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.
April 25th 2019. Coffee time and I am scrolling through the latest social media’s inexhaustible supply of photos of other peoples meals, mishaps and shared cliched life changing quotes accompanied by a pictures of fluffy kittens or worse still unicorns; when the above post appeared on my screen and my heart sank.
Ellerhayes bridge spans the River Culm. A Devon river that has meandered through my life for half a century or more. A river that has provided me with so many delightful encounters with it’s natural world. And now this; an ecological disaster. A total wipe out of all species of fish, from huge barbel to the tiniest of minnows. All floating belly up, lifeless. At the time of writing no culprits had been found or prosecuted. And the likelihood of a successful trial seems even more unlikely with each passing month. The river has suffered before. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s I had witnessed the river flowing almost milky white from the outpourings of the upstream paper mills. Farmer slurry “mishaps” have periodically leached into it’s waters leaving chronically damaging wands of sewage fungus littering the river bed. Yet somehow whether by some miracle or pure good fortune each time nature had prevailed and healed. But this time the fateful nail had been firmly driven home.
And so I grieved; if grieving is the right word. Grieved for the death of the fish that I had caught, fish that I had lost and even fish that I had dreamt about. I know it sounds pathetic, but this river, more so than any other, including the mighty Dorset Stour and Hampshire Avon has sated my angling appetite. The Culm provided me with my first Devonshire coarse fish. My local water, the River Otter; a counterfeit chalk stream, was inhabited by spotty trout only. Fished for only by the local gentry. Retired doctors, solicitors and double barrelled surnames. Upstream dry fly fishing only. Such a disappointment for a lad from Staffordshire that had just discovered the joys of getting spiked by the dorsal fin of a Perch and how a keep net covered in bream slime could guarantee an empty seat next to you on the bus ride home from the local park. Once when I dared to approach one of the rod wafting “Toffs” and enquired as to where the best spots were for roach fishing, he simply went berserk. A spluttering tweed clad gutter-mouth; using language that a twelve year old probably shouldn’t know. Fortunately for him I had been a season ticket holder at Stoke City; so I understood him perfectly.
And then an Allelulia moment occurred. My father and I discovered The Exeter Angling Association or the Exonia Angling Association as it was known then. The Culm beckoned. Proper fishing at last. Meandering black line drawings of unknown rivers excitingly leapt off the pages of the club handbook. And so from then until now I have enjoyed it’s splendours and it’s disappointments. I’ll keep the memories brief, but they include the time when my mum came with us and was rewarded with the sight of two naked men wild swimming through my favourite swim. At least she was pleased; and she didn’t drop a stitch from her knitting. Once we were accompanied by my Canadian cousin who (jammy git) caught a perfect two pound roach on his first cast. Instead of enjoying our almost sincere congratulations he just turned around and said “This is the bait fish…right?”
Throughout the years I have been rewarded with bream to nine pounds- well actually it was the same fish each time. “Boris” somehow managed to find me whichever swim I fished. Perch over two pounds, pike to double figures, specimen sized dace, a chub that weighed just one free offering of luncheon meat short of five pounds. Chub of course being a non native species to the river somehow managed to swim down Dorset the A31 and A35. Allegedly in the boot of a car. Finally I must apologise to anyone that happened to witness this fifty five year old (at the time) doing cartwheels and running along the bank “a whoopin’ and a hollerin'” Tom Sawyer style on the 25th September 2015. But my jubilation was warranted as I had just caught my first Devon barbel (well, only one actually.) At a couple of ounces over five pounds it was no monster. Non native of course this barbel , or it’s parents had probably travelled a much similar journey to the earlier mentioned chub. I have caught much bigger ones from other rivers. But none have given me as much cause for celebration. Piscatorial memories. So it was for these fish and many more that I unreservedly grieved.
I still visited the river. Refusing to give up. Ever the eternal optimist. Catches were minimal. Quite often I failed to trouble the scorers at all. The river as always looked perfect. Mr Crabtree could wax lyrical to Peter about the waving green fronds of weed, the overhanging willows and the distinctly “chubby looking” holes. But it’s appearance was all a lie. A trotted float remained untroubled throughout it’s journey downstream; my old cane rod remained undisturbed, happily slumbering in it’s forked stick rod rest. Baited hooks slowly drowned in vain. A watery grave. Liquid deception. Much in the same way as when someone tells you that they have an incurable disease and you almost disbelieve them because they look so well. But beneath the skin; the surface, there is a growing lifelessness lurking in the depths.
Then just after the muted New Year celebrations I heard some welcome news at last. The Environment Agency had started a restocking programme in November 2019. 6000 dace introduced with a further mixture of 25000 dace roach and chub over the next three years. Of course this coincided with the Covid pandemic; fishing had become an irrelevance. So it was some months later (October in fact,) that I found myself bankside once more. Armed with a pint of maggots and my trusty old trotting gear I headed across the meadow to rekindle my spirits. First trot down and my quill float submerged. A feisty dace was netted. Fin and scale perfection, glowing in the autumn sunshine. Subsequent casts resulted in more dace, plump chub and even a surprise gudgeon. I haven’t caught a “Gonk” on the Culm since (check diaries) 1993. All were in pristine condition. Remarkably whichever swim I offered a bait in the results were the same. No monsters or knuckle rapping reel screechers but jubilation was warranted just the same. Hope thankfully like the river, had been restored. As the cool evening mists drained the colour out of the trees and the crows headed to the woods to roost I retraced my steps across the meadow. My uncontrolable beaming smile lighting up a path through the sheep turds.
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.