’Thatchers Beat’ A seasonal ghost story from Jeremy Croxall

The dead tree swim on Thatcher’s Beat is a secret place, old Tom’s retreat

A tale unfolds of joy and grief

A story perhaps, beyond belief

It tells the tale of good old Tom, not with us now, in fact long gone

He loved his fishing, pipe and beer

All the things he held so dear

A careless step sent Tom to God such a shame, poor old sod

He left a sign to help me find something dear he left behind

Tom’s ghostly tale can now be told.

A haunting tale that left me cold……

Tom Thatcher, poacher turned game keeper, ghillie, church warden, and a colourful local character by all accounts. He is dead now, long gone in fact. He died from guilt, tobacco, alcohol and fishing.

Tom was caught poaching by the land owner, a retired colonel and local magistrate who was so impressed with Toms skills, he decided to retain his services as his game keeper and ghillie rather than send him down.

How could Tom refuse. The appointment raised Toms profile in the local community, now respectable although still the lovable old rogue. He even had a new tweed jacket, breeches and boots and looked every bit the countryman, which of course he was. In his new role his lot improved tenfold. He had the use of a small but cosy cottage on the estate with a small vegetable garden and a lean to greenhouse come potting shed come tackle room.

The colonel allowed Tom to take the odd fish from the river which he could sell to the local hotel, along with game acquired from shoots which Tom managed. His modest salary was supplemented by tips from the wealthy guests visiting the estate who enjoyed the colonels company, shooting, fishing and claret.

Tom loved to fish, he was fishing from the age of six, skipped school, church and took every opportunity to fish and always on private land where fishing was by invitation only. The river keeper tended to turn a blind eye, what harm could this young urchin do with his bent pin and hazel twig. In fact he gave Tom a broken tip from an old fly rod, some proper line and a few hooks so he could catch minnows in fine style.

Tom was over the moon with these precious gifts, it was though he had been presented with the finest cane rod ever made by the best rod maker in the land. That broken tip was still in his cottage the day he died, unused for years, slightly bent and twisted  but cherished non the less.

Now Tom himself was the river keeper and there was a particular spot on the river where Tom liked to fish and he kept it to himself, it was his secret swim and always kept the colonel’s guest well away from it. He discovered it whilst clearing weed and it was only accessible from the river by wading around some willow roots and over the trunk of a fallen dead tree. Here the bank was undercut with a small gravel beach and due to the steep bank, overhanging with willows and a thicket of brambles , it was invisible from above. 

The river narrowed at this point and deepened with a steep and sudden drop off. The opposite bank was very steep, almost vertical and densely wooded so no chance of being seen from across the river. It was the perfect hiding place. Tom called this place the Dead Tree swim for obvious reasons, in fact he kept his rod and a few tackle items inside the fallen tree out of sight of anybody and so perfectly safe. He did this for reasons of convenience and secrecy. If he was spotted walking towards his secret bolthole without his tackle it would appear he was simply going about his day to day business and his hideaway would remain safe.

There was one slight flaw in the grand scheme of things. Tom enjoyed his pipe and if he was puffing away on his old briar wood whilst fishing, the aroma of the tobacco could betray his presence or at the very least would leave anyone detecting the smell of tobacco smoke, puzzled as to its source.

The landlord of the Fox & Hound pub in the village enjoyed a ready supply of free game via Tom, who in return enjoyed free beer. It was an amicable arrangement and the two men became good friends. Occasionally they would fish together, although never at Dead Tree swim.

Tom would normally meet the colonel up at the Hall every Friday morning where they would discuss matters relating to the estate. The colonel began to rely on Tom more and more as time went on and Tom became more of an estate manager and companion, visiting the Hall several times during the week.

The colonel was not a healthy man, he had suffered injuries during his military service and as the years went by, he became frail and would often take to a wheelchair. Tom would push him around the formal gardens as they discussed estate business.

The colonel had become rather fond of old Tom and gifted him the Keeper’s cottage and a parcel of land so that he would always have a home and a means of making a living. He knew his days were numbered and wanted to make sure Tom would be all right after he passed on. It was a noble gesture and Tom was very grateful indeed for his benefactor’s kindness and consideration.

During one of their meetings, the Colonel informed Tom that the local GP, Doctor Mason, a good friend of the Colonel, had died suddenly of heart failure. Tom had often ghillied for the good doctor, his rod and tackle were kept in the Colonel’s gun room and Tom would ensure his fine Hardy rod, reel and tackle were kept in good order and ready to fish at a moment’s notice.

Tom asked the Colonel if he should arrange for the doctor’s tackle to be returned to his family, but was told to keep it for himself. The Colonel was of the opinion that Dr Mason would much prefer his rod to be used by a proper angler who would appreciate its qualities rather than it be stored away in some dark damp corner where it would suffer an ignominious end.

Tom felt quite privileged to be the rods new custodian, it was a very fine rod indeed, light, crisp in action, well balanced and a delight to use. His old rod remained hidden away in the hollow tree.

The Colonel’s health took a turn for the worse, confined to his bed he asked to see Tom on the eve of his passing. He thanked Tom for his loyal service and especially for the latter years, his devotion and friendship. He asked Tom what he loved most about the estate, it was time for Tom to reveal his secret…….

“Oh Tom, it’s no secret. I knew you fished there, you couldn’t be seen or heard but your pipe tobacco gave you away. I never let on because I considered it your own little private haven. In fact I have instructed the solicitors to name it Thatcher’s Beat and it has been bequeathed to you in my will. It extends half a mile either side of your Dead Tree swim and will afford you privacy whenever you fish there”

Tom was moved to tears, he couldn’t believe he was to be a riparian owner. He was totally overcome with the emotion of the moment and so very grateful for such a magnanimous gesture. Sadly that evening, the old Colonel drifted into a peaceful sleep from which he never awoke.

Tom was deeply saddened by the loss of his good friend and benefactor and sought solace in the Fox & Hound. In fact he never got over the Colonel’s passing and spent even more time in the pub drinking more than he should.

In accordance with the Colonel’s wishes, the estate was sold and the proceeds distributed to his beneficiaries. The new owners of the Hall converted it to an exclusive country estate and retained Tom’s services as River Keeper. He continued to guide guests on the river but never on his private beat.

Tom fished his own beat with the Hardy rod which he christened ‘The Doc’ and thoughts of the two fine gentlemen he had come to admire and respect, were often in his mind as he fished.

He had no need to fish secretly anymore, after all he owned the fishing rights and controlled the fishing on the Hotel beats. It just did not feel the same though, it lacked the adventure of sneaking down to the river, negotiating the steep bank below the dead tree, carefully wading around the willow roots, climbing over the dead tree trunk before settling into his lair, puffing away on his pipe.

Tom was mulling all this over in his mind whilst supping his favourite brew, ‘Millers Gold’. He was on his fifth pint that evening and a little the worse for it. He suddenly remembered that his old rod, his faithful fishing companion for over thirty years was still stashed away in the old hollow tree. He felt a pang of guilt for having abandoned it in favour of ‘The Doc’ and decided he must go and retrieve it the following day.

He left the pub intending to go back to his cottage but the moon was full and as he could see his way down to the river, he decided he would go and get the old rod there and then.

He arrived at the bankside, paused to light his pipe and started down to the water’s edge. He now realised his mistake, he was wearing boots and not his hip waders. He would have to try to clamber across the willow roots rather than wade around them. He knocked out his pipe, snuffed it into his pockets and began to pick his way around the tangle of willow roots. He was almost at the point where he could step down onto the gravel bank when he lost his footing and fell backwards into the river.

The current pulled him into the deeper faster water carrying him downstream, his heavy tweed clothing now heavy and waterlogged impairing his ability to escape the rivers icy grip. He began to panic, the water was so cold his chest tightened, he found it difficult to catch his breath and began to gasp and gulp for air. He knew the current was faster at the bridge where the river narrowed and once swept under its arches, he would find it impossible to get to the bank and haul himself out. If he didn’t get out before the bridge, he was finished.

He struggled with all his might against the flow, his feet touched the bottom several times but he could not get upright. He passed under a willow and grabbed at the overhanging fronds in a vain attempt to arrest his drift further downstream. He was now numb with cold, he couldn’t feel his legs and felt a crushing pain in his chest, he began to think he had broken a rib or two. He held on with all his might but his hands and arms could not beat the pull of the current and he lost his grip. He drifted further towards the cattle drink where the water shallowed and the bank sloped gently up towards the pasture. He made a last desperate attempt to reach the shallower water. He was in sight of the bridge, he caught a glimpse of the stone glowing in the moonlight.

He kicked out despite the numbness in his legs, his arms desperately clawing at the water. Somehow he managed to get to the shallows and felt the soft silty mud beneath him, he crawled and dragged himself to the undercut bank where he collapsed in complete exhaustion. He had suffered a heart attack, was blue with cold and at deaths door.

He was found the following morning by a farmhand, Billy Carter. A cow had got itself caught in a wire fence and after freeing it, he went down to the river to swill his hands. As he turned away from the river he notice a crumpled, bedraggled form of a man lying in the mud.

He rushed over to discover Tom as cold as stone. Billy checked Tom’s pulse, it was very weak but he was alive….just. Tom regained consciousness and spoke. Billy struggled to hear what he was saying, it sounded like “my rod….my old rod….in the tree”. Billy paid little attention, took off his coat and covered Tom up as best he could, then ran back to the village to fetch the village doctor.

The doctor was fortunately just returning home after delivering a baby in the village. They both rushed down to where Tom lay, but Tom was dead. The river Tom loved so much had claimed his soul……

Tom had inadvertently left the old Doc’s Hardy rod in the Fox and Hounds the night he died, the landlord suspended the rod above the bar as a tribute to the memory of his old chum.

Over fifty years later I was in that very same pub enjoying a pint during a short fishing holiday. The rod was hung from an oak beam and I found myself strangely drawn to it. I was trying to estimate it’s age, getting on for a hundred years I shouldn’t wonder. The silk whippings had faded and rotted in parts, the varnish crazed and the corks on the handle had separated from each other as a result of the rod being in a dry atmosphere for goodness knows how long?

Hmmmm I thought, not beyond saving, quite a nice project in fact…

“Admiring the old rod?” a voice from behind me brought me out of my thoughts “Well yes, just thinking its ripe for restoration” “It’ll never be touched, quite a story behind that old rod” He introduced himself as Charlie Potts, the pubs landlord. He recounted the story of Thatcher’s beat and old Tom.

“Are you fishing tomorrow”? Charlie enquired

“Yes, that’s my intention”

You know there’s complimentary fishing for our guests on Thatcher’s Beat?”

“Just remember to complete your catch return weather you catch or not, the book’s at the end of the bar”

My mind was set, I determined to fish Thatcher’s beat the following morning. Having heard the tale, I just had to fish there! I was on the river straight after breakfast, the day was slightly overcast, a bit of a breeze and the river looked in splendid form. I decided on a roaming approach as the water was new to me, I started by the bridge and worked my way up stream, pausing wherever I thought there may be a fish to cast to.

Presently I came to a group of willows beyond which was a deep glide and broken faster water on the inside crease. I cast into the current and watched the line hoping for a sudden twitch. My concentration was interrupted by the smell of tobacco smoke, I turned to see the source of this not un-pleasant aroma. There was no one visible, up or down stream. The far bank was far too steep and wooded for anyone to fish there but never the less I could definitely smell pipe tobacco. I continued my way up stream and continued to fish, all the while keeping an eye out for the pipe smoker.

Presently after an unsuccessful session and somewhat disappointed I returned to the pub to make my “nil” catch return. Having completed the paper work the lady behind the bar glanced at my report and poured a pint.

“There’s always a consolation pint on the house for a nil return” she said smiling.

“That’s very decent of you” I replied in appreciation. “That’s a really good pint”

“Yes, Millers Gold, brewed locally and has been for as long as I can remember” She made her excuses and left the bar to prepare the cellar for a delivery she was expecting. I was half way through my pint when I felt the presence of the landlord over by the fireplace.

“Been busy today?” I enquired

“No, you’ve had the river to yourself today, and I believe you’re the first in the bar today too”

“Yes, I didn’t see anyone on the bank all day, I’m afraid I blanked but enjoyed the day all the same…..although something odd occurred”

Before I could say any more the land lord interrupted…

“Tobacco smoke?”

“Well, yes actually but how did you know?”

The landlord glanced behind him, perched on the fender stool and looked me straight in the eye.

“It happens from time to time, experienced it myself several times, they say it’s the ghost of old Tom”.

“Oh what nonsense” I replied with a grin.

“Well you may think that but I’ll wager that I can describe exactly where you were when you noticed it?”

He did, exactly down to the nearest blade of grass.

I struggled to sleep that night, the story kept turning over in my head. I decided I would return to the same spot on the river to investigate further.

I arrived at “Old Tom’s Swim” as I now knew it to be, stood in the same spot as yesterday and sure enough….pipe tobacco! I glanced up and down stream, I could see no one. I walked up and down the bank peering into any spot which may conceal an angler, nothing. I re-traced my steps in the early morning dew, back to Tom’s swim….I could still smell the aroma of tobacco…..but no smoke evident?

There could only be one explanation, the phantom pipe smoker must be beneath the willows concealed by the high undercut bank.

I cupped my hands to my mouth and shouted

“Hello, I know you’re there!”

No response… I bet it’s that landlord having a right old laugh I thought to myself.

“Right, I’m coming down”

Using my wading stick to steady my decent I gingerly made my way down to the water’s edge. I waded around the willow roots feeling their foot print under my feet, this was really tricky…..bloody dangerous in fact, I should have turned back, the water was just below the top of my waders. I emerged the other side of the root system and spotted a gravelly area about the size of a small sofa.

No one there. Just a big old rock and a fallen tree trunk, hollow by the look of it.

The rock had a flattish top and made a good seat. I sat and pondered, mentally apologising to the landlord, no way would you make that dangerous decent just for a bit of a jape. It was quite a pleasant place to be, a secret den like you would have sought out as a child.

The tobacco aroma had gone but I thought I’d stay put to see if it returned.

I poked my wading stick into the gravel but it fell over so I poked it into the hollow trunk beside me.

I must have been there for an hour or so, a king fisher flashed by and a pair of water voles were cavorting amongst the rocks on the far bank. This place was indeed a haven and a great natural hide for observing wild life if you kept still enough.

The aroma of tobacco didn’t return so I thought I would start back for the pub and have some lunch, I really didn’t relish my return across the sunken willow roots but there was no other option. I would just have to take it very steady and rely upon my trusty wading stick to pick my way around the contorted and invisible sub surface obstacles before clambering up that steep slippery bank in my waders.

I got to my feet, pulled my wading stick from the hollow log and heard a clatter, a sort of clinking metallic sound?

Odd? I thought and pushed the wading stick back in, again the same chattering noise. I removed the stick and pushed my hand into the hollow log, there was a lot of fibrous debris and fungus as you would expect from decaying timber but there was something else, something thin and bony? I grasped it and pulled gently.

As it emerged I could see the tip of a cane fishing rod, I put it to one side and pushed my arm back in the log…..yes the butt end!

Out it came with reel attached! The clanking noise had been the metal tip of the wading stick striking the reel

I was astonished, I just stood and looked over this old relic in disbelief.

Spurred on by the excitement of my discovery I made my way up the bank to the meadow and walked briskly back to the pub. I went directly to my room and looked over the rod carefully. It was a basket case…rings rusted away, cane sections delaminated, whippings disintegrated, ferrules corroded and the handle attacked by some cork loving critter. The reel was seized and rusty in places but not beyond saving I thought?

I immediately resolved to restore this rod, it would be nice to see it looking half decent again even if it couldn’t be made fishable.

I went down to the bar to have a glance at the lunch menu, the landlord was again perched on his fender stool and I told him of my adventure.

“My God…..you’ve found Old Toms rod!”

“Yes, I rather think I have”

I spent three weeks at home repairing and refurbishing the rod; the delaminated strips re glued, ferrules cleaned up and re set, sections straightened, new handle corks, new rings and six coats of varnish.  It looked pretty good considering the state I found it in and yes, I think it could even cast a line! I place the rod in my rack and pleased with my endeavours turned my attention to Tom’s reel.

It had been soaked in penetrating oil whilst I worked on the rod. I dismantled it, cleaned and re assembled it, lubricated it and it performed perfectly adequately. It could be repatriated with Tom’s old rod.

I sat at my bureau giving the reel a bit of a polish when I felt a strange sensation, my spine tingled, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up…..

I could smell pipe tobacco. I tried to convince myself it was all in my imagination. The odd thing is though when my wife returned home from work she asked if we’d had a visitor as she said there was a faint aroma of tobacco?

I felt compelled to return to the Fox and Hounds and fish Thatcher’s Beat with Toms rod and reel. The landlord was delighted to see the old rod back in service and offered me free fishing on Tom’s Stretch any time I fancied.

I had a most enjoyable day on the river and caught several fish, the rod proved a delight to fish with and the reel performed as I’d hoped. I spent an hour fishing Toms swim, not a whiff of tobacco smoke pervaded the air as I fished, I was more than a little disappointed. I decided on one last cast which, as usual, turned in to a dozen before I started my journey back to the pub.

I approached a small cottage during my walk, a lovely old place built in local stone with a steeply pitched slate roof and stone mullion windows. Must be part of the old estate I thought to myself.

As I got nearer, my heart skipped a beat…..was that the faint aroma of tobacco smoke? My pulse raced as I walked around the walled garden towards the front of the cottage, there was a man sat on a bench, his back to me. He was wearing a tweed jacket and smoking a pipe.

“Tom?” I asked with a tremor in my voice.

The pipe smoker stood, turned towards me, lowered his pipe and glanced at the rod .

“No, John……John Thatcher, although Tom was my uncles name”

I stood before him like a dithering idiot.

“You’ve been on the river by the look of it?”

“Err…yes, actually I do believe I’ve been fishing with your uncles old rod”

I explained how I’d come by it restored it and decided to fish with it where I found it some weeks previously. I didn’t reveal the full story as I imagined he’d think me barking mad. John said he’d inherited the cottage years ago, originally using it as an escape from city life and then decided to retire here. His sister owned the Fox and Hounds.

“Tell you what” said John, “Come inside, there’s a photo of Uncle Tom with a rod,  bet it’s that one”

I stared at the photo in disbelief, I could feel myself trembling…..

“The man stood next to your uncle……that’s the landlord at the Fox and hounds…..but…..but that’s impossible…..I don’t understand?”

John gave me a sideways glance before looking again at the old faded photo.

“Well he used to be, that’s Charlie Potts, Uncle Tom’s old chum who passed away a year after my uncle”

I couldn’t comprehend what John was telling me, I was visibly shaken.

“you all right old boy?”

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”

End.

Writing Jeremy Croxall & Image Pallenpool, Winter 2021