Pushing up through the dead leaves are celandine, wood anemone and primrose all are making their annual appearance along with bluebells which already are showing their leaves; they will be in full bloom by mid-April. Along the lanes the hedges appear as a wonderful patchwork of blackthorn blossom, new buds and catkins.
The time is a little after eight on this mid-March morning and I’m standing in the kitchen of our old cottage enjoying my third coffee of the day and pondering over the list of jobs which will require my undivided attention around the place come mid spring. Its cold outside with a North Easterly breeze and the milky early sun only affords warmth in the most sheltered of places. Yates and I, who is contentedly lying by my feet have not long returned from our daily dawn wander through the woods and fields. The dawn chorus at full volume provided the soundtrack to our walk which was only interrupted by the occasional whine of a distant chainsaw down in the valley.
The recent storm Eunice brought much havoc to these parts with the loss of many a grand old tree, and nearly a month after the event the clear up continues from early morning till dusk. We’ve certainly lost some dear old friends, trees of such stature had become local landmarks, their ancient branches acting like way markers and providing shelter for livestock in the depths of winter, shade in the height of summer and of course a seasonal home to nesting birds, I’ll not be the only one to mourn their passing. This is nature, nothing stands still or indeed remains the same from one year to the next and as the soil has started to warm a little recently life has begun to show again after the damp cold grey days of midwinter.
Pushing up through the dead leaves are celandine, wood anemone and primrose all are making their annual appearance along with bluebells which already are showing their leaves; they will be in full bloom by mid-April. Along the lanes the hedges appear as a wonderful patchwork of blackthorn blossom, new buds and catkins. The banks are adorned with ladies mantle, a very delicate lilac coloured flower which along with dog violets are open and ready for the early bumble bees who are visiting with gusto.
Spring is finally here and with it a seasonal change in the working week for those of us who live and work in the countryside; the coppicing, pruning, hedge cutting and fencing tools will be laid aside and the axe can be left in the corner of the wood shed as come May the woodstove will be temporarily redundant until the leaves start falling again in the autumn. There’s never an easy season for those who work the land, each brings its challenges but the arrival of spring brings with it new hope and vigour, although we are always aware that winter rarely leaves without a sting in her tail!
Over a truly fabulous pint of ‘Muzzle Loader’ ale last week in one of our favourite haunts, Kev and I were discussing and plotting just where to see out the remaining days of the season. It’s been a strange year, despite thinking that we’d dodged the bullet, both of us eventually fell prey to the prevalence of the covid virus, which had laid us low at differing times this winter and thus rather upset the equilibrium of our late season angling adventures together. Of course we fish alone at times and on some occasions with other friends, but with a friendship spanning for nearly five decades and spending much time together either with a rod or a pint jug, it did feel a little strange not actually being able to meet up.
Yates is looking at me, wondering where we are going fishing, I hadn’t the heart to tell him earlier that this is a trip he’s not accompanying me on. There are not many times when he doesn’t join me and of course he’s with me all day during the week at the farm but I still have a feeling of guilt in my heart although he’ll be well looked after by Eira. “See you soon boy” I say as I close the back door, his eyes drop with his chin nudging the floor, he looks forlorn I’m so glad he can’t talk!
I’d already chosen a favourite JB Walker (Hythe, Kent) MK IV Avon cane, a Speedia centrepin and a few items of tackle were put into the Brady shoulder bag late last night and loaded into the Defender with a net and some bait ready for a reasonably early getaway. I press the start button and Monty fires up and settles down to a gratifying low purr, destination upper Medway on the grand and ancient Penshurst Place Estate, ancestral home to the Sidney family since 1552 and the 2nd Viscount De L’Isle. The estates acres were once the hunting grounds for Henry Vlll and no doubt quite convenient for his Majesty’s clandestine dalliances with his mistress Anne Bolyen, who’s family owned Hever Castle Estate some five miles westwards.
I decide to cut across country using the lanes and enjoy the weak early spring sunshine rather than use the A roads. There’s never any urgency, I like to enjoy the whole experience which often involves taking in the sights along the way, some familiar others not so. There are plenty of lambs appearing in the fields and I put the thought of a Sunday roast to the back of my mind quite quickly! Coming along the road close to the river Beult I spot a little owl perched atop a telegraph pole and then to my right in a long since passed skeletal oak not one but a pair of buzzards. All along my pastoral route there are birds busying themselves attracting mates, territorial grievances being fought out in front of me and presumably nest building taking place, what a sight for the eyes.
A quick pit stop is made in one of the on route villages to visit the bakery and collect a fresh loaf for the chub and a couple of hot sausage rolls for Kev and I to start our day, which is another of our traditions, old habits do indeed die hard and I’m rather glad they do!
My journey has taken me over both the river Beult and Teise and soon I’ll be crossing the Bourne which should give me an indication of how the upper Medway will be fairing regarding height and pace. As I cross the little humped backed bridge by the Man of Kent pub I slow and have a peek – mmm, quite high with a tinge of colour but obviously and satisfyingly on the drop, this gives me an element of hope for the main river. For the past month we’ve had a lot of rain pushing the river levels up with flooding in some areas. The end of the season has in previous years been brought to an abrupt end well before the 14th March, personally it doesn’t hang heavy in my heart if the season bows out early as nature needs a rest as much as I do. There’s much else to occupy my time, that list of jobs, gardening, spending time walking and bird watching.
Finally I am on Rouges Hill, the road approaching Penshurst village, and leading down to the Medway. The sun is being warmly reflected from the sandstone houses and then as if an apparition the sight of the magnificent stately home graces the beautiful valley below. Another quick look at the river as I cross the bridge and then I drive through gate house arch and onto the estate. Kev and I had arranged to meet at Well Place Farm and commence our day on the lower beat. I follow the farm road for a mile or so before pulling in behind the farm buildings and await Kev’s arrival.
I pour a coffee from the flask and take my time in setting up the Avon ready to ledger either a lob worm or flake. We tend to use just a swan shot or two pinched on to our line gently and only on the faster upper beats will we consider the use of a small running arsley bomb to hold bottom. Stealth is quite often the key to catching the chub off guard and the light mobile approach seems appropriate.
Kev has arrived, we greet each other in time honoured fashion with a pat on the back with much banter and laughter, it seems an age since we last met for an angle.
As we stand there munching on a sausage roll and chatting woodpeckers can be heard hammering out their mating drum roll in the adjacent woodland, sparrows chirp excitedly around the farm yard and are occasionally joined by a group of noisy starlings who appear to be muscling in on a small patch of spilt grain, it’s quite hilarious to watch. Suddenly I catch sight of a large bird of prey out of the corner of my eye, then we both see it and look at each other in amazement, blimey it’s another Kentish Red Kite, hopefully a good omen for the day to come.
Having tackled up we sling our bags over our shoulders, grab the rods and nets and head off down the track to the river; whose presence upon arrival is shimmering against the dark shadow cast across the meadow by Asher wood on the far bank. It’s a fair old hike to the waterside but the chat along the way eats into time and once we’ve negotiated the most difficult gate you could ever experience opening which is all tied up with bailer twine and a multitude of knots, we eventually find ourselves approaching the river.
Parking our tackles near an old log we go for a wander along the bank noting the changes since our last visit and possible options from where we may entice a chub or two. The river is pushing through quite steadily but the colour from the recent rains is gradually fining down, it looks good and I elect to fish a swim at the uppermost boundary adjacent to Ram Wood, there’s a nice overhanging ash tree and a lovely deep run on the inside. The chiffchaffs are in fine song and their repetitive rhythm is interspersed with the accompaniments of blue tit, great tit and the harmony of a robin. Kev has disappeared off downstream. We will no doubt meet up along the way during the morning or if not back at the farm for lunch.
I pinch a piece of flake onto the hook, pull a few loops off the pin and flick the bait down underneath the tree and await an enquiry. It’s not long before I notice a gentle pull on the tip of the old cane and my hand hovers over the rod ready to strike, there it is again, takes can be that subtle in rather cold water, sometimes I’ve found that is all I’ll get in terms of a bite and one has to be alert. I think the bread has been pilfered so I reel in and repeat the procedure. Bang! The tip registers a good indication and this time I’m primed and ready for it, a quick strike results in a powerful run from a hooked fish and it uses the current to combat my attempts to play it away from the branches of the tree. Finally after a few calamitous moments on my part I stoop down the bank and a fine chub slides into my waiting net. Banked and account opened!
A few more casts later and I realise that the disturbance has possibly shied the remainder of the shoal or maybe it was a lone fish either way it’s time to move down stream. Various likely looking chub haunts are enquired upon with only the odd rattle on the tip which usually signifies the presence of smaller brethren. So many swims are now different in nature after the floods that one has to learn the river all over again, this happens season after season and certainly makes for more interesting angling adventures, just when you think you’ve sussed it, it all changes.
I’ve found a lovely long run with a crease right down the middle of the swim. Oh how I now wish that I’d brought a float rod. Never mind, I’ll fish with what I’ve got but this time I bait with a lob worm which I’ve brought in a small tub. I cast over the crease and know that my bait will swing round to the inside run with little disturbance. Worked a treat, the rod pulled round nicely and an unmissable, (even for me!) chub is hooked and after a good show in the current comes gracefully to the net.
Time for a coffee and then a kip in the warming sun. Crikey it feels good to be here, away from the chainsaw mania which I myself have recently endured on the farm estate, I’ve cut and moved so much timber these past few weeks from fallen giants. Now all I can hear is gentle birdsong and the rather hypnotic gentle flow of the bubbling river….bliss.
I awake to Kev saying –
“Ok mate, how have you got on, any kippers?”
I reply –
“Yes I’ve had a couple and a lovely Kip!”
Kev knows me only too well and has witnessed on many occasions where my angling has played second fiddle to having a sleep on the bank. It always makes him laugh! We decide to walk back to the farm for lunch.
We like to have a break during the course of the day. Time to reassess and to plot the next move. Kev has not had a bite during the morning and quite fancies moving beats, being old mates I am happy to go along with his plan. We break the rods down pack them into the motors and trundle back down the farm road toward the great house and the middle beat, which is intersected by the bridge I’d crossed earlier that morning. After parking up we shoulder our bags again and walk across the sheep field toward the lower farm crossing.
With possibly three hours angling time left before sunset we think it best to keep it local rather than go on a long hike. We both go upstream and as we walk the river notice much tree damage along the way. The ash tree swim now has the massive ash tree laying in it! Bugger! Barking dog swim has been washed away, so called as the elderly couple who own the rather grand and splendid house opposite also own a Pointer who if you venture into his territory will bark at you all day, although a meatball or two thrown over the river usually calms him down! Limited for swims Kev decides to drop in below and hope the dog doesn’t appear, I go back toward another old and still standing ash tree to fish the pool below. Thinking that there may possibly be a barbel or two lurking in the depths I bait with a lob worm and cast to the far side slack keeping the rod high and the line away from the main flow.
Not a touch in the first few minutes so I put the rod in a hazel rest, sit back and take in the splendour surrounding me. A quick tap, then another on the rod tip alerts my senses and luckily I am awake when the rod pulls round into a nice pleasing arc. I don’t strike, I just pull firmly against the direction of the moving fish and at first wonder what I’ve hooked as it makes the most of the flow and heads toward a goat willow overhanging the lower end of the pool, I think it could be curtains but more by luck than angling prowess it turns and comes toward me. Now the weight of the water has dispersed I can tell that this isn’t a barbel. A good chub wallows on the surface and with a big stretch I managed to net it… but only just!
I wander back up to see Kev, keeping off the skyline and enquire about his luck –
“missed a sitter mate” is his reply, followed by “Shall we give it half an hour, I could murder a pint.”
The sun was setting quickly and as I walked back down the river I thought, great minds think alike, I could murder a pint too!
Writing & Images – R.B.Traditional, Kent, March 2022