This Lake in Winter
I am standing upon the dam of a lake, looking out across an expanse of white, non-reflecting water. I know there’s a pool there – a line of trees and reed stems indicates this – and yet a lone pheasant is walking across what would be the middle of the lake and in the distance the water appears to be flowing up into the trees. Last night’s frost has frozen everything, including the surface of this lake, which is now sleeping beneath a blanket of silent white.
I’ve been here for twenty minutes, gazing at the winterscape, watching my breath rise beyond the peak of my cap and wondering what fish lurk beneath the ice. The pheasant (which doesn’t look too happy with its location) is the first creature I’ve seen in this otherwise desolate place. It seems the crisp air has encouraged the wildlife to stay 'indoors', and that only mad Englishmen and foreign birds brave the icicles of midwinter.
I’d planned to get here earlier than this (it is mid-morning) but the hard frost and remnants of yesterday’s snow meant that I couldn’t drive my car along the track to the pool. Instead, I parked by the side of the road and walked (‘crump-crumping’ through the snow) across three fields, through two woods and along a stream. The walk took over an hour, and made me feel like I could melt the frost just by looking at it. I loosened my collar and stood back to admire the view.
So here I am, standing in the snow, writing with a pencil because the ink in my pen is frozen, and about to introduce you to the lake that will become my home for a year.
First, let me bring you up to speed with developments.
A lot has happened in the past month. I’ve worked my notice, put our cottage up for sale, got a new job, binned my nylon suit and called in a favour with a local farmer. Among this activity was a desire for change, to not end up in the same lifeless situation as before, where a request to give a sample of blood would become a dinner date with the corporate vampire. I needed to find a place where I could enjoy my spare time and live without the gnawing reality of compromise.
I heard about the lake last week, when a pint in my local turned into a five-hour session and a full-blown rant about the state of the nation. Paul the stockman overheard the commotion and told me of a lake on the farm where he worked. "Ittud be a drive,” he said, "but it’s reet priddy arn owt-a-way.” A good sleep and two Aspirin later, and I was able to telephone the landowner about the lake. The outcome was that I would be allowed to camp in the woods next to the pool in return for working on his farm every Saturday. Fishing was controlled by a syndicate (the inevitable compromise) but the owner knew of a vacancy. A phone call to the syndicate leader, and a promptly-signed cheque sent in the post, secured my membership. And I hadn’t even visited the lake. Something deep within told me it was the right thing to do. Hence my excitement walking here today, for this, my first visit.
I return to the scene before me: a lake of about ten acres, flanked on the left by beech, alder, thuja conifers and oak; and on the right by willow, alders and poplar. Branches stick up through the snow-covered ice, indicating fallen trees that line the margins of the lake. The far end of the lake adjoins woodland that stretches as far as the horizon. Closer in, I can see that each corner of the dam is fringed by reedmace and that the right bank has a thicket of bulrush running along it – each stem of which is frosted with ice.
This isn’t a lake that immediately announces itself as an angling water. There’s no car park, no visible ‘pitches’ from which to fish, no path around the lake and no ‘private, keep out’ signs. Actually, this doesn’t look or feel like an obvious lake, either. This frost has softened it and the landscape, helping to blend the two together.
I like the atmosphere of the pool – it has a shy and retiring character, not wanting to cause any bother, just happy to be left alone. I can relate to this.
I know from my conversation with the syndicate leader that the lake contains roach, perch, pike, eels, tench, bream and carp. Most of the anglers fish only for the carp. Sadly, the syndicate leader mentioned that the lake was recently stocked with fast growing mirror carp, "because the members were plagued by thin little wild carp”. I could have chewed my fist into a pulp at hearing this news. (Why is it that so many syndicates and clubs insist on picking on the weak? Blinded by their obsession with big fish, they are prepared to irreversibly ruin the genetic strain of the fish for which they are responsible. Fools. Blasted fools. But the damage is done. The syndicate can fish for their ‘plastic’ blubbery stocked fish, and I will find quiet corners where I will attempt to get close to the remaining original carp.)
Which brings me to my plan. It is now late February. There are another three weeks left of the coarse fishing season, after which the lake will be undisturbed by anglers for three months. It is during this time, once the weather warms up, that I will begin my life beside the pool. I will find an open glade in the wood at the far end of the lake in which to erect my tent. I will bring with me enough supplies to live without having to venture into the outside world. I will observe the landscape during its seasonal transitions.
I’ll draw what I see and write about what I observe. I will leave my watch at home. My daytime activities will be governed by the warmth of the sun; my nights will be inspired by the brilliance of stars.
I will close the farm gate behind me, disappearing into a warm and humid wood to live a simple life. Then, once-a-month, I will walk two miles to the nearest road, where I will find a post box to send these journals.
This peaceful pond will be my place of refuge, a new manifestation of the Priory. I’ll stay here until my house is sold, when I’ll begin a new life in a new part of the country. But first, I need to waterproof my tent and sew-up the mouse holes in my sleeping bag.
I’m going camping!
This is a sample chapter from A Waterside Year, Fennel's Journal No. 2
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