Then: Memories of Essex angling haunts
Cliff Hatton revisits his youth
My Dad introduced me to the wonderful world of angling when I was just seven years old. Already a dab‑hand at ensnaring fat, red‑throated sticklebacks from the tiny River Ingrebourne, I was as thrilled as any kid could be the day he presented me with a seven‑foot spinning rod and an Intrepid Standard, then announced that we would be joining Post Office Angling Club members on a trip to Windsor that weekend.
Of that excursion, I clearly recall the excitement of rising with my brother at three in the morning and frantically donning our 'fishing clothes'; we made sandwiches, then filled the one‑pint flask which was to sustain the three of us for a whole day in the Berkshire sunshine. I remember the absolute magic of stepping out of the house into the darkest, freshest morning I will ever know and making our way to the pick-up point some three hundred dark, enchanted yards up the road; at the roundabout we listened, fascinated, to an owl hooting from a nearby rooftop, whispered a little too loudly at times and repeatedly pestered Dad for the time when the coach failed to appear. But above all, Barry and I remember how peaceful, how very civilized the world was then; with car ownership a rarity, silence reigned, and with no need for street lamps after midnight the sky and the horizon were as black as nature intended. At this point, it matters little what we caught or did that day, enjoyable though it would have been; the fact is, that morning when we stood in the dark amid the sleeping households of Harold Hill, straining our ears for the coach, established the theme of my life.
Nothing was the same again; admittedly, seven years was hardly long enough to have established a lifestyle or any sort of pattern, but it is at that age when one unconsciously chooses to kick a ball, spot a train or, if you're privileged, to catch a fish. I chose the latter path and when I retrace that path through the memory cells, it seems that I have spent the greater part of my life wielding a fishing rod. Certainly, major events – some happy, some too tragic to mention here – punctuate the book of life, but in the main, it's been one long and glorious misting morning, interrupted only by the necessity to earn a living. So, the Windsor – trip of 1960 set the pace, but regular visitations to such grand venues were out of the question for a young lad whose dad didn't drive; somewhere local had to be found…..
Our family explored the world from the upper‑deck of a 174 bus, so I might be forgiven for believing then that it ended at Romford Market, for that was as far as we ever ventured. The five mile journey was always unremarkable save for a few hundred yards of unusually smooth road which rose over the bridge at the end of Raphels Park Lake. Frustratingly, it was here on the home‑strait that bus drivers would make up for lost time and compel Barry and I to visually quaff as much of the lake as possible before the view reverted to red‑brick. It was (and may still be) the most popular of venues, its tarmac 'towpath' positively heaving with anglers of all ages sporting tackle that belonged in a museum even then: marbled-cane rods with taped-on rings, celluloid floats, cheap razor-edged reels that could slice a finger, their spools appallingly filled with wiry cat-gut of outrageous strength. The real experts sat on collapsible seats as they practiced their art, buttocks dwarfing inadequate canvas, nerves frayed by tireless kids a tad too close to the maggot-box. But it was a happy place where you could buy ice-cream and whose waters always seemed to sparkle so, as soon as we were deemed grown‑up enough to explore territory miles, rather than yards distant from home, Barry and I walked one Saturday morning to the park, rods in hand, bags on back.
On arrival, we picked and weaved our way along the path through the maze of anglers and tackle but were brought to a stand‑still by a tightly packed group, one of whom was clearly a professional photographer. The focus of their attention was a couple of bare-chested teenaged lads who were fishing somewhat unconventionally: not with a float, not two rod‑lengths out, not with maggots but with large, ragged chunks of bread crust cast into the shade of a wooded island some forty yards out. To the amusement of all but the anglers themselves, a standard wooden cotton‑reel (a bobbin!) fitted with a large and heavy stainless cup‑hook hung on each of their lines, serving as a bite- indicator. The merriment of the onlookers, you understand, was not brought about by the absurdity of using such heavy, cumbersome indicators but by the sheer novelty of such a method! As we watched, and as though preordained that Barry and I should witness such a ground-breaking spectacle, the cotton‑reel on the furthest rod rose and shivered on a taut line; the strike was made and after an epic battle which seemed to last for ages, a carp of enormous proportions was landed to the delight of all. Cameras clicked in both profusion and confusion as its captor laid the leviathan across his forearms then prised it into a small keepnet for weighing on a "Little Sampson" spring-balance…Four pounds! And I believe the net was wet! Well! Wasn't this
what that Dick…Dick…Whatsisname was all about? He of the London Zoo carp fame...Dick Walker! Only his fish weighed forty pounds more! If witnessing the capture of that fish hadn't kindled the fires of angling‑passion within me, nothing would have; indeed I feel sure that somewhere out there, there are others - reading this maybe – who were part of that melee in Raphels Park and have risen through the angling ranks with me as their unknown Doppelganger. And who were the teenage–carpers, the lads who dared to do something different? Do their names now endorse fishing rods? I'd love to know if they've stayed the course as anglers and still recall the time they starred in the The Romford Recorder.
As a kid I had a little too much presence of mind, I think. Rather than get on with life and reap in the normal way memories good and bad, feelings of guilt and pride, nostalgia, I was perhaps unhealthily aware – or, at least, convinced - that my childhood days would be the best of my life; I knowingly made mental pictures in order to preserve forever the times and images I knew could not last... too much attention had been paid to those well‑meaning aunts and uncles who constantly reminded me to enjoy being young because it wouldn't last long and then I'd be as miserable as them! Whatever the truth, I often wish I'd been a little less "thoughtful", allowing for change more readily, accepting things for what they were at that time and for what they became. For better or for worse then, those vivid memories enable – nay – compel - me to see a sad deterioration in both our 'fisheries' and the way we now perceive our sport. The most modern methods of putting a fish on the bank are not for me at all; indeed, I regard the basic philosophy behind much of angling in the ‘noughties’ as completely abhorrent. I recognise however that this can only be a personal opinion because, ultimately, life is about the pursuit of happiness: who am I to lift the flaps of a double‑glazed bivvy on a perfectly pleasant July night and tell the whizz-kid within he's not having a good time? He's probably as happy as flies around a jam‑pot, prostrate on his luxury foam-filled bed‑chair, electronic bite-detector adjusted for an ear‑piercing 100 decibels. All I could possibly – and tentatively – volunteer is my belief that he would benefit no end were he to sit under the stars and become part of the night itself! He would experience the changing moods of the dark hours, the rustling of leaves which heralds the chilly pre-dawn breeze, the magical spells of silence when the watchful eye will pick out a cruising, moon-lit carp.
My mind goes back to an eventful August night in 1967 when specialist carp-fishing was just out of rompers and beginning to toddle for the more ambitious fisherman. Walker, Fred Wagstaffe, Bob Reynolds, Bill Morris, Bill Keal and others had, of course, been 'at it' for a decade or more but this year saw a definite rise in interest from anglers across the country. Tony Corless, Michael Cole and myself – each of whom had cut his angling–teeth on particularly unglamorous gravel pits – were three of those devotees. Our aim that particular night was the capture of a carp weighing ten pounds or more – double figures, the mark of success; here at Buckles Lane pit, we felt we stood a chance. Swan-mussel was the bait that night, great globs of dripping, pink shellfish impaled on a size three forged hook to 8lb line; the lead was free‑running, naturally, and our indicators were of Bacofoil cylinders which would rattle and screech in the event of a take. Settled quietly and inconspicuously in our low – chairs (not totally devoid of a few luxuries but certainly without the gadgetry which is now considered 'standard') we chatted through the damp and silent night, pouring the occasional coffee, but keeping our senses honed for the slightest twitch of the indicators. It was good, basic stuff which, as always, blended us with the night, our environment, and the world of our quarry; I think "at one with the world" is the right description. Come 2.30 am we'd caught nothing. Mike was drifting in and out of sleep, great dew‑drops from his brolly spattering his forehead. Tony, too, was succumbing to the hypnotic call of sleep until I perceived a minute lift of his bobbin and roused him with an urgent nudge. The treacle‑slow ascent of the foil matched Tony's mental composition precisely and by the time it kissed the cane he was positively bristling…..Whack! His rod hooped over alarmingly as our excitement palpably filled the night, the creaking cane arcing down, down and further still. The fixed-spool reel screamed frantically, moorhens cried out in panic, reeds bowed unnaturally and a carp 'exploded' deeply somewhere in the darkness; Mike and I, wide awake now, hurriedly reeled in the other five lines and made ready with the landing net. We spoke quietly but excitedly to each other, not daring to break the concentration of the youth who now commanded a special respect. For a full five minutes the fish bored, swirled, made heart‑stopping lunges for sanctuary, but Tony handled it brilliantly all the way to the bank. On inspecting the mirrored-lump he'd just conquered, Tony slid down his rod – fireman fashion – and collapsed in a state of near‑ecstasy. Do not scoff, dear reader, for that fifteen‑pounder was a big, big fish for a teenager in 1967.
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