Friday 30 April 2021

An Icy Zephyr, Robin Page and Samson's Mane

And we’re off. 

Trout fishing has begun. 

An icy zephyr has blown most days, fly have been a bit reluctant to put in appearance, but fish have been caught. We’ve Daddy Long Legs bumbling about the house. We always get a few in April, and most fish that have been put on the bank have fallen to a Daddy or some other large variant, although I haven’t seen a real live DDL anywhere near the river. We wait for the hawthorn, and here’s the ying to the uncomfortable yang of the icy zephyr. A terrestrial fly the bulk of the hawthorn that hatch hang about the hedges of the valley. Any hawthorn larvae that hang out in the meadows during a wet winter will drown. A gentle breeze can blow an unaerodynamic featherweight hawthorn fly bumbling about a valley hedge down onto the river where brer trout eagerly anticipates its arrival. 

We are at the tail end (I hope) of a prolonged period of frost. The wisteria on the Mill House presents a soupcon of former glory with many buds having falling to the frost, the hydrangea by the gate took a bit of a battering too. The ancient Mulberry however knows stuff, and despite three days of twenty degrees or more earlier in the month continues to reserve the right to present a bud. It has also been very dry in this part of the world.


Yesterday we had a reasonable amount of desperately needed rain, the last time anything fell from the sky was the snow at the start of the month when I was cutting weed (it’s on here somewhere, probably around the start of the month) before that - mizzle in March. 

With grass slow to grow, been plucking wood from the wood to introduce to the log burner in winters to come. We’ve plenty of ash piled up about the place which all needs to be transported back to base via the medium of tractor and trailer. There are some substantial rounds heaped up and goodness knows how I humped them about eighteen months ago pre pando. Samson taught us that long hair was a sign of strength, well my locks have not been this long since my twenties and I could barely lift some of the bigger lumps this week that I was gaily flinging around a year and a half ago, seems another victim of the pando is my musculature. 

The lambs in the back field grow ever more boisterous and roam in gangs. They spend much of the evening charging up and down in their hood in what may be attempts to gain territory and assert boundaries. 

I don’t know, I don’t do sheep, 

I do fish 

Well I say I don’t do sheep, but in my summers working on what is now the Waitrose farm I was coerced into some ovine activity. The estate ran a flock of around five hundred sheep, the shepherd students who turned up at lambing time would be housed in the farm house split into bedsits where Madam and myself lived and inevitably after an evening at The Peat Spade we would pop up to see the student at the lambing shed. Day time ovine activity included moving sheep along the lanes and dipping sheep. Lady sheep go through the dip with some reluctance but reasonably efficiently, men sheep (rams I believe) jump in the dipping channel and because of their extra bulk, get stuck and have to be heaved through the dip forcibly, which is where the student employed for the summer who happens to be comfortable in the old eau comes in.

When I first started falling into the River Dever by way of employment back in 1992 a dozen or so sheep ran up the middle between the main river and the mill stream. The grass was kept short and there was no need to mow the meadow, but the rivers marginal reed growth was also munched away and there was not an orchid to be seen. They also had a propensity to wander and after a summer of experiments with sheep, it was decided a different method of meadow management should be undertaken.  One option was to fence the river bank a few metres from the water’s edge in order to continue to run a few sheep on grass but the conclusion was reached that it would look a little odd so the sheep were dispensed with. The meadow is now left to grow until mid June when the orchids and others are done and the topper is introduced. 

There Robin (Page), that’s all I’ve got on sheep. 

I met him a few times (Robin Page) 

A ruddy faced cove who at the time didn’t dress up, he once gave me a signed copy of a book he had written on songbirds. The last time I saw him he had lost a significant amount of weight, was wearing a clean jumper and had a much younger lady on his arm, it just didn’t seem very Robin and I’m guessing a wheel must have come off somewhere in the preceding years. 

And that’s all I have on Robin Page,

next week Robin Cousins - my municipal ice skating slush puppy heck.  

How did we get to this? 

Reading this back through, the year 1992 jumps out and I realise that this is my thirtieth season of chucking up fishing for trout on this stretch of the Dever. 

How did that happen?

Some may contest the claim, but I maintain that I retain most of my youthful looks, vim, vigour and some, if not all, original zest. 

When I first started in this game many used to revere venerable keepers who had spent so much time toiling on the riverbank, they seemed wise and some cases wizened, 

how things change, 


I consider myself incredibly fortunate to do what I do for a living, I once declared on national television (Village Voices, a seminal piece from Meridian TV filmed in the late nineties that focused on innovative thinkers in the rural environment) that I would do the job I do for nothing. This caused considerable consternation in the financial wing of “team de Cani” who were engaged, deep cover, in the business of raising two young children. 

While we are on television, and I was on television telling the world (employers and HMRC included) that I would do my job free gratis, Keith of Ireland is worth a watch, more genius from Sharon Horgan et al. 

Anyway, a fisherman once commented, “Chris you do know you retired at the age of twenty two to become a Riverkeeper” 

Well yes, I probably did, and goodness what a golden period for being a pensioner, but the importance of an active retirement cannot be over emphasised. 

Here’s to another thirty years working on the river, as the age for collecting a state pension continues to be bumped north of the standard 65 so I may still have waders on and scythe in hand when I finally cash in my chips somewhere around the age of 123.

Tuesday 20 April 2021

Nicky Witchell and an Odyssey on The Cheshire Plain

Nicky Witchell’s been on and the word on the street is that the ninety nine year old D of the E is no longer with us. 

Who knew?

Oh well, here goes, roll the state music,

Once when visiting Cowes during regatta week we walked past the tender that had transported Phil from the Royal Yacht Brittania to the yacht club where he was due to take in all things sail and boom. The Prince sat with the squadron in the clubhouse behind the brass starting cannons. We sat on a bench eating chips trying to work out which boat was winning. 

Many years ago on a trip north to bother salmon across the border my paterfamilias briefly shared the waxed jacket aisle in John Norris with his highness Prince Phillip, they lost touch soon afterwards and didn't speak for the remainder of his years. Clearly things had not gone well 

In her preliminary years, Child A was detailed to take a day away from her formative education and travel to Southsea Common to present flowers to her majesty the Queen (Phillip’s wife) Her Majesty wore yellow,  Child A wore a burgundy school jumper with an owl on the front. They spoke at a length of sorts, but they too lost touch soon afterwards. 

In an effort to earn further coin while a student in the late 80s I once coshed the Grandmother of The Duchess of York on the head with a ladder while painting the outside of a restaurant on Stockbridge High St (I was being paid to paint the restaurant not assault well heeled nonagenarians) The tower of London was briefly invoked but we eventually parted on good terms. In her last few remaining years our relationship attained "estranged" status and we never spoke again.

That’s all I’ve got Nick, is that ok? 

Moving on. 

We’re open for trout fishing and it feels gooooood (apologies, been listening to a lot of Partridge in preparation for his glorious return in the coming weeks) 

Not much fly about and the many fish that sit on the bends nudge and nose at most offerings rather than commit to a full on rise. Not much hawthorn around yet, but it is early. There are grannom over on the Itchen, but again fish remain circumspect. Leaky waders when weed cutting betrayed the fact that the river is still pretty cold but is also dropping at quite a rate. The spring ditch through the allotments that emanates from spring bottom has quickly run dry, and the track at the back that three weeks ago was passable only in wellies is now a decidedly dusty affair, some warm rain would be welcome.
I’ve come across three dead slow worms flat on the road recently. Like the frogs and toads they seem to head for the high ground of the grass verge along the line for their winter retreat, making their way back across the road to the meadows when spring is sprung. Only seen one swallow, 12th April which is a little later than we would expect, but the snow showers earlier this month may have had an influence on their estimated time of arrival. 

Popped up to Cheshire for a few days in an AirBnb last week in order to touch base with parents. We were very lucky with the weather and caught the sun while taking pegs and pie out in the garden. Dogs were in attendance and our digs were in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the limit of ponds that I used to fish when growing up in the area. As I’ve said previously, fishing was very accessible in this part of the Cheshire plain. Most fields were pasture with milk production the principle quest. Marl pits were present in many fields, scrapes made to extract clay to fertilise fields that filled with water and subsequently served as water source for dairy cattle. They all had fish in.  Rudd, crucian carp and tench mostly with the occasional perch or pike. 

The AirBnb that we visited sat on a remote farm with a couple of marl pits nearby full of fish.  I had no knowledge of  these pits as they were just out of range of a wobbly bike overloaded with fishing tackle. 

The twenty minute drive to our parents' abodes was a nostalgic trip of youthful fishing trips that Madam eventually drew tired of and  went something like: 
Kings pit – good pike, 

Littlers – tench up against the lillies, 

Greenaways – same, 

Eddy Walleys – fished many times at night, 

Sarmons – full of stunted rudd, 

Egg bridge – netted it with a pea net and moved bream in buckets on bikes to Sangsters an ancient dubisch pond full of big crucians. 

Marl pit – choked with potamogeton and again, home to stunted rudd, 

Walkers - crucians and little tench with overhead power lines, and full disclosure here (further Partridge), power lines that we once straddled with an aluminium landing net pole while having a go at the javelin (Tessa Sanderson and Fatima Whitbread were quite the thing at the time) knocking out the supply of amps and ohms to the nearby village of Oscroft, for which we/I now fully apologise. 

I didn’t mention the many meres and rivers that sit on the Cheshire plain that I also fished, but it is an easy place to fall into fishing.
You might pitch up to one of these ponds at four in the morning in June to take on the tench and find a dozen or more of your contemporaries in attendance. If fishing was good it was a reasonably sensible business but if bites were not forthcoming it could swiftly descend into a nonsense with fishing secondary. I think it’s the genesis of my penchant for social fishing. For a few years I could fish quite intensely for a prolonged period, but now the chat, the social side of being on the bank and kicking back with a beer if there is nothing going on is just as rewarding. 

Which leads me to think that my destiny may be the guy who inhabits every fishing tackle shop, turning up each day to talk a good fish without ever wetting a line that week. 

And there’s nothing wrong with that, 

I think that’s it, So with a nod to the large number of hares that currently bumble about Bransbury and Barton Stacey, 

That’s all folks,
(Bugs was a Rabbit, and apologise for the poor quality photo taken on your sub standard phone you dolt! – Ed) 

I’m off to read a book by Sue Townsend. She struggled greatly in the last few years of her life, lost her sight but continued to turn out fantastic material and died far too soon at the age of 62. I once had an opportunity to attend a week long writing retreat in Greece which she hosted and had a reputation for a bacchanalian air. I didn’t take up the opportunity, which remains a significant regret, 

Long gone, but a genius still much missed.

Wednesday 7 April 2021

Scything Through the Snow and a Befuddled Quince

Well, I’ve been cutting weed in a blizzard, 

Which was a first. 

Mid twenties last week, below freezing this week, our fruit trees are very confused which may mean there will be fewer of our five a day about this year.
The quince appears particularly befuddled. 

The weed is pushing clear of the water in places and just needs a bit of a tickle up with the scythe to check its growth. Once it flowers, ranunculus often loses some of its vigor. Delaying the flowering via the medium of short back and sides should result in it remaining a viable resource in maintaining mid summer  river levels. 

The onset of trout fishing in this valley is imminent and we are good to go. The river carries no colour and is in great condition following all that rain in the autumn and early winter. Any rain that falls from now to September will provide little recharge to the aquifers so we are where we are for this summer and it looks ok. 
Over on the Itchen fishing is already underway. There’s normally a reasonable hatch of grannom in April that we don’t see on the Dever. Fluttery sedge like critters that always seem to be making their way upstream, they have yet to put in an appearance which may be due to the snow. 

Inspector Monkfish even put in an appearance when I was last over there.
Bankside willows are approaching full fuzz and the inky black flowers of the sedge in the margins are up, out and stand in stark contrast to the recent dusting of snow.
Each morning we wake to the bleats of new born lambs.
These three are sheltering beneath the substantial beech tree that borders our garden. They are popping out all over the place at the moment and we feel for lambs born last Tuesday in the sunlit uplands of a brief spell of twenty four degrees of bright sunshine and now plunged into the dystopian nightmare that arrived from the north of blizzards and high wind. 

Here’s one of a hare.
Hares are everywhere in these parts at the moment. This young leveret popped in for a parley with the chooks this afternoon. Riding my bike up to my allotment to issue stern words to my broad beans I counted twenty hares on the hundred acre Bransbury bank field that borders the mile long lane. It’s great to see as their numbers took a serious dip in these parts during the early part of this century. 

In other fast animal news, here’s one of a peregrine falcon on top of a telegraph pole.
I may have missed him/her, they are that quick. 

There’s a pair about somewhere and they do occasionally nest in these parts. A few years ago, a friend popping at pigeons on our top strip of rolled down game cover in March witnessed a peregrine stoop on his heavy duty plastic whirly gig decoy. It paused briefly on the ground, stunned in order to gather its thoughts. They can hit their target at well over a hundred miles an hour. 

Geilgud (After Moley) is getting grumpy
and Dame Peggy is currently building a nest right in the middle of the path around the flight pond. They abandoned their first attempt at a nest last year, I think it may be a repeat performance this year. They are the only two on the place, have some seniority in the swan world and keep all interlopers at bay. 

This is an owl box I chucked together years ago
It is fixed to the ivy covered dead trunk of a Christmas tree and normally plays host to a pair of jackdaws. We are a very “owl rich” part of the world. The old pig hospital that has been converted into a very expensive letting, often had a barn owl in its rafters that would hunt over the water meadows in the half light. People in fine fleece and cutting edge walking shoes insisted that if the conversion of the building was to go ahead owl boxes must be installed in the surrounding trees. I never saw the barn owl anywhere near them but the tenant’s white cat liked to kick back in them for some shuteye of an afternoon. 

Back in the eighties on the middle river, an estate ran a barn owl rearing programme and placed owl boxes throughout their extensive meadow system. When the people in fine fleece and cutting edge walking shoes arrived to survey the boxes they found a third of them full of nesting mandarin duck, a non native species introduced from the east back in the day and not quite what they had hoped for.

I think that was everything, we are way ahead in preparations for the trout season. A few small jobs remain and banks must be mown but with the weed now cut we are ready to go. There are plenty of fish about, the river is in great condition and I have seen a hawthorn fly. Still no sign of swallows or swifts and no cuckoo yet but when this uncomfortable cold snap is through spring will spring with a resounding Tadah! and will be most welcome after the January through to March that we have all just experienced.