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John Bailey: A personal view of north Norfolk’s River Glaven

PUBLISHED: 12:54 25 September 2018 | UPDATED: 12:54 25 September 2018

John Bailey on the a meander of the Glaven looking for fish Picture: John Bailey.

John Bailey on the a meander of the Glaven looking for fish Picture: John Bailey.

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I’ve just received my copy of the magazine Salmo Trutta, the voice of the Wild Trout Trust.

The Glaven being put back to rights on the Hunworth stretch Picture: John Bailey.The Glaven being put back to rights on the Hunworth stretch Picture: John Bailey.

It’s a lovely publication and in it there is a fascinating four pages on the restoration of the 10-mile long River Glaven. Almost from its source at Bodham to its mouth at Blakeney Point, this twinkling chalkstream has been painstakingly and wondrously returned to apparent health.

Once ripped apart by the vandalistic dredgers, the Glaven has been put back together with all the riffles, gravels, pools, meanders and woody debris that a stream cries out for. There have been many river heroes in the story over nearly 20 years in the telling. The River Glaven Conservation Group has been fundamental. Robin Combe at Bayfield Estate and the Stody Estate have played major roles as well. Professor Richard Hey has engineered stretches where the perfection of the Glaven now takes your breath away. Tim Jacklin of the Wild Trout Trust itself has been one of many to give expert advice. You look at almost any stretch of the Glaven now and it is pretty much as God intended it to be. And a 100 or so (largely) volunteers can’t be given a higher and more justified accolade than that.

I’ve known and fished the Glaven since 1960 or thereabouts, when my parents retired to Blakeney, and for many years I actually lived by its banks in Hunworth village. I am, therefore, delighted such great things have been done for the Glaven, just as they have on the Nar and on the Stiffkey by much admired friends like Charles Rangeley-Wilson. How great it is that our northern chalkstreams which are so unique are so treasured. These are jewels in the aquatic crown of Norfolk and I can only sing the praises of these remarkable men and women.

I’ve enjoyed many happy decades Glaven-side but perhaps my memories from 1968 to 1972 are pertinent. I guess I was learning really how to fish then, probably for the first time. I was no longer a kid and I knew a big fish from a small fish and the jam jar that once held my catches was firmly put in the cupboard. Let’s take the shallows above Wiveton Bridge in 1968 for starters. Walk up around 200 yards to a right-hand bend and above that bend swept a broad, easy-paced, gravel-bottomed glide. I can see it in my mind’s eye along with the endless shoals of big dace that lived there in those days. They really were whoppers. You could catch them on bait (not that it was allowed then) but on a dry fly as well. I can’t even begin to think how many over 12oz I landed that particular summer.

Great pal Charles Rangeley-Wilson delighted with a North Norfolk Coast sea trout Picture: John BaileyGreat pal Charles Rangeley-Wilson delighted with a North Norfolk Coast sea trout Picture: John Bailey

Perhaps it was in the deeper pools below Wiveton Bridge, though, that the excitement really began. I remember one particular deep hole which always thrummed with big roach. You could creep to the riverbank, look over the long grasses and there they were, perfect on their liveries of silver and scarlet. They were massive fish. If my memory serves me right, revered naturalist, Bernard Bishop, once caught a three-pounder and I had many that weren’t far behind.

It wasn’t just the roach, either, that stirred the blood. There swam battalions of brightly-barred perch, most of them over 2lb and many nearly double that weight. There were cracking pike, too, and when the old East Suffolk and Norfolk River Board once netted there, my memory tells me there were many over 20lb taken from a half-mile stretch alone.

I haven’t even mentioned the sea trout. It’s my shame that in those days, I used to take them away to be served at my mother’s dinner parties. How could I do such a thing, I wonder now? But, of course, the past is a different country. Believe me or not, but eight to 10-pounders were common, low doubles frequent and my best turned the scales at virtually 17lb. And I lost one bigger a summer morning when my minivan was being repaired in the old Cley garage. I wept more at the loss of that fish than I did over the eventual bill.

The weight of fish in the Glaven 50 years ago must have been thousands of times what it is today, despite all the improvements I have applauded. What on earth has gone on and is going on? Whilst it is wonderful to have a stunning Glaven flowing once more, it is a shadow, not even that, of what it once was.

Habitat is a central issue, I know, and I applaud its restoration. But what I really want to know is where all the fish have gone?

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