Caught by the River


Malcolm Anderson | 18th June 2014


Malcolm Anderson savours the freedom of an afternoon off as he wades through one of Exmoor’s moorland streams…

Work has me up in North Somerset today amongst the ghost-inhabited stonework of Dunster Castle. From the roof, where I’m supposed to be inspecting the solar panels hidden behind the crenellations, I look out over the expanse of the coffee coloured Bristol Channel as it churns restlessly, caught for a short time between the push and pull of the tides and the force of a rain swollen river Severn. Beyond the water, Wales fades in and out through the hazy late May sunshine and behind me above the castle, Exmoor rises away from the deep red fields and the narrow shingle laden coastal strip.

One of the major advantages to my job is that I get to go to amazing places most days. I bounce from Brownsea Island to the Cotswolds to the Stonehenge landscape, my feet echo along the empty servants corridors of Barrington Court, Stourhead, Dyrham Park and Lacock Abbey. One of the downsides however is that I’m often sat in a meeting room at these places all day or poking around dusty attics and twenty fiver year old oil boilers. Some days, and prepare yourself for the horror dear reader, some days there isn’t even any cake.

Exmoor 2

Not today though. Today I’m determined to make the most of this fantastic corner of the country. My meetings are finished by two thirty and as it’s such a long drive back to the office that basically the day is over as far as work goes, I wouldn’t arrive until five even if I had no lunch so I’ve come up with a cunning plan. I extricate myself from the post meeting meetings, pass on the cup of tea in the staff room with murmured polite excuses and hurry down the shady spiral staircase, treading carefully on the time worn smooth steps. By the time I reach the car I’m hot and eager to be free. I know where I’m heading, I’ve been watching the weather and promising myself this small excursion all week and now the day has turned out perfect for a trip to a quiet ancient woodland fringed stream as it falls off the open back of Exmoor’s hills and tumbles towards the English Channel.

The waders, rod and a small pack are wedged in the back of the car. The pack contains nothing but a sandwich wrapped in greaseproof paper, its corners tucked in with hospital bed precision and a small flask of sugary, milky tea. Shoved into the pocket on the waders are a spool of tippet, some snips and a small weathered box about the size of a packet of cigarettes containing a small selection of dry flies. Sometimes less truly is more.

Skirting around the foot of Exmoor I head up to Minehead and then on towards Porlock, turning off the lorry choked A39 into the sleepy lane heading towards a rambling old farm, then on to the tiny village centre.

Normally the order of the day upon reaching the village is to purchase a drink and a day ticket from the tea rooms but it’s currently closed so I’ve made alternative arrangements and this time I just have to climb into my waders, lace up the studded boots, discuss what I’m doing with several inquisitive dog walkers, bent like their slightly overweight Labradors, and wander back downstream towards the old packhorse bridge.

It’s no more than 30 minutes since I finished work but the second I step off the road and slip into the leafy tunnel that hides the stream it feels like I’ve had the whole day off already. Ahead of me tumbles the very picture of small moorland stream perfection. Golden summer sunlight squeezes through the tunnel of green and falls in thick patches highlighting mossy boulders, unruly noisy riffles and smooth edged oily-still glides.

Exmoor 4

As often happens to me around running water, time slows and fragments into a million things all happening at once, everything blurring together and yet remaining distinct and separate.

A smear of aquamarine and chartreuse as a kingfisher disappears from its perch on a fallen branch caught in the bankside. Concentric circles slowly spreading outwards in a dark corner next to the deep red of fibrous Alder roots as a trout delicately breaks the surface. Iridescent insects caught in the shafts of sunlight, suspended fairy lights dancing in the faint breath of the woodland around me. The crystal clear cool water pouring over the bigger boulders, forming layer upon layer of tumbling background noise, faint and not quite discernible, a radio four broadcast carried on the breeze.

I tune into all this and tune out of the human world as I wade slowly up through thick zebra stripes of sunlight and shade. With small casts into the dark corners of the world, flicking line under branch and over root, I pick off freely rising trout with a small black dry fly. Nothing over eight inches moves to my fly but the small feisty fish are so beautiful that with every one I slip further into the rhythm of this this other place, this other me.

The riverbed is lined with time worn pebbles flecked with spots of deep red and green that glint underwater, sparkling stony gems underfoot whilst the rivers surface shifts and dances between a million shades of light and dark. Up here the trout are opportunistic and hungry, energetic and acrobatic. They are the epitome of the link between landscape and the creatures that live in it. Shaped as they are by the smooth stone underfoot these perfect tiny white finned fish are flecked with summer, their flanks spotted with the colours of honey, strawberries, blackberries and young nettles; painted by the surroundings beyond their watery home. As I drift off in a warm sunlight daydream, my thoughts tumbling like the rivers current, I wonder though if just maybe their surroundings are the colour of them.

I approach a stone arched bridge and settle down on a boulder cut square by the passage of thousands of years, covered in a thick carpet of moist luscious moss and open my pack, lunchtime has been and gone but my stomach has reminded me that I need to eat. No warm tea and tepid sandwich have ever tasted so good as these, taken on my moss covered throne mid-current in a river that, if I listen carefully to the spaces between the world, appears to be whispering The Archers under its breath.