Caught by the River

Pond Dippings by Chris Yates

16th June 2010

illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford. Taken from ‘The Fisherman’s Bedside Book’ by BB.

Today, the opening day of the coarse fishing season, our baits have been blessed by our patron saint, Chris Yates. Here is a recently finished piece of writing that Chris has very kindly given to us for exclusive publication on this, the most special of days. But fear not non-anglers and read on. Chris’ writing transcends the boundaries of angling literature and is quite simply poetry of the highest order.

A Chain of Ponds by Chris Yates.

On bright summer mornings of my sixth year, sloshing around the margins of the pond in bare feet or rubber boots, it was easy to forget about ideas concerning fish or fishermen. Sometimes, especially if there was no-one else to wade with, I might have taken a short break from wave-making and stone-throwing to gaze for a moment into the greenish depths, but apart from a few watersnails, leeches and submarine-like beetles there was, in those early days, not much evidence of life to interest me.
My three best friends were just as enthusiastic about the pond as I was, yet all they really wanted to do was sail their model boats. I would, of course, accompany them on regatta days, launching various craft that in former times had only plied across the bath at home. My pals had yachts with proper cotton sails while I had a wooden canoe with two Apache Indians and – my pride and joy – a clockwork rowing boat with a man who rocked back and forth as he pulled on the oars. One memorable day, when the motor was fully wound, the boatman almost reached the island in the pond’s centre, but, as we were waiting for the breeze to waft him back to shore, a stone came whistling out of the sky and almost capsized him.
On the far bank a gang of unknown boys maybe twice our age were collecting pebbles prior to the intended destruction of our fleet by catapults. Of my friends, only Dennis possessed such a weapon and on that day it was not in his pocket. However, had we all been armed, we would not have been so daft as to return fire against such murderously superior opposition. Our only hope lay in the fact that we were on the heathland side of the pond, with hawthorns, gorse and bracken offering dense cover if only we could gather the drifting fleet in time. We swamped our boots, there were a few more near misses, yet we retrieved our craft and escaped without serious injury. Following a narrow twisting path that led through man-high bracken, we ran towards a distant wood. The sound of our fleeing was like the sound of a cavalry galloping across a shallow ford; even when we reached the trees our boots were still half filled with pondwater. The enemy had pursued us, but we had been quick enough, vanishing into the ferns before they had even circuited the pond. Now we pushed deeper into the wood until we found a quiet place to sit a moment, draw breath, and drain our wellingtons.
It seemed sensible that we should circle round, keeping under the trees as far as the Reigate Road which would lead us safely home. However, after just a few yards we saw the unexpected glitter of water through the shadows and, turning from our intended path, came upon another pond. It was quarter the size of the village pond, saucer-shaped and surrounded by tall reeds. The water looked deep and crystal clear and it was obvious we had made an important, magical discovery. Not wanting to linger too long, we turned again and followed a track leading between thickets of blackthorn to the new pond’s almost identical twin. Once more, we dared not pause and savour it for long, but made sure we’d remember the way back for a future exploration. Continuing along the path it became clear that we were following a marvelous watery chain when we stumbled on yet another tiny reed encircled pool. It lay just beyond the last line of trees on the edge of a wide grassy field and because it seemed so far from the known world, so impossible for anyone else to discover, we felt safe enough to crawl under a wire fence, step out into the sunlight and sit by the water.
For a few minutes we kept hold of our model boats, but the complete quiet reassured us and we put them down, though no-one was bold enough to refloat them, nor, I think, did we even consider this: it was enough simply to have escaped persecution and fled into this foreign and enchanted field. It stretched down a long gentle incline towards an incredibly distant horizon of blueish pine trees. Over to our left a derelict barn leaned out of a clump of trees beyond which a group of cows were lying in the shade of a solitary elm. Dennis, who was not looking at the view, suddenly shouted ‘Newt!’ very loudly and made me jump. He pointed down into the pond where a golden finger-length creature was hanging motionless in the water with its nose poking up through the surface. Its feet were spread like tiny hands and the dark crest along the length of its back and tail gave it the appearance of a miniature dragon. It blew a single bubble, turned slowly and with a flick vanished into the glassy depth.
Unlike Dennis, I had never seen a newt before, yet even he seemed excited. All four of us crept round the spongy bank, looking for another, hoping to capture it and maybe bring it home in a wet sock. Though the water was perfectly transparent – so different from the cloudy village pond – and though I spotted a monster water beetle (which I only later discovered was a dragonfly larva), there were no more amphibians on display. Perhaps if we returned for a whole day with one of the little nets they sold in the corn stores we might be more successful, but only Dennis and I wanted the hunt to become more than a game.
Safely back home, I looked through all my picture books for an illustration of a newt. Naturally there were dragons and sea monsters and dinosaurs, but I could not find any newts until my helpful elder sister, Helen, tracked one down in her Childrens Encyclopedia. It was not quite as impressive as the real thing, yet it kept me happy and inspired until the day came when Dennis and I journeyed back to the field pond. We did not call in at the corn stores on the way and buy a net: there was no need as Dennis’s big brother had described an alternative method of newting. All we needed, he said, was a long thin stick, two yards of button thread and some worms. Apparently, this had been a long held elder brother’s secret, but now he was taken up with other passions he could finally reveal it.
With our newt rods and our lines baited with a knotted-on worm we looked like a couple of genuine anglers. It was so thrilling I could hardly speak, though I was not certain, despite what Dennis’s brother had told us, what would happen if a newt actually grabbed the bait. Would I be able to tell? Would it hang on long enough to be swung ashore? Maybe five or twenty-five long minutes passed before Dennis pointed nervously at his twitching line. I probably gasped as he snatched it up – but there was nothing there – not even the worm. Some greedy creature had stolen it all. As Dennis re-baited, my line quivered where it slanted through the surface. I immediately flicked it into the air where, like a miracle, a fantastic creature suddenly appeared, hands spread out, swinging towards me. Only when it was on the grass next to me did it let go of the worm.
Reverently, I picked it up and held it in the palm of my hand. Its quiet eyes and slow careful movements helped calm me down a little, but my heart kept pounding because, at that moment, my newt – olive green with webbed hind claws – was the most wondrous thing I had ever seen. And with it swimming in a jam-jar I could take it home and say I’d caught more than the fishermen.