John Bailey: Life of a Norfolk angler - the emerging years

John Bailey on Wensum

Fifty years on, John Bailey still fishing his Wensum - Credit: John Bailey

This column of mine has been running for many years now and, having just been Covid jabbed , I thought it might be time to reflect and put these thousands of words into some sort of context.

I’d like to go back to 1957 when my parents semi-retired to the north coast and brought me from Greater Manchester to Blakeney for at least six months of the year. For a fishing mad lad, this was as good as it gets and I realise there is the serious chance that I might look back through spectacles rose-tinted. But I think not entirely. I was evidently an earnest child, already fixated on fishing and football and writing surprisingly adult diaries about my adventures. Some have been mislaid, but many not and the gist of a long ago fishing apprenticeship is plain to see, written in fading but still legible pencil.

Summer holidays, breaks from either school or college, were, of course, the cream of it. Many times the weather really was hot and I’d go back to education nut brown from 17 hours a day by the water. My places of worship depended on the forbearance of my parents and if they were kind, I’d get a lift further afield, if not I’d be down to foot and pedal power. Close to home, the coastal marshes, Letheringsett lake, Bayfield, the river Glaven and if I had my Weetabix , even Bodham Pit and Selbrigg pond were all within casting distance. Holkham lake, Gunton, Blickling, Melton Constable lake, Wolterton lake and the Wensum at Bintree Mill all depended on my being a good son, at least until I was 17 and the L plate was off a gooseberry green Fiat 600 that could notch a top speed of 50mph on the steep hill down to Cley.

In the 60s, these were magical places indeed and even the journeys early morning were memorable through cornfields laced with poppies and serenaded by skylarks from the first trace of light in the east. To be honest, Blickling was a bit out of my league in the early days, a bit big, a bit open to northerly winds and a tough nut all round until I learned to cast 10 yards or more. The rest of my hallowed venues, though, gave me memories for life, fish to fill my Letts diaries to cramming point. Flicking randomly through pages between 1959 and 1973 has once again made me realise just how magnificent the watery world then was.

August, 1959, and beneath the sluice gates on the Glaven at Cley sat huge perch, easily visible in the clear water and bright sun. The best we weighed (for everywhere I fished then there we kids like me, pals we thought for life) was an enormous 2lb 6oz, but there many far, far bigger that would take our float-fished sticklebacks but then power with the current out seaward and take us literally under the coast road  where they would break us up in the blackness.

That sluice came back into my life big time between 1970 and 1972 because of sea trout, clonking great silver submarines that reached 10lb and often more. I caught them on double worm or crab bounced along with the current and I lost one on a cold July evening that ran me all the way from Wiveton bridge to Cley itself. I followed it over fences and through ditches for a whole mile until 10pm when it reached the road and salvation after two hours of battle.  The scars, mental and physical, are with me to this very day.

July, 1961, and from the lake outlet at Holkham I landed my first tench, on the Little Sampson scales coming in at an impressive 3lb 2oz. A monster indeed and I say 'landed' because I had hooked eight Holkham tincas that had broken me with contempt before this ninth finally succumbed. and Into my little knotted keepnet he went, to be hoiked out and shown to every walker in the park that day.

In August, 1964, at Letheringsett lake I was not so lucky. There, during a sultry afternoon, the silver paper indicator on my eel rod came into galvanised life and line thick as light rope streamed out towards the island there. I wound down into an eel that would make an anaconda look like a bootlace and once more a massive struggle under the sun began. What followed made the Old Man and The Sea look tame and when that serpent of an eel finally bent my meat hook straight, I’d seen him a dozen times and I knew I had lost a record fish.

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It became the family custom that I was dropped off at Bintree Mill when my parents went to Norwich. They would shop, have lunch and then pick me up on the way back to the sea as I whinged all the way about missing the dusk and the best of the day’s roaching. One steamy August day in 1963 I did catch a redfin whopper there, however, and rushed it to the only adult fishing  that day. He looked at it, snorted, dismissed it at a pound and told me to come back once I had one double the size. It took me a further 10 years to do so but I got there in the end.

That summer too, there was a brown trout resident in the pool by the Mill that had me gobsmacked. On the next trip I took with me a jar of fine fat sticklebacks caught from a Glaven drain and I drifted them one by one around the pool under a nice red, cork float. After an hour, it dipped and I winched in a pike of perhaps eight ounces. My parents' Jag appeared and I threw in the remaining ‘backs... a trout of 7lb appeared and sipped in the lot!

These memories could march on eternally but they do indicate what fishing we have lost these 60 years or so, along with the poppies and the skylarks. I could preach on about the lessons we should learn but I’ll wait until after talking next week about my own biggest lesson of all. In 1973, I met John Wilson and my angling life changed forever.