Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Croxley Script

Sometimes I wish I was more inclined to write uncomplicated, diary-esque posts, because so often when I sit down at a blank NQS page what I have in mind is too long for one entry, and probably of very little interest to anyone else. Like this one...

A couple of years back I met up with my old buddy Ric and we cycled around some haunts of our youth...

River Gade at Croxley, near Watford, in October 2016

As a boy I would catch the Met Line train from Preston Road station and get off at Croxley Green. A short walk down a gravelly lane led to the Grand Union Canal, and over a bridge was the River Gade. The little weir pool pictured above was a favourite spot, and in 1972 I caught a 12oz roach here, trotting a float along the far bank. Bait was silkweed, which we pulled off the face of the weir and wrapped around the hook. A few small roach were usually up for it, but that three-quarter pounder was my biggest by far. Also on offer in this stretch of the river were gudgeon, the odd perch, some modest chub, very rarely over 2lb, and the occasional surprise, like a crucian carp or bream. To us kids it was fishy heaven, and there was healthy competition for the best swims. Every weekend the river was lined with young lads. Quietly contemplating the scene in my mind's eye brings it back so clearly...

Anyway, just recently I came across a website called Britain from Above, which specialises in old aerial photographs, and out of curiosity I entered 'Croxley' into the search box. Would there be any photos dating from the years I fished there? Nothing that recent, but there was this...

This photo was taken in 1953   (link: www.britainfromabove.org.uk/image/EAW048397)   ©Historic England

The photo is dominated by the John Dickinson Paper Mill (ever heard of 'Croxley Script' paper?) which was demolished around 1982. In my day it was still a bustling place, and every morning a proportion of the workforce would arrive via the canal bridge, and then along the river to the point where it seemingly disappears in the middle of the photo; just here was a pedestrian gateway and security office. The river was off-limits beyond this point, the spiky fence along the edge of Croxley Common Moor marking the works boundary. The weir in question is visible half-way along the river.

When I came across this pic I was amazed at how little had apparently changed by the early '70s. So much is exactly as I remember it! Even the massive heap of coal between the river and the canal lock was still a feature.

My next job was to see if Google could show me what it looks like now, and of course to make a collage...

Slightly different perspectives but almost exactly the same view, separated by about 65 years.

Visiting the area with Ric was as you might expect. There's enough there to help you picture the scene as it was, but the nostalgic sadness at what's gone is visceral. I guess it's recognising that it isn't just the physical place that is irretrievable, but also the younger you.

Sigh...

Anyway, as I say, that old photo brought it all streaming back. In fact I was able to revisit one particular memory with incredible accuracy. An occasion of unparalleled angling triumph that played itself out one June day in 1973. But that's for another post...

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Looking at the Gulls Properly

Originally I planned to begin the NQS year with a very non-birdy post, but writer's block and this morning's birdy stuff have put paid to that notion...

So, just before midday I bumped into Phil alongside the Axe Estuary. Apparently it is the worst start to the year that he can recall on the Seaton/Axe patch. No local scarcities at all, unless you count Greenshank; I don't. Which means my gull-related jam a little earlier was even more welcome. Let me talk you through it...

I'll be honest. This winter so far, I have probably passed my bins very half-heartedly over the Axe Estuary gulls on less than a handful of occasions. I haven't even had my scope with me for ages. This morning I took all the optics. This morning I took my aged little FinePix. This morning I was going to make a proper effort, and have a proper look. I was pleased to see a good bunch of big gulls half way up the river, roughly in line with the Seaton Marshes hide, and stopped opposite them. Now, in order to look at them properly, you don't just lean over and peer through a drizzle-speckled window. No, you get out of the van for a proper, unobscured view. If it's going to be a proper look, that's what you do. So that's what I did.

For some reason I scanned them in the opposite direction to what my instincts usually dictate, so I didn't spot the interesting one until I'd almost done the lot. Being well to my left, it wasn't properly side-on, plus it was preening hard, its head buried somewhere in its scaps. But a brief view of that head prior to burial had stopped me in my tracks and made me wait patiently for its reappearance. Why? If you've ever read any of my Caspy witterings before, you will know why. Because that head looked gleamingly white.

Mind you, at this stage, with all the upperpart feathers waving around at odd angles, I couldn't even be sure of the tone of its back. It might yet turn out to be a first-winter Great Black-backed Gull, though I didn't really think it was quite big enough. Anyway, finally it came up for air and there it was: a white head and a grey mantle. I reached for the scope.

Within seconds the scope confirmed my suspicions. It was a first-winter Caspian Gull, my 12th on the Axe. Conscious that I have (amazingly) managed at least a record shot of every single Axe Casp that I've seen, I hurried to get my camera. Sure enough, the bird was still there, so I immediately put the camera to the eyepiece and took two quick shots. The settings were rubbish, so I fiddled around to adjust them, checked again for the bird and realised it was gone. Thankfully I got straight on it, heading away down the river, but it was clearly intent on the open sea rather than the tram sheds.

So there we have it. More Casp jam.

Excellent!

A surprising amount of feather detail in this photo. It looks to have replaced a couple of inner greater coverts and (I think) several inner median coverts too, which probably makes it the most advanced 1st-winter, moult-wise, that I've seen. The mantle and scaps are nice and pale, and very finely marked, and there is very little in the way of dark streaking on what you can see of the underparts. A nicely saggy 'full-nappy' look too!

Sorry, much less sharp, this photo, but it shows that Casp 'look' to the head very well. Very clean, very white, just a hint of its darkly-speckled 'shawl'. Note the obvious pale areas on the bill too. Nice.