Joni Michell's 'Carey' played in my head as I walked, full of optimism, along the mile or so of lanes toward the pond. It would have been late July or August – school holidays. I was staying with my grand parents once more, avoiding the boredom of a family holiday to go and stay with my favourite relatives and indulge in some fishing.
The last turn was made and, from the top of the slope, there it lay before me – heaven.
Emborough Pond or, as everybody referred to it 'The Pond', was an estate lake, large, shallow, weedy and full of tench, roach, perch and pike. I say 'full', I rarely caught anything in those days other than diminutive perch but I acquired a catalogue of 'one that got away' stories as a series of slipping knots, snapped lines and just plain bad luck (okay, angling) made me avoid the capture of a tench for many years. It mattered not. It was a 'proper' lake and was therefore the home of monsters and that kept my imagination fuelled.
Maybe I should first take you back to the little terraced cottage in Gurney Slade where my grand parents lived. By the time I was taking my holidays there the outside toilet (a hole in a bench with a bucket below) had been replaced with an inside lavatory but there still wasn't any electricity in the back bedroom where I slept so the night time assent of the steep staircase was done by candle light and yes, there was a potty under the bed.
Each morning I'd be woken by the commuter train coming up the bank towards the station. The sound of the steam engine working hard against the gradient was a magical alarm clock and I would peer out of the window to see the coaches at rest in Binegar station. Sometimes a freight train would pass and of course, I had to stop and count the wagons. The walk to the pond went under the railway bridge and to have a smoking, gasping monster pass overhead was overwhelming; sometimes the driver waved back. That railway bank produced wild strawberry plants, their fruit as sweet and delicious as any morsel can be but we always had to beware of the adders that shared the sunlight.
The main room of my grand parents home was small and dominated by three things. The fireplace, the heart of the house where Edith, my beloved grandmother, always in her apron, would prepare every meal and all of the hot water in the two enormous black kettles. She seemed to be permanently stoking the coals and moving saucepans and kettles to catch the heat, her leather shoes, like little boots seeming too small for a grown up.
Then there was the television, still bearing its price tag (quite deliberately), loud and usually showing horse racing although I recall watching Top of the Pops and being scorned for liking David Bowie as he sang 'Starman'.
The last feature was the table, adorned with its floral patterned plastic tablecloth. Maybe this wasn't the last dominating feature as, sat behind the table, facing the TV, was my grand father Charlie. He would always be there when you arrived and would have the racing pages of the newspaper open as he checked his results. He never placed bets though, that would be far too extravagant.
Charlie had worked on his knees with pick and shovel for fifty years beneath the Somerset countryside, digging coal. This entitled him to a retirement certificate from the coal board, a pension and free coal for life. Not the good stuff that the coal man delivered to most of his customers but poor quality stuff that was hard as stone and difficult to light. But, it was free and “I didn't work hard all those years to get free coal so that we can waste our money on electricity”. So, if they were brought home late after a visit to our house, you had to wait for 'Mother' to light the fire and get the kettle on rather than plug in the electric one.
But I was too young to be judgmental and, in my eyes, my grand father could do no wrong as he was the only other family member that fished. I would sit next to him at the table and ask question after question. He would show me his entire tackle collection, held in a couple of tins in his old canvas haversack. There were the peacock quills, and the paper floats he'd been given (and that I still have). His cork, wrapped in lead so as to make it sink slowly and rest on a silty bottom, his assorted hooks and split shot in little tins with sliding lids. His rods were better than mine but not much in hindsight.
An 8' solid glass affair and something constructed from a 2nd world war tank aerial that I could barely hold let alone cast. I always remember his reel with its 'camouflaged' line, wiry multi coloured stuff that was supposed to blend into the background but I wasn't convinced.
In the drawer of the sideboard was one of my favourite items, an old 'baccy' packet filled with comic strip cuttings from the Daily Mirror. These were mainly done by none other than Bernard Venables although there were others, each describing a different aspect of angling, each a gem of information to my hungry young mind. The smell of the tobacco added to the magic that they possessed. I loved that smell. I would have a good lung filling sniff of Granddad's tin, a two compartmented device that held tobacco and papers. He would let me roll his cigarettes, chiding me if they were too loose or too thin but, in a short time I was rolling them to his standard. He once offered me a 'drag' when I was about ten. I refused of course, I didn't want him to know that I was already a regular smoker.
He would take me out into the garden, having first put his cap on (I never saw him outside of the house without a cap), to turn the compost heap for red worms. These in turn would be kept in damp moss in a small tin and turned daily to clean and toughen them. They were certainly lively on the hook and attractive to perch.
He accompanied me out to the pond on many occasions. I was always too impatient like every other small boy that's fished but he would try to instil some sort of discipline into my approach. It was frustrating fishing, the float dithering and bobbing for an eternity before sliding away. The strike was usually met with a diminutive perch, deep hooked but bristling with defiance.
We had a favourite swim in the wooded section, a fallen bough made for a perfect bench where we sat, watching the red tips of our quills in the shade of the overhanging tree. I would be lectured on how I should strike in the opposite direction to that which the float was heading and how I should keep calm and apply gentle side strain. Then, at dusk with the lake alive with rolling fish, his float sank and was met with a wild upward sweep of his rod which was then thrashed this way and that as he hurriedly brought a fighting bar of silver to the net. It was a beautiful roach just a few ounces below the magical 2lbs, he was rightly pleased and excited but came back to earth to tell me off when I said “what about the precise strike and gentle side strain”. I had to turn away and laugh discretely up my sleeve.
But it was in that very swim that we shared his last day's fishing. At the end of the day he struggled to stand up and I had to pull his not insignificant weight from the bough. I thought it was funny but then I saw the look on his face and the slight panic in his voice as he declared that “his legs had gone!” It was a mighty effort on both our parts to get him up the little bank to the path and that was the last time he was to put himself in that position, he was too old to fish.
Not that it stopped me. I would still visit and fish with the lads from the village. We were always there, come rain or shine. I'd fish the morning, return for lunch then go back for the afternoon and sometimes for the evening after tea. This was much easier when I could borrow Granddad's bike but I punctured one of the tyres once and was told that it was my job to repair it. I hadn't a clue how to do such a technical job so I walked along the long, narrow and at times quite creepy lane. I'd have all my gear in one hand and a metal rod rest in the other just in case it was the Bogeyman coughing behind the hedge instead of a cow.
Time moved forward and both of my Grand Parents had to leave their house and enter retirement homes. Gran succumbed to a stroke and Granddad's memory lapsed as he suffered dementia. He died, ironically, on March 14th, the last day of the season.
But, when I started working in Bristol I again rose early in the morning to fish the Pond. I arrived one day with just a few slices of bread for bait. Two anglers were already in my chosen swim so I fished on the other side of the dam wall but it was weedy and I was not getting on very well. I went to talk to the other guys, one of which had taken a tench. To my surprise, I was invited to join them and even given some maggots by the affable Chris Newton. I later caught my first ever tench and was elated that it should come from the Pond, the location of so many mishaps and lost fish of my youth.
The next time I visited the Pond was almost a year later when Nicky and I happened to be driving by as the season approached. I just had to have a look and who should appear from the undergrowth, camera in hand, than Chris. He'd been photographing fritillary butterflies, another passion we would share in subsequent years and it was also the first time he'd been back since we last met. Such serendipity would follow us through the years as I would walk into a tackle shop for the first time in literally years only to find Chris on a rare visit there too. We were destined to fish together and having arranged to meet up that opening day, have fished together ever since although less so over recent years due to Chris's lust for sea trout and women - but that's another story.
Having broken my duck I found the tench fishing much easier and caught regularly. Chris dropped in on me one day as I had my best catch there of sixteen tench and a couple of roach. Oddly, the next trip saw me catch eight tench and one roach. This day became a very special one as I left the Pond mid morning with Paddy, my lifelong fishing buddy, and we drove to the Bristol Avon where I caught my first ever barbel, what a journey that fish started.
Several years later I returned to the Pond and was horrified by what I saw. It had been taken over by a club obsessed with match fishing and, as I walked through the woods to my special place, huge painted peg numbers scarred the trees and the swims had been made 'comfortable' for those with a mountain of rods and tackle. The lake looked soulless and cheap, I quickly left, choking back my emotion and I have never returned.