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Where's the river?

There's always a frisson of excitement when you return to a well-loved and well-known stretch of river. Lakes you see, don't really change that much. Oh, they do over time, but they don't change the way rivers change. And today's a case in point. Everything else is the same. The common where you have to leave the car since the residents kicked up about anglers parking in the lane, the potholes in the road that they can't be arsed to fix, the quaint little - and not so little - houses that look over the common (and the weird thing in the middle that looks like a sweat shop, but can't be).

The cut down towards the fields is still there, but hang on...this bridge is new and where's the gate? What gate? The rusty gate that adorns this very blog. Cunningly you see I'd intended to try and reproduce the shot of the horses in a Surrey field at sunrise at different times of the year and then switch the picture at the top to reflect the seasons. Maybe even sell it as a calendar. No chance of that now the gate's gone.

Having crossed the lock and started downstream, I'm faced with a more serious problem. The river has gone. Or rather it's hidden behind a wall of foliage that stands higher than me and seems comprised of stinging nettles on steroids and this weird pink stuff that has stalks a bit like rhubarb but doesn't taste as nice. I wander down parallel to where the river should be until I see a faint trail heading in the right direction and waving my landing net handle in front of me strike off into the jungle. It takes a couple of minutes before I can see water, by which time I've been stung all up one arm and am covered in pink petals from the rhubarb stuff - I look like a bride at a Hindu wedding - except I'm a bloke and have a beard.

But this can't be the right spot. The tree's gone. And half the bank's been consumed by rhubarb and...wait a minute, this is the right spot because there's the gouge out of the bank on the other side, and that's the tree where the sun comes up and - having looked a little more carefully - there's the tree on my side. It's just fallen in the water. Bloody hell.

Having stopped mucking about with all these side issues I turn to the swim itself. This is lovely. Actually, it's luvverly. The water's doing all sorts of weird contortionist things. There's a fast run with whirls and eddies coming off it, there's a slow deep bit, then shallows on the near bank and something over the other side that looks like deep water. Right in front of me the water actually flows in a circle. There's so much to choose from I don't know where to start.

So having tackled up with 8lb line straight through to a size 4 hook with a 3/4 ounce Arlsey bomb on the end, I settle down onto the inflatable cushion and look towards the river. I'm so low down and the undergrowth's so high that I can't see where I'm casting - so that solves one problem, then. I get a corking tug first cast on luncheon meat and then we settle into a familiar frustrating progression whereby I waste two hours on 'bites' that are mostly weed before getting a real bite that nearly pulls the rod out of its rest and makes me realise I've been wasting my time.

I call my missus to bemoan my fishless plight and promptly hook something heavy that holds the bottom just like a barbel, but comes off after a few only seconds. I phone back to explain why I hung up on her. The swim disturbed, I boil water for a coffee (though looking around me I wish I had some custard powder) and then sit and drink it noisily. Re-casting I proceed to get a series of unmissable bites which I miss every time.

Finally, aware that I need to leave to pick my mum up from Luton airport, I have one last cast into the slow circle of water in front of me, pop the rod in the rest and then lean back to contemplate where it all went wrong. At which point the rod tip throbs and pulls down in a series of steps and I strike. It's a barbel again, and keeps low in the water for about three minutes, forging this way and that, invisible, yet so much a barbel that I feel like I've seen it already. When it finally comes to the surface it's smaller than I hoped but still a lovely fish. I give it between five and six pounds and happily pack up, crunch back up through the rhubarb to the path and return to the car, pausing only to photograph the ugliest horse I've ever seen.
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