Sometimes our literary and actual worlds collide, it is as if we become characters in the book that we are reading, as if the author is narrating our own lives. I experienced such a collision recently, when I went out for a Friday night tarp camp with a friend. He had selected a campspot by the side of a local river, a short drive from his house, but still a remote feeling spot, a million miles from our worlds of work.
The river was wide, its banks wooded with pine. Just upstream, a natural weir generated a white wall of water noise. We erected the tarp in the trees and lit a fire on the sandy bank. I had brought a chicken and some sweet potatoes for dinner and we had settled on six beers apiece, a quantity that would leave us wishing we’d brought more at the end of the evening, but glad that we hadn’t come morning.
When the chicken was done I placed it on a flat rock and we gathered round, ripping off its meat and chomping it down. The scene felt timeless, one that has been repeated countless times since our ancestors – back to homo erectus at least, if not the hominins that preceded our genus – first started to use fire for cookery. I felt at one with my surroundings, at one with the environment, with the world.
The literary intrusion occurred after our simple meal. I had been reading Roger Deakin’s ‘Waterlog’, an account of a season spent travelling round Britain, swimming in wild water wherever he found it. Among my favourite passages was one in which he was confronted by water bailiffs after a swim in a chalk trout-fishing stream near Winchester. He was ‘already invigorated after a really first-class swim’ but ‘felt even better after a terrific set-to’ with the bailiffs, who threatened to call the police as he baited them.
No bailiffs infiltrated our camp, but around 2130, just as the light was beginning to fade, a red-faced angler with white hair and beard approached through the trees. We engaged him in friendly chat. He wasn’t hostile, but it was clear that he resented our presence and was caught between an urge to berate us and a more powerful desire to make the most of the remaining fishing time. There followed a tremendous display of fly fishing. Within ten minutes he had plucked a fresh silvery salmon of around 11 lb from about 40 feet away at the opposite side of the pool.
We had kept a respectful distance and remained silent as as he played the fish, but once he had landed it he couldn’t resist turning to his audience. My companion asked if we might inspect the fish and we ran over. When asked if he would like to be photographed with the fish the angler agreed readily. The fish had to be released almost immediately, and the photo would enable him to prove to his fishing friends that he had indeed landed a fine salmon.
The presence of this photo further confused the dynamic between us. The only way to get the photo was to engage with us so we could email it to him, so he wasn’t able to be as direct as he’d probably have liked to have been. Nonetheless his discourse was peppered with small reproaches. He kept emphasising the cost of salmon fishing on that beat, around £2,500 per week for a self-catering cottage and two rods, hinting that such an outlay should guarantee exclusive access. In order to bait him I opined that this cost was reasonable in the scheme of things, not much different from that of a ski holiday. He continually name-dropped representatives of the estate, said that they were not allowed to have fires and stressed that he would be back at 0800 with three other rods. The implication was that we should not be there when they arrived.
All in all it was a strange interaction. The man was a triumphant angler who had demonstrated his manliness by plucking an elusive salmon from the water in minutes. Had he been a Glaswegian rather than a Southerner he would have swaggered over full of banter and we would have had a jolly discussion in which he held the position of the dominant male. But rather than court our adulation, he maintained a frostiness because he felt that we shouldn’t have been there. We were poles apart. He didn’t understand that he had paid for fishing rights, not for exclusive access to the pool. We were exercising our free -and thankfully now legal – right of outdoor access, including wild camping.
Roger Deakin summed the situation up neatly:
‘Fishing rights are only valuable because individuals have eliminated a public benefit – access to their rivers- to create an artificial private gain. The right to walk freely along river banks or to bathe in rivers should no more be bought our sold than their right to walk up mountain a our to swim in the sea from our beaches.’
The situation was an absurd one. An experience of zen-like communion with nature in our local environment had been interrupted by a holiday-maker from hundreds of miles away, who issued veiled threats on the authority of one of the landowner’s representatives. As it happened we had plans for the next day, and intended to be up and away early, before the arrival white beard and his three rods. I was tempted to hang around on purpose, for like Roger Deakin I would have relished the opportunity of starting my day with a ‘terrific set-to’.