Spitfires, Steam Trains & Tench, R.B.T recounts a rather ‘normal’ day on his beloved marshes of Kent

Carefully I laid the tench in the soft wet grass

‘I could hear the chuffing of a steam train approaching – gradually it picked up speed revealing plumes of bellowing steam and coal smoke that rose and drifted almost as elegantly as a tweed clad pipe smokers ‘afternoon delight’ wafting away across the tops of the willow’s that line the trackside to settle across fields and the drain.’

The unmistakeable sound could be heard as I dozed in the warming sunshine of a fine June morning….  

Yates, my spaniel and I had left our cottage at an ungodly hour, well before any decent law abiding citizens would be up and about. We had ghosted quietly onto the marsh just before dawn, a fine mist shrouded the landscape, and all was quiet except for the first faint chords of the dawn chorus. We saw a few hares, who aware of our presence loped off into the standing crop as we walked through the wet bankside grass, no doubt wondering what we were indeed doing.

We were back after the annual three month hiatus, rod and net in hand, basket over the shoulder in the half light of the beginnings of a new season… in search of Tinca tinca.

The Kentish Weald

“The tench is of summer. Of all that must be said of it, that must be first said. As dew drenched twilights and dog roses in the hedges are of summer, so is the tench. Its association is of measureless drowsy hours of warmth, hovering damsel flies and blossoming water lilies.” (Bernard Venables – A Pleasure of Fishes 2006).

The sound was getting nearer and as I opened my eyes and stirred from my light slumber the roaring Merlin engine made the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention as a bucket full of adrenalin suddenly coursed through my veins. Quite how they have this effect upon my being is unfathomable but the sight and sound of a low flying spitfire is for me one of life’s perfect thrills. She came in low over the copse opposite my pitch on the drain, turned over the low lying ground behind me and came in again for an attacking run, a quick flick of the wings to presumably say a “hello” as she passed over and then the pilot throttled back a tad as she disappeared off into the distance homeward bound. 

Field Poppies – ‘Never Should we Forget’

I could still hear her three or four minutes afterwards. A visit from the “Spirit of Kent” resplendent in her D-Day wing and fuselage markings is always welcome. There are few days when I don’t see a Spitfire in the skies over Kent during the summer months, one of the pleasures of being a Kentish man aside of course from having arguably some of the best ales in the country.

Yates was looking quite unimpressed having been woken from a fitful kip, particularly when I came out with my old well-worn saying “it’s alright Smudger, it’s one of ours!” he laid his head back down and nestled back into the bed he’d made in the reeds next to my rod. We’d already had a long day and it wasn’t yet eight o’clock, it was time for a refreshing cup of tea and then a recast but not before I’d offered a little more hemp into the swim in an effort to persuade a tench or two to feed in earnest. 

I had seen a couple of marsh harriers earlier on quartering the reeds of an adjacent drain and I readied the camera whilst the tea was brewing in the hope that I’d be able to take a couple of photos if they returned. ‘Be Prepared’ old boy scouts never forget, even though I’d been drummed out in disgrace for being too much like the village own “Huck Finn!” That always makes me laugh!

Sitting back down with a cup of steaming tea I then pulled a few loops of line off the pin and swung my little red topped quill float out toward the lilies. My they looked gorgeous, a carpet of green with splashes of yellow flowers along the length of the drain as far as the eye could see, framed by the tall reed beds adjoining both banks.

There were a few tench bubbles appearing in the swim, which was satisfying as I’d already been fortunate to have landed a couple of good fish earlier that morning and I’d wondered if the swim could have been affected adversely with the commotion of those previous encounters. I awaited the cauldron like fizzing to recommence, which is a sure sign that they are truly searching for food rather than just being picky.

Float and bird watching is not often very conducive, one either misses a bite or misses the bird. I was rather lucky, I’d been distracted by a couple of reed warblers or were they marsh warblers? I always find them so difficult to distinguish as they are so alike in both appearance, song and habits. From the very corner of my eye I saw the float rise a little which shifted my attention quickly, it laid flat, stood up and sailed away, my strike was met with a firm resistance and I knew without hesitation that I’d hooked a tench.

These fish put up a dogged battle and this one certainly wasn’t going to disprove that. Deep into the adjacent weed beds it headed, the old centrepin was howling like a banshee and the cane had taken on an alarming but familiar curve.

A few heart stopping moments came and passed whilst the fight between the fish and I continued over many minutes until finally she slid into the fold of my waiting net and was then carefully laid in the soft wet grass, what a beautiful creature, deep bodied, green shimmering flanks, butter coloured belly, powerful fins and those unmistakeable crimson eyes.

Bernard Venables words from Freshwater Fishing (1967) came flooding back, how often I’ve read that chapter boy and man I wouldn’t care to count.

“It is a deceptive fish, this tench, so sleepy seeming, so lusciously fat, so round, so much an idling browser, that it might be expected to respond lethargically to being hooked. How far indeed it is from doing so. Sometimes it may give tentative warning of its bite for minutes, even much longer, stirring the float, making it lean and shiver, slide on the surface, before it does at last slide away. But then, when the strike is made, its first run will be long, heavy, astonishingly and delightfully powerful and it will not give up quickly.”  

Yates had awoken again at the disturbance and although interested in the fish, as always kept a respectful distance whilst unhooking procedures were quickly undertaken and then she was released a little further downstream none the worse for the experience I trust.

Yates

When I’m out on the marsh my mind often wanders through other piscatorial matters both past, present and future. I had been thinking of my earliest experiences of angling with rod and line, in fact my very first day out with a rod at the tender age of five in the late 1960s with father, grandfather and uncle had been spent on the main river Rother maybe a mile or so downstream to which this drain is joined. I find those connections to the past both satisfying and deeply comforting. The Rother was once called the Limen until the 16th century, taking its original name from the Anglo Saxon tribe the Limenwara, whose main settlement was the Kentish port of Lympe where the river entered the sea until a devastating storm in the 13th century changed its course and it now enters the sea on the westerly side of the Isle of Oxney at Rye.

After I had introduced another couple of handfuls of hemp, Yates and I took a wander, up toward cradle bridge to give the swim a rest and stretch our legs. Off in the distance I could hear the haunting whistle of a steam train echoing across the flat landscape, my luck could be in I thought, Spitfires, steam trains and tench? Now that wouldn’t be a bad day in anyone’s book surely? We sat down in the long grass on the flood bank and made ourselves comfortable, we were well out of sight of the tackle but being out there on the marsh I had absolutely no concerns with it being stolen, we were essentially alone, just the two us of for company and good company at that. 

The Sight, Sound & Smells Of Steam Travel

The chuffing of an approaching steam train was on the breeze – gradually it picked up speed revealing plumes of bellowing steam and coal smoke that rose and drifted almost as elegantly as a tweed clad pipe smokers ‘afternoon delight’ wafting away across the tops of the willow’s that line the trackside and settle across fields and the drain. The smell of the coal is both evocative and nostalgic of a childhood spent living in a rural house where it was our main source of heating along with any wood my father could find. The old girl came clattering over the bridge and happily I’d brought the camera. What a wonderful sight. With the old tackle, the train and the Spitfire I could have easily been in a 1940s time warp…tench fishing time travel perhaps?

The old line was constructed and opened as a light railway in the early 19th century as the “Rother Valley railway” running from Headcorn to Robertsbridge and changed its name to the ‘Kent and East Sussex Light Railway’ in 1904. A long and troubled history prevailed despite the line being commissioned for military service essential for the war effort during the 1940’s and sadly its final passenger service was on the 2nd January1954. It is now being run as a heritage line and from my viewpoint long may that continue.

After our little bit of excitement we took a slow stroll back toward the swim, there were no signs of any tench feeding along the rest of the drain but I did spot several good common carp and a fairly large shoal of big bream.

A gentle breeze had picked up and although the next hours fishing was pleasant with a few lovely rudd making an appearance, it seemed the tench had switched off and they probably wouldn’t feed again until the evening.

It was now approaching lunchtime for both dog and man and a decision had to be made, the Ewe & Lamb for some lunch and a pint or home?…..I think I’ll leave that with you to work out!

Writing & Images RB Traditional – Kent April 2022