The River Swilgate Tewkesbury (© Barbara Fletcher 2005 – 2009)
I began fishing in earnest at the age of nine when my family moved to Gloucestershire in 1974. Back then children were allowed to do things on their own.
“BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN”
So wrote Arthur Ransome’s Commander Walker in Swallows and Amazons (Jonathan Cape, 1930). It is Walker's telegrammed response to his children’s request to camp on Wild Cat Island. Fortunately for me, his attitude, although seldom voiced so bluntly, still prevailed in the 70s. It’s debatable whether my parents would have allowed me to camp out on an island on Coniston for a week, but they had no problem letting me go fishing. I'm grateful to my parents for the freedom they gave me then; it allowed me to discover nature at my own pace, in my own way - uninhibited and unhindered by supervision. Equally, I regret that the same freedom is rarely enjoyed by today's youngsters.
We lived in the middle of the town, but there was a brook which ran along the backs of the houses. Henry VIII’s Royal Antiquary John Lelend (1506–1552) in his Itinerary of 1533 calls the brook the ‘Suliet’ (1) , the etymology of which is unclear. It’s present day name – Swilgate – gives, perhaps, more of a clue to the abuse it has borne in the intervening period.
Back in the 70s the brook at the bottom of my garden did not look much like an angling paradise. Shopping trolleys, old bicycles and other unsightly obstacles lay half submerged in the shallow water, lending an impression of stagnation and decay. However, had a passer-by cast their eye into the Swilgate and decided that nothing could survive - let alone thrive – there, they would have been mistaken. Water voles were common and I have never fished a river which contained a greater biodiversity of fish species.
Gudgeon (more of which later) was the fish most commonly caught, but there were also minnow, chub, dace, roach, bleak, bream, perch, pike, eel, ruffe, miller’s thumb and loach, plus the occasional brown trout and oddities, such as brook lamprey, flounder, and twaite shad. These last two (plus the eels of course) had come all the way from the sea, up the Bristol Channel and tidal Severn, via its tributary the Avon and finally into the tiny Swilgate.
Tackle was rudimentary but serviceable. I, and the other boys who fished the brook, owned only one rod and one reel each. We had small, but cherished, collections of floats which were retrieved by wading when they became snagged or detached. Line was thick and hooks were a bit on the large side for the purpose, but we managed to catch nonetheless. Later, I was given a 9’ hollow glass rod for my birthday (alas, long since lost). It was infinitely more usable, both in length and sensitivity, to the 6’ solid glass cue that had hitherto hampered my attempts at deft float control. Matching it to my Intrepid Black Prince Regent reel made me feel I was ready for anything.
At normal levels the brook ran at one to three feet in depth. But when the floods came the Swilgate became a coffee coloured torrent, six or seven feet deep. By now fishing had become an obsession with me and, compelled by the irresistible urge familiar to all true anglers, I fished in all conditions, however unfavourable.
So it was, one late autumn day, lashed by near horizontal rain, that I cast into the raging cascade of the swollen brook. The bait was an enormous lobworm from the garden (maggots were considered a frivolous luxury and were seldom used) which I hoped to keep on the bottom with a bored bullet of perhaps an ounce. As it turned out, the worm must have dropped right on to the nose of a hungry chub, which took it immediately. This chub was the first non-tiddler I had hooked, and the first I had actually to play. I had (I should imagine) 6lb line on, but quickly discovered that an irritated autumn chub in a small, flooded stream can be quite a handful. My new rod bent beautifully as it made first for the undercuts of both banks, then into the main flow and downstream, taking line from the clutch (I’m not sure I knew what the clutch was for before then, and I was lucky that, by chance, it was set more or less correctly). It came, finally, to the bank and I grabbed it amidships - I did not possess a landing net - and laid it on the wet grass. My heart was beating so fiercely I thought it would burst through my soaked anorak. That chub might have weighed 2.5lb but it looked like a monster to me.
My greatest feat (or stroke of luck) came towards the end of that season with the Swilgate back to its normal level. A few of us were gudgeon fishing using small wriggly brandlings, fresh from our compost heap, for bait. We trotted our floats down through the swim, picking up fish now and then. They were put into the large yellow bucket (formerly used to soak my little sister’s nappies) which served as a communal keep net in those thrifty days. There they could be observed and admired as they swam confusedly within.
Presently, I landed a gudgeon which was very much larger than any other we had ever caught. I slipped this king of gudgeon (or, more likely, queen) into the bucket and we all marched up to my house to weigh the leviathan on my mum’s kitchen scales. It tipped the balance at just over 5oz. Later that evening, I consulted my Ladybird Coarse Fishing (1969, Wills & Hepworth Ltd), which listed the then current British record fish records on its endpapers. There it was: GUDGEON: 4oz 4drms. Place; River Soar, Leicestershire. Date; 1950. I had caught a gudgeon bigger than the record. Strangely, I suppose, I had no regrets. I knew that, in those days, claiming a record usually meant killing the fish and submitting it for examination. My gudgeon, however, went back into the Swilgate, and was hopefully doing its bit to proliferate more monsters (The current record, I believe, is still a paltry 5oz dead!).
Last month I had the pleasure of taking my two nephews, who live nearby, to fish on the Swilgate. The older one even caught something – a small perch; the classic small boy’s first fish (it was mine too). It was gratifying to be approached by some of the present generation of young kids who were fishing there. They asked what we'd caught, told us what they'd caught and discussed bait and methods. They bonded instantly, in the unassuming and unaffected way that children do, with my charges, united in their common goal.
1: Leland, John. Itinerary, 1533, quoted in “Transactions – Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society” 1902.
I would like to thank the artist Barbara Fletcher for allowing me to use her painting River Swilgate Tewkesbury to illustrate this piece. This, and other paintings, may be viewed at Barbara’s website: www.onlinegallery.co.uk