Martin James MBE – returns to the paradise of his boyhood and beyond

Martin returns to the Beult

Having come through the war years, Battle of Britain, The Blitz, D-Day and Doodle Bugs known as V1 and V2 rockets; it was the latter that demolished my home, we all had a lucky escape . . .

Finally ‘The War Ended’. My first trip to the River Beult at Hunton happened on Monday June 16th 1947, a new coarse fishing season. Grandad collected me from school in his Ford 8 with its orange traffic indicators that popped out right or left side of the car when one needed to turn. 

The welcoming village sign

Leaving Rochester we passed through Maidstone arriving at the Bull Inn around tea time, parking fifty yards further down the road on a grass verge close to the bridge over the delightful river Beult, a tributary of the river Medway.

Just off the bridge on the left hand bank looking upstream were five oak trees where we chose to fish, I caught five small perch on that first visit, the memory of which still lives with me as if it was yesterday. The five bar gate leading into the field is still in place today. Though the cattle have been replaced by horses; some oaks still remain but not looking in their prime these days, the hedgerows are taller and thicker, the riverside fields are an oasis of wildlife. In fact, greatly improved being a triple SSI. There are more birds, mammals, dragon and damsel flies than in my young days. It’s truly amazing the amount of wildlife we anglers who sit quietly beside the river see during our day.

Kingfishers are not a rarity, and can be seen zipping up and down the river, sometimes perching on a rod poking out from the reeds. In the evening we usually see a barn owl quartering the riverside fields, and if you’re lucky, as I have been, you might see a hobby. 

Hunton has never been a disappointment to me over the past 70 years. Yes, the Bull Inn is now a house when in the 1950’s, as a teenager, the Bull Inn was the place to visit on a Saturday evening with the bar billiards, a jukebox and lots of attractive girls! The red phone box has gone, along with the small village shop, the surrounding countryside has changed dramatically from the days of hop fields, cherries, strawberries, apples, pears, black and red currents, ripening corn and barley.

In September East-Enders in their thousands escaped their poverty to go hop-picking, living in huts, some huts can still be seen. I don’t know what today’s children would think about living in such a small and basic hut for a few weeks as those boys and girls from the East End did in the 40’s and 50’s. There were times when I was in the jungle of Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Ecuador or Venezuela, when my mind would drift back to time spent in the peaceful Hunton countryside. 

Back in the late 1940’s and 1950’s many of my summer and autumn weekends along with school holidays were spent camping on the banks of the river. My friends and I made friends with the locals, both young and old. Some days we would help a local farmer for a few hours, then return to our fishing during the evening, often into the early hours of the next morning.

We built up a good relationship with a local farm foreman who realised we could be trusted, so allowed us to hunt rabbits and wood pigeons, which I turned into rabbit or pigeon stew using a Dutch oven. The meal was easy to prepare, so when we returned to our campsite a hot meal was waiting for us. We enjoyed some good shooting over a wide area, never once did we target a game bird. Sometimes we would spend two or three days doing jobs for the farm foreman, getting paid about 25p, but a small fortune then to us lads.

A Quote by Mario Puzo: “What is past is past. Never go back”. That’s not true of Hunton, the village hall is as nice as ever,  greatly improved from what I read in the Hunton Herald recently. Hunton Court with its magnificent trees and parkland still looks as it did in the 1940’s 50’s, the villagers are as friendly and helpful as ever and you hardly see any litter on the roads. On my last visit I spotted two boys picking up the odd item of litter which I thought was rather typical of this village and the pride they have in it. The villagers must be congratulated on the way they look after their houses and gardens. There is no unsightly large housing complex or multi-story block of flats blighting this delightful village. Long may it continue.

The Beult flows through the finest of Kents countryside

The River Beult flows through some of the finest Kent countryside eventually joining the River Medway in Yalding. The river is designated a triple SSSI giving it legal protection for some of the most important wildlife and habitat in this protected river corridor, as you sit quietly on the bankside watching a float or rod tip you get the chance of seeing the hobby a member of the falcon family, to see the grace and agility of this bird in its dazzling flight will keep you spell bound, one minute the hobby will gently take a dragon fly on the wing, the next it might be a swallow in flight.

Often you will hear a sound similar to the check of a fine-tuned centre pin, but do not fear having your domain encroached upon by another angler, the sound will turn out to be the grasshopper warbler, that can throw its sound in various directions, it’s very rare to see this songbird. Only an angler sitting quietly at the waterside is likely to glimpse this small secretive warbler. A sight you will often see during the evening time is the barn owl, a great silent hunter.

On the River

For my first trip to Hunton for over 2 years I was joined by my friend  Brendan Ince. On Saturday 19th June we had travelled from Lancashire to my daughter’s home in Hove, Sussex, another delightful county with some nice rivers and still waters. The next day we left Hove around lunchtime to travel the 60 odd miles to Hunton and our rented cottage for a week’s fishing on the River Beult,  but also a very nice pool, both venues around 10 minutes from the cottage. 

Having put our gear and clothes etc in the cottage, we went off for our first look at the river, we quietly walked the banks where I’d fished so often in the past and everything looked good, unlike in the past during the  early part of the season today the river had some flow making it ideal for trotting or laying-on, both methods can be successful.

I noted how the river had changed over this time, the high water during the winter months had created new fishing spots which were to be explored during the coming days. Trees and fields looked so beautiful in there new cloaks of various shades of greens and browns, the white pink and yellow lilies along with the odd clump of poppies looked resplendent, it made me feel great to be back taking part in a pastime I’ve been doing since June 16 1941 when I fished with uncle Len who was home on leave from North Africa.

Bringing back many war time memories, a Spitfire or Hurricane will often appear overhead. Those of my generation will no doubt get a lump in their throat when they hear the sound of those Rolls Royce Merlin engines. 

Having left the river we headed off to look at hedgehog pool which we’d  been invited to fish, walking around the pool with its Norfolk reeds, patches of lilies with creamy white flowers, two pair of moorhens occupied the pool, a kingfisher was spotted on a dead tree in the water looking for a late evening meal. In our walk we discovered 5 suitable swims, the banks were heavily bushed and tree lined, many trees rotting in the water, along with various other snags – creating safe havens for the fish. 

Garry told us there were roach, carp, perch, pike, eels, rudd and  bream in the water. Brendan and myself were that excited with our discovery of the pool, that we made the decision to fish the pool next day and not the River Beult. Back to the cottage we had a Barnsley chops with chips and peas for tea, then got ready for our first days fishing. On Tuesday we would fish the river.

Our First Session On A New Water                                

Next morning as I looked out of the window I could see heavy rain falling with a strong north easterly wind, it was more like an autumn day, certainly wasn’t June weather. After breakfast, Brendan and I put our gear and bait into the car we headed off in the heavy rain for hedgehog pool. Arriving to find we had the water to ourselves, despite the rain and cold wind, it looked like many pools I have fished in the past inviting. Walking quietly round the water, we spotted a couple of cruising carp, eventually we settled on two swims next to each other along the western bank.

Float Fishing For Roach

For our first session on the pool we both chose to float fish, our baits were gentles, red worms prawns bread and wheat. Brendan used a Sowerbutts  12ft Sprite with a small fixed spool reel and 4lb bs line with a sliding float with a size 12 hook, I chose to use my 12ft Milwards Swimmaster matched with a Richard Carter Avon Classic with 4lb line with a lovely fixed quill float made for me by Sussex Micky taking 3bb shot, to complete the tackle I used a size 16 hook tied up for me by Mark Sarul – these days with no feeling in my finger tips I do have problems tying hooks to nylon, also I can never find the correct size hook to the required breaking strain of nylon.

Stewed Wheat My First Choice Bait

Over some 80 years of angling, I chose to use stewed wheat often, finding it attracts a better quality roach. After catapulting a pouch of wheat a few yards to the edge of a patch of lilies I follow up with the baited hook – ten minutes later the float moves slowly across the surface, the strike connected with my first fish of the session, after a couple of minutes I glimpsed a bream, not a roach, which was soon netted estimated about 2.5lb which was returned immediately. This was quickly followed by 3 other bream of a similar size. Still the heavy rain sheeted down during which I made the decision to bait another swim in front of some Norfolk reed again with wheat and hoping for roach. I was soon catching small roach with an occasional ‘goer’ for good measure. 

After an hour I hooked a good fish, that took line off the reel, “No roach this” I thought, saying to Brendan “I reckon this is a carp” It was certainly a good test for the tackle but soon it was in the net. I was more than happy with a well conditioned common carp. I had two other carp of similar size, then lost a third fish. Brendan meanwhile was catching some nice ‘Goer’ roach. 

Another fine carp from Hedgehog pool 

With rain still falling we chose to end the day at around 15:30 and go back to the cottage for a hot shower and in my case a complete change into dry clothes – I’d made the silly mistake of stuffing the water proof trouser legs inside my wellingtons ending up with wet socks and trousers.

On The River Beult

Today we took a slow walk along the  river from the bottom of the beat to the top, I plumbed some likely looking swims, eventually choosing two spots within ten yards of each other.  Our swims for the first session averaged around 9 feet of water with yellow water lilies in the margin, my plan was to start fishing with the bait close to some cabbages, these are lily leaves with crinkled edges in the deep water, hence their name. 

It’s an area so loved by roach, tench and bream. I also baited a far bank swim where several hawthorn bushes were tight to the water’s edge. The tackle I had with me for this trip were an Abbey Avon, my great grandfathers pole built in the early 1920’s with its Mahogany butt; a straight-grained, reddish-brown timber, with beautiful cane joints and finally a whale bone tip. Also a Millwards Swim Master, my reels were Richard Carter Avon Classic, ‘The Beult’ centre pin made by Leszek known to many as Watermole. It was this pin I chose for the first session with my Swimaster, matched with line of 3lb. I then attached a small rubber bead that would slide up or down the line at the depth I want the sliding float to stop. I chose a float taking 5 BB shot again made by Sussex Micky who is certainly a craftsman of the highest order when it comes to the float makers art, a size 14 barbless hook completed my set up. I set the float around six inches over depth.

Hemp and Tares

Roach were my target fish, choosing to start with tares rather than gentles, feeding with a few grains of hemp every cast, baiting with a tare, this usually produces a better quality roach than caught on gentles which has been my experience from many years of using this approach when seeking roach, but not always true. The roach these days are far better looking fish than those caught in the 1950’s 60’s when most of the roach had black spot. This is a fluke disease caused by flatworm larvae appearing as tiny black spots on the skin of the fish. It doesn’t seem to effect the feeding or fighting quality of the roach.

The beautiful roach of the Beult

Roach And Rudd

Within minutes of casting out I had my first roach a “Goer” which is a fish of 8 inches plus, this was quickly followed by several more fish of similar size, between 9 and 10 inches. An hour or so later I decided to switch to a pinch of bread flake, still with hemp as an attractant. I was surprised to catch several rudd  between 7-9inches, certainly lovely fish to catch. After twenty minutes with no movement on the float it slowly submerged, I gently set the hook in what felt a heavy fish, after a minute the fish moved towards the far bank, “No roach this” I said to myself as I put more pressure on the fish hoping it could be turned, but the fish made its escape by shedding the hook. 

Resting the swim, I went off to make a mug of coffee for Brendan, tea for myself, also to see if Brendan was catching. He surprised me by saying he had caught perch and roach, and had also lost a fish.

Break over and I’m back in my swim several more roach and rudd on flake, I then switched to fishing two red worms, only small perch were caught. After a bite less half an hour, the float moved across the surface and submerged after a short struggle I lost another due to a ‘bite off’ no doubt pike, then minutes later the same thing happened again. I went back to fishing flake, then I heard Brendan calling, “I’ve got a good fish” grabbing my camera, I went up to see what was occurring. 

I could see his rod had a good fighting curve, picking up Brendan’s net I was ready to hopefully land whatever was on the end, we both thought tench, a few minutes later we got a glimpse of the fish and it was none other than a pike. Two or three minutes later I netted his pike hooked in the scissors. As we released the pike a family of swans glided past. 

Fifteen minutes later Brendan had a good eel around 2.5lbs which put up a good scrap. We fished on to about 17:00 with not  a lot happening we decided to pack up and return to the cottage for dinner and listen to the football. On the way back to the road, we found the farm track difficult to negotiate, while we had been fishing someone had gone down the track creating deep gullies, we nearly bottomed out twice.

Back To The Pool

Wednesday we chose to return to the pool for the last 4 days of our holiday, as we were not happy trying to reach the river. On the pool we could float fish for good roach perch also some carp around the 6-7lb, with a few bigger fish. Arriving at the pool around 1000hrs we were greeted by Garry who farms the area, growing various types of vegetables along with strawberries, cherries, apples and pears along with some hopes, using no chemicals. Garry and Lorraine do an excellent job, they also have their own bar with darts along with a full size snooker table. He suggested when we finish fishing we should visit the bar.

Garry & Lorraine’s bar

For Me Its Was Back To The Fifties

We chose the west bank as we had done on Monday, I just love this venue, with its natural surroundings of brambles, nettles and varying bushes, along with many dead trees in the water it gives it a very natural appearance, putting my basket down between two willow bushes I nestled down among the long grass, nettles and bramble – I felt comfortable and very much at home.

Brendan eyes his float

While Brendan chose to float fish, I had a session fishing with my cane pole using stewed wheat as bait, having caught a few roach in the first hour, I hooked a carp, it was time to break off, I then packed the pole away. Switching to floating crust for the carp as I did in the 50’s, choosing to fish my Abbey Avon rod matched with a fixed spool reel, 6lb line to which I tied on a size 4 barbless hook. 

Martin’s cane pole

With a light wind blowing into my face, it was ideal for crusting, catapulting out some bits of bread I watched it drift in to the bankside vegetation often some pieces of bread would drift out of sight. I baited with a chunk of crust, then gently dunked it in the water, I sat heron like with rod in hand, crust baited hook hanging an inch or so above the water, once a fish showed I would lower the crust onto the water, fishing this way I wouldn’t be bothered by small fish. Hearing splashing from the other side of the willow to my right I wound in and then had a look at what was happening only to find Brendan hooked up to a good fish. 

A super carp

Picking up the landing net I sunk it deep in the water, and enjoyed watching Brendan fight a carp of around 6lbs. Eventually it was netted – the lad did well on the light tackle he was using. While he carried on fishing for roach, I returned to trying to catch some carp. Within ten minutes I hooked a common that gave me some fun though a few worrying moments when it headed off towards a sunken tree, the balanced tackle handled the job and soon after I netted the fish, a quick picture and it was returned. 

During the rest of the session I had a total of 5 carp losing 1 but I was more than happy. During the day Brendan caught some nice roach and a solitary perch.

We packed up at 18:00 as we had been invited to look around the Garry and Lorrain’s bar, as Brendan sat leaning on the bar he said “This is the first time in 18 months I have sat at a bar”.

A Good Carp

Thursday morning we are back fishing from the same pitches as the previous day, we couldn’t see any point in changing. We both chose same tackle and methods, though I suggested Brendan should keep putting in a handful of gentles every fifteen minutes or so, then fish further out with a cocktail bait of prawn and red worm, it worked as he didn’t have to keep unhooking small fish, he immediately started to get better roach most being of “Goer” size. 

Half an hour later I spotted a good carp well out into the pool, I catapulted a bit of crust in its direction and very soon it approached the bread and sucked it down. Baiting with a bit of crust I cast out dropping the bait some ten feet from the fish, for several minutes it circled the bait gradually moving closer, suddenly it was off the starting blocks shooting forward to  engulf the crust, as the line moved I set the hook, It fought hard for some ten minutes before Brendan netted a nice common we estimated at 12-14lbs. What was left of the days fishing I caught 5 more carp averaging 6-7lbs.

Friday morning saw us back at the same swims, using the same tackle and baits. I thought it was the same tackle for me, until I hooked and landed a nice mirror, when Brendan pointed out I had caught it on my Millwards Swimmaster, I was amazed the rod had handled the fish so well, though I wouldn’t like to use it often with carp in mind. I couldn’t be bothered to go back to the car to change the rod, using it to land six commons averaging 6lbs, another nice days angling for both of us, we also had plenty of action taking place over head from Hurricane’s and Spitfire’s which kept us entertained and for me it was very nostalgic.

Saturday was virtually a repeat of the previous days though all of my fish were hooked with a few inches of the bank, making it very exciting. Today was also a more relaxing day, we had a look around Garry’s small holding or was it a farm? We also purchased peas, beans, potatoes, radishes, rhubarb and strawberries to take home, all freshly picked or dug that afternoon, food doesn’t get any fresher and far better than any supermarket. 

Back at the cottage we had dinner then packed our bags, finally cleaning the cottage from top to bottom, we were now ready for an early start for home on Sunday morning, after what had been a great week in the Kent countryside.

All writing and images Martin James MBE, Summer 2021, Kent.