Caught by the River

The Lost Estate Lakes.

24th March 2008

Andrew & I were left devastated this week when we found out that our favorite fishing spot had closed it’s doors to anglers. That really isn’t an understatement, this place was special. We have had some great and memorable times there. We’ve caught big fish, but we’ve seen bigger. We’ve caught sod all and it hasn’t mattered. The place is mysterious, beautiful and secluded and as good as secret. I’ve fished there with only deer for company. But now it’s gone and it’s secrets will remain. The lakes are set in the (enormous) grounds of Heythrop House, on the edge of the Oxfordshire Cotswolds. The house, which was once very grand, is now a hotel and conference centre. A pure Fawlty Towers one at that. It had previously been a private home, a Jesuit college and from 1970 until the mid 90’s I believe, the training centre for the Nat West Bank. The right to fish there was taken away during the Nat West years but reopened when the hotel took over. Now, they want another nine holes on their golf course. Not even the chance of one last cast. Golf is a four letter word. (JB)

Stewart Moss shares his memories of Heythrop Park lakes;

The story begins way back in the 1700’s. Charles Talbot, the 12th Earl of Shrewsbury commissioned a magnificent house deep in the Oxfordshire countryside, to be surrounded by equally indulgent parkland. The custom of the time was for such estates to feature an ornamental lake, and this one was no exception. The classic strategy of damming a stream was utilised, with a cotswold stone bridge spanning the dam, with a smaller lake below ending in a pretty little waterfall.

Fast forward almost 300 years to the 1970’s when I first set eyes on the lakes as boy on a family outing. But it wasn’t until the late 1990’s when I first cast a line into the lakes, beginning to taste success with some of the old carp in the lakes a couple of seasons later.

The top lake was the more popular, being more carefully manicured, easier to fish, and boasting a large number of fairly easy-to-catch carp. But it was the bottom lake which really enchanted me, being the epitome of an old overgrown estate lake. It was plainly neglected, hopelessly overgrown, with awkward banks & lots of submerged fallen branches – all helping to create a seductive ‘shroud of mystery’.

I imagined it had changed little through the centuries, and who knows what handsome old carp lived in its coloured water? Most of the lake was thickly masked by a series of stunning old Beech trees, and punctuated in the gaps with hawthorns, Brambe, Birch and Alders. With some of the surrounding terrain also heavily wooded, the lake was a haven for wildlife – Deer, Foxes, Badgers, Buzzards, Barn Owls, Kingfishers etc all made frequent visits along the waters edge. The water itself was mostly shallow (save the dam end), with a few patches of Lily & Reedmace, and was usually quite coloured – with a bed of thick silt, sprinkled liberally with old beech twigs & branches. Fish species included carp, bream, tench, roach, perch & pike. All in all it was a stalker’s dream – and I soon discovered that on occasion, the carp liked a floater in the sun…

I did not fish the lake hard – it was not the sort of place which deserved such twentieth century pressure; instead making occasional short forays, mostly stalking and surface fishing over a period of several seasons. The carp were not particularly hard to catch if you were very quiet, and a few mates and I did well. The carp were not huge, mainly ranging between 10 and 20 pounds, but all were gorgeous old Oxfordshire carp, mostly commons but with a few stunning chestnut and gold Mirrors mixed in. A discreet little syndicate was formed.

Although not strictly allowed, a few day ticket anglers (and some even without tickets) from the top lake began wandering down to the lake from this time on. Sadly, this coincided with the first appearance of litter at the lake – breadbags, coke cans, sweetcorn tins etc; which was extremely disappointing at such a beautiful lake. Sometimes mankind’s filth never ceases to amaze.

I will describe (with the aid of my diary from the time) one of a few treasured fishing memories of the lake. An evening floater fishing session, when I arrived at about 5.30pm and spend a good while first scouting round the lake looking for targets – climbing fallen trees & pushing through undergrowth. Having chosen a swim I spent about 45 mins getting a group of fish feeding confidently on pieces of floating crust – It was apparent that the smaller Mirrors were feeding avidly, but the bigger fish are only glimpsed fleetingly, travelling thru the swim without stopping to feed for any length of time. Finally I decided to start fishing – after one of the bigger fish, and I was able to gently move the bait away from interested smaller fish – the carp were competing with each other for crusts so were not unduly alarmed by this. However, a particularly rapid moving mirror was to quick for me and hooked itself, making a right commotion in the swim before I could land him! It weighed about 7lb and I cursed myself as another 30mins feeding were required before I got a ‘competition’ situation going again.

With my crust back in position, it seemed that only a group of three smallish mirrors were in the area, greedily slurping, when out of nowhere a much bigger fish rose from the murk, circled my crust, and then (with my heart banging in my mouth), engulfed the bait. Waiting until the big common turned to go, I whacked him, and he sank into the deeps quite lazily, as if he didn’t realise what was going on.

But this soon changed and an exciting scrap ensued. To the left of me a rod length was a very large bush, with a whole maze of trailing branches in the water, extending about 15 feet from the bank – the bush also ringed by debris and weed beds. To my right, about two rod lengths was a fallen tree, which is right across the lake, bank to bank! If the carp reaches either snag its curtains! The carp’s first real run was flat out towards the bush – using maximum side strain I slowed him down, then stopped him dead just as he was reaching the bush. The water under the branches boiled, debris and clouds of silt colour the water, and a stalemate for a few seconds (but seems like minutes) occurred – the carp trying to reach safety with every sinew of energy, versus me and a carp rod in full battle curve! I won though, and he grudgingly eased into open water. After an arm aching 10minute scrap the common was netted without to much difficulty, hooray!

I carried the common clear of the brambles and twigs & steeply sloping bank to the edge of the field behind, and quickly unhooked him on the mat. A quick selftimer photo on the digital and he was released unharmed, to swim free again. I took particular care to give the common plenty of time to recover in the margins, before he kicked strongly and glides away. What pleased me most is the sensational condition of the fish, a scale perfect mix of chestnut, bronze and honeysuckle…and almost certainly an uncaught fish too, weighing just over 17lb.


Now sadly I hear the lakes are closed to fishing (again), due to expansion of the estate golf course from 9 to 18 holes. A huge shame, but I guess all good things come to an end, and they can’t take away the memories of those that have enjoyed it! Looking on the bright side, the lake will become sealed within the course, and apart from a few golf balls, should get another rest for a while….