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.

Wednesday 6 November 2019

Brief Encounter, Tim Horton and The Fall

Howdy Pardners,

Apologies but it was half term last week and with a nod to living for pleasure alone, we’ve been away again.

This time on entering the changing room on 52 Festive Rd we were transported to the shores of Lake Ontario in Toronto.

Madam had visited Canadia before. Three months in Alberta not long after we first hooked up. She fell ill the day she was due to depart, flying home 24 hours after her visa expired unsure as to whether she had been listed as deported.

Which added a certain frisson to the immigration process at Pearson airport thirty years later.

Pulled aside by the people with the rubber gloves and the clever dogs with sensitive noses, we feared the worst.

Ok we had the required visas and, at fifty one years old, we appeared fairly benign, but why had sir declared on the immigration form that he was entering the country with a pocket full of pot?

I explained that my peepers were pretty poor, the digital machine that was asking us questions had been very confusing and pot was not really our bag.

Suitably appeased we were waved through,

And so it was that a packet of Tesco finest chipolatas was smuggled into Canadia to provide succour to our aching bellies should airline provender have proved inadequate after our evening arrival.

Concealed within several pairs of ripe old underpants the keenest noses of the Canadia's premier sniffer dogs were even put off the trail.

Airline provender proved more than adequate (a very good curry) so like good goobers (after Bill Hicks) we fixed sausage for breakfast the next morning in our one bedroom condo in down town Toronto before breaking trail.

Prior to our visit I had consulted at length with Kevin from Canada regarding The Fall.

Kevin had predicted 95% Fall during our stay which to my addled eye proved pretty accurate.

Thirty minutes on the Metro way out west pitched us into High Park where all sorts of maples and oaks were giving of their best in the bright sunshine.

The lake in High Park was lined with explanatory boards highlighting the need to control the Phragmites as, if left unchecked, it would conquer the large shallow lake.

Most substantial trees lining the lakeside were also fitted with guards to prevent Beavers dropping the things into the lake as is there wont.

Toronto by the way, is riddled with tame black squirrels, both out in the burbs and downtown.

Out to the islands the following day.

A small archipelago a fifteen minute ferry ride out into Lake Ontario from the Toronto waterfront.

There was a funny feel about the place as everything had shut up the week before for winter.

There are many marinas, a small zoo an amusement park, sandy beaches and many boardwalks perfect for walking and cycling.

The island plays host to Coyotes and Racoons and features many explanatory boards listing the species of fish that inhabit the lakes.

We didn’t see any fish during our brief visit nor much insect life which was a bit disappointing but vindicated my decision to leave the rods at home this trip.

Back in Toronto we punished the ribs and wings and local lager before heading down to the Scotiabank Arena to take in an NHL game.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were taking on the Washington Capitols in front of a twenty odd thousand partisan crowd.

Madam has previous history with all things NHL, Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers from her trip thirty years ago; she even met the great man at the airport on her opening gambit to make her way back to Blighty.

This was my first experience of live ice hockey and I’ll own that I couldn’t quite keep up with comings and goings various, although this may have had something to do with the local lager. The Leafs (I know, I know) lost by a golden goal in extra time, which seemed a little harsh as they only had three skaters on the ice at the time.

Off out to Niagara Falls the next day. Something that I have wanted to see since I read about it in a ladybird book at primary school age.

It's a bit of a faff to get out to the falls at this time of the year.

An hour on the train and an hour and a bit on a bus followed by a forty-minute walk from the bus station, but it was well worth the effort.

The falls are surrounded by explanatory boards with pictures of tightrope walkers, lunatics in barrels and a barge hung up on some rocks a few feet from the lip of the falls.

I was aware of the substantial hydro electric scheme that lights millions of light bulbs in the region, but I was unaware as to how controlled the amount of water going down river is.

A clever man with buttons that light up, sends water this way and that dependant upon digital information received.

There's no putting boards in and out of sluices here, but the principles remain the same, just increased exponentially along with the associated risks.

There is a fixed amount of water sent over the horseshoe falls that is reduced at night to make more ohms and amps. I tried to convert the amount of water going over the falls to mgd (million gallons per day) but I'll refrain from listing it here as I may well wear out the zero button on my new computer.

If you are into Eau, it’s a remarkable sight/site, and one that I will remember for a long time.

I’m just relieved I am not required to don the chest waders and swish a scythe a few yards downstream from the falls.

The following day it rained from dawn til dusk, so we ambled about St Lawrence Market and then visited The Art Gallery of Ontario.

St Lawrence market is a festival of food and fine fayre and an easy place to spend a couple of hours. Cold smoked beef and Pastel de nata were two highlights along with some damned odd sausage. The quality of the coffee is a given, and at this point it may be apposite to mention Tim Horton.

An ex hockey player he has coffee emporia right across town, and goodness it’s good coffee. Tim did well out of us during our stay, double espresso for me and a couple of Tim Bits for Madam several times a day.

The Art Gallery of Ontario is worth a visit.

Alongside an interesting collection of indigenous art sits a large collection of Henry Moore blobs and plenty of other twentieth century stuff that we both much favour,

and a touring collection of Peter Paul Rubens.

I’m a tad indifferent to P.P Rube.

I like his fleshy forms that have influenced works by Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, but some of his biblical stuff, commissioned to strike fear, leave me cold.

Star of this particular show was Massacre of the Innocents, a picture that I can only suffer for a brief period of time.

On a lighter note, the gallery also has a collection of works by the “Group of Seven”

Among Canada’s most famous artists they have a unique appreciation of the Canadian Landscape.

We were both much taken with the work of Arthur Lismer, a new one on us but an artist we will look out for in the future - give him a google.

Shopping featured throughout our eight night stay.

They are way ahead in Canada when it comes to paper craft and while Madam perused the inks, stamps and dies of yet another craft store, I headed for a bar where I had been swiftly accepted as a new fly.

On each visit I was required to perform at least one fist bump and while my sporting allegiances may not have reached all round approval, we always parted company with a “You da man, No You da man, No you da man, No you da man…..”

On our penultimate day in Toronto we headed up the CN Tower for lunch.

I am not great with heights.

Until 2007 the CN tower was the tallest free standing structure in the world. It now sits 9th in the table. The revolving restaurant sits around 1100 ft up this 1853ft high pile of bricks.

Why we booked a table, I don’t know, I thought we had attained an age where impulsiveness had passed.

A stiff drink was taken and we entered the glass bottomed lift along with the front row of a baptist choir who were on a girls weekend away.

Madam and myself were separated and as a conversation opener to the loose head of the front row of the choir who I was squeezed up against, I mentioned that I didn’t like heights or glass bottomed lifts.

She confessed that she wasn’t too keen on heights or lifts either, and in a Trevor Howard, Celia Johnson moment we held hands throughout the sixty second ascent before parting company at the opening of the lift doors.

Food taken high up in the air on a precarious pile of bricks was surprisingly good. Canadian steak, Canadian wine and tremendous Canadian Hospitality. Our lunch lasted two spins of the tower pod and afforded stunning views of the city and lake beyond.

The excellent Canadian wine instilled an air of insouciance on our minute long lift descent to the sidewalk,

and then,

as if by magic,

Fabricio, the Brazilian airport transfer man (sans fez) appeared outside our apartment block with an explanatory board indicating that it was time to make our way back to 52 Festive Rd.

Apologies as ever for more travel stuff, but I do have to write something down else it all fades away.

Many thanks as ever to family for filling in at home.

River stuff to follow.