My first memorable fish was a five pound common carp, caught from Copped Hall syndicate lake in Epping, Essex, adjacent to Rod Stewart’s salubrious gaff, although Rod wasn’t in residence then, I suspect he was shacked up in some sordid sex-den with Britt Ekland, the lucky so and so. I was about thirteen years old, obsessed with fishing, but beginning to walk the rock-strewn path to manhood, where I’d alternate my attention between the Angling Times and the ladies underwear section in mum’s well-thumbed Kay’s Catalogue. My brother in law Steve had fronted the annual £40 membership fee on my behalf because I’d helped him a bit with some DIY and decorating, although if the truth be known I was more of a hindrance than a help, spilling paint and encouraging my two toddler nephews into frenzies of mischievity.
Copped Hall carp lake was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen in all my young days, a gorgeous old estate lake, jewelled with vast beds of yellow and maroon water lilies, amidst a mature woodland that seemed to envelop the lake on all sides; oppressive and foreboding at night but sun-kissed and replete with life during those long summer days.
And it was at night that I caught my carp. I’d tucked myself out of the way in a quiet corner where I’d seen fish cruising during the day, convinced that they’d still be there after dark. I baited up with corn and luncheon meat and fished with my 9ft fibre glass leger rod, rigged with a coffin weight, size 6 hook and a big cube of Spam. Bite detection was state of the art, a Fairy Liquid top, nicked from the bottle on the draining board at home long before its contents had ran out, much to my mum’s annoyance.
I remember the night was sultry and warm, and the close proximity to the woodland’s velvety-black depths and moist, decay-infused scent had me imagining orcs and goblins, vampires and werewolves. Brother in Law Steve was a reassuring fag-glow on the opposite bank, but he was too far away to completely allay my fears.
As is often the case with an adolescent’s mind, my thoughts scuttled from one improbable to another, namely, what it would feel like to be eviscerated by a werewolf to fondling school nymphet Elaine Archer’s prematurely buxom chest.
But in a flash my attention was centred entirely on the fishing as the red bottle top crashed into the rod butt and line zipped from the reel. A few minutes later, after a short but powerful scrap, I was admiring my biggest fish to date, a common carp of around five pounds, scales all shades of bronze and gold in my head-torch’s harsh-white glow.
I fished Copped Hall with Steve a good few times that summer, watching double-figure carp basking in the shallow margins or slurping at bread crust cast to nestle amongst the lily pads. But they were elusive and wise those carp, often favouring and rapidly devouring all of the crusts apart from the piece with the hook in. This frustrated Steve, a man not renown for patience and c’est la vie, and rods would occasionally become javelins as yet another bite was missed.
I never bettered my five pound carp, but I caught many smaller fish and my very first crucian, on my favourite yellow-tipped peacock quill tight against the lilies.
I only enjoyed the one summer at Copped Hall, Steve never renewed my ticket as my dubious DIY skills became obsolete on completion of his home improvements.
So alternative fishing venues were sought.
Around that time my best mate was Gary. Where I had near black hair and brown eyes he was Nordic blonde and blue-eyed with skin that quickly reddened in the sun. He was good at maths, me at English; I could beat him in an arm wrestle, he could out-throw me in a stone chucking contest; he liked a scrap, I’d avoid them. But we had one thing in common: a love of fishing. Our hunting grounds were the forest ponds and lakes of Epping Forest and the River Lee at Waltham Cross, Enfield and Cooks Ferry, Edmonton.
Once, on a school visit to Tudor hunting lodge in Chingford, allegedly frequented by Elisabeth the First when the forest was an exclusive playground for the well-to-do, Gary and me were drawn to a stuffed fish in a glass case. It was an enormous carp, still majestic and lifelike despite being caught and mounted in the thirties, a testament to the skill of the taxidermist. But what really intrigued us was the location of the capture: Warren Pond, a tiny water right opposite the lodge on the edge of the forest; entirely overlooked by us as it was so choked with tall reeds and overrun with lilies that you could barely see the water. How could such an incredible fish come from that stagnant puddle? We had no concept of the passage of time’s effect on a pond, especially in a woodland where decades worth of autumn leaves and general detritus, plus unchecked vegetation can eventually render it unfishable. Nonetheless it was worth investigating and early one summers day during the school holidays we set off with float rods, bread, worms and maggots in the vain hope that a scaley-backed descendent of that glass-case leviathan loitered somewhere in the ponds silty depths. But all we ever caught were tiny rudd, despite two or three visits, and the odd scuff and bruise after a stone-throwing battle with a couple of other boys bent on disrupting our fishing.
One summer’s afternoon two or three years later, I happened to be walking my dog around Warren Pond. The Conservators of Epping Forest had been busy since my last visit. Large swathes of reeds and lilies had been cleared revealing areas of open water that looked eminently fishable. And tucked away in a quiet corner, someone was indeed fishing: an elderly man with a flat-cap and an old glass fibre rod.
‘Had much?’ I asked. ‘Not yet son, but they’re down there’, he replied. ‘What are?’, I enquired. ‘That’s for me to know and you to find out’, was his tight-lipped response. So I walked off none the wiser. At the time I was mildly offended by the the old boy’s taciturn retort. But now I’m mildly amused by it, and grateful to him for preserving the mystery.
When I started work in Epping Forest as a trainee forester, I discovered many more ponds, large and small, at various locations throughout the forest. Some were bomb-craters where V2 rockets aimed at London missed their mark, others were much larger gravel workings dug out to supply sand and gravel for road construction and building materials.
One such larger water was Wake Valley Pond adjacent to the Epping High Road. As a trainee I was consigned many tasks, and one was litter picking. The pond was a popular site so litter was abundant. I always spent more time than I should of there scanning the water, as an elderly forest keeper called Phil had beguiled me with stories of huge, uncatchable carp roaming the depths. And it was deep too, well over 10ft in places.
I only saw them once, despite many visits. In the reed-lined shallows on a hot summer’s afternoon, seven ancient, black-backed carp basked in the warm, daphnia flecked margins. One or two were well over twenty pounds. I sat and watched them for an age, mesmerised.
And that was the one and only time I met the carp of Wake Valley Pond. I never fished for them, as a local club’s ticket was required. I could have poached it, as some did, but to have any chance of success night fishing was a necessity and I really didn’t fancy chancing my arm with the nutters and deviants who frequented that neck of the woods at night. And that reality eventually put-paid to any chance of a specimen from the ponds and lakes of Epping Forest. A few years ago, and I have to add allegedly before this statement, many fish were removed to discourage fishing, as the incidence of harassment, tackle-theft and mugging had increased to such an extent that the risk posed to anglers was deemed too great. Maybe the risk of litigation by an aggrieved angler against the Corporation of London (who are responsible for the upkeep of the forest) may have also played a part in the decision, but that’s open to speculation.
Thankfully, according to my nephew Tony who fishes an old estate lake within the forest in Woodford Green, Essex, things are looking up. He regularly catches mint-conditioned baby carp that should eventually replace the lost specimens in that particular water. Let’s hope he gets to those big girls before the electro-fishers.