Kevin Parr shares recollections of childhood Dartmoor swims as he introduces the latest Fallon’s Angler film, shot on the River Kennett
As a child, I had a slightly dewy-eyed view of Dartmoor. For several summers in the late 70’s and early 80’s we would holiday in a small cottage in the Teign valley, a simple semi-detached with creaky floorboards, an evocative must, and pillbugs in every cupboard. The weather invariably dictated activities, and as a result trips up onto the moor would coincide with warmth and sunshine. We would often stick to the beaten track, rarely out of sight of ice cream vans and other young families.
Dartmoor can feel quite benign in such conditions, with glistening rivers and the coconut waft of gorse. On a really warm day, the heather seemed to smoulder, and the whole landscape would shimmer and wobble, dancing a samba to the heat of the sun.
There was quite a gap between Dartmoor visits, but many years later I met a Devon girl (with Lincolnshire roots) and visits to her family offered opportunity to tread old paths. Sue and I began exploring the tors and valleys together, swapping memories and creating new ones for ourselves. I got to see Dartmoor in different shades. Thick with snow and battered by the wind. There would be foggy, eerie days when nothing moved but Old Nick himself and even the most familiar of haunts wore a shadowy sinister edge.
We found the cottage where I had stayed as a child and the bend in the river where I had skipped stones and watched the trout leap. It was all wonderfully nostalgic, apart from one particular spot.
My memory was of a pool on one of the moorland streams, created where the water slipped over a slab of bedrock laid to support a stone bridge. My family had visited there a few times, to build dams, catch caddis and chase trout. The gravel at the tail of the pool fined almost to sand, and there my parents set chairs and soaked the sun while we three kids played in the water.
I could have asked my parents for the exact location, but instead enjoyed trying to pinpoint the spot on an OS map. I followed the path of a few watercourses and considered the landscape and location that my young eyes had absorbed, planning closer investigation the next time we were on the moor.
The first spot we checked turned out to be the spot, but rather than feel sentimental I was utterly underwhelmed. Gone was the sandy bay, replaced instead by a muddy squelch, and the pool itself felt crowded and almost claustrophobic. I expected it to feel smaller—I was, after all, a couple of feet taller and many stones heavier, but I couldn’t comprehend how different my memory was from reality. It was undeniably the same place, but the alders and willow didn’t dapple the sunlight, they blocked it out, and where the water was once deep enough to swim I could have paddled without wetting my ankles.
We didn’t stay for long, and left, thankfully, before the bliss of childhood was clouded by 21st Century reality. And in the years since I went back, my subconscious has filtered out the negative imagery to leave me with my rose-tinted reminisce. Nevertheless, it has made me ponder the value of going back to a place—chasing the same high. After all, a moment is just that. Here and gone. Impossible to recreate even with the same pieces in place.
It is a lesson I have learned too as an angler.
A river is always evolving, yet it is hard for Man to view life in terms other than his own span. We dislike change, and sometimes rush to meddle when we would do better to leave be. And while we live in an extensively managed environment, we have little faith in nature’s ability to endure. Instead, we always look in the wrong places for explanation and overlook our own impact as a species.
Over 25 years, I have seen my favourite river, The Kennet, change almost beyond recognition. Siltation and an imbalance of phosphate and nitrates has caused the weed to disappear, taking the invertebrate life with it. The presence of the signal crayfish, able to sustain through cannibalisation, is undermining bank structure and creating a huge imbalance within the food chain. Perhaps the biggest issue though, is the desperate lack of water. Excess abstraction is a serious problem.
The Kennet, therefore, might seem an odd choice of venue for the latest Fallon’s Angler film. The hope was for a 2lb perch, and The Old Mill at Aldermaston was my suggestion. It is a venue I know better than any, although I haven’t returned since we moved to the Dorset Hills. The summer levels at the Mill are a foot or so less than when I first fished there, and gone are the huge shoals of chub and barbel that drew anglers from far and wide. I still had faith that I would find a fish or two though, and by treating the river differently, approaching it as a smaller watercourse, I might just catch something.
However, as I neared Aldermaston village, thoughts of that Dartmoor pool began creeping into my thoughts. Was this a silly idea? Would I spoil the memories I had so long created?
I felt mildly emotional as I rolled into the car park. This was also the venue for Sue’s and my wedding, a decade since—and a period marked by Sue’s illness and a massive change of lifestyle for us both. Nick and Garrett arrived and we had a wander about to get a feel for the place. The river was low but looked inviting, yet it was Sunday afternoon and nobody was fishing.
One major disappointment was the change to my ‘banker’ swim. Floods and gales had left their mark, and one of the alders that gave the pool so much potential was gone. It still offered the promise of fish though, and the lack of angling pressure would certainly aide our cause.
In the pub that evening, we got chatting with some other anglers who were in the area to fish for rainbow trout and shoot wild duck. They asked what I thought our prospects were of catching a 2lb perch, and I pondered for a moment.
‘50/50,’ I said, surprising myself.
Perhaps it was the beer talking, but that gave us half a chance…
Issue 12 of Fallon’s Angler is out now and available here.