Wandering and wondering has always been a pastime greatly enjoyed; you never know what you are going to come across or even imagine. Each walk was an adventure with many possibilities; I could be a warrior, hunter or explorer, just as the fancy took me. Every tree was different, with shape and character all of its own, blown by wind and weather.
A frequent walk would be as far as low buildings, and the wood just beyond; Granny’s farm, now owned by my uncle and his family. This was the place where my Mum was born and I spent many a holiday with my cousins. There was always something to do: collect eggs, take the milk cans on, potato picking, hay timing and fastening in the hens. You might imagine it was all work, not a bit; rummaging among the old stuff stored up in the stable chamber, jumping off bails of straw and making dens in the wood.
We always knew there were trout in the beck, but I can’t remember the first time we realised they were big enough to catch and eat. Imagining ourselves as Robinson Crusoe, we would plan how to catch this wild tasty delight (we didn't consider the preparation at this stage). A rod and a float seemed quite impractical in such a narrow stream; a net might be a plan.
Sunday lunch followed the church service, but straight after the service was also a ritual, as men folk would gather over the road and to the left. The women would be just outside the gate and we kids would be over the road to the right. There was a progression for us young lads, as we increased in years we would move closer to the men; conversation moving from games to farm work, joinery and such like. Family was wider than just a name, for it stretched out within a group of names, associated with each family. Groups extended to neighbours and shared work relationships, a community network spanning distance and time; a sense of belonging, and fitting in to the way of things. It was one such Sunday morning, one of the older men suggested we tickle the fish with our hands and hook it onto the bank side; we wondered if he was pulling our legs. My uncle was a man to be believed and he verified the art, saying that tickling hypnotised the fish so you could grab it.
This new found skill had to be put to the test, so all seven of us set out down the beck that Sunday afternoon. Our eyes were glued to the water; we had seen fish here before. Talking was reduced to a whisper and it felt like we were walking on tip toes. “There”, said Chris, “there’s one”. I had never heard silence like it, apart from the rippling stream as I approached the edge. I rolled up my sleeves and laid flat, face down. The water was so cold as I moved my hands slowly toward the undercut bank; my heart skipped two beats as I touched the fish. Wiggling my fingers in a tickling motion, the fish seemed quite content; I smiled and nodded my head to the others. At that moment there was a flash and he was gone, the disappointing sigh from those stood around said it all.
We walked for a few hundred yards or more and came upon a likely spot, the bend in the stream had created an overhanging edge and there was the biggest fish we had seen. Chris was straight in; my fingers were twitching, imagining what he was feeling. A moment later, Chris jerked and it was as if half the stream had come out with the fish, we all got showered; but where was the fish? It had to be here among the grass but was nowhere to be seen. Then Bernie, the youngest of the group, frozen to the spot said “it’s down me wellie”, the fish was head first down his wellie, flapping its tail fin against his leg. There was a deed to be done with a stone that was carried out without a word; the procession back to the farm recounted the excitement over and over again, even the one that got away.
There are no fish in these becks today and the stream is barely a trickle, but the skills and how we learned them, became a template for much more than just tickling fish. Remembering the old ways, and how often things that seem impossible, turn out to be great fun.