I am writing beside an ancient pool, in a landscape which probably hasn’t changed a great deal since the Druids worshipped here. There is a presence in the oak and beech, for this place is full of antiquity, mystery and sometimes horror.
All is quiet now, as I sit with a freshly brewed cup of tea and wait for my scarlet-tipped float to move as it signals the arrival of a fish. If I’m lucky it will be a fish I catch and I’ll be jolted into the present as the float dips, but just being here is enough, letting my mind wander along the ancient paths of this place. For now, my float is motionless.
Last night I could not sleep. Although insomnia has been familiar over these last few months – anxiety about the pandemic, worries about our everyday lives – the interruptions last night were actually blissful. This is something most anglers know. The anticipation, the excitement of the journey. I’ve known these night fevers since I was about eleven years old, and as over the years I’ve come to associate them with the shifting seasons, the coming and going of the fishing year, as well as changes in nature and the landscape.
Last night, I rambled through memory paths, leaf litter, the sounds of dawn and dusk and the spicy aroma of autumn, of carp slime, beech mast and silt. It also had me dreaming of days and friends past. The anticipation was even more intense because of this pond – it has that effect on the few who are lucky enough to be able to fish here. It becomes part of you and never leaves.
Aged fourteen, I was at a crossroads in my life. I could’ve quite easily fallen over a cliff edge, which would’ve been very difficult to scramble back from. By then, I had been fishing off and on for a few years. I also enjoyed the quiet of the school library, just as much as the quiet of watching a float. Unusually, the library had quite a few fishing books – our school woodworking teacher (and leader of the school angling club) deposited some of his unwanted titles from time to time. The titles of these books caught my eye: The Domesday Book of Mammoth Pike, No Need to Lie, Favourite Swims, Lines in Pleasant Places and Confessions of a Carp Fisher. I read them all, over and over, and one of these titles totally bewitched me. I had it on permanent loan – I had it for so long that the librarian gave up asking me to return it. And I still have that copy of Confessions of a Carp Fisher by ‘BB’ – it’s probably the one angling book that I pull down from my shelves to read more than any other.
‘BB’ was not a technical angler. I liked that, and I was bewitched by the places he fished. They were full of atmosphere, scurvy tricks, carp as big as cows, cosy pubs, angling postmen, priests, folklore, the contents of his lunch box and more importantly the nature around the angler. I had no idea at that time that the author (BB) and the illustrator of the book (DJ Watkins-Pitchford) were the same person. The evocative scraperboard illustrations fascinated me as much as the writing. Our woodwork teacher saw me reading the book one day, and told me BB had written others, which I started to buy and read with gusto.
It was a time when, if you had a person’s name and location, the operator could give you their complete home address and phone number. When I plucked up the courage, I dialled 192 for directory enquiries and nervously asked for Watkins-Pitchford, who I deduced lived in Northamptonshire. A letter of admiration and adulation went off in the post immediately, and what followed was a delightful exchange of letters between a schoolboy and his angling hero. As the years passed, as books were signed and meetings for tea arranged, I began to learn from the master himself – some say the grandfather of carp angling – where all his secret pools and waters were, and how he had found them, fished them, written about them.
That’s how I came to be by this pond today. I remember my first visit, before I could drive. We were on a family holiday and I had engineered it so we wouldn’t be too far away, and I managed to persuade my father to make a detour. While the rest of the family sat in the car, I awkwardly knocked at the door of the thatched cottage. An old gentleman answered and at first I was mesmerised by his appearance – he was a man of the field, with baler twine as a belt and white plimsolls. After my nervous introduction, he denied there was a pool and said I must be mistaken. I was mortified and garbled an apology, but mention of BB and his letter must’ve slipped out because the man instantly asked what I meant. I showed him the letter, he was staggered that I knew BB, who he held in the highest regard.
“The pool is up the lane,” the man said. “Turn left through the wicket gate, by the cow sheds – you can fish whenever you like.”
It was as simple as that. My letter was a passport into a magical kingdom. Stepping through that gate was like opening a portal to a world that would change my life for the better. The pool cast its spell on me back then, and to this day it hasn’t dimmed. When I told BB, he thought my encounter story hilarious and said that the old magic was still there and it was meant to be.
The Pool, Cauldron Pool or Wizards Cauldron is where I sit now. Every season, every year the obsession has grown, calmed and then grown again. It has been the only constant in my life and this pool has seen me come and go from boy to man in sad times, happy times and varying states of euphoria – I think about it every day.
It is no ordinary place. Earlier, I walked from the lane through the aroma of dung and decaying hedgerow, then into the hollow of ancient wood with the shimmering autumnal waters below. The treacherous banks and path resemble a charnel house of woody limbs, and like bones they crack and snap underfoot; I’ve watched them decay over the years, joining the soil beneath my feet. On the way, I touched the Neolithic stones which were pillaged from a nearby and long lost stone circle – the stones are covered in grey lichen and green moss which is pleasing to touch, and I notice them in boundary walls, gateposts and scattered on the ground. I touch them in the hope that they may bring me good fortune when I cast for the creatures of the pool.
I sometimes feel I could walk these paths blind-folded and still navigate my way around the pool, but at dusk or into darkness it is challenging as one slip could see you fall into the inky black waters. To travel light and slow is to travel safely – shoulder bag, rod, net and cushion to sit on. I remember a quote from my angling journal – he who travels fastest, travels alone. My bag contains bait, tea-making paraphernalia and (of course) my battered copy of BB’s book – it always seems the right thing to do, to bring it here.
Today I’m alone, but this place has been the scene of some wonderful days with my closest of friends, who are never far away in my thoughts. Some are no longer with us, and they haunt the pool with memory. Perhaps the same will happen to me – forever trudging these paths in search of that elusive monster and hopefully bumping into my friends leaning against the bole of an ancient oak or beech, and once again we can share stories and tea as we fish celestial waters.
This morning, I decided to fish a precarious ledge where a beech tree grows out from the bank and then upwards shading the pools margins. Below is ten feet of inky black water; above me, rising like a cathedral, the beech with its receding autumnal cloak. Where the tree grows out from the bank it makes the perfect spot for my feet to rest. I notice the warn out area of bark where no moss grows. This is from years of my feet being in that position through all the seasons for this is a good spot and one that has been kind to me in fish landed. My first cast was delayed by the appearance of a nuthatch on the beech in front of me. Another tree nearby has my initials carved into it, which I recklessly did on my first ever visit – I always run my fingers over it to feel the bark and give thanks.
I found this particular spot, by the beech, some years ago while fishing with my friends Prof. and Demus – Demus noticed the way the boughs engulfed me and that he could hardly see me snuggled into my cushion of moss, leaf litter and twigs. He thought it looked like I was being embalmed by the trees and came up with the word: emboughered. I like it, and the fact we made up other words too that became part of our vocabulary. There are other fishing spots, too, like hell hole, ribs, swamp snot, ledge, boathouse, number 1, secret swim and tunnel. All have their own stories of triumph and tragedy.
As I watch the float, I find myself thinking more deeply about my friends, those past and present, who have fished with me here at the Cauldron Pool. I loop the line over my fingers just in case my dreams take me further away from the water and I can be brought back, hopefully, by the tug of an enquiring fish. The pool and its immediate surroundings suffer from prolific mood swings. It has always been so. And when a feeling of heaviness and gloom envelopes your thoughts, when the rooks go quiet, you know it is time to do something else. This feeling creeps over me in the emboughered. It was probably time to make a cup of tea or move on. But I give the pool more time and I think more about Prof – he fished this pool longer than any of us and was a delight to be around. Often, on my way home, I visit the place where his ashes are scattered and tell him of my adventures. As a young man, Prof cycled here carrying all his tackle – a round trip of some sixty miles. I have no doubt that it was Prof who protected me the day a large oak bough, as thick as an elephant’s leg, fell to the ground and just missed my head. A second before a car alarm had pierced the quiet and I had moved a foot to my right as I turned towards the road. Prof may have left us seven years ago, but he was there when I needed him, nudging the car to set off a sound that saved my life.
I finally make the decision to move, and it feels brighter as I move out from the canopy of trees to walk to the northern end of the pool. The colours of fallen leaves, the bright amethyst deceiver funghi and the delightful smells of autumn make the short walk pleasing. This particular opening (anglers call them swims) is not as you would imagine one on a heavily fished artificial lake – this is just that, an opening, just enough to poke my rod through a gap and be unseen, protected by a small low screen of holly and beech. I always find this area chirpier for some reason, probably because of the open views and the possibility of more bird life – last June I saw my first Goshawk at the pool, a flash of white and barred underside, crossing the pool like a ghost towards the thick bank of oak.
The quiet, sedentary angler can observe nature that others on foot or bike will never see – we blend. But right now I’m being more human, sipping tea and toasting my friends – absent friends and those who still fish here. You never know when they may be watching over you! I also toast the pool and hope that I’ll catch one of its golden warriors before the tawny owls call, so I’ll have a story to tell family and friends as I sit by the fireside at home.
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Dickie Straker lives in Bridport, West Dorset. He is not a Dorset man, but a man of Dorset and is happy living in the folds of a landscape that suit his many rural likings – he has kept an anglers journal since he first fished in earnest as a schoolboy and has a tendency to fish the quiet, awkward out-of-the-way places. Fishing is mostly an excuse to sit quietly and observe nature. A member of the infamous Golden Scale Club he occasionally writes for his blog Where Green Roads Meet