I cast my gaze to the shimmering water, my mind curving down into the seaweed-stranded rocks lashed by swell-laden waves and my imagination took me, a big shiny spinner, into the mouth of a pollock……
I woke with a start and rolled over in my sleeping bag, my hips hard on the field’s unyielding surface. The first rays of the morning sun filtering through the orange cotton of the tent. Camping, though a romantic idea, can be mostly sleepless. Perhaps our bodies have got too used to forgiving beds and dark curtains? Softened I maybe, but I had pitched the tent after midnight and was pretty pleased that it was still up. I unloaded the cooking box from the back of the car and with the odour of the first invisible flame of the meths stove, hunkered down to set the blackened kettle on the stove and unpack the smoked bacon. Morning dew was still damp underfoot and the smell of sleep crept from the tent as I brewed up and slung the frying pan onto the hot flame. The nose delighted in the triggering of a flood of camping memories.
I then spread the map out at my feet and squinted at the intricate rocky coastline with its stomach-lining blue tentacles splaying out from the edge of land into the sea. The south west coast path seemed, to me at least, to be a perfect access and as the heat of the sun grew hot on my cheek, I leant over the sizzling bacon and felt the saliva juices flow in anticipation of the breakfast to come.
A glorious day of sun and wind greeted me as I headed through the new timber gate, erected by a National Trust ranger, onto a cliff top path and down the sets of rock and timber-forming steps to the main path. I had seemingly overcooked my feet and envied other walkers flopping past in open-toed sandals and loose-fitting trainers. As my feet got progressively hotter, I had to think seriously about why I had my walking boots on – why did I have them on? My vague plan was to break off the official path and scramble down to the water’s edge. It now seemed a long shot as the path now veered upwards through stunted, wind-shorn hawthorn bushes. The noise of the distant waves receded into the background. I kept looking down towards the sea hoping for a possible route to the surging waves below. But no doubt Stone Age health and safety concerns had influenced even early path blazers and they kept the path well away from the sea. But the more I saw the rock ledges overhanging dark inlets and foaming caves, the more I wanted down.
A fulmar glided past on stiffened wings. At sea level, three cormorants laboured up to dry off, high on their rocky haunts. Still higher, cloud had dimmed the heat of the sun when suddenly, there it lay below; my route down the rockface. I had surmised that most paths were planned by sheep and led no where but to various greasy wool dens under thorny blackthorn thickets. This path however looked promising, even though I could see the end disappearing out of sight. Somewhat brazenly, I stepped off the main path and rod above head and knees braced against gorse needles, roared down the path towards the unknown edge of the cliff. To my relief, the edge gave way to a steep grass slope that was well negotiable and being thankful for my now steaming boots, edged down the slope onto the top of another cliff.
Clumps of pink thrift managed to make a living from the sharp faced rock and using the pointed needles as grip, made my way down the small cliff to the large slab of rock rearing up from the sea. The roar of the waves was now louder and I was aware of hidden channels underneath me with the noises varying between the menacing gurgle of an incoming and vacuuming hiss of an outgoing wave.
My excitement levels increased as I quartered over the rocks, sussing out the best place to get as close to the sea as possible. Impatient as I was to start fishing, the level-headed side of me suggested I wait a moment to see where the waves broke and observe the height of the wash. The sun reflected brightly from the pale green and blue surface of the sea and the wind brought smells of hot land and dry seaweed. I felt happy, alive and invigorated to be so close to the sea.
I placed my feet with care on the barnacle-encrusted surface and, weighting each leg as though testing ice for its ability to take my weight, hopped onto a rock just above the breaking waves. With simple fishing gear consisting of a 7 ft spinning rod (£25.00), fixed spool reel (£6.50) and spinner (£1 with slightly rusty hook) in hand, I steadied myself and hurled the spinner out into the waves. Not having any idea of where underground seaweed and rock snags might be, I reeled in pretty sharp and as I caught sight of my glinting lure, my heart seized tight as two brown shapes shot out of no where and attacked my spinner. No strike!
I couldn’t believe it! There were pollock right under my feet and I was astounded by the speed of the fish in the rough, breaking water. What good would I be in that surf? My eyes and mind now narrowed to a small sliver of sea and rock in front of me, adrenaline sharpening the focus. I lobbed the old spinner out again and let it sink a little, hoping the fish would think my lure was a wounded whitebait, off-limits and wobbling towards the surface. I wound the reel handle slowly and let the lure spoon drop, twinkling in the sun’s rays, bottomwards in front of my rock. Another brown shape veered up towards the silver lure and just as quickly veered off. Take it easy. Give them a rest! I yanked the spoon up and cast it away towards the shore in amongst the white froth of the breaking waves. My mind was now working overtime. I was now imagining huge pollock and bass nosing their ways into the rocky inlets hunting down fresh shrimps and crabs caught unaware by the incoming tide.
However, after a few more casts my initial zestfulness had worn off to be replaced by a resigned state of mind. Could it be that the pollock were just being playful with the lure or being just plain inaccurate at hitting the bait? I might go home hungry. Maybe if I slowed the retrieve even more and let the spinner fall to deeper water, the fish might take an interest followed up by a more thorough hooking commitment. I cast across the small bay and on retrieving the line slowly, felt a tug on the line. I struck and the little rod bent and the line straightened into the deep. I had to keep the pressure on to prevent the fish reaching the seaweed below me and without warning, there was the fish, large-eyed and bronzed-sided, lying swaying in a breaking wave. It suddenly righted itself and dived furiously for the bottom; the tip of my rod bending into the water. Another wave and the fish was back up on the surface. I grabbed the line to keep the pressure on the fish and pulled the fish onto the rocks.
Yahoo! I let out a loud shout of relief and exhilaration as I knelt over the fish. Picking up the fish, I could feel the quiver of the fresh hunter seafish and as I bashed it on the head, the half-eaten body of a hunted whitebait fell into the rockpool. The food pyramid had climaxed. I stood up proudly, looking down at my catch. I turned my head round at the ragged coastline and taking in the smell and sight of the sea salt-sprayed rocks, felt an immense happiness of just being.
I walked back along the coast path with the evening light drying the scaly fish as it slapped against my leg. I didn’t care about much. I had my dinner and I was hungry.
Back at my tent I brewed a pot of tea and then set about preparing the meal. I broke two eggs into a cup, added milk and then whipped them together. My legs were cramped from squatting and after pouring the reluctant eggs onto a plate, laid a piece of bread on top. I then took my fish gutting knife and set to work on the pollock, scales flying everywhere. I cut fillets off from each side of the fish. Putting them to one side, I heated the frying pan and lowered the egg-soaked bread into the hot bacon fat and let it cook for a couple of minutes. I couldn’t wait long and grabbing the eggy bread straight out of the pan, with scalded greasy fingers, juggled the fried bread between lips and fingers. After another two splattering rashers of bacon, the frying pan, with its bacony, eggy flavour, was ready for fish.
I heated the pan and laid the fillets, skins side first, into the hot fat watching as the flesh contracted and the skin stuck to the pan. I splashed some water in. The pan hissed, the liquid browned and the fillets steamed deliciously. I let the hot water and fat swill around the fillets and after adding a little more water, didn’t turn them but just relished the moment of cooking the catch. After a few minutes, the flesh seemed to go from the whiter cooked colour to a translucence on the upper side of the meat. Perfect. Fresh. Undercooked. I seized the handle of the pan and sat down on my haunches in front of the tent. Cave man at cave mouth. OK, I could use fingers but went civilised and picking up a fork, slid a piece of pollock onto the fork. The leaves of half cooked steaming fish fell away and the sea taste filled my mouth with a wonderful texture of freshness and nourishing clean fish meat.
High above, a buzzard circled hungrily. Unhappily even. But not I. Here I was, well-fed and happy.
Rob Yorke is a countryman with two hats: one as a chartered surveyor, and the other as a rural commentator chairing debates and writing articles on wildlife, fishing, conservation, farming, shooting and other rural topics for the likes of The Times, Trout & Salmon, Waterlog, Shooting Gazette and BBC Countryfile Magazine. Rob compiled The Little Book of Fishing for WH Smith, and has presented two series for Discovery television channel: ‘The Great Escape’, a Welsh farmstead reality series, and ‘Reel Wars’, a fishing/outdoor survival series. He has lived in west Scotland, north England, London and now permanently in the Brecon Beacons. A regular contributor to the The Times’ letter pages on countryside matters, Rob can be followed at twitter.com/blackgull and via his website: robyorke.co.uk.