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by John Andrews
originally published in Waterlog Magazine - Autumn 2005
'Experiment' said the word on the sign. It was unmistakeable. We were in
the right place. Black typeset lettering on a white board under which was
painted an arrow: an abstract instruction in the middle of nowhere; twenty-
six miles from London in a patch of scrubland, off the main road; attached
by cable clips to a rickety piece of wire fencing; the arrow pointing down an
unmade track alongside which ran the wire fence. Down this track we
drove, through clumps of hawthorn trees and blackthorn bushes. Beyond
them a yard full of rusting containers and rows of caravans; its off-season
occupants asleep, waiting for the call to take them to the continent and
away to a life of anonmymity.
Hinterland. Dicken's lonely marshes. A forgotten place, ignored and
overlooked even now. Beyond the vision of developers. A bleak, estuary
landscape whose primary colours have been bleached away by centuries of
salt on the wind. The Romans came here and built a fort, as did the troops
of Elizabeth I; at the gateway to London, the wide, dirty mouth of the city.
In the cold gloom of a late October morning it was the perfect place for an
experiment. At the end of the track a man called Reg greeted us with a
cheery smile and a booming voice; dressed in a white fishmonger's coat,
peaked cap and a pair of wellingtons with white socks folded over the top;
his tie knotted tightly to his throat and in his hand an old fashioned clip
board. Our names were taken and we were invited into a giant marquee
which had been pitched amongst the hawthorn trees like a colonial
campaign tent behind the frontline. The wind gnawed at the canvas and
inside we mingled with the other participants, all of them willing volunteers
like ourselves; most of them veterans of previous experiments, with real
life medals pinned to their chests, happy in the knowledge of what was to
come, laughing and joking with one another. Us first timers, new recruits
nervously drinking tea from china cups as we wondered what to expect.
One hour later, at 8 o'clock precisely, a siren sounded. All along the
foreshore of the river, across shingle, rock and mud, over beds of weeds,
one hundred people scrambled towards the edge of the dark brown water
and slung their leads out into the river. In the shadow of the looming tower
of the Tilbury Power Station the thirty-second City of London Thames
Fishery Research Experiment was under way.
Reg Butcher is the Godfather of the Thames Experiment. He grew up along
the river and on several occasions in the Sixties was carried by stretcher to
the hygeia that stood on the spot of the old Denton Quarantine Hospital. So
poisonous was the water perceived to be that having fallen into the river
Reg was taken for urgent treatment. In 1969 after one such incident he
had an idea. He organised an unofficial fishing match on the banks of the
river directly outside the old Quarantine Hospital. In the February snow a
small group of anglers were pegged out and instructed to fish for four
hours. Their catch would be recorded and monitored just as Reg's health had
been in the hygeia. In four hours the anglers caught over 550lb of winter
cod, the biggest of which weighed 12lb. It was obvious that there was
considerable fish life being brought up the Thames by each new tide.
In the thirty-five years since that day, Reg Butcher's February fishing match
has evolved from an informal gathering into a research programme. It is
organised by the Corporation of London, the Thames Angling Preservation
Society and the Environment Agency. The Fishmongers' Company help to
fund it. The Mayor of Denton attends in full official regalia. And Reg
oversees it all in his white coat and his wellington boots.
All along the foreshore of the Old Saxon Way there are anglers at 25-yard
intervals: novices and experts alike; schoolchildren from the inner city who
have never fished before; casting champions from Canvey Island. All of
them are here because of a coveted invitation; watching their rod tips and
the loops of line that run down the slope into the water; waiting for the
uninvited: gangs of eels; crowds of pout and whiting; a shoal of bass; a fat
Dover sole from Higham Bight.
It isn't long before the first guests arrive at the end of the line of anglers -
12 foot beachcasters barely bending as they winch in whiting of less than a
pound, a regular estuary catch but one treated with respect. The orange-
coated steward measures the fish and checks it for signs of ill health before
depositing it in a white plastic bucket. Apart from the catches there is no
visible sign of fish on the incoming tide. The river laps with metronomic
regularity at the shore and the occasional seagull wheels above, attracted
more by the baits than by the fish. The water is the colour of filth, full of
detritus - waste from the city and waste from the sea. But out of this
seemingly desolate ooze come dozens of fish, silver scales catching the pale
sunlight. Rows and rows of them strung out like Tim Burton bunting -
fantastical, improbable and uplifting. Soon there is conversation all along
the line, shouts and laughter; a sense of tangible relief at the annual
renewal of the river.
And then, as soon as the whiting arrive they are gone; carried upstream
through Northfleet Hope and Fiddler's Reach past Crayford Ness to Barking
and Gallion's; a journey the fish have made for centuries; as far back as
when the Romans came here and built their fort; giant shoals from the
North Sea, an invading army it is impossible to repel (even with the
increasing amounts of pollution pumped into the river every time London's
ageing drainage system is overwhelmed). In an hour or two you could
catch the same fish at Rotherhithe in between pints.
Bass follow the whiting like dashing cavalry officers after an infantry
charge; making their way to the Admiralty building at Greenwich to feast
on memories of whitebait. One or two are caught on peeler crabs and
ragworm, running fast for the rotten legs of the old wooden pier, diving
hard for the cover of the rocky shallows, remnants of old sea defences long
since drowned. Prized catches, as celebrated as an ancient crown, are pulled
from the mudflats. In between them are the in-between fish: eels with
heads as big as a fist and flounder with cock-eyed eyes. Each capture is
measured and recorded.
By 1 O'Clock every angler is backed up from the shore to the top of the sea
defence. The river is wider and deeper, almost at slack water. A giant
tanker registered in Peru takes advantage of the turn in the tide to begin its
journey. It floats down the centre of the channel; its bulk dwarfing the
river briefly; like a bluescreen monster from a B-Movie. A looming bow-
wave rolls over and crashes into the side wall.
Moments later the siren sounds again. The experiment is over. No one
fishes for a second longer; there are no last casts for luck or extra five
minutes. Soon the visiting shoals will be carried out again into the sea
from where they came; their numbers reduced by the 300 fish taken during
the morning. The bigger specimens are taken by bucket on the back of an
old Land Rover along the path to the Quarantine Station. Here, an
expectant crowd gathers as Reg examines each fish in turn, giving a running
After the weigh-in everyone is invited into the marquee. It has been
transformed; lit by chandelier, there are tables laid with silver service and
name plates at every placing. There is a top-table strewn with big silver
trophies. The Mayor of Denton says grace and we all express how grateful
we are for what we are about to receive. And then in the true sense of
English eccentricity we are served roast lamb and red wine. There is no
sacrificial dish, no symbolic plate of thanksgiving. The catch isn't shared.
The eels go home with Reg to be boiled to jelly. A Chinese schoolgirl wins
the Fishmongers Cup for her capture of a Dover Sole. It is the first time
she has ever been fishing. Outside the light begins to fail as afternoon
changes to early evening. Soon the guests break and in two's and three's
make their way back to their cars; everyone pausing for a last glimpse of
the river - the sunset giving it the colour of ore. In the distance some kids
race each other up and down the sea defences on souped-up 50cc
motorbikes. The sound carries on the wind. We drive back down the track
and stop briefly by the fence. I look out of the window but the sign has
gone, taken down until next year.
* * * * * * *