Road trips have two major drawbacks for the suburban dad — time and money. Fortunately, my pal Dicky came to the rescue, suggesting an adventure both near and cheap. From front door to riverbank in four hours and sponsored by Dicky’s work, too.
Dicky: “It’s called the Usk, they’re not big fish, but they’ve never seen a fly before. I’ve got a fuel card.”
Me: “You don’t have to Usk twice; you had me at fuel card.”
The drive is the perfect mini road trip for male bonding. I’ve known Dicky not very well for about 20 years, and we have dozens of friends in common. By the time we’ve worked through who is now married to who, the divorces, industrial accidents, relative weight gain and degrees of baldness, we’re crossing the Severn into Wales.
Campsites and fishing for a tenner a day. It’s not Colorado, but they really are wild trout, purist and bargain basement.
Adventure books talk of the camaraderie of the campfire, but I love the rambling anecdotes of the Ford Transit. Bear Grylls may have climbed Everest; we stubbornly made our own coffee in the carpark to avoid drinking machine coffee. He spent thousands; we made a filter out of the last clean sock.
Our drive takes us into the range of hills known as the Brecon Beacons — the lush green mini-mountains that, by way of channels, culverts and tributaries, feed water into the Usk, which in turn feeds the Bristol Channel. This is Albion’s blue-collar fishing at its cut-price best; every bend in the river brings you to another vista from a fly-fishing catalogue. Campsites are from £10 a night and the fishing is also only a tenner a day. You can drive there in about four hours from London. It’s not Colorado, but they really are wild trout, purist and bargain basement. This is unusual, as most of the time, with fly fishing, the first grand is just the start of it.
There’s fishing and there’s FLY fishing, where by guile we seek to provoke the attack response of a fish that lives in anything from 2 inches of clear water to the brackish environment of an estuary. By stealth, we must sneak close enough to the trout’s world that we can silently flick a handmade lure right under his nose without revealing our presence. It’s just hard enough to be addictive. You need lots of specialist gear, which is also addictive. It’s deeply anti-social which is even more addictive.
Here in old Blighty, "on the fly" is often sold as the sport of toffs. Whereas on the other side of the pond, it’s the fishing lifestyle of a cube slave’s dreams, where he’ll stop being Clark Kent in khakis and become his alter ego, his secret self, The Trout Bum. The dream is of chucking in the day job to live out of a van on a never-ending road trip in America’s vast public lands, fishing remote streams, and mountain tarns from dawn to dusk. It's baking biscuit in the embers of a campfire, staying only long enough to let the sediment in the home brew settle. Then, by camper van, going off to the next stream where the trout jump to the fly and the world’s samsara never intrudes. Magazines and marketeers have worked this trope for years. I’m a sucker for it myself.
Rods ‘n' Reels, waders ‘n' boots, a wading jacket, Polaroid sunglasses, forceps and a box of flies packed, I tumble my vagabond camping gear into the back of Dicky’s Transit Connect and it’s the M4 all the way. In a strange reversal of the usual, we leave the rain in Swindon — driving towards the blue skies of Wales. I know, who’da thunk-it?
The Brecon Beacons are a formation of red sandstone, which at approximately 886 metres are generously included in the collective noun "mountains’ — this is no High Sierra. But they do have a lush green beauty. Everywhere you look, brooks are becoming tributaries. Fat sheep populate the fields. We pass groups of fearful teenage squaddies being prodded along by their sergeants.
"Brecons" are famously the grave site of many an embryonic military career. Legend has it that "if it ain’t raining, it ain’t training." The wind howls blowing rain horizontally through your basher all night. The guard rotation is every two hours. Sheep will lick your face if you do manage to fall asleep. By the end of the second day, you’ll have blown through your rations and you’ll be so hungry you’d beg for powdered egg. It doesn’t help seeing a couple of old dudes sitting on the bonnet of the little tranny, eating cheese and ham sandwiches and toasting them with Tango as they pant past.
Our guidebook recommends a place already on our route. Handy that. We pull up at the Georgian/Italianate frontage that’s been added to an older country house. The book says they have fishing, and the signpost says they have camping. The sun is shining, and the fields lush; even the cows and sheep look like they must be especially photogenic breeds.
At the house’s impressive front door, there is one of those wrought iron bell-pulls you’d use for summoning Lurch in a Hammer Horror movie. I give it a yank and we wait. After a while, a teenage Emo appears, looking both confused and knotted in some kind of terrible teenage angst. Dicky, simplifying his message for the audience, says loudly and clearly, “Fishing and camping: there’s a sign." After a long pause, the Emo mumbles, “I’ll get, er, someone,” and shuffles off. Once he’s safely out of sight, we hear him shout "MUM."
Felicity Kendal from "The Good Life" appears, looking irritated by her useless offspring. I fear I’m about to get the officious tone, which the Welsh tourist board, in defiance of convention, describes as "friendly," when her eyes fall on Dicky. Her pupils dilate and suddenly she has to rearrange her hair. She explains the short route to the camping area, telling us Tom will pop over to collect the money later on.
“Barbara likes you.”
Once we’ve set up camp, lit the fire and the Laphroaig is open, Tom rocks up, all Fat Face and green wellies. Tom’s got that faux-matey air, most often seen on a man who’s been sent by his wife. He trots out a list of rules and regulations, enthuses about the water quality, takes a few quid off us, turns down a tot of the scotch and ambles off into the gathering darkness.
Fly fishing appeals to philosophers as it’s where you set out to make the really simple really complicated. You dress up in a pair of waders (plastic trousers), pack a miniature special effects department in a box tied around your neck, and then fight your way though the bushes and brambles carrying what may as well be a glass stick that cost £600. If you make it down to the water without a rod-snapping or wader-shredding mishap, you’ll then stand up to your undercrackers in the cold, cold water, precariously perched on a slime-encrusted rock. From this vantage point, you must flick the line out into the current without snagging it on the trees on the bank behind you. All without allowing overenthusiasm to unbalance you into the recently melted snow that’s surging past.
Just to rub it in, fish will now jump to hovering mayflies as you attempt to untangle the fivers worth of special line.
Once you’ve had a couple of casts, the six-foot piece of spider’s web that connects the fly to the main line will have crocheted itself into some kind of knotted microdoily, which you will then have to untangle as you sit cursing in the dappled half-light of the bank. Lots of us have to wear overpowered reading glasses for this bit. Just to rub it in, other rule of fly fishing will come into play; fish will now jump to hovering mayflies as you attempt to untangle the fivers worth of special line. By the time you’ve had enough and cut the birds nest off and installed a new section of thin line or "tippet," the fish will have left to jeer at other fisherman, or worse, still in conspiracy with the fishing shops, they’ll jump onto the hook of a beginner, addicting him to a lifetime of dropping money at every fishing shop he passes. It happened to me.
I once asked some Scottish fishing guides or Ghillies, what the difference was between a £150 rod and one costing £650. There was lots of waffle about "technical rods" later, but it comes down to this. "Y’ken the way cheap tennis balls lose their bounce after a couple of days, and get shabby quite quickly? Rods are the same."
At the far side of the specialist clothes and posh sticks comes the flies themselves. The tying of flies is building tiny lifelike models, a kind of hobby within a hobby. Some people believe that fish have eyes like an underwater kestrel’s and re-create, in gobsmacking detail, the exact flies that are hatching on that exact morning on that exact bend in the river. They not only have to look the part but behave as the real thing would, too, sinking at pre-calculated rates, their little legs twitching in the current. The rest of us fish with "attractors." They’re flies for people with lives. If you really/actually wanted to catch a fish, you’d use a worm, but that’s considered unsporting. A synonym for effective.
…my hand rises to the source of the pain, I pinch something rough and feathery attached to my skull right behind my left ear.
With the little Transit Connect as a kind of mobile fishing shack, we spend our days pretending to be Trout Bums, driving about, foraging in Aldi and fishing. Some "beats" we fish are overgrown ditches where you’ve got to cramp your casting style to avoid snagging in the trees, and some are rolling rivers where you can reach out like those guys on YouTube.
On the last day, I’m standing up to my waist in the gin-clear water, birds singing, mayflies dancing over the golden confetti the sun throws onto the water. I’m watching Dicky who is about 20 yards away casting up stream into a riffle where the water breaks over some unseen obstruction. It’s one of those rare moments of true peace; the babble of the water soothes, the babble in my head quietens, the smell of dew and sweet meadow grasses are carried on the breeze. Every piece of flotsam that passes seems propelled to turn acrobatics in the current by an unseen hand. Dicky back casts, his orange line flicking lazily behind him. I watch it silently describing the tight hypnotic loop of the accomplished fly fisherman. It’s poetry in motion. I’m captivated that all is well in the world, and I am immersed in the moment.
What! Something has bitten me, right on the back of my head. My hand rises to the source of the pain, and I pinch something rough and feathery attached to my skull right behind my left ear. There’s a sharp proboscis embedded in my skin. Upstream Dicky’s rod completes the forward stroke of his cast, and the line tenses. The renewed stabbing pain announces we’re connected; the tautening line arrests his arm and the resistance sends him stumbling forward, off his rock and into the river. Blood drips from the back of my head. We sack it off to sit by the campfire.
We start the drive home, first south to Newport for a lunch date with some chips and curry sauce, then across the Bristol Channel for one last look at the view from the Severn Bridge, and on towards The Smoke. As we eat up the miles, it seems as though our micro adventure has been to another world. No fish were landed, but that’s hardly the point. So they tell me.