Recently, I had the pleasure of wetting a line on a majestic section of the Upper Thames near Wallingford, Oxfordshire, famous for its barbel and large shoals of nomadic bream. I fished downstream from an impressive weir pool, massive and turbulent, its waters giving rise to that gorgeous scent of soaked greenery and freshwater mist that triggered a Proustian madeleine of fishing and swimming in Dobbs Weir on the River Lea in Hertfordshire when I was a kid.
My mum used to drive us, my sister and me, for an occasional day out during the school holidays, where she sat in the sun reading crime novels as we swam and fished the river.
I panicked her once by swimming too close to the weir’s apron, well out of my depth in the deep, choppy water. I tried to swim to a calmer spot but was making no progress. All I could hear and see was the weir’s thunderous melee and foaming white water; I had no idea my mum was jumping up and down on the bank waving her arms and shouting at me to swim clear. I remember a wave of rising panic as my strength waned, but suddenly like flotsam from a flood, I popped clear of the main flow into a back eddy which delivered me near enough to a fishing platform to grab hold.
It was a weird day altogether, because not only did I nearly drown, I saw my very first pike. And it wasn’t skulking in the river amongst marginal weed waiting for an unfortunate roach to swim by but lying like a defeated dragon in a landing net held aloft by a little girl with brown curly hair and pink and white polka dot wellingtons.
Then there was the chub. On another visit, as we lounged around on the grass by the weir pool, a gang of young boys trooped by, garrulous and jostling. At their head was a blond lad of about twelve or thirteen carrying the biggest chub I’d ever seen. It was very much alive, and it made a couple of attempts to squirm free of his grip, its scales glistening like quick silver in the sunlight. The boy could hardly contain it and while his friends chattered excitedly around him, he strode on, grim faced and resolute. Years later in March 2003, that weir pool produced a British record chub of 8lb 13oz and the sight of it in the angling press reawakened the childhood memory of the boy and his prized chevin.
Kings Weir on the river Lea is a fishery where anglers have flocked for decades hunting specimen fish of all species but especially barbel. A lustier, older brother to Dobbs Weir, its watery mist hangs in the air above the sill like a baby Niagara, bedewing any angler who fishes nearby.
It’s a fine spectacle but when I used to fish it, some fifteen years ago now, it was a source of constant frustration as I blanked time after time. That is until I discovered an enclosed stretch at the tail end of the weir run by the London Angler’s Association.
With padlocked access and entirely fenced off, it was a rarely fished, wild paradise inhabited by kingfishers, water voles and my raison d’être the magnificent, gold-backed barbel. Once I’d locked that gate behind me, I was on my own amongst a beautiful tangle of frondescence with barely discernible swims and knee-high nettles that my legs and arms remembered for days after. The unkempt banks made for real jungle fishing, and swims were more like lairs. More often than not I’d fish into the night to exploit that magical witching hour when day becomes dusk becomes dark and fish shrug off their coyness and jostle to make your acquaintance. It paid off too. I met two of the rivers old warriors over the course of those sessions: a 12lb barbel and a 6lb 8oz chub. I also met two bailiffs who thought I was poaching. It was a particularly dark night, the only source of light my Star-Lite bite indicator on which I was concentrating very intently. Next thing, the night literally exploded into eye-stabbing torch light and shouty voices. If there had been a roof I would have hit it. Instead, I resorted to arming myself with a rod rest which I jabbed at the intruders like a rapier babbling, “fuck-off! fuck off! fuck off! repeatedly like I’d invented Tourette’s. I could have seriously injured one of those bailiffs. Thankfully their obvious amusement at my manic blathering eased the tension. I thought they were muggers after my gear, and they thought I was a team of poachers stealing fish and trashing the fishery. Why they just didn’t ask to see my permit without creeping up on me I’ll never know. I’ll think they just wanted a quick laugh and they certainly got one.
At the end of summer 2020, with the world on a trajectory to God knows where, I fished another weir pool, this one on the Suffolk Stour. It’s a fantastic spot, nestling deep in the countryside amidst water meadows and roaming cattle. There’s only a couple of swims on the pool, such is its size and profuse bank-side vegetation, and I decided to fish the one nearest to the weir itself, enticed by the pacey main current and swirling back eddies.
But, despite the very fishy nature of the pool and mild, overcast weather, nothing happened, hardly a twitch for an entire afternoon. There was a brief gudgeon interlude, where I managed a couple of fish in quick succession, and then a microscopic dace, but that was it. This lack of action galled me. I had tried everything, different baits, different methods; short casts, long casts: nothing. Then, just I was thinking about packing up, there was an oily swirl some two metres from the bank. “Carp,” I thought. I scanned the depths for the fish and saw a shape that bore no resemblance to the rounded, olive-brown shoulders of a river carp, more the sinewy sleekness of a river predator. It was an otter. It porpoised briefly and was gone, out towards the deeper water. I was transfixed, and grinning ear to ear. To witness such an iconic creature made my day, but it also accounted for my lack of fish.
I’ve reacquainted myself with Dobbs Weir in recent years, and it was by chance. I happened to be pricing tree work somewhere near Waltham Abbey, Essex when I noticed that landmarks and street names were beginning to look familiar. On a whim, I turned left off the main drag heading home and found myself driving down a road flanked by enormous glass houses, dazzling in the afternoon sun, all part of the local market garden industry that the Lee Valley is famous for.
Then I saw a sign that read Dobbs Weir Road and I was off down it in a flash, remembering with a judder of déjà vu the same journey twenty five years before in the back of my mum’s mini she named Dandy Red, although it was more orange than red. I parked in the very same car park we had always parked in and there was the same cafe where we bought ice cream and the same pub, The Fish and Eels, by the road bridge. It was a winter’s day and I was completely alone, the only car in the car park. I headed for the footbridge over the weir itself and sucked in the damp air and the weir scent that I knew so well and there was our spot, by a picnic table adjacent to an old gnarled willow. The tree had been pollarded and was much reduced but it was still an imposing sight. The whole scene was deserted and dreary and it was a task to overlay my memories of warm summer days teeming with picnickers and embullient children. I decided on the spot that I had to fish it again, and I headed back for an evening session no more that a week later. A bailiff had told me tales of massive perch loitering in the slack water by the weir pilings so I fished a ledgered lobworm down amongst the sunken lilies, hard against the algae cloaked concrete. As the light waned and the air chilled my quiver tip arched round and I struck into a fish that juddered, dived and shook its way to the net, a beautiful, bellicose perch of 2lb 14oz, that, as I unhooked it, arched its spiny dorsel and spat back the worm that had tricked it. Not one of the monsters, but at long last a worthy fish from a river that reminds me, with a bitter-sweet edge, of being young.
As you may have guessed I’m drawn to weir-pools, from boy to man they’ve always held a fascination. It’s their differentness, and the fact they add mystery and potential to a river that for the majority of its course flows evenly and true and then there’s a weir, like a twist in a novel you didn’t expect. Big, small, shallow, deep, snaggy, weedy; a scoured river bed of gravel or a soft silt; a fast food outlet for fish of all species; an oxygen rich life-line; a snag-laden predator-paradise, and a magnet for wildlife in all its myriad variety, including me.