Seventeen-syllable Beck

By John Aston.
1st published April 2007 in Trout and Salmon and reproduced here with their kind permission.

Quirky title, eh?  Explanation needed?  Your correspondent has developed a Haiku habit.  Japanese poetry, three lines, five syllables, seven and then five again.  It’s minimalism at its best and if you can endure the following few thousand words you will be rewarded by a Haiku about a water which is small, but also near perfect. And which needs to remain anonymous, even though it is only a bisyllabic Beck.

And now follows the polysyllabic version… …

Nowadays, few villages have a viable population of colonels.  If they have, said colonels are in their mid forties, shamefully fit, married to a Kate or a Sue  and  they drive silver Audis. But in the early eighties it was different – my village had a colonel called John, a man battle hardened in World War Two Italy. He drove a brown Volvo estate and whilst I cannot remember his wife’s name I don’t think it was a diminutive. She …commanded respect ?  A gentler man, a more decent man than John was hard to imagine.  I remember him for his exquisite manners, his pipesmoked tweeds and his appreciation of my edgier malts.  And I will always be grateful to him for telling me about the Beck.

In North Yorkshire we have an extravagance of spate rivers; they are rocky, erratic and volatile.  Flows range from the racy to the lethargic and are dictated by yesterday’s weather. The high Pennines create the  Ure, Swale and Tees – and they are a wild triumvirate. But to the east of the Pennines lie the gentler streams of the North York Moors and the Wolds; the exquisite Rye slides through the deep green valleys of the Moors like a pagan goddess and the Driffield Beck condescends like an  aristocrat. Chalk  can do that to a river- perhaps to its fishermen too ?

I lived in the Vale between the uplands, where Ure and Swale begin to calm from their upland excesses and where chub, barbel and pike complement the salmonids.  Both rivers had become regular haunts for me, to the point where familiarity was edging too close to contempt. In Donald Rumsfeld’s parlance , I needed to get some more of those known unknowns. With the prospect of an unknown  unknown perhaps ?

John fished the  Ure with me, and on a cool Wensleydale morning he caught his first ever fish on upstream nymph – a GRHE – and his pleasure was exceeded only by my own.  A few days later, John visited me and through pipe smoke clouds, he told me about the mayfly sport he had experienced on the Beck.  Brown eyes smiled as he told me of dogged fights with big brown trout, told me of snapped leaders, told me of rolling swirls in the twilight.  Of course I was captivated – mayfly are found on most Yorkshire rivers, but not to the degree where their appearance could be characterised as a hatch.  Because a hatch is what appears on Test or Itchen, not on my stone  hearted rivers.  But John’s beck – The Beck – had an extravagance of mayfly and the fish were correspondingly of a different quality to the tough, lean fish which fought the spates.

Upper Cod Beck, Above Sowerby Waters.Reproduced with the kind consent of Neil Perry.

Upper Cod Beck, Above Sowerby Waters.
Reproduced with the kind consent of Neil Perry.

Three years after John’s death I saw the Beck for the first time.  It runs through intensively farmed country and has cut down through the rich soil to run six feet or more below the fields of barley and rape.  It’s a stealth trout stream, invisible from ten yards away,  subverting the geometric precision of the farmed acres with its meanders, which are  ribboned with alder, willow and sycamore.  And  in the spring you can smell the Beck from the nearest road as the raw smell of wild garlic fills the air.

So the Beck is a micro environment, and it’s populated with brown trout, grayling and the odd stray dace or chub.  Exotic stuff too – a few native crayfish (still holding on from the assault of the signal hordes) and in the spring there is the extraordinarily primeval spectacle of lampreys spawning by the score.  Deer and otter stalk the banks and kingfisher and dipper fly fast and low above them.  Even the water is somehow  different to the spate rivers; it’s greener, denser somehow.  And instead of thin pools a hundred yards long and twenty wide, instead of the shallow flats and the rocky pockets there is simply a succession of lovely pools and runs.  Some slack water too, difficult both to wade and to fish but so alluring when the water rocks from the languid roll of a big trout.  You want to know how big?  Read on, but here is the clue- they are  as big as you could hope for. troutThe Beck is controlled by a small club, originally gentlemen only but now really rather inclusive.  The club admits the salaried classes and even those who converse with a short ‘a’.  I’m guilty on both counts and  they even made me Secretary… .  I joined in the early nineties, after a grim-reapered vacancy had arisen.  The club had been established well over a century earlier, one of the founder members being Charles Kingsley’s cleric brother.  Obviously a love of water in that family… .  The minutes of long ago AGMs delight – I especially enjoyed the resolution to halve the keeper’s retainer because of a poor season’s sport.  The keeper’s views on this Thatcherite initiative were not recorded.  And I loved the hectoring, self righteous pedantry of the correspondence from decades ago, the sort of stuff only men with too much time, too much self importance could have written.

I first fished the Beck on an April afternoon.  Whilst I was spared the cliché of a shower, there was a hard edged north westerly pushing through the hawthorns and alder.  But some sun too, unexpected and fleeting and  enough to trigger sporadic hatches of olives.  I looked upstream, to a martin-peppered clay bank standing at the head of the pool.A thin skein of bubbled flow ran parallel to my bank, slowed to a glide and then, quickened by the shelving gravel, ran swiftly to the pool below.  An hour before, I had caught my first Beck fish in a deep still pool stippled by rises.  A GRHE – was the Colonel watching?  – produced a writhing half pound grayling and my hands still had a hint of its cool, herbed smell.

But now I watched the olives dance again, as the wind lost interest and spring’s warmth now  seemed like more than a hope. I saw a rise, a dark snout truffling the olives inches from the clay bank.  No big swirl, but I suspected not a small fish.  Busy, too, moving left and right across the current to intercept the dark flies.  This was pre Klinkhamer era, and I tied on a size 14 Iron Blue in a wry nod to the iconic Plunket Greene. Do carp fishermen fish floating crust still in an act of homage to Walker I wonder ? This dilettante carper does; and red tipped floats on summer dawns as a nod to BB. It is a broad church ,this sport.

Badly, I cast and  the fly skated as the  current accelerated the  fly line.  More slack was  thrown  into the next cast, but it fell a foot too far from the bank.  The third cast hit the clay, rebounded and iron blue sat exactly where it should. I felt like I do when, twelve bore in hand, I hear the clatter of a pheasant’s wings but have yet to see it through the trees…..finger on trigger, concentration taut, eyes  focussing hard ,

Upper Cod Beck, Above Sowerby Waters.Reproduced with the kind consent of Neil Perry.

Upper Cod Beck, Above Sowerby Waters.
Reproduced with the kind consent of Neil Perry.

oblivious to everything other than the prey.  A neat,compressed sort of swirl and I wondered  just how is it that the fly can disappear so swiftly but only rarely can the cause of its disappearance be seen?  The seven foot carbon stabbed over into unexpected solidity.  The trout drew out the slack line hard, then made that Hardy music as she ran ten yards upstream into the next pool.  But no theatre, no leaps – this was a fish which fought with an instinct which came close to intelligence.  I didn’t feel outgunned – nor outwitted – but I knew I had yet to gain an advantage.  I looked at my watch, as I tend to do when I know the fight will be memorable.  The trout turned and ran downstream.  I stripped line, but  not quickly enough; tightened into the fish again, now jagging around the pool below me.  And so it went on; for seven long minutes.  She weighed 1lb 14½oz and she  was short, small headed and wide tailed.  Good enough to eat, but too noble for dispatch on this early season day.

Upper Cod Beck, above the Sowerby Waters.Reproduced with the kind consent of Neil Perry.

Upper Cod Beck, above the Sowerby Waters.
Reproduced with the kind consent of Neil Perry.

Just like Cambridge, May week is in June on the Beck.  It has that dreamlike Brigadoon element, when nothing seems impossible, where hyper-reality becomes a sort of surreal norm.  The Beck can offer sport to fill a winter larder of reflection, as I found on a musky damp day in the late nineties.  This section of the Beck runs parallel to an A road straight, much loved by the born again bikers with their growling Ducatis and  their screaming Fireblades.( And may  I own up to being the blackened pot here with my midlife crisis  Caterham Seven..? ) My bucolic idyll was punctuated by quickfire gearchanges at stratospheric revs but against this aural backdrop the trout concentrated quietly on their gluttony.  I fished a dark, reflected pool where long tree roots probed the depths.  Some movement, not  really enough to term a flow but more of a  lazy slide downstream.  Mayfly spinners lurched in the slicked , viscous surface film.  They twitched hopelessly, drowning  in the water which short hours ago had created them.  The trout engulfed the feast with the languor of an epicure.  I cast, but my dry mayfly had reached critical mass from recent adventures and sank immediately.  Before I could recast the leader slid away, pulled hard from beneath.  The fight felt like leading a big horse on a short rein; I knew I was only winning through technique, not strength, knew I would lose the instant the fish saw through the deceit.  A strong fish, but not a smart one, and slowly I eased him towards the net.  I didn’t see him until a huge oily swirl erupted under the rod tip.  The net, adequate for most captures, barely coped with a wild brown of 2lbs 14oz.  Big shouldered, copper flanked and utterly magnificent.  It remains my biggest Beck trout – in fact my biggest wild fish from running water.  I’m content – and I guess you would be too?

The Late Jon Stevens fishing the upper Cod Beck.Reproduced with the kind consent of Neil Perry.

The Late Jon Stevens fishing the upper Cod Beck.
Reproduced with the kind consent of Neil Perry.

A year later, almost to the day, I fished the Beck with my late friend, Jon Stevens.  We shared a rod, and we shared  a day of days too.  More than twenty trout, few under a pound and two over two pounds, all on dry mayfly.  Jon rose to the occasion as well as the trout had to the fly – and how better, how more memorably than with a bottle of champagne, drunk from crystal glasses on an overgrown riverbank on a drowsy afternoon?

Whilst most of the Beck is – and feels – benign, the uppermost reaches are very different.  It’s a wooded, narrow valley up there and  it can feel uncomfortably like an animated Rousseau painting,  the one where you are the guy with the  big cat in the shadows  behind you. There is a dense atmosphere which can unsettle.  Even in the daytime, there is a strange intensity of sensation which can exhilarate or enervate.  At dusk, it becomes eerier still and in the twilight you realise that whatever you see would be accepted as normal.  I haven’t seen the roe deer walking on hind legs yet, haven’t seen the kingfisher flying backwards nor the alders turning silver.  But … I sort of admit the possibility; this is what a daylight atheist like me  does.  And I have seen animals behaving strangely, seen the fox glaring at me accusingly, even when I walked to within touching distance.  Seen the owl, too, peering at me from the tree canopy with what felt more like intent than curiosity.  The image which is indelible was the sight of the  huge bat I saw in late evening sunshine, dipping into the beck to drink on fleshy wings.  Pale brown, primeval and with a face from Tolkien.  I will not tell you the name of the parish, but if I did you’d believe that this location had come from M R James’ pen.owl

The trees close in tight here and although the Beck can sometimes only be 18 inches across and three deep, within yards it will metamorphose  into a long pool, deep and solemn, and left here like an erratic boulder discarded by a long ago glacier.  This day I had caught more than twenty fish, I had lost a few but  I had  missed a lot.  They rise quickly here, punching hard and fast before you can react.  I was aware that the May feast was becoming more gourmand than gourmet , starting to feel I should bank what I had.  I waded gently upstream to a tight cornered pool bordered by nettles and butterburr.  There was a small pebbled beach at the bend’s apex and along it crept towards me  a small grey man.  I jumped – wouldn’t you?  So did he as he flapped his heron wings to escape his fellow fisherman.  If I were to be reincarnated it would have to be as a curlew – my call would tingle your spine but my presence would give you the comfort of wild open country.  But a heron would involve rather less of a personal transformation.

Heart pounding, but slowing, I decided that one more pool would be palatable, felt like it might be the digestif after my feast.  Quietly I stalked upstream to a tree crowned pool, deep and dark.  Aimlessly I cast the Klinkhamer, expecting nothing.  Instantly, shockingly a huge boil erupted around where the fly had alighted.  A wrench on the rod and the slack line sprang back towards me.  For long seconds the water rocked.  I walked back over the fields to the car, thinking of what might have been and, in the way of this sport, the might haves thrive in their own parallel universe.

Upper Cod Beck, Above Sowerby Waters.Reproduced with the kind consent of Neil Perry.

Upper Cod Beck, Above Sowerby Waters.
Reproduced with the kind consent of Neil Perry.

When I first joined the club I fished hard and often; caught a couple of hundred fish in my first season.  Last season perhaps fifty.  I can take the Beck for granted.  It’s ten minutes from home and if you live in the South you would weep if I told you my annual subscription.(  OK , less than a bottle of Laphroaig…..may your tears come like summer tempests)  The Beck offers sport unparalleled in my experience.  I’ve fished the limestones of Cape Wrath and the chalk streams of Dorset – and not a few places in the seven hundred miles which separate them. None has provided sport of such quality and consistency. Fishermen know that streams can be animate, charactered – mannered almost – and the Beck is all of these things.

And this, dear reader, is where the final seventeen syllables start :

Upstream garlic’d banks

Mirrored in greener spring stream

Image rise broken

by John Aston, April 2007.