Caught by the River

Caught by the River Chelmer

Luke Turner | 25th July 2021

Luke Turner escapes the Euros final, heading to an Essex river fished by his grandfather.

Anxiety, frustration, and the inevitably of failure are three of the key emotions I tend to associate with a fishing trip. With that in mind, I’d had the canny notion that the best way to escape the anxiety, frustration and inevitability of failure that would accompany the interminable build-up to England’s Euros final showdown with Italy would be to spend the day trying to outgun it by trotting bread flake on an Essex river. I hopped in the car for the quick drive to where my grandad fished nearly a century ago on the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation, east of Chelmsford, an easy spot where I’ve been trying to find my way back into angling… but I had, somewhat naively, forgotten about British people in hot weather. I’d only fished this stretch in cold winter, when the river rushed past muddy banks in a chocolatey spate. In muggy July, I arrived at a layby full of cars unloading families with canoes, kayaks, and hissing pumps for inflatable paddle boards that soon launched to pack the water. 

It was hard to try and concentrate on getting back into the swing of casting when every few minutes stand-up boarders and canoes zoomed through the (my!) swim, some wetsuited against the water’s chill, others flexing the sort of grimly chiseled bodies that, back in the day, you’d only see in adverts or pornography, and are surely ubiquitous now because of both. One banterous flotilla of lads came through flicking a dead perch at one another off their paddles, full of theoretical chat about how the opposite sex appeared to become more flirty if they saw you falling in. At first this was all so infuriating that I succumbed to the modern reflex, putting down my rod to fire off a Tweet about one whopper who thrust his way blithely past, a waterproof bluetooth speaker and phone combo on his deck tinnily playing his favourite smooth jamz, as if the river was a set for a particularly posey dating show. 

Yet relaxing into the day, I began to feel foolish. Who’s to say the other river users weren’t looking at me as a twat in an army surplus hat, obstructing the navigation with my line, cruelly hauling fish from the cool sanctuary of the water? It was really no skin off my nose if I had to retrieve my tackle now and then to let people float past. The pleasure of observing, of sinking and then dissolving into a place, like my pinched communion flakes of Kingsmill into the Chelmer water, is a large part of why we fish. As I walked down a river that was, after all, a navigation cut by shovel and human endeavour, I told myself that it wasn’t just the natural world that might be observed and absorbed. The angler is often curiously invisible to the passer-by, and eavesdropping on unguarded moments of conversation, from folk on boats and bank alike, is a pleasure afforded to us that’s just as rewarding as the glimpse of a sparrowhawk, or noting the changing clouds against the water. It’s not a voyeuristic act, for they’ve always passed on by before more than a scrap of conversation has been dropped for you to pick up, wonder on, and forget.

The air was thick from this dampest of summers, carrying the chime of rural church bells from the north and south, a service at 10:30 another at 11. It was heavy with the fruity wafts from vapes, soggy dogs and weed. Now and then too the pungent blend of sweat and deodorant as Duke of Edinburgh groups passed behind me along the old towpath, sometimes twice, clearly lost. They seemed to be having a whale of a time nonetheless, teenagers representing a diversity you happily see more and more of along riverbanks and rural paths these days, and scraps of their enthusiastic chat kept making me chuckle. I heard arguments about whether someone was being sexist, farting in tents, and

DoE girl one: “It makes me laugh how people saying ‘good morning’ freaks you out”

DoE girl two: “yeah maybe people in the countryside are just, like, more friendly?”

DoE girl three: “shuttup don’t mess with my anxiety.”

I got chatting to an old boy who spoke in a curious accent that was a warm gurgle of rural English, estuary Essex, and Australian. He’d fished this water since he was a kid, and as tends to happen when you’re in the presence of an expert, things went wrong for me – a slimy roach slipped out of my hands and flew into some nettles, only just making it back to the water. Another, taking the flake, dashed straight for the weed, threw the hook and got away. The fella wasn’t bothered. He seemed to need someone to talk with (or rather at), about match bags of hundreds of pounds of silvers, second rod cheats, the old-fashioned names for maggots, of angling tech and the arrival of the roach pole. I’d only seen pike hunters all day, and he spoke of how the popularity of big beast carp lakes meant he rarely saw people wandering the banks like me, armed with just a rod and a bag and a bit of bread. Even when he inevitably started going on about the “Eastern Europeans taking fish”, it was with an air of resignation, even loss: “you don’t see as many of them, now that we’ve left,” he said. I tried telling him I’d had chats with a couple of Polish pike fishermen earlier, but he went quiet, and continued to stare at my float.

As if to labour the point that this was the most ludicrously English of days, a Spitfire droned slowly overhead followed a little later by a Hurricane and later some old biplane, moving barely faster than a car through the evening air. The paddle boarders vanished, presumably headed home to wash away the river before beers and the football, leaving me with the violent slop and rustle of pike hunting in the reeds. Sometimes the reason we head to the river is as much to get away from people as it is to find fish, but I’d felt uncomfortable with that feeling. A few weeks before, perfectly alone casting lures in Cornwall, I felt as if I were on the rocks of the mind as well as those of the English shore, and nothing would shift the malaise, even a horizon empty save a small boat, sails pink in a perfect sunset, gliding slowly home.

The day on the Chelmer had been better all told, not least thanks to my float ducking under for three decent roach and another five or six energetic dace and small chub. As I unhooked the last of them, I realised it wasn’t meditative hours of intense focus on the finely bobbing float that had helped clear my head, but absorbing passing conversations with the sun’s rays, deep yet fragmentary glimpses into the intimacies of others. Once footsteps carried their voices away it was as if these people, never to be seen again, were essentially dead to me – an odd feeling, but one that added an intensity to a human connection with strangers that, I suddenly and keenly realised, I’d been missing these past months of Covid isolation. We’re all much better off when we try to learn to share the banks.