Wednesday, 21 November 2018

JOHN WILSON - a tribute - 1943 to 2018

It is always sad when one of the greats of angling leave the river-bank for ever and the loss of John is such a shock because he was still so young.

Dick Walker, Bernard Venables, Peter Stone, Terry Lampard, Fred J, B.B, Rod Hutchinson, just a few of those special people who have made our pastime so memorable and alarmingly, all of them have departed during my own lifetime.

They are all sadly missed of course but non more so than John because of his television appearances and book writing. His charismatic personality probably captured the hearts of as many non-anglers as us worm danglers and his inspiration will live on forever thanks to the many superb programmes he made.

Since reflecting on his loss, I thought it might be of interest to describe the pressures of filming with him, if only because it goes to show what a consummate professional he was, let alone being able to deliver fish on cue.

Many of his ‘Go Fishing’ shows became legendary and one of his personal favourites was a catch of monster bream on the float from a boat in a misty Norfolk Broad. He loved the surprise of the catch, even if he shouldn’t have been surprised because he had prepared the swim so well. He left little to chance but on one occasion when filming him I became sure that he had overdone the pre-baiting.

I was shooting the Channel 4 series ‘Catching the Impossible’ with Martin Bowler and John had kindly agreed to help us out with a couple of sequences, one of which was assisting our co-star Bernard Cribbins in catching a carp on a fly-rod cast floater.

I should point out that Bernard is an ace trout fisherman and all round angler and had always delivered when filming with us, until now!

John had invited us up to his delightful Norfolk home and lakes - his wife Jo’s glorious garden was worth the journey alone -  and he’d baited up all his favourite spots with a Cruft Shows worth of dog biscuits, or so it seemed, for in spite of the weather being favourable, the carp didn’t seem remotely interested in eating or being caught.

Bernard presented the bait perfectly while John and Martin watched intently, then exhasperatingly as the carp investigated the floaters dozens of times but always turned away. Day one ended in a big fat blank so I pleaded with John not to put any freebies in before we arrived the next day.

He did of course, though only a few he said and as miss after miss followed the tension rose and time started to run out. Bernard had to return to London to continue filming Dr.Who so extending the shoot wasn’t an option.

What became even more difficult is that John was used to running the show and very good he was at it too of course … but as I was the cameraman and director I saw the creation of the sequence differently!

John had to accept that I was in charge and to add to the difficulty, he is used to being the star and so is Bernard so the tension of failure rose by the minute. Martin cowered behind a bush and had to take tranquilizers when he hit the sack.

Needless to say, John and Bernard delivered a lovely common for the camera so they were both stars and we were able to laugh off the crisis in the pub. However, it did highlight the pressure that John lived under every day he went out filming because catching for the camera is never easy. He was simply brilliant at it because of his hard work and attention to detail.

As many anglers will know, John was always generous with his help and when I was a young film student wanting to film barbel underwater he took a lot of trouble to describe exactly how I might achieve success.

Many years later we were filming ‘A Passion for Angling’ while John was filming ‘Go Fishing’, so the Angling Times came along to record the event when we’d decided a match between the two programmes would be a bit of fun.

We were allowed to fish on the famous Longford Castle stretch of the Hampshire Avon and while Bob James and Chris Yates took up the challenge rather too seriously I thought, John agreed so we sat in my old VW camper emptying a bottle of red and catching up on fishing and filming stories.

Eventually we started fishing and I took John to a lovely deep slack behind a bush. The magic hour approached when John’s float plunged under and after a few jags of what was a really good fish, a huge roach rolled on the surface. It was that three pounder that John had always wanted to catch and as it slid into the net it looked nearer four.

He was so excited until we looked more closely at the monster in the half light and it was obvious it had a hint of bream in its’ genes. I have seldom seen an angler so disappointed.

Our next cooperation produced the opposite emotion. Martin and I were still filming ‘Catching the Impossible’ and one of our ‘impossibles’ was a thirty-pound pike. John kindly agreed to help and firstly he thought the River Waveney would give us a chance. Arriving at his house at silly o’clock John proved that he was the ultimate professional because there he was waiting with his boat all hitched up to his truck and ready to roll. I was most impressed.

Martin and John fished hard all day but only a couple of jacks dragged the floats under so next day, John thought we should try Oulton Broad. We searched all the likely spots for the same result but John had come prepared and kindly produced a feast of bacon and sausage sandwiches. While scoffing we noticed a cormorant diving for prey and motored over to the spot.

John cast in his lamprey bait, turned to me and said “that’s the spot” and he said it with such conviction that I simply left the camera rolling and within what seemed only moments, line began to peel off his reel. Tightening down, he struck into a heavy fish and within minutes Martin slid the net under a great big pike while muttering and smiling, ‘jammy old bugger’. John simply uttered that phrase “I don’t believe it”. Well yes we do John for yet again he’d delivered the dream.

At 27lb 8oz he had not only caught the biggest pike in the Broad – probably – he had also matched his largest pike in ten years while equalling the biggest he had ever caught on film. His smile of triumph and happiness will live with me forever.

That boy could fish! And what a lovely guy. He will live on in our memories until we go to join him but before then, life will never be quite the same without him.

Monday, 5 November 2018


it's disconcerting to be ignored by a hawk that is just eight feet from me - only this once did he pay me any attention
Many special events have happened in our wooded wildlife friendly garden but few come close to this summer when a pair of sparrow hawks decided to nest in the heart of our patch in sunny Dorset.

they are long gone now but the nest was up in the birch tree on the left
a Scottish nest photographed from a forty foot scaffold hide carefully assembled over three weeks to minimise disturbance
I have filmed them in several wilder places around the country and if one character epitomises them it is shyness, so to have a pair that decided we were harmless and allowed us to carry on gardening while they sat watching was remarkable. I write a lot about the privilege of living close to wildlife but this was as good as it gets.

our tame male at his fast food retaurant

Over the years we've seen sparrow hawks fairly regularly around the garden but the first time I noticed something ‘different’ was on the 16th January. A male was perched above the bird feeders in our magnolia in what I guessed he considered a fast food restaurant.

I took a happy snap or two from the office window, then crept downstairs to get closer to the target. Pics through double-glazing are never going to be that clever so I carefully opened the door and he didn’t even look at me, even when I stepped outside. He stayed for twenty minutes, looking around and preening, seemingly without a care in the world.

the female was almost as confiding as our male

He was back on the 31st, perching above the feeders close to the side of the cottage, I say ‘he’ but when I came to download the pics the eye colour was yellow instead of orange, so this was a female and tame too.

no wonder we named him 'Fancy Dan' - he was always preening his colourful feathers
He was back by the feeders on the 4th March and I decided to be bold, stepped outside and ever so slowly stalked to within a few metres. It was exciting being so close but he didn’t even bat an eyelid and stayed there for an hour.

the female was calling her mate as we dug the garden below

On the 24th the female was in a tall birch above us, calling to what had become her mate in the wood. 

Next day he was back by the feeders but I had to creep right around our wild flower meadow to get a clear shot and then ever so slowly stalked to within eight feet. It was a moment of magic. There is so much beauty in nature, usually at a distance but for once I could admire his colourful plumage intimately. Isn't he a little cracker!

I love this pic, the only sharp bit being his claw. I need a faster camera! 
It was disconcerting that he almost completely ignored me for half an hour, only glaring at me forcefully once and flying close to my head when he left to join his mate. He was good at providing food for her too.
our female eating a blackbird on the giant oak outside my office window

I left them undisturbed when they were mating for fear of putting them off

In early April I missed photographing them mating but the next few weeks I saw them do so several times and spent hours in the wood watching them collect sticks for the nest and building up the structure in a birch tree that we could see from our bed. The whole episode was quite remarkable.

they built the nest in a tall birch in the middle of our woodland walk

it was exciting seeing her breaking off twigs for the nest - the male helped a bit too.

she placed the twigs carefully on the base of the nest
building took more than three weeks as the leaf cover for the nest increased
They had decided our garden was home and nothing was going to convince them otherwise but we decided to be cautious so that they could lay eggs undisturbed and started to avoid walking under the nest. However, they seemed completely bomb proof and would happily sit around in the branches while we sat watching close by.
he was so cool he slept even when we sat a few feet away - quite remarkable

her tail just visible as she formed the cup for her eggs
By the end of April they had completed the nest and were paying a lot of attention to the cup, fiddling with little twigs and wriggling down to make it comfortable. By early May the female was laying and with a telescope I could watch her tail rising and falling as she forced the egg out.

Over the next three weeks the male brought food to her regularly and it was amusing to see them both chasing away any intruders to the area. They all got energetically pursued, wood pigeons, crows, magpies, jackdaws, jays, even grey squirrels. I imagined they quite enjoyed putting the fear of god up their visitors asses!

he would sit happily on the tree tops soaking up the sunrise while she incubated their eggs - it's a man's world

By early June we watched the female feeding small young and by now we had nicknamed the male ‘Fancy Dan’. He would regularly go and bath in the stream close to the nest, then spend hours preening in the sunshine. Who’s a pretty boy!

Fancy Dan at his morning shower. His mate would bathe in the afternoon while he did his duty on the nest   © Mike Read
A great friend of ours Mike Read came round to take a few pics. He’s a professional photographer with proper gear, [I just had a Panasonic ‘bridge’ camera with small zoom], so we were really grateful that Mike could take delightful pictures that did Fancy Dan justice.
he loved having a thorough soak in the shallow pools, spending many minutes at his ablutions   © Mike Read

his bathng became a daily routine so no wonder we called him Fancy Dan   © Mike Read
a different female eating a kill close to our nest - quite a surprise    © Jane Adams 
On another day we had a great friend round, Jane Adams, who hoped to see the chick being fed and Mum duly obliged. However, we were looking at Sue’s veg plot when a sparrow hawk zoomed across and landed with its’ prey in the nearby weeping willow. I assumed it was Fancy Dan with another kill but it was another female, only fifty metres from the nest where our female was feeding the chicks, surely a most unusual happening.

Fancy Dan would pluck some of the feathers off his prey before presenting it to his mate    © Mike Read
the food pass usually took place close to the nest   © Mike Read
our precious cuddly bundle would soon turn into a fast flying killing machine that are not always popular with bird lovers
Fancy Dan seemed to be providing plenty of food for the chicks but by early July there was only one survivor in the nest. Perhaps the tropical heat of our wonderful summer had taken its’ toll? However, the chick successfully fledged and within a few days the show was over, the birds dispersing into the surrounding woods. We were sad to see them go but were now free to walk under the nest again.  We had made a self-imposed curfew to avoid disturbing them too much.

We still see Fancy Dan occasionally as he sits quietly on one of his favorite perches or zooms past in pursuit of some intended victim and we’re hoping that they return next year to try to raise a family in our presence once again. It was a remarkable privilege for which we will always be grateful.

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