I will not tell you how early I rose this morning – you’d just get tired knowing the hour. Suffice to say our church had not banged out many chimes to mark the time at which the cuckoo started calling out for ten minutes straight.
Normally, I do not much care for the call of the male cuckoo; it soon becomes grating and repetitive. But this morning it was less so, our blue-grey African arrival far enough away for the call to be muffled by distance. But goodness how he set off the remainder of the bird world. Within a minute every bird with a voice was joining in. Frankly, it was bloody noisy. I gave up on sleep when some wretched cockerel awoke.
To be absolutely fair the ending of my sleep was not all the fault of the predawn chorus. When I refurbished The Mill fifteen years ago the architect, Huw Thomas, persuaded me to remove the floor between the second and third stories and the ceiling above that to create a triple height bedroom. He also persuaded me to remove one end wall to replace it with glass. It is the sort of brilliant idea architects have mostly based on the principle that they rarely live in the houses they design. He further persuaded me (he is a persuasive type) to not sully the aesthetics of the room with curtains. Or blinds. Or basically anything that would shut out light. Down the years dawn has essentially become my alarm clock. How I sometimes yearn for winter ….
Up, I decided to walk towards the sunrise along the abandoned racecourse beneath the ancient hill fort of Danebury Ring. It is a stiff old climb to start with; Nether Wallop sits in a deceptively steep valley. By some accounts ‘wallop‘ means hidden valley. But once you hit the downs where the turf track remains it is kinder on the legs.
Today, what was the six furlong straight, is a rarely used training gallop, the racing stables currently empty and the expensive all-weather surface a by-product of the owner, a member of a famous German sports car family.
It was cold; the sun was still thirty minutes away. Within a dozen strides the chilly dew had soaked through my shoes. I was destined to squidge as much as walk.
There wasn’t much in the way of wildlife. A muntjac crossed way ahead of me. A few rabbits scurried back to safety. Some partridges got up on the wing, describing a short arc as they drifted back to earth a safe distance from me. There wasn’t a breath of wind. I even seemed to have left the birdsong back in the valley. It was very peaceful as the sun rose over a hill that has seen eight thousand years of human habitation.
On the way home I deviated from the turf to the headlands which surround the adjoining fields, which this year are growing peas. No wonder we are infested with wood pigeons. The headlands are stunning about now, the twenty-metre wide strips a cacophony of daisies. Later in the year the headlands will be red with poppies, but for now the soft wave of colour is white. Farming gets plenty wrong, but in the EU inspired (and funded) corridors nature thrives. Plants grow as the soil permits. Insects avoid pesticides. Birds forage for seeds. Field mice make their homes. Owls hunt the strip lands at night.
However, even here it is plain to see how man can pervert natural growth when you have a chance to look. Compare the daisies that are growing along the margin to those in the headland proper. They are thicker, bushier and altogether more flowersome. Why? Well, simply put they benefit from the fertilizer laid down for the peas that leaches into the edge of the headland. That is not to say it is an entirely bad thing – they are, in effect, creating a barrier to keep the rest pure.
So, as I trundle back down the hill the sun is up. It is still yet to reach a height at which it will penetrate to the houses alongside the brook, but it has touched the tower of our Norman church which chimes the hour again. I suspect this will be a long day.
I am sure you were the same as me as you donned that itchy uniform ahead of the first day of term. Praying for the phone to ring, your mother shouting up the stairs, ‘You are not going to believe this darling, but the school has burned down.’ Cue total elation.
I have to say I never factored a pandemic into my scholastic doomsday scenarios. How lucky is this current generation I think to myself? I know they all say they are really missing school. But I suspect those are words simply to delight parental ears. Out of sight I’m sure they are doing high fives and mouthing F**K YES!
Of course, we should have known this was going to happen. Who would have thought Alice Cooper a prophet? His 1972 hit song School’s Out, the anthem of the academically disaffected and disenchanted, foretold the future.
No more pencils no more books
No more teacher's dirty looks
Out for summer
Out till fall
We might not come back at all
School's out forever
School's out for summer
School's out with fever
School's out completely
Kudos to you, Alice. However, this hiatus does of course beg the question of parents as to what to do with their offspring in the weeks and months to come. When it comes to fly fishing I’m sorry to say we haven’t been able to work out a Zoom solution but we have worked out how to safely run the Kids Fish Camp and other events here at Nether Wallop Mill over the summer.
Three days of casting, catching, fly tying, entomology 101 and much more both here at The Mill and on the River Test. Fully supervised. All tackle and flies provided. 10am-4pm each day. Groups for 8-11 and 12-15 years. June and July dates.
It is fair to say things went fairly bonkers for us when Boris announced, with two days’ notice, that fishing was to reopen. We effectively jammed three months into three weeks. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that we’ll make up for all the ground lost during lockdown but compared to many businesses I’m very grateful to be where we are today compared to where we thought we might be a month ago.
To a certain extent we are still slightly hampered as it will be a long while before overseas visitors can make it and without local accommodation all trips have to be day trips. The hope has to be that our favourite pubs and hotels will open soon so that those of you who have missed out will be able to make up for lost time.
If you are waiting for that first trip the one thing you need not fret about is water levels. Last month might have been the driest and hottest May for over a century but we are still, and will continue to have, full chalkstreams. It was an amazing winter that will keep us going all year with something to spare.
But enough about us. How about other fisheries? I had a ring around the stillwaters who have been fantastically busy, the only pause for action being this week when the hot weather became unbearable. A common theme (and one I’d echo) has been the appearance of many clients not seen for years. That is one happy side effect of Covid. That said, I did hear today of one trout fishery that is now closed for fishing May-September but open for wild swimming and doing better than ever! You have to admire the ingenuity.
As for Stockbridge. not too much change since the start of lockdown. The essential stores continue to do great trade, the long queues outside becoming something of a feature of the High Street, with the locals now having an algorithmic knowledge of the best times to shop. However, ever resourceful Alistair at Robjent’s has reinvented his store for mail order, click and collect and home delivery, wrapping parcels until 9pm having furloughed all the staff. The only good thing he tells me is that after 20 years of seven days a week he has finally had weekends off. But, despite that, he’ll be glad to open the doors again around 15/June. It has been a brutal three months.
Across the road at Orvis they are also preparing for reopening, this time on 18/June. The store will be open every day from 8.30am, seven days a week though make a note that Tuesdays and Wednesdays will only be for a few hours in the morning, the store closed on those afternoons. But other than sensible Covid precautions it will be very much business as usual with full stock in the Stockbridge shops. The summer sale is planned for the last week in June.
As I went to make the feedback draw for May I had a sudden panic. Did I forget April? And then I remembered: not a fly cast. Not a fish caught. So, I’m doubly delighted to say well done to Brian Gibson who fished at Cottons Fishing House on the River Dove in May.
Brian, if you are reading this let me know if you have any interest in horse racing. If so, I’ll send you a copy of Frankel hot off the presses. After much delay it is due out in July. Failing that you are welcome to one of my other books or I’ll find some suitable alternative.
In general, this has been a mixed-up Mayfly. On the Allen and the Itchen, it peaked whilst we were still in lockdown. Elsewhere it didn’t really get going until the third week in May, but the hot weather made things really hard on fish and fishers but when it was good, it was very good.
I was on the Frome on Sunday night. In all my years I have never seen such an enormous quantity of Mayfly. The meadows at Ilsington were swarming with the dancing columns as far as the eye could see but they didn’t seem to be showing much inclination to head for the river for egg laying. I suspect this change in the weather with plenty of cloud cover for the next week or more might change things for the good.
The BBC episode of Springwatch on Wednesday evening (BBC2 8pm) featured a lovely two minute contemplative film shot on a north Norfolk chalkstream.
Made by Josh Jaggard it simply features the sights and sounds of the river. No people. No commentary. Just nature doing the talking. It is rather special.
Here is the link to BBC iPlayer. You'll need to scroll through to the 31 minute mark. I'm only sorry that the show opens with my bête noire, the beaver.
No real theme this week but as ever, it is all just for fun with the answers at the bottom of the page.
1)What is Alice Cooper’s real name?
2)Which cartoon character had nieces called April, May and June?
3)In June 1215 Genghis Khan captured Zhongdu. What is the current name of this city?