My adherence to this opinion was not through hard earned first hand experience, as thoughts of returning to my past rarely occurred to me. It was merely that this adage seemed to possess a certain logic, and was so widely held by those whose opinions I respected, I assumed it had to contain an element of truth.
Over the past few years however my attitude began to change. Thoughts (and dreams) about my fishing past surfaced and challenged my adherence to the never go back principle. One place in particular kept cropping up in my mind: an insignificant little pond hidden behind a village cricket pitch in the Cotswolds. A place filled with small fish and big memories from my early teenage years. Yet temptation to return always failed to overcome a concern that the images I have constructed from those days would be irrevocably altered by the reality I might find. Even if the reality did match up to my memories, I wondered what I stood to gain.
Then a few summers back, following a return to a venue I had not fished for years – a visit that was a positive experience - the rationale against going back to the little pond seemed less convincing. But another year passed and still I had not gone back, although I often considered taking a glance to see what I would find. One argument preventing a visit remained. My first return to my past had been to the River Teme barbel fishing (a homecoming I described in October 99 on this site.) Rivers and barbel represented my current fishing reality; small ponds and pretty little roach on the other hand (like detentions, cider and youth club discos) were things I felt had been left behind in my teenage years.
It was midsummer and I’d been up before dawn tench fishing. The visit was another attempt to find a pool to match the image of summer tench fishing I carry in my head. By mid morning however, the lake had joined the ever-increasing list of venues eliminated from my enquiries, and I decided to spend the rest of the day admiring a vision I knew I could find: a barbel river in midsummer.
The route from stillwater to river took me across sun-drenched countryside familiar from my childhood, towards the locality of the village pond. My mood today was relaxed and philosophical, it was midsummer and I had numerous hours of daylight in which to fish. When I approached the turning off the main road, that led to the village and the pond, I took it, to see if it led back to my past. After much indecision over the past few years about whether I should travel down this route, this spontaneous decision seemed an easy one to make.
Driving towards the village, the exploits of George Bowling in Orwell’s Coming up for air came to mind. Orwell told of Bowling’s dissatisfaction at having become a middle aged slave to work and family, and how he planned and executed a brief escape from his routine and reality. He invented a fictitious business trip and returned to the place where he was brought up. His main intention was to fish a forgotten estate lake filled with great carp - a place only he knew of. As I neared my destination I wondered, if I would find, as Bowling did, that the passing of time on the village and the pond, would have led to a decline, that mirrored the toll time had taken on me.
As the view through the car windows changed from fields to housing, I discovered a settlement that looked very much the same as I remembered: a mixture of eighteenth and nineteenth century red brick and well disguised Cotswold stone dwellings of modern origin. All the buildings and gardens remained neatly kept by their urban commuters or wealthy retired residents. Even the house where my old school and fishing friend Jock had lived looked the same at first glance. Closer inspection though revealed a somewhat garish sports coupe parked in the drive - the sort that might be interpreted as an obvious statement about the driver. This one change alone convinced me beyond doubt, that Jock’s father - the very mould of the stereotypical dour Scottish spendthrift - had either moved away or passed away. The only other explanation for the car required a change in personality in Jock’s father so unlikely, that the idea of the Queen taking up match fishing seemed more plausible.
From Jock’s house I took the lane that ended at the cricket ground. The ground - one of the most scenic in the Cotswolds - looked as well kept as ever. The square was a lush green impact in the centre of a flat pool from which carefully mown concentric circles radiated out across the outfield. The playing area was contained by a bright white picket fence boundary. I drove around the outside edge of the boundary, parked next to the sightscreens in the furthest corner of the ground and wandered over to the half-acre pond.
To my delight (and mild surprise) all seemed just as I remembered it to have been when I last set eyes on the pond. Weeping willows, rushes and irises still surrounded the thick green waters. The small island at the eastern end of the pond remained covered by a towering thicket of float eating hawthorns hanging over the edge of their crowded raft in search of light. Even the odours in the air seemed unchanged: aromas of algae, mud, old grass cuttings, plus the faintest hint of beer and toilet disinfectant that emanated from the wooden pavilion tight on the northern bank. It was aromatherapy that made time travel permissible through a single deep inhalation.
My eyes climbed the line of the hill on the south bank to the large country manor that still maintained its watchful gaze over the village, the estate and the pond (a pond formed when clay was extracted to make its bricks.) The land belonging to the great house appeared to have avoided the pressures of modern agriculture; it remained rough grazing in the open parkland. It was half a lifetime since I had seen the pond and its surroundings as a sixteen year old, yet it seemed only a car, I observed climbing the hill to the manor, and myself had altered in appearance.
One of the reasons for me having such affection for this place was that it was the site of some of my first fishing successes; the place where I discovered experimenting, rather than following the herd could (sometimes) bring success. Experimentation was a consequence of the swarms of sticklebacks that inhabited the water. These little fish would devour a maggot long before any roach could even think of eating it, and resulted in the use of seed baits. Instead of one or two small silver fish, five-pound bags of three to a pound roach were amassed – this at a time when half a dozen gudgeon from the Severn represented a good days sport. The fish pulled from beneath the surface were however only part of the reason for this venues elevated position in my memories: friendships and freedom away from watchful parents and teachers (and the resulting mischief that freedom brought) were also significant.
As I neared the western edge and the concrete outflow - the place where Jock, myself and another classmate Nick had fished on our first ever visit to the lake - one small change became apparent. A number of strategically placed small signs rose from the water on galvanised scaffolding poles. The signs declared, "Fishing by permit only obtainable from the estate office." The lake had always been free fishing and I wondered what the young of the village would do now if they had to pay: poach if it was not adequately policed? Stay at home with their computers if it was?
I looked at the signs and pondered what to do next. Despite my attempts to be objective, I knew my answer - it was only the justification I was seeking. Yes, I would fish, I reasoned. After all I was not really fishing for fish, more for ghosts. Yet casting a line was a necessary part of the ghost hunt (a defence that would have failed to convince any magistrate I fear!). If caught, the owners would probably just tell me to clear off, so I might as well give it a go - just for a few casts in an attempt to reconnect with the lovely roach we used to pull from beneath the green veil. After all, the 14 year olds with who I was in some way trying to make contact would certainly have ignored such signs.
I wandered carefully around the muddy path bordering the pond with a rod, a net and a few other hastily gathered items. On arriving in a small-enclosed swim opposite the island I stopped. To my left, a bed of flowering lilies broke the surface of the algae-stained mirror, framed by the water-dipped branches of a weeping willow. To my right, an alder leant out in admiration of its own reflection. To these adult eyes it was the loveliest spot on the pond, but the swim was one I had rarely fished in those years past. Aesthetics mattered little to a fourteen year old choosing a swim. The ability to accommodate all three anglers in close proximity was of far greater importance, when it was the norm to squeeze into a 3-yard gap to promote both camaraderie and competition. In this swim however, there was barely a 3-foot gap between the foliage, which probably explained its unpopularity in the past. I dumped my limited amount of equipment into the long grass and thistles and decided to fish here.
As I threaded up my favourite old rod, a tweedy middle-aged lady strode boldly across the field bordering the south bank straight towards me. Behind her trailed her dog, a King Charles spaniel, wheezing along in the wake of her blue stockinged calves and sturdy shoes. This woman was just as I recalled all the over 30 females of the village to have been: horsy, women’s institute types that belonged to a world of coffee mornings and hunt balls. As she strode purposefully towards me, I was convinced she was about to break up what was turning out to be a happy reunion. I tried to appear unconcerned to her presence as she closed in fast on my position with large purposeful strides. I frantically tried to decide whether a plausible excuse or an honest confession would be best (in the absence of the former the latter seemed to be my only option.) When only a few yards away, the stern determined look melted and she smiled, and without breaking her stride announced in a jolly, haughty voice "Isn’t it super." I indicated my agreement with an enthusiastic smile, a nod of the head, but a monosyllabic reply. Although I assumed she was speaking of the weather, she could have equally been referring to the manor and its grounds, the pond, the cricket ground or even my feelings at having come back to visit my past. She strode on energetically down the path, pursued by her struggling ageing canine companion. If it was not for the wheezing of the dog she probably would have heard an audible sigh of relief. I turned back to the water, and continued to tackle up.
Soon the rod was ready with an attractive red tipped float hanging from the line. I swung out the float, shot and bare hook to see if it was weighted correctly. The float hit the water, briefly lay on its side until the cherry top pulled itself out of the green water and sat up in a pleasing way. It looked the very image of summer fishing: a pretty float bathing in the cascade of the willow reflection, tight against emerald lily pads and their watery yellow flowers. The image however was short lived, when after a second or two the float keeled slowly back to the horizontal as if overdosed with ale (or under-dosed with viagra.) I lifted the rod to swing the tackle back to try and fathom the cause of this unorthodox behaviour. The answer was soon apparent, when to my great surprise, the line tightened and something pulled the other way. I was soon admiring the culprit: a beautiful, though obviously dim witted, crucian carp.
There had never previously been crucian carp present in the pond and my suspicions were aroused. Surely an insignificant pond such as this, had not suffered the all too common fate of having the native fished scooped out to be replaced with carp – although they were welcome to remove the pesky sticklebacks.
The country is filled with new holes in the ground, dug out as farmers have sought to diversify. Within these characterless craters I have limited objections to overstocking with carp, catfish or whatever (though I wouldn’t fish there if you paid me), but when carp are thrown into old lakes and ponds with established and balanced populations of "native" fish, it is legalised pollution. It is the destruction of our angling heritage and as offensive as cutting down native woodlands to make way for pine forest plantations. Was this environment, seemingly unaltered since the last day I stood next to it, hiding a dramatic changed beneath the surface? I hoped this fish was a fluke, just a lone fish that had inhaled at an unfortunate moment and sucked in more than pond water.
I cast again, this time with bait on the hook and my fears were quickly confirmed as I battled a succession of increasingly bigger crucian and mirror carp. Although alien to my expectations, I was none the less entertained by their fighting qualities - for a while. The battle to keep their heads out of the lilies, and submerged branches of willow and hawthorn on an old cane rod and centre pin was challenging. At the end of an enjoyable hour I hooked the biggest of the fish – one of about 4 pounds. When I finally netted this common carp I knew I had had my fill. I was not here to pull out half starved fish that would eat a bare hook in the hope it was food; I had come to visit the past and these fish represented to me not only the present, but probably the future for too many young fishermen. I remembered the words of Jung (familiar only as I had heard Mike Brearley quote him when trying to be philosophical about another poor England cricket performance): "we learn from our failures, success merely confirms us in our mistakes." I wondered how any angler, young or old, could learn from repeatedly fishing a place so easy that success seemed guaranteed. I also feared the strain I was employing with the hook and hold tactics may adversely affect my old Hardy avon rod. If it was to come to the end of its fishing life doing battle, I had more worthy adversaries and a more glorious end in mind.
As I gathered my things to leave, I contemplated leaving some form of message or sign should Jock or Nick ever return. An inscribing on one of the fence posts behind our favourite swim perhaps? In the end though I decided to leave the place as I found it.
Walking back to the car I pondered whether, like George Bowling, the changes I had found were a metaphor for the change in myself over time? I certainly hoped not! I felt the changes beneath my own surface were not changes for the worse, in the way the arrival of carp in the pond seemed to be. Yet what sort of a judge am I; unlike the returning angler, I am unable to properly compare two images of myself separated by time in an objective way.
As I drove away from the village I considered the events of the past 90 minutes. I was happy about my decision to go back, despite the one unwelcome change. The experience had been enjoyable and left me a tiny bit wiser about what I want from my fishing. Absolute adherence to the never go back principal had been tested and found to be flawed, for without the insight this comparison had brought I would have remained oblivious to the wisdom I had acquired. Nevertheless, I had no further thoughts about returning to other pools and rivers from my past - this quick glance had been sufficient to allay my curiosity.
I turned out of the back-lanes and rejoined the main road; a route I hoped might lead to a barbel.