John Bailey: Graffiti of our river banks

I do a fair bit of guiding and a few years ago a client got in touch with me, not to fish, but for me to take him to the fishing haunts that I'd talked about in Bailey books of the past. His prime objective was to wander the middle Wensum where, of course, I sort of made what fishing name I have back in the 70s, 80s and early 90s. We were wandering somewhere around Swanton Morley or Elsing way (you'll notice I'm still pretty defensive about my swims) and I came to a bend where I told my guy that John Judge used to fish habitually in the winter of 1976/1977. Of course, the bankside had changed a fair bit, but I soon aligned myself with a willow on the far bank to get JJ's exact position.

My client hunkered down in the reeds and let out a startled exclamation. There, just in front of him, was an aged, rusted rod rest. It was John's very own, left there at the end of the season 25 or more years before and a constant reminder of those heady Wensum roaching days. It was a wonderful moment in its own unique way. Of course, I'd rather find Mallory's camera on the slopes of Everest, but as a student of Norfolk fishing history, it was an inspiring find and I like to think that one discovery alone made my client's fee more than justified.

I used to haunt the banks of Blickling Lake, just outside of Aylsham. In those days, around 1987 or thereabouts, the water was crystal clear and it was possible to watch the tench graze in front of you as though they were in air itself. Half, at least, of what I know about tenching today, I picked up during those wonderful seasons.

I remember being approached by a very erect, dignified, well-dressed, elderly gentleman. He spoke with a strong American accent and he told me that he'd been stationed in Norfolk during the later stages of the war and that he had used to fish Blickling for its tench, bream and especially pike. As an American, lure fishing for predators was his prime interest, but he'd learnt to appreciate the joy of summer evenings, catching the super tench so absent back home.

As he spoke, it became quite clear that it was Blickling Lake and the fishing here that kept him sane during those difficult years away from his homeland and his fianc�e. No matter how bad things got, he told me, he could always find solace down on the dam wall of this beautiful water.


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He asked me if I'd got a couple of minutes to spare. He led the way from the Lake, across the meadows on the eastern bank and up into some wooded high ground. There stands an old brick water tower and for a couple of minutes he walked round it, scrutinizing it hard. With a cry of triumph he beckoned me to him. There, carved in the red brick, were his initials, his home town and the year, 1944. Something to do, he told me, when the fish weren't biting. A piece of graffiti even more powerful than Mr Judge's long lost rod rest.

Until two or three years back, I used to live in Salthouse and frequently, when work was going slowly, I'd walk up to the church and wander to the pews of the choristers. There, in the shelves where they place their prayer books, remain the most remarkable of carvings. Presumably executed during long and tedious sermons, they show glimpses of what the Salthouse harbour was once like. Carved in the wood, we can see the most dramatic images of 16th century galleons under full sail. These were the amazing sights that the youngsters of long ago gazed out upon.

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What enormous drama for any historian, and for any angler, too. These were the days when occasional sturgeon ran in from the North Sea. Imagine those on rod and line. And what must the bass stocks have been like and the huge shoals of herring and mackerel? It's quite possible that in those days, too, blue fin tuna hunted off our coast, fish weighing up to a thousand pounds, just a few hundred yards or less offshore. I'd wander home inspired, full of ideas, fired up by what those naughty little boys had got up to back in the years of the Tudors.

As we move towards June, the river season becomes ever closer and I'm already excitedly making my plans. You'll guess I probably won't be telling you exactly where I'll be starting but you can pick up a few tips and ideas as ever on www.kingfisherapartments.co.uk. After this abnormally wet spring, I'm hoping the river will be in fine fettle and we'll all have a season to remember. Perhaps I'll even find myself using Judge's rod rest, still there amidst the reeds.

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