Exmoor – Sunday 2nd November 2013

IMG_1645There is a river pool that I love to visit on Exmoor in the autumn and winter months.  It lies on a stretch of the Barle where the river hurries downstream from a hamlet. It pushes its way under a swinging gate and then, pausing for 25 metres or so, it puts its hands in its pockets and has a saunter. A bit of a think. It kicks its watery heels around one bank of the river, and loiters, its chilly currents caressing the submerged rocks, feeling for what might lie beneath.

IMG_1639It’s around this time of the year in fact, that those currents stir the autumn leaves, and might well tickle and tease the flanks of a salmon. They lie here sometimes, yawning and resting in the gentle flow. I don’t know how long they stay. Perhaps this is their final destination, for there is a fine gravel bed in which to introduce their young.

For hours they will lie, resting over a slab of flat rock, facing downstream in an upstream eddy. Then, with a sway of their tale, they saunter across the pool to the small rocks over which they triumphed on their upward journey in rain-swollen waters. Next they circle to face back upriver, building up speed, before releasing themselves clear of the water for a brief, tail – ‘thrumming’ moment, climbing skywards.

So often it has been the ‘swishy’ release from the river’s surface that has caused me to look up from my picnic, just in time to see the dark grey torpedo slap back beneath the silvery shimmer of the pool. There’s always a splash. Sometimes with plenty of spray. It’s impressive, powerful and probably fuelled by bottled-up frustration as they prepare to spawn.

We can visit a river and watch, but it’s the waiting that brings us the rewards – the treasured moments we may witness as nature lives its life. I’ve made so many visits to this pool over the years to see the fish.  Water permitting,  I have a chance to see them at the end of each year. But they’re easy to overlook, because their favourite place is right under my feet.  Literally.

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No junk mail please

IMG00137-20091123-1447 (2)“Crunch crunch crunch” go the trainers on the gravel,
“Clang cling clang” goes the letterbox flap,
“Thump, whoosh, fizzle” go the leaflets on the floor,
Put up a notice if you don’t want them any more.

I’m sure there’s a tune in there somewhere. But does this sound familiar to you? You are sitting quietly at home when you hear footsteps approaching the front door. The next moment a pile of assorted leaflets explodes on your hallway floor sending window cleaners, taxi drivers, pizza deliveries and charity clothing collections into every nook and cranny.

This intrusion can start at dawn and finish well after dusk. For those of us who choose to place the recycling bin under the letterbox every morning as we leave for work, we will probably find it full by the time we get home. The fact is, most of us are the recipients of junk mail. But is there sometimes treasure amongst the junk mail, and when indeed is “junk” mail not as it is described ?

If you live in south-west London or the leafy suburbs of Surrey, the chances are I have delivered junk mail to your door. You see over the last few months I’ve been junk mailing on a part-time basis. It combines one of my favourite pastimes, walking, with one of my essential needs, earning a living. The result is a job called “leaflet distribution”. However leaflet distribution, whichever way you look at it, is just another term for delivering junk mail.
The dictionary describes junk mail as “Post, usually advertising products or services, which is sent to people although they have not asked for it.”

There is no law against distributing it, although there are some hard-to-find guide lines covering the do’s and don’ts when delivering it. But it does raise a moral question.

By way of an illustration, please consider the following scenario. I arrived at the start of a long and winding drive which meandered its way through the vast grounds of a beautiful home. There was no letterbox at the entrance to the drive. I set off determinedly for the front door. What seemed like hours of trekking later I approached the letterbox, hand outstretched, grasping an estate agent’s invitation for a “Market Appraisal” of the charming property onto which the said letterbox was attached. Then I noticed a beautifully made plaque above the highly polished letterbox that clearly stated “No Junk Mail Please”. It was made of solid brass, with engraved lettering and positioned so it couldn’t be missed.

I stopped dead in my tracks. It was a hot day. I was perspiring heavily with the weight of thousands of leaflets on my back and my feet hurt. I had expended a lot of time and energy to get to this point and so I pondered on the moment.

To junk mail or not to junk mail.

I considered my options. If I posted a leaflet through the letterbox, I would have blatantly disregarded the request of the owner. After all, they had gone to the effort of putting the sign there in the first instance. To ignore it would therefore be rude.

I pondered some more. Was this invitation, printed on high quality gloss card, elegantly styled with scripted letters really junk mail? I thought not, for it exuded quality. It said ‘Flex me in your hands. Read me. Go to the phone. Invite us round to your beautiful house, for we are good at what we do. We are nice people. We will sell your house.”

Then I cast my mind back to the gentleman who RSVP’d to my invitation the previous day by throwing open his front door before it had even landed on the mat.

“No joonk merle pliz” he had uttered in his hard-to-place accent, thrusting it back into my hand, glancing at the invitation and directing my attention to the “No Junk Mail” sticker on the letterbox which I had so obviously disregarded; “bleddy estat agence”, he then muttered as he slammed the door. I was left standing on the doorstep feeling undesirable, devious, underhand …confused (a day later and my self-esteem was still deflated like the soles of my trainers).

So, at this moment, and quite possibly because of the heat stroke, I said out loud, “If I was the owner of this house and beautiful brass ‘No Junk Mail Please’ plaque, what would I expect a decent, honest, hard-working ambassador of this splendid firm of estate agents to do in this instance?”.

I instinctively turned round, still clutching the leaflet in my sweaty palm, and started the long trek back to the road; this particular moral question answered. I was now clear on my Junk Mail policy. If there was a “No Junk Mail” sign up, I wouldn’t post the invitation.

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But was my leaflet a “Free Newspaper”? You see, there are plenty of “No Free Newspapers” signs around too. In my book, a leaflet is not a free newspaper. It has no pages, it is much smaller and it does not report on a local stabbing or the threatened closure of the local hospital. Do people put up one of these signs in the belief that it will stop all junk mail, not just free newspapers from being delivered? Because if they do, they shouldn’t, because it won’t.

One pain in my lower backside however is tiny letterboxes, so small that anything that goes through them has to be rolled, flattened, smeared with grease and tapped through with a hammer. In fact I carry a pot of Vaseline and a hammer in my rucksack just for that purpose. The Vaseline helps reduce chafing as well! Also, whilst I’m about it, why are letter boxes located at ground level? Is it to keep the osteopaths and knee surgeons in business? Perhaps they are the owners of these houses.

A “Beware of the Dog” sign gets me thinking twice about walking up a path. On many occasions I have approached the front door amidst the terrifying noise of a hound baying for the taste of my hand, or the frantic yapping of a terrier waiting for an inch of flesh to appear through the little slit in the door. Gingerly I have inserted the invitation through the letterbox using only the tips of my fingers, then to have it seized and torn apart on the other side of a door leaving a destructive pile of embossed lettering and guilted edges. I imagine they do it to the Royal Mail letters as well. May be to postmen and milkmen too.

Being confronted by a street of driveways sealed off by automatic security gates can bring a smile to my face, as this means the letterboxes are mounted on or next to the gates and saves me a long walk up the drive. But how regularly does the mail get checked? Are there cheques and Premium Bond wins dating back to the mid-seventies still lurking in the depths of the metal container? Magazines have turned into vintage collectors items by now, still in perfect condition preserved in their plastic packaging. Owners of these letter boxes should check them, just in case.

By and large people have been friendly towards me, despite the fact that I am delivering something that they haven’t asked for. In fact, with the exception of the gentleman with the strange accent, I haven’t had any other display of hostility at all. Admittedly there has been the odd occasion when I have approached the door at the precise moment when a young mum has opened it, laden with bags and babies, throwing them everywhere with fright. Once the Valium has kicked in though, they have been perfectly pleasant.

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So long as I stick to the paths, keep off the flowerbeds and the newly-seeded lawn, don’t scratch the car paintwork with my rucksack buckles, cough loudly if I suspect there could be someone about to open the door, shut the gate, don’t leave the leaflet sticking out of the letterbox, refrain from staring at the naked person stretching in the front room and obey the ‘No Junk Mail’ sign, then all will be well in my world of leaflet distribution.

Having admired the signs of others, I decided to erect one on our own front door. Not to persecute my own kind you understand. More a considerate desire to save them the unnecessary effort. Nothing custom made mind you. Just a simple “No Free Newspapers or Junk Mail” off-the-shelf-creation. Has it been effective? Well yes. Now we don’t know if anyone is being stabbed or not in our own neighborhood, at least we don’t read about it any more in our local free newspaper as it isn’t being delivered. Although we do still get the occasional money-off voucher from our local pizzeria, which is ok because with all the leaflet distribution I’m doing, I can eat as much pizza as I like safe in the knowledge that I’ll be burning off some of the calories.

IMG00145-20091123-1551 (2)On a final note, let me tell you that before I put the sign up, I retrieved a business card from a pile of junk mail left on our door mat from a website designer offering his services. From a business perspective, it turned out to be like finding a bit of treasure amongst all the junk.

Photographing otters

October 2009

I was on Dartmoor again, trying to get a photograph of a wild otter for my article about their return to every county in England.

Arriving at the River Dart about an hour before dusk, I plonked myself down on the riverbank opposite a substantial holt, recommended to me by local otter expert , Tim Cox, of “Dartmoor Otters and Butterflies” at Buckfastleigh in Devon.

The weather was sunny, and the river relatively low, so conditions were good. However, the bitch otter and her cubs had not been spotted on this stretch of the Dart for a couple of weeks, although a dog otter had been regularly sighted a few hundred yards downstream. He was coming down a stream which ran off the moor at the point where it joined the Dart near a large weir. He had been leaving plenty of spraint for the bitch otter, as if to say, “Hi! I am around if you would like to mate. Your holt or mine?”, or communication to that effect.

By the time it had grown dark, I had seen Dippers being completely dippy again. They are quite boisterous with one another, and I couldn’t stop grinning when two of them collided low over the water. One of them plopped onto the surface, regained its composure and then fluttered over to a stone looking a little dazed. It wasn’t long though before he was back in the scrum with his mates.

Long tailed tits were much in evidence, as were a couple of cormorants who roosted over night in a nearby tree.

I decided to pack up my camera after dark as photography was now no longer possible, but continued to ramble into my sound recorder. Just then, I saw an animal swimming downstream, its head poking out of the water. I estimated its length to be less than two feet. It dived under the water leaving a trail of fine bubbles which were reflected on the surface by the street lights above the road opposite, and then made its way over to my bank. I waited with baited breath, hoping that whatever it was would climb onto the bank so I could have a closer look, but that was the last I saw of it. Initially I got myself very excited at the possibility of having seen a young otter, but it dawned on me that this was more likely to have been a Mink, given its size.

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I slept in the comfort of a warm cottage that night, but returned to the misty chill of the river before dawn on the Saturday to continue my vigil.

There had been a lot of rain overnight, but the river showed no signs of rising as the light grew, revealing the holt opposite. Were the otters around?

Around 7.00 am however, the river started to rise. Within an hour it had risen 18 inches or so, and the water flooded the extensive network of hollows opposite. If the otters were there, they would still have enough space to remain hidden because of a raised gravel bank at the back of the holt. I changed my position on the river so I could get a good look through my binoculars towards the back of the holt with the low morning sun, but couldn’t see any signs of life.

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With the threat of further rain, I put up my hide and moved the few bits of kit I had into its shelter. The water continued to creep up the bank and white foam started to drift down the river as the water rose. The foam was then followed by groups of kayakers and canoeists.

The day flew by oddly enough, considering I was cooped up in my little shelter, but with so much going on across the river, I had a never-ending source of “entertainment”. At one point a kayaker rolled upside down and couldn’t right herself. She soon emerged from under her kayak, spluttering water and grabbed hold of a companion’s kayak who paddled her to shore, whilst another paddler shunted her abandoned boat onto the safety of the shore as well. After a few minutes she was back on the water – no damage done except a cold head and her pride dented a little.

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Around lunchtime I left the shelter and headed down the river to pay a visit to Tim at the otter sanctuary to get the latest news. I found him mopping up after the previous night’s storm. He confirmed that the bitch and cubs hadn’t been seen for a while around the holt I was watching, and also pointed out that with the river now in flood, they would probably remain at a holt away from the river on drier ground. I was saddened to hear that the sanctuary’s only male Eurasian otter (lutra lutra), which is Britain’s native species, had died a couple weeks previously from a kidney disease. Tim is very close to the otters at the sanctuary, and the loss of the otter had clearly affected him. We went to see the deceased’s mate who was curled up asleep in her artificial couch (normally a bed of grass or reeds in the wild). Tim explained that she had been grieving since his death, and could remain relatively inactive for a few more weeks until her mood improved.

Meantime, they had contacted the other sanctuaries around the country letting them know of their loss, asking that they could be notified should a dog otter require a new home. They continue to wait for any news.

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The sanctuary closes to the public during the winter, and Tim told me that he would be based for much of this time at Bristol Zoo looking after the otters there until the sanctuary opened again in the spring.

Realising that my week-end was probably going to be otter-less, I returned to my hide to watch the shadows lengthen over the river. I have known from the start of this project that otter spotting is very much a hit or miss affair. So far, I have been missing.

I know that this stretch of the Dart hosts a healthy otter population. With Tim’s help, I know where the holts are and where the otters like to roam. I have seen their tracks and spraint, but so far I haven’t been in the right place at the right time. This makes me all the more determined to visit the river again just as soon as I can in December. I’ll make sure I pack some warm clothes.OR2X3176_edited-1

A special delivery

badgersDespite the troubles at our beloved Royal Mail I can report that the postal workers of a West Country town have been able to guarantee a special delivery.

I was staying in a beautiful wing of a Georgian house close to the town centre. The house had three bathrooms and three cloakrooms and the plumbing seemed to be in good working order. You can therefore understand my quizzical expression when my hosts provided a plastic bucket in my bedroom to pee in during the night, if required. They found my confusion and dismay highly amusing, and asked me to hold on (or not) for the answer to this riddle until the following morning.

The next day dawned and the bucket had now been filled.

A morning tour of the beautifully maintained garden soon followed, and at the request of my hostess the bucket accompanied me. I watched my footing, desperate to dispose of the bucket’s contents at the earliest convenience. Rounding a laurel hedge, we discovered a complete stranger, in a light blue short sleeve shirt, navy blue shorts and a high visibility safety vest adjusting his flies. It was 8.45 am on the Saturday morning. He looked a bit surprised.

“Oi! What the hell do you think you’re doing in my garden?” are the words I felt we should have shouted. Instead, my friend bid him “Morning! Thank you ever so much”, to which the stranger replied, “No problem. I’ll be back later if that’s ok?” and gave us a knowing wink.

I was dumfounded. The “Fragrant Hardy Oleanders” in the flowerbed now had a new aroma.

My hostess pointed to a border of trampled foxgloves and a hole dug into the soil. On closer examination, I could see that it had been used as a toilet. How far will people go? Just then another man, dressed like the previous visitor but with more bicycle safety gear walked out from a clump of rhododendrons and greeted us with a hearty “Hi there! They’re still at it aren’t they? I think we’ll need re-enforcements! See you later!”. He wandered off towards the driveway at the front of the house, his helmet glistening in the morning sunlight.

I was taken aback. Excuse the pun, but I badgered my hostess, now hysterical with laughter, for an explanation.

Indeed, badgers were part of the explanation as my friends were under siege from these territorial animals. There was a badger set just across the road in the park square and these loveable, large and cumbersome creatures were barging their way through the garden’s borders and flower beds, knocking over everything in sight. Indeed, the animals would make a point of rolling around in the flower beds flattening all the plants as they marked their territory and wrestled with their comrades. They were prone to digging latrines and then laying berry-infused turds dead centre which said “Mine” in badger dialect.

Now I appreciated all the damage they were causing. But what were the postmen doing in their garden? Just then another character made his way over to say ‘hello’. This time it was a neighbour, dropping off a box of courgettes and apples from his allotment, and yes, whilst he was there, he said he would gladly pee on the flowerbeds. Job done, a few words of support followed and off he went.

I was instructed to empty the bucket’s contents into the badgers’ latrine, and felt somewhat relieved as my friend continued to explain the strange events we were witnessing. Having discovered their badger problem, they had contacted the local council pest control unit a few days before and were advised that badgers are a protected species, so there was little they could do. However, the helpful lady from the council suggested that badgers feel threatened by the testosterone in a male human’s urine. By urinating over the areas where the badgers were roaming, and aiming in particular at the latrines, the badgers might be persuaded to move on. Quality, quantity and good marksmanship were vital to achieving success in this local territorial dispute.

A seminal moment had followed. The local Royal Mail sorting office was just round the corner. Many of the postmen passed the house as they were leaving and returning from their rounds. My friends had the bright idea of explaining their predicament and enlisting their help. They paid them a visit.

“You know the front garden you all like to pee in?”, they had announced to the assembled audience, “Well, you can go in our back garden as well… with our permission!” Whilst initially taken aback by the offer, the postmen readily agreed.

Since then, my friends have got used to seeing a regular stream of visitors to their garden, though mutual privacy has been respected. The badger activity has decreased and the plants have been getting watered. In fact, they hope that before long, thanks to the co-operation with Royal Mail, the dispute with the badgers will be resolved.

I hope that soon, Royal Mail will be able to do the same for themselves.

Fungi fishing

Mushroom One strange September day a few years ago, a Dutch chef provided me with a packed lunch containing a magic ingredient. It certainly made my day’s fishing a very vivid and memorable experience.

I was at my favourite pub in Hampshire where I often stayed when fishing. Up at the bar, the chef, we’ll call him “Ernst” from Amsterdam, told me about his interest in mushrooms and the potential hallucinogenic properties that some of them possessed. One particular variety known as the “Magic Mushroom” contained a form of LSD which caused powerful hallucinations and was regularly “enjoyed” when added to food. He recounted his fungus collecting excursions on misty autumn mornings, armed with a reference book to safely identify the mushrooms, and a plastic bag in which to collect them.

In turn, I told Ernst about an evening I had once spent in a pub where a large, rounded mushroom with a wide body and pinkish glow had spent the whole night telling jokes and buying everyone drinks. He had certainly been a “fungi to be with”. Ho ho. I thought nothing more about our conversation that night.

The next morning I strolled along the banks of my favourite chalk stream on the final day of my trout fishing season. I enjoyed the “peep” of the kingfishers as they flew upstream, their vibrant blue and orange plumage striking in the morning sun. The swans glided past, clearing their throats with a strangled cough and a haughty waggle of their tail feathers.

Close by a heron hunched, and then gently extended his neck before spearing his beak with a lightning strike into the water to seize a young and unwary trout.

I caught fish that morning as well, including a beautiful wild trout which was already heavy with eggs. I returned her to the river.

At the fishing hut for lunch, I settled into a wicker chair and tucked into the delicious cheese and mushroom quiche made for me by Ernst the chef. He had assured me that “only the freshest and most magical ingredients” were used in his recipe. I was hungry and ate it all, noting the wiry mushrooms that added a piquant taste to the cheese and sherry filling, and washed it all down with a cup of tea from my flask.

The day had turned out to be glorious with not a cloud to be seen. I thought back to the appalling summer we had just experienced: severe flooding and drenched English holidays.

As the sun warmed and soothed my limbs, I sipped my tea and nibbled on fruit cake. It was one of those days that come along once in a while during September which make you stop in the sunshine and say to yourself out loud, “God, I love this country”. And so I said just that, and sat watching time glide by in the river next to me. I was starting to feel alive. Really, really alive.

A vibrant and intense heat began flowing round my body. I was tingling; hot blood fizzing through my arteries; my body so alert I was sure I was vibrating. The green of the river bank and the foliage of the trees grew in intensity, as though my vision’s “saturation level” had been increased. Then I noticed the increasing levels in contrast between light and shadow. Visually, I was having a Photoshop moment. It now dawned on me that, thanks to Ernst’s “most magical ingredients”, I was having a mushroom moment too. He must have put some of the “magic” variety into the quiche! My imagination was out of control, and what I imagined now seemed perfectly real. I was starting to have hallucinations. Help.

Looking down I “realised” the ground around me was swarming with ants. In fact there were dozens of ant nests, piled up along the bank where the molehills had been earlier. Zillions of ants, everywhere. Each mound was vibrating with activity so intense it made the ground vibrate as well. The surface of the river bank was covered in a carpet of black dots, zinging with life. Concerned that the ants would cover me as well, I headed to the nearby table for protection.

As I scrambled up on to the table, I noticed two “Victorian ladies” in their white dresses, gliding up the river with sunburnt faces, peering through their dark glasses . One of them looked me up and down in a curious way, cleared her throat and waved. I waved back, feebly.

Then the “Victorian gentleman” came by, straightening out the creases of his blue and grey overcoat, his long and slender neck supporting his head adorned with a flat cap made of white cloth and black side panelling. This gentleman had style, I thought, as he smoked his orange cigar. He waited a while, cooling his feet in this shallow stretch of river, and then peered intently into the water. Without any warning, he stubbed out his cigar with a sharp lunge, and as he withdrew it from the water, I noticed a shimmering cloud of silver smoke which was sucked back into the cigar itself.

Two low flying jets diverted my attention, whistling as they skimmed across the surface of the river. Their vibrant blue and orange fuselages glinted in the sun. I lay prone on my table top vantage point. The view was now somewhat… horizontal. I remained there for quite some time, chuckling like a baby at nothing in particular.

I giggled myself off the table and onto the ground. The ants had disappeared, and I crept over to the “hunting lodge” that was formerly the fishing hut. The shadows had lengthened by now. I collected my belongings and started to shuffle upstream towards the pub where I was staying for a final night. It was now nearly dark and I was wary of what the river may still have in store for me.

I froze in disbelief. Swimming downstream towards me was… a… a… c-r-o-c-o-d-i-l-e! On the River Test. Fancy that. Fifteen feet long, it was broad-backed and had a tale that swayed from side to side, thrusting its head and powerful jaws ever closer to the shivering and pathetic prey that I had become. Should I stay still, or run? Stay still… or run? Run… or stay still? Where was my gun? I had no gun; only a fishing rod and net. My dilemma ended when, at that moment, the crocodile broke up into an explosion of splashing and quacking fragments.

Gratefully, as I left the river bank and joined the country lane which led back to the pub, I could feel the hot tingling sensation in my veins start to ebb away. Then, just as quickly and equally without warning; the sensation that had invaded my body, now left. By the time I arrived back at the pub, I felt perfectly normal.

“Did you enjoy your Magical Mushroom Surprise?” Ernst inquired expectantly from the kitchen door as I walked into the bar.

I gave him an unamused and withering look, “We’re both lucky I didn’t end up face down in the river.”

“Sorry”, Ernst replied, rubbing his bristly chin thoughtfully. “But the other guests seem to be enjoying them”. He retreated back into the kitchen.

I turned and made my way to the stairs at the end of the bar, carefully avoiding the elderly gentleman sitting astride the stuffed pike on the carpet, normally mounted above the fireplace.

“I’ve got him. I’ve got him!” the man exclaimed triumphantly. “Mustn’t let him get away now! See if Agnes needs a hand will you? She’s in the snug… got problems of her own… with a ferret.”

I looked up at the empty glass case next to the window where the stuffed animal was normally displayed, then winced at the hysterical shrieks of laughter coming from the other room. I decided to leave them to it.

I wished him luck and headed up to my room. I was in need of an early night.

Come fly with me

fly-four

Have you ever wondered what it must be like to step out of the back of an aircraft and fall to earth? If the answer is “yes”, read on!

On a warm and sunny July afternoon a few years ago, I was invited to experience the incredible sensation of freefalling as the guest of former world champion freefaller Eddie Carroll. Eddie had served with the Parachute Regiment before joining the RAF’s elite “Falcons” freefall display team, where he spent a number of years touring the world putting on freefall demonstrations at major international events (amongst other things).

Eddie is a real character – a short and stocky man with a cheeky schoolboy grin and a mat of curly hair. He oozed confidence, and I immediately warmed to the guy. As far as you were concerned, when it came to skydiving, with Eddie around, nothing could go wrong. And if it did go wrong, you could end up, erm, dead.

“Best way to go, mate” he assured me, slapping me on the back as we headed for the back of the Shorts Sky Van aircraft which was to be our jump aircraft for that afternoon. “Life’s there for living. Sure, there are risks involved with skydiving, but part of the buzz is living with the risk, and making sure that the risk is kept to a minimum. In other words, managing the risk. The equipment’s sound, and the parachute is packed carefully. Do you know how they maintain quality control of the RAF’s parachute packing line? The CO will walk into the hanger unannounced, select a parachute from the bench at random, and hand it to one of the packers. That packer has to jump out of an aircraft with that parachute strapped to his back. You bet they pack them carefully! Now and then a chute will fail, but it’s nobody’s fault really. It just happens. We have a reserve chute, and we’re trained to deal with a canopy malfunction. You cut away the main chute using a sharp knife, and then hope there’s enough altitude and time to pull your reserve.”

Eddie had seen his fair share of tragedy, and over the years had developed a black sense of humour to cope with it. I was in an office with him some time before when he received a telephone call from a colleague in the States telling him that one of his best mates had just jumped off a bridge to his death following a drunken row with his girlfriend. After hanging up, Eddie just said, “My best mate had a drink and thought he could fly!” We went straight down to the pub at Eddie’s request to toast his friend, and that was it: get on with life.

Once I had climbed through the large rear door of the aircraft and moved to the back we prepared to clip ourselves together. I was wearing a body harness which was pulled very tight to ensure that when Eddie and I were clipped together, we were as close to being one body mass as possible to ensure that our descent to earth was as uncomplicated as it could be. Eddie was the pilot, and I was the passenger along for the ride. So that we could freefall as easily as possible, I had been shown a few simple drills on the ground to ensure that my pilot was able to have full control. Basically, if I flapped my arms and legs around like a bird, it would be harder for Eddie to control our descent.

There were other skydivers with us, all very experienced and they seemed relaxed as they made themselves comfortable on the floor of the aircraft.

I stood in front of Eddie, and he clipped me to the front of his own body harness. He of course, was also wearing the parachute and reserve! We then sat down together, the rear door closed and the twin engines started up.

All of a sudden, I realised that I was minutes away from jumping out of an aircraft at 14,000 feet attached to somebody else, and that up until now I hadn’t really thought this through. The adrenaline started to pump, and I mean really pump. My heart was pounding, and the waiting began.

The pilot came on over the radio and welcomed us aboard and went through his jokey routine of how lunch and drinks would be served shortly after take off. The other guys just chatted and seemed oblivious to the announcement. They had probably heard it a thousand times before.

Rolling along the grass runway the engines were soon powered up and we took to the air and began our climb to 14,000 feet. We seemed to be climbing in a wide circle as we gained height. Eddie tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the airfield below. It was hard to hear above the drone of the engines and I just relaxed as best I could and waited until further “orders”. We must have been climbing for about twenty five minutes or so when the red light came on and everybody began standing up and checking both their own equipment and that of their neighbour’s. Eddie then told me to get up and someone came over and checked our harness and the parachute, and gave us the OK.

My legs were like jelly. The rear door slowly opened and I could see blue sky, clouds and the green patchwork of fields below. It felt rather strange to have the rear door open at this height and a little draughty as well.

The other jumpers stepped up to the rear of the aircraft and formed three little groups. Some held on to grab rails above and to the side of the door, whilst others held on to the arms of these anchor men. When the green light came on, they all swayed backwards and forwards a couple of times and then jumped out. I could see them falling in to the clouds, wheeling into the blue yonder still holding hands. I would see them on the ground.

Then it was our turn. Eddie told me to lift my knees up and tuck my feet between his legs and behind his bottom. Then I rested the back of my head on his chest. How reassuring! We waddled over to the door and turned round so we were facing into the aircraft. Then we stepped backwards in to space.

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I watched the underside of the aircraft drift in to the distance as we fell away. fly-twoWe performed a couple of controlled somersaults before facing downwards and I caught my first proper glimpse of the ground. Eddie then deployed our drogue shoot to slow our combined descent from around 140 mph to a more sedate 125 miles per hour. This slow down in speed helps relieve some of the pressure on our equipment when the parachute is deployed.

The rushing of the wind in my ears, and the feeling of weightlessness just consumed me. I yelled out at the top of my voice “Yeeeehaaaah!!!”. Along side us was an aerial photographer called Darby who was snapping away at us as we fell. He was wearing a helmet with a stills camera strapped to one side and a video camera on the other.

fly-threeImagine leaning out of your car window doing 125 mph on the motorway and you’ll begin to get some idea of the rush! All the time you’re falling, the wind is pushing back the skin on your face, and below you can see a bank of cloud rushing towards you. My eyes were watering slightly despite my goggles as we fell into the cloud. The air momentarily became much cooler and I could feel this on my face.

fly-nineOnce we had passed through the cloud I could see the ground and this gave me my first real sense of perspective. Above the cloud you were in your own world. Earth didn’t exist, but once you could see the ground slowly coming towards you, your mind starts to think about something called gravity!

We were due to deploy the canopy at around 4,000 feet to give us plenty of time to enjoy the glide in to the landing zone and experience the more sedate side of freefalling.

I started to look for the airfield and could see it off to our right.

I could feel Eddie pressing down on the back of my head through the thin padded cap I was wearing.

Slowly we changed our trajectory and we were making for the drop zone where we were aiming to land.

Eddie tapped the back of my head to indicate that he was about to pull the rip cord and I crossed my arms ready for the sudden deceleration from 125 mph to around 35 mph, all within a few feet! Suddenly there was an almighty jerk and the re-assuring ‘crack’ from above our heads as the canopy successfully opened. “Oooph!”, I gasped.

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Despite the fact that I almost lost the ability to sire future generations, I was otherwise completely intact, and I think Eddie was as well!

What a contrast! The air was now almost completely still. There was a gentle breeze on our faces as we glided high above the fields, and the incredible, rocket-like sound of the rushing wind from moments before was gone. Peace and tranquillity at 3,500 feet.

Eddie passed me the toggles on the risers, which are used to steer the canopy. By pulling on the right riser we turned right and pulling on the left steered us to the left. Eddie encouraged me to pull the left riser hard, and we went in to a tight spin. Releasing the pressure on the left toggle and doing the same with the right repeated the merry-go-round ride in reverse.

We descended gently and passed downwind of the landing zone. I could already see the other jumpers on the ground folding their parachutes as we turned in to the wind.

“Knees up to your chest, please mate, and make it look easy, we’re being filmed!”. I did as I was asked and without so much as a scuff of dust, we landed ever so gently on terra firma.

I was quickly unclipped from Eddie and beckoned over to the camera where I was encouraged to pour out my first impressions of free falling.

“Absolutely bloody brilliant. That is the best thing I have ever done. If you ever get the chance,” I announced to the viewers, “Just Do It!”

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Suitably impressed, I removed my harness, re-adjusted my personal items and escorted Eddie to the bar for a well-deserved pint.

Catching the rise

Trout rising to a mayfly. Copyright Philip Williams

It was a golden July day. I was five years old and kneeling on the banks of the River Test in Hampshire next to my father. My young and impressionable eyes surveyed my surroundings: blue sky above, greenery all around, the bank side willows trailed their slender branches in the river’s current, and through them paddled the water voles. I squeezed the buttercup heads between my thumb and finger, inhaled the scent of honeysuckle and mint blended with mown grass and damp earth. The dragon flies swooped, swans’ wings creaked like bellows as they flew low over head; moor hens peeped, coots honked, and I was speechless.

Next to the manicured river bank ran the perfectly clear river, transparent and revealing. Hidden behind a clump of thistles, I peered through my father’s magic fishing glasses, held on tight with elastic so they didn’t fall into the watery abyss below. Under the overhang of a juniper bush, I saw a creature. A dark backed and golden bellied fish with speckled spots and a swaying tail. This was a monster; a monster that rose up from the deep towards me. My body stiffened. Was I safe? Its head broke the surface of the water barely three feet from my face, jaws opening wide, as were my own, seemingly to gulp me down. My world stood still. I was transfixed… frozen. He disappeared in a reflective ring of crystal. Gone.

“See that?” my father said next to me. “He rose up and took a fly! He’s feeding!”.

He rose up again. Out came his head and shoulders, gulped down a fly, and then retreated back down into his lair. The ripple that trout sent across the pool washed through me too.

“I can’t see what he is eating” I complained.

“Just keep watching” my father assured me.

The trout continued to rise as the flies floated down. As this fish filled his stomach, I began to notice what indeed was filling it. The dark olives wafted across the river and were seized by other fish sending ripples towards my bank. From my ring side seat, I marvelled at this enchanting display.

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Later that day my father handed me his fishing rod as it arched and quivered, then thumped down, the rod tip piercing the surface of the water in my novice hands as a fish tried to strip line from the reel. That sensation set my heart pounding, and so it still does to this day. My father took a picture of me, proudly displaying the first fish I ever landed, a grayling weighing one and a half pounds. We killed it (they were considered vermin then). I am told we ate it.

Years later, I still kneel by that river, but I wear a different hat to the one I wore on that first day with my father. The years I have spent fly fishing for trout have taught me not just how to catch a fish, but also about how to catch the rise of that fish, as a photograph. More often than not, when I am by a river these days, my finger is not resting on the cork handle of my fly rod, ready to strike as a trout rises to my artificial fly. Instead I have my finger resting on the shutter release of my camera, ready to snap a picture at the precise moment when the trout rises to a natural fly.

I still love the satisfaction of persuading a beautifully marked wild trout or grayling to take my artificial fly. The challenge is there, but where my fishing companions will spend hours pursuing a seemingly stubborn fish with the aim of hooking it (and very often they do), I am more than happy to lay down my rod and reach for my camera instead.

The approach of a trout “photographer” is exactly the same as that of a trout fisherman. But whereas, when hooking a trout, you are rewarded with the physical sensation of the kick and struggle of the fish on the end of your line; when photographing that fish, your reward can, if the variables of photography all work in your favour, be that precise moment when the fly is taken by the fish, captured in a split second as an image, lasting forever.

Wielding a camera, long telephoto lens and tripod is slightly more cumbersome than a fly rod and landing net. One of the lenses I regularly use weighs over 12 pounds on its own… a fine salmon by my standards. Add to that the camera, tripod and head, and you’re humping around 25 pounds in weight of equipment, just waiting to be sucked into a bog or slipped into the river. You don’t want to hear the language sometimes!

Once the rising “star” has been spotted, I have to manoeuvre myself into a suitable position from which to take the photograph. Light, reflections and camera angles need to be considered, as does one’s sanity on occasions. I rarely admit it for fear of ridicule, but I DO enjoy dressing up in camouflage clothing. I suppose the kid in me still relishes the opportunity to crawl around in undergrowth. Sometimes lying flat on a river bank, right next to the water’s edge can get you soggy, but this is often the only way I will get the photograph I am after. Furthermore, you get to see some unusual things.

One afternoon I was lying flat on my stomach, set up to take pictures of a feeding trout, when something out of the corner of my eye diverted my attention. A leaf seemed to be swaying its way across the river, blown by the wind in my direction. Across it came, closer and closer to where I was lying. This leaf seemed to have its own source of wind power, as the afternoon was perfectly still. Then I realised that this leaf was not a leaf at all, but the head of a snake gliding towards the little gap in the bank where I was sprawled, burly camera lens pointing in completely the wrong direction. I wouldn’t have been able to take a photograph of the snake by the time I had realised what it was, as the camera wouldn’t have been able to focus on it. So, dear reader, you will simply have to trust me when I tell you that this snake, a grass snake, swam right up to the bank where I was lying, slithered its way out of the water and straight over my boots, across the bank and into the bull rushes!

So I find myself by my favourite stretch of the River Test in early October. The first leaves of autumn are letting go and starting their downstream migration, riding the current towards the sea. My camera and lens are on my back in a ruck sack, the tripod and head for the camera in one hand and the other hand steadying my binoculars as they sway from their strap around my neck. Polarized sunglasses are perched on my nose, and I am creeping my way up the river bank to where I have seen a fish rise. There it is again. And again. I carefully and quietly lay my kit down onto the bank and then continue to crawl slowly to just a few feet below where the fish is rising. Through the binoculars I can see the fish clearly.

It is a beautiful, golden bellied brownie, and a pleasure to watch as he enthusiastically glides around picking lacewings off the surface. His movements are purposeful but relaxed. Normally, if I was fishing for him, I would retreat downstream and put a fly over him. Instead, I spend a few minutes enjoying the scene before me, watching the trout take the flies, undisturbed, confident, and seemingly happy in his watery environment. There is no let up in his feeding as I crawl back to my camera bag. I set up the tripod and fix the camera and lens on top. I am in a kneeling position, high enough to get a good angle on the fish, but low enough to minimise the risk of spooking him.

Instead of rummaging through my fly box deciding which fly I am going to use, I make the necessary adjustments to my camera settings. Then, rather than cast my fly upstream of the fish and concentrate on its downward drift, I do my very best to keep a red dot in the centre of my lens trained on the fly as it flits across the surface close to where the trout is lying. A swirl. Strike! (I mean take a picture!). The trout seizes the fly but I’m too late and miss the take. I see another lacewing coming down and I begin tracking the insect as it glides down to where the fish is lying in wait. Again, the fish takes the fly and as I fire off a rapid burst of frames, “the trout photographer’s strike”, I know I have missed the initial rise and am left with the ensuing ripples from where the fish broke the surface. I missed him.

I decide to start firing off a series of frames in anticipation of the fish rising. I suppose this is the photographer’s equivalent of ensuring that there is no unnecessary slack in the line on the water. On this occasion through more luck than judgement, I manage to capture the moment as the fish rises up to the lacewing and pokes his head out as he takes it. I review the pictures using the small screen on the back of the camera, and hope that I may well have got a decent photo. However it won’t be until later when the images are viewed on a full-size monitor that I’ll know for sure whether the picture is a “keeper” or not. For the next hour and a half I photograph this dutiful fish as it feeds on these elegant flies and I’m grateful to this trout for putting on such a good show.

That evening, I scroll through the hundreds of photographs I have taken during the day. Out of over 1,000 pictures taken, perhaps two are usable. A good day! It is a reflection of the fine line between success and failure, like hooking the fish or plucking the fly out of its jaws. Perhaps it is also fair to say that I am on a learning curve, photographing these wonderful creatures in their watery world.

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Of one thing I am certain. My early bank side experiences made an impression on me as a child, and they have remained with me ever since as a fisherman, and now, also as a photographer. I have my father to thank for that. Oh, and some rather fine trout as well.