Another Year

2021. A year that began with a perfect sunrise family swim at Sidmouth. Dancing on frosty stones to warm up; complete with an audience of well wrapped onlookers and “caterwauling” gulls. A dawn full of promise and positivity after the debacle of 2020. Invigorated. Life is good

The year ended with a walk under a damp and grey clouded sky. Not maudlin black and dismal, just a heavy hanging sky that melts seamlessly into the river. Rae and I clad in wellies watch Sherlock comically tiptoeing through the mud. Peering through the sentry line of skeletal trees I noticed there was a glimpse of a brighter patch; a hint of blue over the valley. No more than an artist’s brush stroke, but a smile worthy hint just the same.

And so passes another year. Like the sky; filled with moments of darkness and for some, absolute bleakness. Unnamed here but you know that we will always be here for you.

That greyness of uncertainty still hangs over us all. But when that flash of blue seems fit to burst through our pessimism let’s embrace the moment. Never forget how to enjoy. Family, friends; we are but a moment in time.

Happy New Year to you all.

Lake Of The Dead.

It is a few minutes after five o’clock on the last day of July 1991. The air is still, humid. That stifling torpor of mid summer lethargy. Slowly, I am making my way along a narrow spit that juts out into the lake. I am already sweating and the sun hasn’t even begun to light up the trees on the far bank. The water is clear, luke warm; as it always is at this time of year. This spit I can only conclude was an access point for the transport that moved the clay from the pit to the adjacent brickworks. Long since gone. Closed in the 1960’s. I digress. Ahead of me, through the mist; I can spot my quarry  (no pun intended.) Three large carp are feeding right on the edge of the drop off where the spit gives way to what seems like a bottomless depth. Heads down in unison; truffling. Feasting on their breakfast; a bed of hemp and corn that I had laid out for them last night. I keep my bow wave as small as possible as I wade towards them. They seem oblivious of my presence. I couldn’t believe my luck. A plan might actually come together. Normally by now I would have screwed things up by stepping on a submerged branch and slipping off the spit; ending up waist deep or worse. Stopping to load my hook with a couple of grains of sweetcorn I suddenly begin to shiver. The air temperature has dropped and the mist seems more intense. Enveloping me in suffocating, damp cloud. The birdsong of the dawn chorus has fallen silent. An almost sinister silence. I stand still, trying to see if the carp are still feeding. The corn on my hook slowly swinging in rhythmic anticipation. I can see nothing but grey. It’s then that I hear the first of the bubbles breaking on the surface beside me. First it’s just a solitary bubble of air escaping the oozy mass beside me. This is followed by another, and then a couple more emerged. This time with a solitary oak leaf  keeping them company before slowly spiralling back down to the depths. I am transfixed as I watch the fluttering leaf descend. As it disappears out of sight a more urgent and extremely pungent smelling stream of bubbles rapidly rises to the surface. Arriving en masse. The stench of decay is almost overpowering. The water clouds, as years of silt, rotting leaves and branches are disturbed. But by what? A monster carp; or maybe one of the large eels that Inhabit the depths. 

I didn’t have too long to wait. Another violent eruption of gaseous  bubbles is followed by a pair of tiny hands and arms which break surface in unison. I’m horrified to see that these are followed by a head and torso of what looks like a small girl. She lay on her back floating on the surface. Grotesquely bobbing up and down. A macabre dancer from a watery grave.  Slowly she drifts towards me. Her hair long since rotted, but her piercing green eyes are wide open; staring up at me with a hideous smile on her upturned mouth that gurgles. I notice that she has no legs, a trail of mud oozes out of the hip sockets of her torso. Her tiny white hands then bump into my waders, causing me to involuntarily recoil away. Ironically stepping on a submerged branch, stumbling and  ironically I slip off the spit; ending up waist-deep in the now murky water. My rod tip now firmly stuck in a willow  tree, my line wrapped several times around  the branches above my head. And my hookful of corn dangling in front of my nose; the sweet scent of vanilla flavouring filling my nostrils.  I am slowly sinking, trapped, as the girl once more reaches out for me grabbing at my waders again. I am frozen to the spot. We stare at each other. Impasse. Studying her closer I realise my personal horror show is being performed by a bloody doll! One that at some time had been dumped here. Unwanted, discarded just waiting for her chance to frighten the living crap out of someone. Payback. Extracting myself from the mud, I begin to laugh; loudly. Partly in relief; who am I kidding, it is total relief. The swirling mists begin to clear; the scene having been set and executed perfectly. The carp have long since evaporated, and strangely so has the doll. Vanished in a second. Still laughing I retrieved my rod from the tree and head home for a shower. The carp could could wait. The “Lake Of The Dead” strikes again. At least I have a bedtime story for my daughters that even Stephen King couldn’t make up.

This lake is no stranger to me. It’s daunting name well earned. Back in the seventies, we would cycle up to the tip next to the brooding black water. Spending hours smashing old television screens that exploded with a fabulous bang. There was always a fire blazing somewhere on the site and if we were lucky the local factory would have dumped their 50 gallon drums of used paint thinners nearby. We used to take great delight in rolling them on to the fire before retreating to a safe distance to wait for the flying inferno. WHOOSH! Lift off. The drums would cartwheel twenty yards into the air, like a huge flying Catherine wheel. Broken toys, bikes, old building materials that we used to build dens with, were always readily to hand. Whilst rooting through a box of old books we came across several copies of the Health And Efficiency naturalist magazine. Bingo! Bizarrely I also found a copy of “The Compleat Angler,” which I still have to this day.

My mate Steve and I once found an old moped. Gutted to find it wouldn’t start, we wheeled it home to try and fix it. We took it apart, bolt by bolt but we were no mechanics. Disappointed; we chucked it into the lake As we were leaving an old chap approached us and asked us if we’d seen his moped. He remembered leaving it in the hedge but couldn’t find it anywhere…

Locals reckoned the place was haunted by the ghosts of old quarry workers and the dead pets that ended up in this unofficial cemetery. Few people would consider hanging around there at night. The feral cats were huge and would silently prowl around, hissing if anyone went too near. The lake itself was said to be toxic. It always had an oily scum on the top, old bottles floated around, clinking together. On a choppy day it sounded like a harbour with yachts rigging singing. Shooting at bottles was a favourite pastime for some. Anything and everything ended up at the tip when all usefulness had gone. I know of at least two Humber Sceptres and three old work vans being driven into the lake. When the levels were low enough you could see their rusting skeletons. Relics. And like those relics, along with the larks we had; the lake became a memory. Rusting away in my mind. Until one day I spoke to Mike “The Prof” Winter and he told me how the local angling club had taken it over; and he’d heard that there were some fairly large carp in there. He’d also seen a copy of the Water Authorities report on the quality of the water and surprisingly it had a higher quality than the River Otter! I had to investigate.

Heading up the track I hardly recognised the place. The graveyard of junk had been reclaimed by nature. Ox-eye daisies, foxgloves, primroses and herbaceous plants that had survived being dumped now thrived from the neglect of man. Rabbits scurried into the undergrowth as I approached. At the brow of the hill I stood to survey the lake. I had no tackle with me, just a pair of old army binoculars. I could see a huge shoal of roach sunning themselves by the island. A grass snake was swimming across the small bay in front of me and then the mallards, moorhens and coots called out a warning of my presence. I started to circumnavigate around the lake. The woods were almost impassable. The solitary track winding away from the water’s edge as if in fear of getting too close. The air heavy with the perfume of the dog roses and honeysuckle that adorned the hedgerows and old quarry equipment that lay abandoned amongst the trees. Struggling to the top end of the lake, bramble scarred and tingling with nettle rash, I reached the spit that I mentioned at the start. The water in front of me exploded as a group of carp shot out from under the boughs of the sunken willow to my right. The lake had called. Reborn and waiting for my presence. All thoughts of an evil presence were forgotten; for now.

Over the following years, both whilst the water was leased by the club and then later run by a lovely man named Mike; I was fortunate to catch many of the carp. Feisty and muscular unlike the pot bellied beasts you see in the angling press; but they fought like Marlin, jumping clear of the water at any opportunity. Great fun. Roach and Rudd to a couple of pounds graced my net and once whilst stalking carp in the shallows I witnessed a huge eel struggling to pull itself out of an old drainpipe. I dangled a worm in front of it’s nose and then chickened out as it was about to swallow it. The only other predator that I saw was “Nelson” an old, one eyed pike that skulked under the trees waiting for a hapless roach or two.

I fished there a few times with my father. He wasn’t a fan of the place. He reckoned the place had a bad atmosphere, an uneasiness that he couldn’t explain. He refused to stay there after twilight. His last cast was always in sunlight. He thought I was quite mad to fish into the darkness, the witching hour; when all manner of strange eerie sounds echoed around the woods. My only company being those feral cats that hid in the undergrowth. If I shone a torch in their direction several pairs of eyes would scarily light up before melting into the darkness.

I got to know Mike quite well over the years. He rarely fished but would spend his time feeding the waterfowl, or trimming the brambles that rambled across the narrow paths that he had created. We’d often sit and just talk. Enthusing about the wildlife, including; the family of great crested grebes, the pair of mandarin ducks that had made the place their own, the amount of crap that the flock of Canadian geese left everywhere and the exciting discovery of Bee Orchids. He loved to listen to my stories about what my family had been up to and was genuinely happy when I took my daughters up there to fish- well climb trees really. He always said how lucky I was to have a family; something that had never happened for him. I think he thought of the lake, it’s surroundings and it’s wildlife as his family- that and his motorbike and his crazy dog that liked to chew up the interior of his car!

The last time I spoke to Mike was also the last time that I fished the lake. I’d spent a few late evening hours stalking carp.. Fish-less, I turned to leave. Mike was stood behind me, leaning on an oak tree, watching the water and the sunset through the trees. He was dressed in his usual khaki, his ever present coil of rope on his shoulder and carrying his bill hook and a bag of bread for the ducks and geese. We spoke briefly and took in the splendid sunset. “I didn’t expect anyone to be here tonight” he said and turned to leave. We walked back to the cars in silence. I left him locking the gates. Two days later I heard that he’d committed suicide. An angler’s wife had found him  whilst walking around the lake. He was hanging from the oak tree where we’d had our last conversation. I was mortified. Distraught. I never returned. I still have no desire to go near the place. For me the “Lake Of The Dead” had claimed its final victim. One too many. The one person that cared more for its wellbeing than any other.  

A syndicate now runs the fishing. I hear that “proper” swims have been created, trees and hedges cleared. The snags of old pulled from the water. I hope that these are just rumours. I’d like to think that Mike’s ghost happily haunts the place with the rest of the spirits and that and that one day, through a mass of bubbles; that doll resurfaces beside a bivvy to remind the current anglers of the lakes past.

An edited version of this post can be found in the excellent Fallon’s Angler publication.

Cobwebs

I think Sherlock has now forgiven me for waking him from his slumbers for an early morning walk. He is back lying on the sofa on his mountain of carefully assembled cushions; in deep slumber. He hasn’t moved for an hour…at least. Earlier in the half light of dawn we had dragged each other down to the river. Standing on the bridge and looking downstream I scanned the river for any sign of life- it’s what we anglers do. The river gave away no secrets; it’s surface resembling a sheet of glass, evoking memories of the severe winter of January 1979 when the ice was so thick you could walk along the river- between it’s banks.

Continuing downstream, enjoying the cool morning air I began to tune into the sounds of nature waking up. Above the tranquil babbling noise of the river sliding by, in my left ear I could hear a couple of male pheasants coughing insults at each other in their harsh rasping tones; accompanied by the almost sarcastic laughing calls of a mallard or two. In my right ear there was a constant cooing from the woodpigeons that clattered in the trees and the occasional hoot from a little owl that was obviously finishing his shift a little late. This soundscape sounded so familiar; but from where? Not from previous walks. Shutting my eyes to take it all in, it suddenly came to me. I was back in the 1970’s lying on my bed listening to Pink Floyd’s “Granchester Meadows” through my head phones…birdsong and riversongs in glorious stereo.

We ambled along through the woods. Sherlock, in full investigation mode was twenty yards behind; as always. Me; I was battling with the fine dewbound strands of cobwebs that wrapped themselves seamlessly around my face. With flaying, almost apologetic hands I wiped them away, feeling guilty for destroying the hard work of all those spiders. Maybe Shelob, Tolkien’s famous arachnid demon will be waiting to reap revenge somewhere down this track. Strangely, here, I had another musical reminicence. 1984. I was in the Great Hall at Exeter University. Marillion were on their “Fugazi” tour. Most of the band were on stage, the notes of “Assassing” began. Centrestage there was a huge web made from spun glass. As the tribal drum intro continued, the lead singer Fish was supposed to burst through this web and start to sing. But in true Spinal Tap mode he got tangled and had to sing the opening lines whilst trying to untangle himself. The show must go on.

Back to the river, the air was filled with the sickly sent of Balsam. The path winding through an avenue of said balsam, with the exploding seed heads sending a salvo of seeds as we brushed against them, head high teasels, spent thistles that looked like bedraggled candyfloss and out of reach ripe ready blackberries. Lurking at knee height the nettles got my legs tingling. Well it wouldn’t be a good walk without a nettle sting or two. Sherlock decided to go for a paddle and a drink, the minnows in the shallows got a rude awakening. There was a disturbance on the far bank; followed by a loud plop as an otter slid off the bank and sunk subsurface into the sanctuary of the tree roots. I stood and waited for it’s reappearance. Scanning the river up and down for any sighting we waited; well, I waited; Sherlock was already heading home. I gave up the vigil. The Otter had won this time. Catching up with Sherlock, my head already thinking of hot coffee and a bacon sandwich. Sherlock’s head was obviously already thinking of creating a cushion nest on the sofa.

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