Yesterday whilst delivering the rural post I stopped to gaze at a clump of snowdrops. They were nestled on the bank of a stream that was full of the recent rains. Hunkered down with their stems covered with the fallen leaves of autumn, their pure white heads nodded in the gentle breeze. A sign of better times ahead. There was a sudden gushing sound rather like that of a washing machine as it empties at the end of it’s cycle. Then out of the drainage pipe opposite me a sudden flurry of sticks and other debris cascaded out of the pipe and in to the fast flowing stream. Closely followed rather ungainly by a large dog fox. He stealthily leapt on to the bank, shook himself down, sniffed the air and turned to see me. His cold eyes fixed on mine. And there we were; no more than two yards apart. Two shocked males dressed in red wondering what would happen next. I marvelled at the fact that he neither had the right to fit down such an aperture nor the right to look so resplendent after such an entrance. I looked down to get my phone from my pocket. Just a seconds glance, no more. And he was gone. Silently melted away. Top dog. King Reynard. The scarlet ghost.
Along with the clocks; Sherlock and I stepped back in time and headed for the river. It’s a walk that is popular with locals, especially now during these periods of lockdown. The river soothes my brow and blesses my senses. Eyes feast on the autumnal activities of the wildlife and enjoy the fire red and orange leaves that are illuminated by the low lying sun that lay sentry along the old railway line. It is here that we head first. It is not Sherlocks favourite part of the walk. He tiptoes his way along the shingles as if he is walking on hot coals. This was once a thriving local line that connected the folk of Honiton and Ottery to the seaside town of Sidmouth until Lord Beeching in his infinite wisdom closed it in 1967. Now as you walk along the remains of the track, under this natural canopy of autumn gold, you can imagine the sights and sounds and smells of the steam trains as they passed this way. Now just ghost trains. History. We follow the trail to the point of light at the end. Through the gate and into an open green field with a huge cloudless blue sky that releases all the thoughts of tunnel claustrophobia. The big picture. Sherlock senses the freedom and chases around in huge circles like a wind up toy with a bent axle. Ever increasing circles. His madness disturbs an egret that was wading through the shallows.
A large group of mallards watched uneasily from the old river bed as Sherlock gradually ran out of steam. Together we cross the old bed. Our feet leaving imprints in the silt between the rocks where once there was a lovely trout lie below a fallen tree. Here we used to sit on the trunk and catch minnows and sticklebacks and hunt for bullheads and eels amongst the very rocks we now walked amongst. Strange that I call it the old river bed; for to me this was the new river bed. One that has slowly crept across the pasture land, eventually devouring the old footpath and in one flood a few years back sent the old stile floating down to Budleigh Salterton. Now, just a mere trickle remains. It is strange to find the river has now returned to it’s original path of forty years ago. The only thing that is certain in nature is it’s uncertainty.
Heading back upstream we pass the pool where during the summer locals spend their time swimming in it’s cool refreshing water and swinging on the rustic swings that hang from the boughs of the obliging trees. Lily and her friends reckon there is one spot in the pool that is bottomless. I’d love to think that it was true. A little mystery is good for the imagination.
As we continued back up the river I heard a loud splash. It came from a set of rapids just above one of the last pools before the bridge. At first I though maybe it was part of the bank collapsing, or Sherlock had fallen in. But neither were the culprit. Perplexed I stood and waited for a repeat. Perseverance can be rewarded. And indeed it was, for a couple of minutes later the performance was repeated and this time I saw the silver flash and the great square edged of a tail. Salmon or sea trout I could not be sure. But they are running up the river to spawn. In this current period of pessimism it is good to know that nature always bears optimism and hope.
Walking a reluctant Sherlock along the squelchy, mudded bank of the river Otter in a fine “mizzle” of Devonshire rain; I couldn’t help but notice the incredibly high number of Martins darting acrobatically above the water. There were literally hundreds swooping to collect the insects that had been tempted by the warmth to hatch. For the last week we have been deluged with heavy downpours of much needed rain and along with the gale force winds, conditions have not been ideal for the nymphs to emerge.
No doubt the Martins were building up food reserves for the long and arduous migration to overwinter in Africa. The Swallows and Swifts have already departed. There are various collective nouns for a group of Martins. These include; “circlage”, “flight”, “gulp “, “richness”, and perhaps my favourite; a “swoop” A memorable sight indeed and one to be cherished, for tomorrow they may be gone and for me this will spell the end of summer.
Back in 2015 friends convinced me that I should train and run “The Grizzly” with them. For those not in the know; the Grizzly is a mud, flint, shingle and bramble scramble along the coastal path between Seaton and Branscombe- oh and back again via various bogs. A stupid idea really for a fifty something postal worker who’s knees are shot from thirty years of climbing in and out of Royal Mail vans and twenty five years of getting kicked around by drunken plumbers and farmers on boggy football pitches covered in molehills and cowshit. Training runs were going well until one fateful day in February (I think.) We had covered about eight miles. Having negotiated the wind swept climb from Beer to Branscombe, and survived the infamous Branscombe “cowshit alley;” where mud and cowshit combined to supply an ankle deep slurry filled gravel track. Not for the faint hearted; here you ran with mouth closed to avoid swallowing any of the flies from the resident swarms and to avoid a mouthful of splash back bovine excrement from the runners shoes in front of you. Which in my case was most of my running companions. Back through the village and then it was just the beach run, climb the stairway and back to Beer, and then home for a fry up. Easy! And then I stepped down onto the shingle- which wasn’t there, I overstretched and my right knee bent backwards. Game over. Or at least it should have been. Stupidly I hobbled on back to Beer. My knee was now football sized. No more thoughts of Grizzly running for me. The Doctor agreed and after studying my X-rays he threw in the lack of knee cartilage from previous surgery, oh and a touch of arthritis to boot.
Five and a bit years on and here I am; now a sixty something postal worker, debating whether to give it another go…sod it, what’s the worst that could happen? Last week I accompanied my daughter Lily on one of her Couch to 5k runs. Well when I say accompanied; I mean I lurched some conciderable distance behind her as she bounced gazelle like on ahead, whilst shouting words of condescending encouragement to me. “You’re doing well, etc” The scene to any stranger would have looked highly suspicious. A young athletic girl running away from an ageing sweaty, gasping man in not so hot pursuit.
Today I went solo. Well not quite solo, Sherlock reluctantly came with me. I loaded up the Strava app on my phone, clipped the lead on Sherlock, pressed start on the app and away we went. Fifty yards was all it took before Sherlock decided he could do a poo big enough to fill one of his bags! Off we went again, I was now slowed down by a bag full of about a kilo of shit in one hand and a lead in the other hand with a confused dog attached to it. I glanced down at Sherlock, his facial expression was one of horror. I could hear him thinking “Seriously, what the hell are you doing you idiot- to both of us!” With no bums to sniff or cats to chase (for Sherlock) we made it along the road section- thankfully without being spotted by anyone we knew. The river and undulating woodland paths were safely but slowly negotiated without a fall or even a stumble. I’d made it to the field with only a couple of walks. It was now as I reached the gate I realised Sherlock was nowhere to be seen. ****ing dog I thought aloud and began backtracking. I found him some distance behind, ambling without a care in the world and a look of defiance in his eyes. His way of saying “You’re on your own mate, I ain’t running.” Safely harnessed to his lead we crossed the road (again unseen) and headed or hobbled up the lane. I soon found out that running on tarmac with my knees is not a great combination. The jarring of bone on bone significantly slowed my progress- not that Sherlock was complaining. Back on to the footpath past the Country Estate, Sherlock was unleashed and we crunched across the gravel drive together and up the hill past the farm- except now Sherlock was missing again. Backtracking for the second time I found him in deep discussion with one of his doggy mates “Merlin.” No doubt he was telling Merlin that I had obviously lost my mind. “He’s running again- what a twat etc.” I swear that both dogs had sarcastic grins on their faces when I approached them. (thanks Lewis!) The sun had now broke through the grey barrier and I was sweating, I’d swallowed a couple of flies (what was that about keeping your mouth shut whilst running?) and I had a doggy companion with a perverse sense of humour and a total dislike for running. We completed the footpath with just a nettle sting and a few choice words between us. Back on the lead for the last road stretch home. I now had to literally drag the blasted hound along the footpath. He was like a ball and chain around my ankle. Past the tennis courts and Sherlock suddenly puts a spurt on, a sprint finish to the sofa. He’s the winner- of course.
I stop the app on my phone and look at my time. Bloody hell, I’ve walked it quicker than that! Apparently you can break your run down in to split times etc on the app, but to spare my embarrassment I shall just be strapping a calendar to my wrist if I ever decide to go running again- alone!
It’s amazing how different occurances can transpire to make you miss the start of a fishing season. June the sixteenth. Oh the anticipation! The buzz remains intact even after nearly sixty years. For many anglers the close season is a thing of the past. I still belligerently stand by the rules of yore.
So today is the twenty sixth, ten days late. Ten lost misty lily pad and ochre sky dawn reflections. This year has been particularly challenging; including a few false dawns (overslept,) work, an unusual bout of angler’s apathy, a broken tooth and a knackered ankle. These have all playing their part in my delayed angling forage. But last night I ran through my check list. Put new line on reel. Load tackle in car. Don’t forget the landing net. Check maggots and bait in fridge. Make a sandwich. Get flask ready. Set your alarm. Repeat all above several times. It’s all part of the tingle; the planning. The ritual.
Four am. A raucous awakening. The dog sighs deeply annoyed at the disturbance, but I manage to resist the urge to doze. I am up, dressed suitably in drab greens and browns and await the kettle’s boiling whilst it imitates a jet plane taking off. Outside there is a hint of daybreak in the sky. A hint of promise. I’m going fishing!
The pond is an old clay pit. Back in the 60’s Dick Walker and Jack Hilton; two of angling’s finest ambassadours tested their carp fishing skills here. This was when it was believed that fishing for carp was a complete waste of time- because they were uncatchable. Mike Winter, a local angling legend regaled to me many a story of his encounters with the lake and as I stand and drink in the atmosphere I like to think that somewhere in the swirling mists the ghosts of Dick, Jack and Mike are watching over the lake and perhaps their spirits are flowing through the green tea tinged water.
No carp for me today. I leave them to the barrow boys and their mountain of tackle, tents and electronics. Each to their own. I’m a simple man. A tackle luddite. An old Sealey Nufloat cane rod, speedia reel and a bag with my tin of tackle, provisions for the morning and yes- I remembered the landing net. On my hat I have a Crabtree Society lucky badge (although that tag hasn’t been earned yet!) Rod is assembled, line threaded- eventually, quill float attached, single bb shot near the hook, a couple of maggots- oh sh1t, I forgot the maggots! And as it transpired the luncheon meat as well. Never mind, the tench will love the strawberry flavoured sweetcorn. Even though my dyed red hands from handling the darn stuff will look like those of an axe murderer.
A warm summer scented breeze blows gently into my face as I throw some free offerings close to the lily beds. How quickly a family of moorhens can scuttle their way over to my swim at the sound of a couple of handfuls of ground bait being introduced. The water begins to fizz with bubbles. The moorhens duck and dive and strut around like drunkards looking for a fight. The pecking order for the welcome freebies is strictly observed by all. My inner self fizzed in unison with the rippling water. Each dip and twitch of my ancient quill float heightened my expectancy levels.
Today the tench were not to oblige. They were there, and feeding. Their presence being given away by the telltale trail of tiny bubbles that rose to the surface. Bream though, loved the corn and also my marmalade sandwich which proved an admirable substitute for the maggots. For anyone wishing to know the secret to getting this delicacy perfect, make them the night before. Everything oozes together.
I shall return in the autumn to fish for the large Perch which reside here. And yes, I will remember the maggots- hopefully.
Today was supposed to be an early start. Arise to the raucous tune of my phone alarm and then share the woodland dawn chorus with Sherlock. Two things conspired against me. Prior to my alarm going off I was awoken by the commotion of a pair of parent blackbirds which were obviously becoming stressed with one of their fledglings attempts to coming to terms with life outside of the comforts of the nest. Yesterday a similar thing happened and I went out to investigate. Unfortunately so did Sherlock who rushed out and gave the poor bird a quick shake. The parent birds immediately attacked Sherlock who quickly scarpered indoors. Unfortunately the fledgling did not survive. Today I stayed in bed- I didn’t want a repeat of that fiasco.
It’s 6am and Sherlock and I are walking past the mill leat and on to the woods that blanket the path by the river. Who am I kidding! It’s 7am; stupidly I had gone back to sleep, and when I did arise, persuading Sherlock to get up and join me was, like trying to wake me up after my alarm has gone off. He moaned and just rolled up into a tighter ball. So I went downstairs, put on my shoes and grabbed his lead. Back up the stairs I went and by this time he had moved from his bed to stretching out where I had been lying in our bed. It’s amazing how big a small terrier can make himself. I showed him his lead and with reluctance he slumped off the bed, did a downward dog, farted and was then ready to face the day.
Walking with Sherlock is great. He is as slow as me- slower infact. He stops to sniff at anything and sometimes stops and sniffs at nothing at all. A dog in no hurry. Just taking it all in.
The wood was alive with birdsong- all the usual suspects, blackbirds, robins, wrens, great tits wood pigeons, crows. All in deep conversation with each other. All trying to have their say at the same time. An absolute cacophony of sound, but marvellous to witness just the same. Peering through the green canopy and across the river, I spied a large cock pheasant. He was strutting his stuff in the early sunshine. A vision of gaudy eastern colour with a persistent cough of a call. The cows in the meadows, some with calves were slowly grazing on the vivid green grass. Back on the trail in front of me there were a few speckled wood butterflies spiralling in the shafts of sunlight. Early ferns were stretching up their youthful fronds toward the sun; a sun salutation, as if beginning a floral yoga vinyasa. Gazing back at the river I spotted a brown trout that was rising to take caddis flies as they emerged from the water. Nature and the old English countryside were just carrying on. Totally oblivious to the cloak of fear that Covid19 has gripped us all in for these last few months.
All of this got me thinking. Hundreds of folk walk these paths every year but how many folk take any interest in what they are seeing? A walk is just a walk to some; our daily and sometimes reluctant exercise.
Imagine if you began to look closely at your surroundings. Instead of saying “Oh look a butterfly” Think “I wonder what it is called.” Better still, buy a wildlife book, there are some excellent pocket sized books that have all the information you need. The Collins series are excellent. Do yourselves a favour and pop into your local book shop and ask for a copy. Trust me If they haven’t got a copy they will be only too happy to order one. Various organisations like The. Woodland Trust have free leaflets too. Then that pink flower in the hedgerow becomes Pink Campion. Marvel at some of the names like Jack Of The Woods, Wood Sorrel, Foxgloves, Primroses. You don’t have to memorise each one, but the next time you venture out at least you know what some of the names of the plants you are observing. A tree is no longer just a tree. Trees have names too- from mighty Oaks, Elms, Ash and Beech trees to smaller shrub like ones such as Sloe bushes.
The millstream is worth a look at to. Bridges are a great place to gaze over. At first it seems lifeless as it drifts through the woodland But peer at the sand bottom long enough and you will begin to notice that there are shoals of fish, minnows darting around along with sticklebacks. If you are lucky you may spot an eel like creature called a Lamprey- although in 50 odd years of walking this path I have only spotted one! But you never know. Likewise with the birds you see. You may be lucky to spot a lightning bolt of blue as a kingfisher flashes upstream (you are more likely to hear the shrill “PEEP” as it flies.) That darting bird collecting insects by the river is identified as a Sand Martin not a Swallow- you can tell by it’s tail.
Stop, observe and listen. Today I heard a cuckoo from somewhere in the woods across the river towards Escot. There is so much to be seen- even on this popular walk. Except to todays generation it seems that walks are not popular at all. A hindrance and an inconvenient break from their technological reality. But be brave. Go and wander, observe and take note- maybe a picture on your phone and then look the image up on the internet when you get home. Enjoy the freedom. A walk can become an adventure and even better, an adventure to be repeated soon.
Back home I made myself a coffee and headed out to the garden. As always my eyes were drawn to our small garden pond. And there was the cause of the blackbird commotion. A second fledgling had met it’s peril in our garden. It had fallen in to the pond and despite its parents best efforts had drowned. If only I had got up!
I have no idea what day of lockdown we are on; (17th of May apparently.) This is no surprise as I rarely know what day of the week it is at the best of times. All I do know is that our beloved leaders have announced that we can all spread our very alert wings just that little bit wider and after eleven weeks or so it was high time that we should breath in some sea air- fill our lungs with the joys of Spring and hope.
We headed off to Branscombe and planned to walk to Beer. Driving down through the dusty narrow lanes of East Devon’s Middle Earth past the social distancing locals I felt like hiding beneath the dashboard (I wasn’t driving.) Why did I feel so guilty? Is this how we are all going to feel from now on? It was weird to say the least. Even Sherlock the surfdog looked apprehensive. I was dreading the approach to the car park. I had visions of an army of placarded locals armed with pitchforks and bludgeoning weapons awaiting us. Thankfully the car park was relatively empty. As we disembarked from the car I think we all paused to gaze at the sea and take it all in. It was like being reacquainted with a long lost friend. We walked the mile or so along the beach to the “Stairway.” The sound of the sea is a great pacifier. Everyone is so polite as our “at length” paths cross. It still takes some getting used to. Perhaps courtesy is a side effect of this cursed virus. I hope so- let’s all hope so.
The ascent up past Hooken Cliffs to Beer Head is one of the most beautiful walks you can engage on. The plethora of flair and fauna is spectacular; especially at this time of year. I’m no expert on all of the plants names (I wish I’d listened to dad more often.) But even to my untrained eyes I could spot Ragged Robin, Borage, Columbine, Wood Anemone, Cow parsley, Wood Forget-me-not and Honeysuckle. We managed to avoid stepping on an Oil Beetle that was enjoying the warmth of the chalk path.
As I have stated many times before, I am a nightmare to walk with. I have to stop and take things in; I am not a walker for the sake of walking. A to B as quickly as possible just isn’t me. Sometimes just a change of light on the scenery or just a change of angle can fill me with awe and I have to enjoy. Today I paused on a convenient chalk ledge to allow a descending family to pass by and I couldn’t help but notice the clarity of the sea. Every rock and stone was laid bare. I stood and watched, hoping to spot some more marine life. Everything looked like it had been cleansed by the lack of human intervention. Even the gulls!
I can remember my dad being very similar on walks. He would stop at every vantage point. To look at what ? It used to infuriate me at the time because I just wanted to get home for my tea and to read the about the adventures of Stingray and Thunderbirds in my TV21 comic. But now I have become the dawdler. The watcher. And I understand.
Reaching the summit I do apologise; now that I have caught everyone up. This is met with the usual cordial, if mute acceptance and a customary roll of the eyes from Lily.