John Bailey: The fishing ghosts of Christmas past

A Christmas card view of the mid-Wensum in mid-winter

A Christmas card view of the mid-Wensum in mid-winter - Credit: John Bailey

I’ve been researching venues for Mortimer and Whitehouse, Gone Fishing this past week - and do remember to watch their Christmas Special this Boxing Day at 9pm!

But to the point: I realised that the best of their programs are on often on waters that are not only beautiful but have an air to them, an indescribable tingle that lifts them to a plain of near spirituality.

Gobbledegook? Well, perhaps, but I was reminded of this thought when I came across not one but two churches on two rivers on two different days. Both churches were so old that they had outlived the communities they had once served and stood alone in meadows, not even reached by a track, never mind a black top road.

Behind each church, rivers ran, neither with any sign of fishing ever having taken place, even though chub were visible and in one, decent grayling were rising to a midday hatch. I left both sites, almost feeling they were too special to be filmed, that their peace should not be broken. Yes, bonkers, but I had fallen under their spell, as though I had been magically let into secret places of wonderment.

Angling literature of the last century is full of this type of yearning and perhaps its great exponent was BB and the best example is his work Confessions of a Carp Fisher. Therein lies a chapter called The Old Copper Mine, a deep dark water, lost as Avalon, home to spirits and the wandering ghost of an angler monk. I have two friends who have found and fished this place: neither would fish there after darkness, they have told me.

The Norfolk of my younger days was riddled with waters of deep spiritual resonance, or so I then thought. I seemed to live my life by lakes, rivers and ponds where I felt presences and powers unseen but strongly at work. Or was all this simply the pretence of a young man still in his teens? Probably, I now think, but what about Saham Toney a mere 50-odd years ago? It was not simply that the water was mentioned in the Domesday Book, as I believed then, but something far more that makes me tingle as I write.

That cottage at the track entrance and the woodland shrouded in post-dawn mist. The ancient punt that took you out into the mere that was so still and quiet that the creak of the rowlocks sounded loud as the wrenching back of an ancient coffin lid! Sometimes a great common carp would leap out close, as unexpected as Excalibur itself lifted by a ghostly hand.

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Wolterton Lake, near Aylsham, was the Mecca of the tench world from the mid-70s and I remember it then but also as early as the late 50s when the tench were as big as me. It was the approach that took away every angler’s breath. The drive to the hall, the signing in book lying in the potting shed and then the walk through vegetable gardens, past the tennis court and over the stile to the meadow and lake beyond. You had scented Utopia before a cast had been made.

At Letheringsett lake, one August night in 1964, I was sure I had experienced a ghost walking past me, along the path by the incoming stream, as the tinkling estate clock chimed midnight. The eels I caught that night barely made up for the terror I felt and I never fished there alone, after dark, again. Rubbish? Probably I was simply impressionable, easily scared, as I had been earlier that summer at Holkham Hall.

Sitting by the lake’s old sluice gate there, in the early hours, I was completely undone by stealthy footsteps in the pine forest behind me and I switched on the torch. A glitter of diamond eyes shone back at me, but no, they weren’t aliens, but deer come down to drink and scattering in alarm.

My church on the river was real, however. The Christmas Eve night I caught my first truly huge Wensum roach at the toe of its graveyard in 1974 was perhaps the high point of my own spiritual journey. I’d turned 20 then and the fantasies of my youth were receding. I had a living to make and the hard-boiled realities of life changed me forever, or perhaps not quite forever it seems. Those two ancient churches and their even older rivers made me realise what I have lost these 40-odd years. Fishing is not just about catching, we all know. There is so, so much more to it than that. In these very difficult times our sport can offer succour and support more than you’d ever believe possible and I for one am going to open my eyes all over again to all the wonderful possibility it offers us.

A happy and fishy Christmas to us all!