that this house attempts to profit from a near death experience, albeit five years after the event.

I seem to have worn out my open bracket close bracket buttons during the chucking up of this guff.

Friday 6 December 2019

Food Production, Bob Willis and Reggie the Lion


A common greeting in the flat hills of my homeland where I attended school and almost grew up.

We visited recently to touch base with parents. It’s a journey that thirty years ago, once took nine and a half hours in an 850cc Mini van that was ill equipped to cope with any motorways on offer, last month we made landfall at Toronto in two hours less.

The sweet spot of 2012 saw us complete the journey in just under three hours.

The journey has since taken a little longer with each passing year, at which point I could once again effuse on smart motorways, the increased size in cars, and the need to move freight about the country on rails rather than roads, but I shall refrain because the vein on my forehead will begin to throb, my hands will form fists and I will bang my head repeatedly on the top of the table.

It is a familiar route that passes over several rivers. Many of which we have seen in flood and pushing out across the fields. All bar one on this trip were behaving themselves and restraining their movements to between two banks.

In this valley we have had a dry few days with frost.

Which is great as it serves as a full stop to the summer and nature knows where it is, although our garden currently plays host to a delphinium in full bloom which is a little surreal.

A few brown trout have moved on to the shallows and are kicking up redds. With a good depth and rate of flow mortalities of spawning fish from avian predation should be down on the previous few seasons.

Cold weather somewhere else has caused a reasonable head of geese to take up residence on the water meadow upstream from here. Mostly canada geese with the odd greylag, they will hang around here for most of the winter.

The Merlin is back. I have followed it up the road twice, and Moss flushed it from a path cut through the long stuff near the top shallows, before heading off up the hill after a Hare.

A few anglers have bothered the grayling. The average bag between four and eight fish in a day, with most fish caught in the faster water.

Chainsaws continue to buzz. Plenty of planks are now piled up for numerous projects along with these two fifteen foot runners to replace a footbridge upstream from the fishing hut. We have also felled and stacked a few more mature trees to season over the summer for planking next winter.

The task of toppling Christmas trees and burning the bits that are not required for planking always puts a smile on Lord Ludg’s face, particularly at this time of the year.

There are also a few dead trees in amongst the live ones that have been taken down.

One tree was spared the process of planking or introduction to the medium of fire and was dragged up the road to The Swan, where it now stands sentinel in the pub garden.

This week this house acquired an extra parcel of land. An allotment to be precise. It will serve several purposes. Shortages of items various are predicted. Following a self imposed exile in a cave clad only in loin cloth and beard, there is a requirement to gently reintroduce myself to society. It’s a mile up the road and I have to justify the purchase of the electric bike and I like vegetables.

I’ve always had a vegetable patch in our garden but the mother of all Sycamore trees is sucking all the nutrients and water away, and each year yields from my small square of earth are diminished. In another exciting development, a “Vegetable of the Month” feature is being mooted for this house next year. Watch this space.

Poor old Bob Willis, only he wasn’t old.

Ok he completed the three score years and ten, but that’s not much these days.

Didn’t see him play live, but remember 1981 and his 8 wickets at Headingley. The distinctive run up and when he walked out to bat without his bat.

Here he is with William (Child B as was)

Bob’s the one holding the microphone. William’s the one dressed up as Reggie the Lion, the Hampshire CC mascot.

They are carrying out the toss at the Rose Bowl prior to the Pro 40 clash between Hampshire and Notts. William was a late call up, but the role came with a dozen free tickets for family and friends so he was pushed forward.

William got in Bob’s way a few times and at one point trod on his toe (Reggie didn’t have the best peepers) Bob took it in good humour up until the toe incident.

During the game, that Notts won due in no small part to a brilliant century from England’s James Taylor, William was allowed to sit in the dressing room of whichever side was batting. He could remove Reggie’s head by way of respite from the clamouring hoards and preserve the illusion that Reggie was a bonafide lion and not a seventeen year old opening batsman in a Lion suit.

Both Hants and Notts sides were required to sign non disclosure agreements to that effect.

The Wheelabrator proposal remains afoot.

The deadline for venting spleen in the consultation process is 12th December.

There now follows a short appeal:

If you have formed any sort of attachment to this river valley please take the time to parlay a few words into a strong message of objection and and send it to the email address below.

You don’t have to live in the valley,

it doesn’t matter if you visit once a year or once a week,

Every objection improves the case for preventing this industrial behemoth putting in an appearance in this unique and fragile chalk valley.

Please visit for more information on how this valley could be impacted upon if this proposal is approved.

We are advised not to use the proforma on the Wheelabrator website, but to send comments directly to

December 12th is the final day for comments to be received.

Thats December 12th - next Thursday.

Wednesday 20 November 2019

A Bonfire of Insanity. This Wheelabrator Stinks!

Back again,

This time with a headful of sawdust following intense engagements with wood via the medium of chainsaw.

We had a complicated do with a brace of ash trees on the island on the pond that had fallen over during the summer. The island is inaccessible by tractor so all wood must either be carried over the bridge on foot or pulled across the pond by winch or tractor.

The bank is a few feet high on that side of the pond and it was a matter of slinging a rope over a fork in a tree and attaching one end to the tractor and the other end to the bough to be removed from the island.

Pulling over the fork in the tree lifts the severed limb up the bank rather than into the bank and avoids a lot of huff and puff.

It was an incident packed three day job that was compounded by the depth of the silt in the channel that I briefly slipped into at one point, chainsaw an'all.

We’ve also felled a couple of ash trees infected by dieback that stood on the bends upstream from the fishing hut.

Twenty years old, this pair were shedding limbs at a rate comparable to the knight in The Holy Grail,

Which is great for the wood shed, but more trees must be planted this winter to fill the void that this insidious disease continues to create.

This morning we stood for five minutes watching this kingfisher pluck minnows from the bottom bends and the stream through the garden at the Mill.

It didn’t seem too bothered by our presence and appeared fairly portly, so the conclusion was drawn that it was one of this year's brood making its' preliminary steps in the outside world.

There’s plenty of the things on this stretch of the river, drawn to the millions of resident minnows. There's some easy fishing to be had for a Kingfisher from plenty of perches on the non fishing bank.

The Chainsaw Mill has emerged from the workshop and we have been producing planks in both fir and ash for a range of projects this winter.

With a nod to acting in a more sustainable manner, last year we felled a Christmas Tree that I planted twenty five years ago.

After a year of marinading, or possibly seasoning, it has been introduced to the chainsaw mill. We now have many pieces of wood in different shapes and sizes to replace a failed bridge over a side stream.

The wheel will have turned full circle when we plant another tree in late winter in place of the felled tree. The ash is designated for seat tops, bread boards and salad bowls. We will not be replanting with ash, despite news this week that progress is being made in the fight against ash dieback, because a ban remains in place on the movement of all ash trees.

Apologies for a bit of a pitch, but last week saw the public consultation for the behemoth of an incinerator that is proposed for a site less than a mile from here and a few hundred yards from the banks of both the Dever and the Test.

Twice the size of Winchester Cathedral, it has many in a fine bate and frothing at the mouth, as the decision as to whether the proposal is passed will be taken a long way away from here in Whitehall and not this locale.

There are many reasons to object to the proposal. They are listed at,

for the sake of balance, the case for the proposal can be found at

At the consultation my first question was directed to the meeter and greeter.

Why Wheelabrator?

It’s a naff name that smacks of being conjured up across the pond where the company who are making this proposal are based.

Swiftly dismissed as a "hick from the sticks" I then spoke with the man pushed forward to talk about the water,

because this leviathan needs water.

There is a rainwater capture scheme planned. A giant water butt if you will, where rain that falls on the expansive roof will be stored. There will also be a requirement for water to be taken from the ground. Southern Water had provided assurances that they could supply the water for this surplus requirement, and yes, he was very confident that the proposed incinerator would be given the green light. I pointed out that the aquifers in the area were classified as “at the maximum point of abstraction” if the unique aquatic environment of the chalk rivers is not to be impacted upon.

He remained confident that the proposed incinerator would be given the green light.

I enquired as to whether he was aware that the data that Southern Water were basing their offer of a bounty of water may well be flawed.

They have a history for this kind of thing and received a substantial fine earlier this year for questionable gathering of data.

He replied that the application could only be guided by data and assurances presented by the water company and yes,

he remained confident that the proposed incinerator would be given the green light.

I pointed out that the previous five winters had been particularly dry. If there was a shortfall in the rainwater capture process, would they be required to ask for an increase in the amount of water required to be drawn out of the ground?

He replied that they would have to get the water from somewhere and yes,

he remained confident that the proposed incinerator would be given the green light.

I thanked him for his time and moved on to the virtual reality guys who had a big screen a laptop and a promise that they could put you on the ground in any part of the parish to see with our own eyes how invisible this project would be. We zoomed in to a spot between the garden gate and the fishing hut and were greeted by a sea of green. I asked the tech chap if this was Bransbury and he said yes, Bransbury on the River Test. We zoomed out a little and yes, there were the bends in the river that I have been falling in and out for twenty eight years but what were all these trees?

A little perplexed and with apoplexy imminent I informed tech man that it was not the River Test but the River Dever and that all those trees that his company insisted would shield their industrial Kraken do not exist.

He replied that the VR had been created using data from a recent arboreal study, and yes,

he was confident that the proposed incinerator would be given the green light.,

At which point I began to froth at the mouth and left the room.

This Wheelabrator proposal stinks.

It’s a stitch up.

With batteries removed from a torch detailed to shine a light on data provided to promote the cause.

It stinks,

It stinks,

It stinks

Once again, if any other country played as fast and loose with such a unique aquatic environment by making such a proposal we would be quick to condemn as corrupt.

The final decision on this proposal will be taken out of this valley to a long way away in Whitehall. Brimful of urban enlightenment with scant regard for a fragile chalk valley. Big business and the bottom line will be invoked and somewhere across the pond champagne corks will be popped.

There are better ways to reduce our reliance on landfill in this county than this Leviathanic Bonfire of the Insanities


I was asked by a local historical society to stand up in a hall and speak of my experience of setting for eels on chalk streams. I've done a few talks about working on the river and there is talk of a tour, but this was the first request specifically for information on eels.

Unfortunately I had to cancel the request at short notice, but committed the following notes oratory notes to the archives.

I've replaced the brief CV at the start of the piece with a short public information film about eels as the niche takers of this chunk of guff will already be aware of my personal particulars.

Forgive the semi script style of the piece but it was written as a cross over piece that could also prove popular in Mummery.

As ever, I have to write these things down in case I forget.

I have worked on the Dever at Bransbury for twenty eight years and prior to that I worked on the River Test, first at Leckford Estate from 1986 and then for the Houghton Fishing Club at Stockbridge.

Both Leckford and Houghton had eel sets that were regularly used to catch eels. I occasionally used a fyke net in my formative years at Bransbury Mill to catch a few eels.

Leckford had a substantial eel set on the main river, The Houghton Club had two, one on the main river and one on a carrier stream.

Eel sets were used from late summer through to mid winter and only used at night. The eel sets I have helped operate consist of a set of hatches that span the river channel.

During the day the river would be allowed to flow through an open set of hatches with no water running through the set – a large grated box positioned behind a closed set of hatches.

To set for eels the hatches in front of the set would be opened at dusk and the hatches through which the river had flowed during the day would be closed. The whole river would be flowing through the set during the night.

Eels migrate to sea to spawn and start their run down the river from mid summer. During their time living in the river they have a yellow belly and are known as “yellow eels”.

Once the urge to return to the Sargasso sea is triggered the eel’s belly turns silver and they start to make their way downstream.

It is these silver eels that are the target when setting for eels on the Test and Itchen.

Because the whole of the river is flowing through the eel set gratings, anything that comes down the river is caught - leaves, weed, rubbish and of course the silver eels. Consequently the set must be cleaned off throughout the night and any eels caught on the gratings moved to a holding box nearby.

The number of eels running downstream on the middle Test and middle Itchen is dependant on the moon and weather conditions.

No moon or “the dark” will always see more eels running, as would bad weather or a rising river. This aversion to light would sometimes be exploited by keepers placing a light on one bank to push running eels down a particular channel towards the set.

The heaviest catch that I was involved in on the middle Test was in October 1989 when on a dark night in bad weather and a rising river we caught 700 eels each about 18inches in length.

We had to attend the set throughout the night, constantly clearing away rubbish from the gratings as, if allowed to become blocked, the water would go over the top of the set and the eels would be away.

A full moon with clear skies would see around a dozen eels caught through the night and with little clearing off required a single visit in the early hours would be enough to keep it clear.

The appearance of larger eels in the catch marked the approach of the end of the eel run for that year.

For many years setting for eels on the Test and Itchen was sustainable with numbers caught consistent from year to year. The unique nature of both these chalk rivers means that they are often several channels wide with a main river and several carrier streams. Eels running the carrier streams inevitably evaded capture as most eel sets were sited on the main river channel.

Eels caught in the set were transferred to a holding tank in the river and kept alive awaiting collection. For many years the majority of eels caught on the middle to upper Test ended up in one of Fred Cooke’s eel pie shops in the east end of London.

Along with Manse’s, Fred Cooke’s was one of the first eel pie shops in the east end of London opening in the late 19th century. The business was a great success, Fred Cooke built up a chain of eel pie shops in East London and the demand for eels could not be met from the nearby River Thames and Billingsgate fish market.

During my time working on the middle Test in the late 80’s and early 90’s it was the third generation Fred Cooke who arrived each month to pick up the eels.

A giant of a man in Doctor Martin boots, he wore jeans held up by colourful braces topped off with a baseball cap with “Bruno” writ large across the front.

He could have fallen straight out of a Chas & Dave video.

Fred arrived once a month or when eel holding boxes were full.

He had a flash flat bed truck with a large tank on the back and transported the live eels back to his eel pie empire where they would be held alive in tanks for up to six months before they were required to put in an appearance on the menu.

The rapid increase in fast food restaurants in the 1980s and 90s saw Fred Cooke’s business suffer, eel pie shops closed and Fred Cooke’s empire was reduced to a single shop on Hoxton St.

Known as the Buckingham Palace of the eel pie shop world for its lavish use of ornate stained glass and marble, it was still operating under Fred’s son Robert until the earlier part of this year.

With a reduced requirement for live eels Fred Cooke ceased collecting eels from the middle Test in the mid 1990s.

During the following few years a Dutch company would dispatch a lorry once a month to collect live eels caught from the River Test to take back to Holland for smoking, but in the final few years of the 20th century the European eel population collapsed and all eel sets were mothballed.

The reason for the collapse remain unclear but it occurred across all northern European rivers.

The European eel is an incredible creature and remarkably robust, its decline is not attributed to overfishing during its time in freshwater, but thought to be caused by something happening during its time at sea, principally during its period of passage as a juvenile from the Sargasso sea to the edge of the continental shelf.

For the few years in the 90s that I set a fyke net for eels on the Dever, I rarely caught more than a dozen in a night. These ended up at the smoker, and I only set the net when I anticipated a requirement for smoked eel.

It is a simple set up with a a leader net directing a silver eel towards a series of chambers that could be lifted in the morning and the eels removed. It needed minimal clearing off and I didn’t set in a rising river as it was not as robust as a fixed eel set and could easily be washed away. I have not set my fyke net for eels for twenty years.

The details of sale for Bransbury Mill in the 18th and 19th century list the fishery as an asset of the property and specifically mentions eels.

There was once a small set somewhere on the man made mill stream dug to drive the mill wheel but there is no evidence of it today.

I have seen several small eel sets in mills that are detachable.

Positioned on the outfall of the channel taking excess water around the Mill wheel they were attached at night and removed during the day, this may have been the set up at Bransbury Mill and possibly at Bullington where I believe eels were also once caught.

Tuesday 12 November 2019

87.4% Fall and An Abstemious Fug of Dissapointment

Kersplosh, and here we are back in the river.

Yes there is undoubtedly a lot more river than there was ten weeks ago, but this is how a winter should be.

Aquifers are not replenished, a magic wand has not been waved there is a long way to go yet this winter. Short term gains are one thing but keep an eye on the bigger picture. I feel for everyone north of here affected by flooding who currently entertain eels under the chaise longue.

The insinuation by some that this kind of thing would not be allowed to happen closer to Westminster can be added to the list of "reasons the rivers of this region suffer from over abstraction"

Chalk valleys respond in a unique way to heavy rain, sucking it up like a sponge before releasing the eau via springs sometime later. They rarely flash flood. The cricket correspondent for The Times, whose family have haunted this valley for aeons always insists:

“The Test is too much of a lady to flood, she’s a far too gentile river”

Which she is most of the time, but she really lets it all hang out when she does flood. Groundwater flooding takes longer to dissipate than flashy rivers that do not rise on the chalk.

My own bellwethers for aquifers in good health and the prospect of imminent flooding indicate we have a long way to go yet. There is no water in the spring ditch that runs around the football pitch, the field known across the ages as “Spring Bottom” remains spring free and the hatch on the house installed in 1847 that draws water down the mill stream to drive a wheel, remains closed.

The subject of chalk streams in crisis continues to appear in various forms of the media, which is great.

A few years ago we had the chalk stream charter, this year we have had the chalk stream dossier, each supported by big noises in the chalk river world.

While it’s great that public awareness of the plight of groundwater fed rivers is being raised and the same big noises have moved on from a period of taking biscuits, tea and false platitudes from the principle perpetrators of ills that affect the chalk rivers. Further reports repeating mantras from five years ago are the stuff of the People’s Front of Judea.

Real action must be implemented if change is to be affected regarding the current unsustainable use of the groundwater resource. Current climatic conditions make promoting this case difficult, but the point must be made that something must be done in order to avoid the high summer decline that these precious rivers have experienced in recent times.

With a nod to Kevin from Canada (see previous post) autumn colour is maintained and currently sits at around 87.4%, but oaks on the turn indicate that all will be done in a matter of weeks.

Despite an extensive list of ailments, Lord Ludg ticked off another summer and we have entered the wood, chainsaws in hand. I’ve had two offers this summer from drive by tree surgeons offering to deal with ash trees visible from the road that are obviously riddled with dieback. Each offer was declined and the trees will be dealt with in our own amateur way, but thanks for the offer. High wind while we were away caused a couple of willows to cash in their chips and the substantial conker tree downstream from the fishing hut continues to shed limbs. The grapevine in our garden failed to produce fruit this year and blackbirds anticipating their annual tipsy treat of fermenting grapes bumble about the garden in an abstemious fug of disappointment and a wary eye for a sparrow hawk that sporadically buzzes the bird feeders.

This week the parish received the gift of new holiday accommodation.

It’s all a bit Cold War Steve, and should be around for a few weeks yet as it is offered for lease on as Spa accommodation for eight, spread over four floors with river views, extensive grounds and hot tub.

Book now for Christmas and New Year.

On a more serious note we had a missing person crisis last week. A forty year old lady reached crisis point and drove away from her life.

Abandoning her car on the back track the poor soul wandered away to ponder the forks in the path that circumstances had laid before her.

Whatsapp was abuzz, helicopters and drones were flown and all were advised to check outbuildings.

Walking the dogs up the river in a post prandial/jet lagged fug on Sunday afternoon I crashed into a line of high viz orange sweeping the valley. Questions were asked by both parties before Moss entered stage left to disrupt proceedings.

Thankfully the lady was found alive and physically ok in Longparish the following day.

We’ve had the occasional grayling angler put in an appearance, the increase in flow and a tint of colour have perked things up and while nothing much is looking to the surface for sustenance, barbie pink nymphs seem to be reasonably effective. The increase in flow has stimulated ranunculus and if current conditions continue there may be weed to cut in early spring before the trout fishing season opens.

This used to be a fairly regular occurrence, but is not a state of affairs experienced in this environs since 2014. The increase in flow has also pulled brown trout up river to spawn on their regular spawning shallows. These shallows have not played host to spawning brown trout for the past five winters due to lack of water. The same has held true for grayling during the past three winters.

Apologies to our cousins in the north who must fear further cloudbursts,

but we'll take some more rain in these parts yet.