An Upper Bure Investigation

J

John Bailey

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In 1981, I rented a three mile stretch of the upper Bure around the village of Saxthorpe in North Norfolk. The rent was £60 and I held onto the water for a few years, keeping quite an accurate record of my time there in a very rudimentary type of diary. It so happens, I am spending four days there this coming week, forty-odd hours walking, watching, perhaps fishing a little, but above all considering the changes there might have been in exactly forty years. I’ll be thinking about the insects, the weed growth, bird life, fish stocks, and even how Saxthorpe has changed as a community. I might also talk to the farmer for whose family I worked on the land back in Uni holidays. I have no particular points to prove, and I’m going with no preconceived ideas or hidden agendas. This will be a completely candid look at how a river I have loved has weathered since I last knew it intimately. At the same time, I might learn something about how I have changed for better or for worse in equal measure.

Most of you will not know the upper Bure, and might have visions of the same river down in Broadland, perhaps around Wroxham, where it is wide, deep, tidal, and often pretty dirty and unappealing to a fly fisher. Travel North West, however, and the Bure is one of those little known Norfolk chalk streams that exists largely under the radar, completely overshadowed by the famous streams of Wessex. But it does have history. Downriver from my beat runs the modestly famous Blickling water where a club has fished for a very long time indeed. Celebrated Norfolk author Major Anthony Buxton wrote about the stretch in his book Fisherman Naturalist, published way back in 1946. He tells of losing his fly in a trout there at midday, but catching the same trout and retrieving his lost fly at 5.00pm. (My memory tells me the fly was a Red Quill, but I have lost my copy to check!)

Beneath the Blickling beat, you come to the Abbots Hall stretch, where the river is becoming noticeably wider and deeper. Trout fishing was advanced here in the Eighties, largely under the auspices of that great Norfolk angler Michael Robbins, and it was under his benevolent dictatorship that Sunday morning working parties did some fine work. (I didn’t dare go AWOL, but I claim little credit for the hard work that was done.)

Back upriver to “my” little length now, and I fished it lightly to be honest: when you own a water, the fish become pets more than targets, but when I was tempted out I used a 7 foot greenheart rod that I had been given as a child around 1963. Stupidly, I never thought to take any notice of its maker, and I guess from the set in the top joint it wasn’t exactly new when it came into my possession. Anyway, we have long been separated, and I will pack a rod for my trip, probably a Hardy I still have left over from the days I worked for them. I don’t expect to fish much if at all, but you never know when trouty temptation might come my way.

I’ll go and pack now, along with camera, polaroids, binoculars and notepad. And of course, put a hefty dollop of hope in my heart.

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Andrew B

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I find this kind of thing interesting as I have a pretty good memory for how things were on my local river as a kid.
 

Andrew B

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Completely agree with that!
It’s not all rose tinted spectacles though as I remember as a kid, long before I was into fishing, there being two separate massive fish kills on my local beck. We could not believe how big some of the trout were, eels, lampreys, bullheads and stone loach I don’t think anything survived those awful pollution incidents from a place called something anodising, whatever anodising is, it must involve some horrible chemicals?

So in that respect I think my local beck is actually healthier now and never did I think Grayling and a few salmon would ever use those fish passes from the Ribble Trust.
I do believe some rivers seem to have natural cycles where stocks of fish, be it brown trout or migratory fish, fluctuate anyway?
 

Occasional salmon fisher

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Although fish kills are horrible, they do open your eyes to what fish are in a stretch of water. I remember a silage effluent leak on the beck where I grew up. The number of dead trout (and salmon and seatrout parr) was incredible and a few bigger fish than you would have expected.

Although the same becks don't look polluted now, they don't seem to hold the same number of fish - perhaps invisible chemical pollution ?
 

Jockiescott

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Reading old newspaper articles from decades ago about my own river. It appeared to be pollution incident after pollution incident.

Flax production for linen making was massive here in the early part of the 20th century. It appeared that if anyone had a bit of land at all, they produced flax. The number of bleaching Mills along the river in the old maps also suggests that this was big business back in the day.

Part of the process of producing linen involved soaking the cut flax. This was done in "Lint dams" which usually involved blocking a burn and soaking the flax for a period of time. The flax was then removed from the dam and laid out to dry on fields that became known as bleach greens. The flax was guarded day and night, such was its value at the time.

The dams were then emptied into the river before being dammed again for the next batch.

Anglers writing to the local papers were furious at the release of dam water as it turned the water milky and was bad for fishing. This, combined with sand washing, the anglers were more than annoyed.

Given the other industries along the river at the time, all waste went into the river and the river could be any colour of the rainbow depending what was dumped at the time. This was the same for all the rivers in Northern Ireland at the time.

My own river at that time was still regarded as the finest sea trout river in Ireland. The Foyle itself had more salmon entering it than anywhere else in Europe.

Pollution incidents are far fewer and further between than those in the past but our rivers are a shadow of their former selves.

The problems now are far different to those in the past. Where as before it was industrial run off, now its water adstraction and drainage. Low flows and nitrate content of run off are combining to fuel algal blooms that probably didn't exist in the last century. Modern intensive farming practices are having effects on the whole countryside around them, including our burns, streams and rivers.

The water itself has probably never been cleaner. However, there just isn't as much of it nor is there the same habitats there were 60 or 70 years ago.

The countryside has changed but not really to the benefit of our rivers.
 
J

John Bailey

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Upper Bure Investigation: Monday

Monday, my first day back on the three mile beat of upper Bure that I rented forty years ago. It is a dull, close day and I decide to park at the bottom of the stretch and fish up it, walking back the more direct road route when I have finished… making it a four or five mile stroll in all. I guess the first thing to do is to fish, as I really want to know how stocks have fared. A quick whip through like this is hardly conclusive, but an impression might be gained, I’m thinking. So I set off with an old Hardy Lightweight combination of rod and reel, and a box of nymphs. Chesties are on as wading has always been an important way into this tight little stream.

So, overall, by 3pm, when I haul myself out of the final bend, what’s the story? I have found the river much more neglected than I left it, and there are no signs of it having been fished for many years. It is smaller than I remember it, though I agree memories play tricks. It is definitely shallower, and bends I could not get near wading back then are knee-height now. The width has shrunk for sure, though in many cases this is down to thick reed encroachment, and it would seem the flow is not as sprightly as it once was… though there has not been serious rain for a while. The silt is thicker for sure, and I don’t like the way the weed growth is coated rusty brown. Hmm… that needs checking out.



I’m mostly in the water, wading upstream as carefully and quietly as I can make it. There are many occasions I have to get out to avoid fallen trees and areas choked with reed, but I guess two of the three miles is roughly fishable – in a rough way. I am aware I am not a pretty sight. It’s mostly roll casting in a rusty fashion, as there are few occasions there is not some obstruction overhead. So overgrown is the river now that I am restricted to fishing the tightest little runs and holes, often felt, not yards away from me. For that reason, I’m using weighted nymphs of one sort or another to give me a bit of casting weight and to get down fast in a short space. The water is not as clear as I have been expecting, and I see absolutely no fish moving subsurface and there isn’t a single rise all day long.


One of The Famous Five trout

Which of course, brings me back to the stocks and what I caught, the kernel of everything. Of dace and roach, which used to be a pleasing nuisance in 1981, there was not a whiff. During my six hours, I landed five very wild browns between four and perhaps seven ounces. (I only photographed one to avoid their stress and mine!) I also missed two pulls and, overall, I was relieved to catch anything. However, my diary tells me I did exactly the same exploratory journey in 1981, early June, shortly after I had paid over my sixty quid. I probably fished harder then and at that age, was fitter, faster and stronger. I also was out ’till 5pm, so I put in a couple more hours. Yet, then, the results were rather different. I landed sixty three trout, five over a pound with a monster of 1.06. There were thirty(ish) dace in my bag to 12 ounces and sixteen roach to around 1.08, though neither of these fish were properly weighed.

In a nutshell, that’s it for my first day. Disappointing, but not quite disastrous. There is however much room for thought. I’ve admitted I might not be quite the angler I was but, in all modesty, I don’t think I have declined as far and fast as the river. There’s food for thought here, and my next days will be spent looking for clues. I’m not a scientist for sure, but I am a countryman through and through, and it might be I come up with some words of use…




Views of “my” river











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John Bailey

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Plenty of woody debris and a buffer zone of immense thickness

Upper Bure Investigation: Tuesday

So, Monday, I caught trout, but a fraction of the basket I would have expected back in 1981 when I hired this beat of the upper Bure. I decided today that I would walk most of its three miles or so, and much of the surrounding area, to look for obvious reasons for this decline. Perhaps I’d stumble across a simple answer staring me in the face.

What I realise is that I have not come near to describing the beauty of the valley, which was a true North Norfolk paradise. Despite the gloom of the weather today, it remains so to the casual eye in 2021. In case you don’t know the area, and many do not, it is reminiscent of the most secretive valleys in what some call Wessex. I’m not sure about that term, and I don’t like superficial comparisons: the upper Bure catchment I used to think beyond compare, and as I walk today, I can see why. Part of my feelings are attributable to nostalgia. My uni holidays were spent hereabouts, on the estate around, working on the land but generally manning the potato harvesting machine particularly. It was gruelling working, bagging fifty or more tons of them between 7am and sometimes 9pm as the light faded. but I was as fit as a brownie and oftentimes there were odd half hours when I could slip down the river for a cast or two. I can remember the excitement of those stolen minutes, my pell-mell dash through the woods, past the keeper’s cottage, to the bridge in the sleepy village of Itteringham, where for a period in my life I was even Parish Clerk.





It’s in Itteringham that I set out today on my trek upriver to Saxthorpe, another village I have known well. Nothing much has changed at all as I walk. There has been little building, certainly nothing obvious along the course of the river. All I see are fields and the same ancient, extensive woodlands. Indeed, if I draw an imaginary line North to the sea and followed it to Sheringham, there would be ten miles or so of the same rural wilderness. Half a mile into my journey, I hear, but do not see, a troop of wild peacocks. That amazes me. I lived in a farmhouse in these woods through my thirties, and the peacocks were alive then. I guess these are not the same birds, but the fact their line still exists surely suggests permanency, a land frozen in time?

For a long while I drink in the same peace I knew in 1981 and ten years before that as a farm hand. There is little road noise and of course, in the summer of 2021, still few jets overhead. It’s like I have this enchanted world to myself, and I wander like some latter-day Laurie Lee up the river’s course. But, little by little, I do sense changes in the woodland air. I have not seen a single sign of the water voles that used to accompany my days here. The stream is uncannily devoid of water fowl and I come across not a single heron, and I traverse a field where I once counted fifteen hunting for grubs. One kingfisher darts past me during my six hour pilgrimage, and I remember halcyon squadrons of the the birds. But of course, I have not left the Itteringham cottages far behind before I begin to see the tracks and spraints of Mr Otter pretty much everywhere. Unlike many fishers, I’m not overly fussed by otters, but you can have too much of a good thing.


One of the frog free ponds!

I arrive at a couple of ponds the size of sitting rooms on my path North West, and sit for a while watching for the frogs that used to mass here through the summer. Not a croak. The otter? Mink? Or something more sinister, I wonder? I decide to stick more closely to the river itself. What is for sure is that there is no scarcity of woody debris, so beloved by fishery scientists today. There is more wood than water, if you ask me. If trout cannot find sanctuary in the River Bure of 2021, then they won’t be able to anywhere.

And, just as impressive, pretty much everywhere along the river’s course, there is a splendiferous buffer zone, exactly as it should be according to all the river management handbooks. This has become a multi-dimensional corridor between the two villages formed by twenty yards or more of thick scrub along both banks. In places it is all but impenetrable, and the river just a ribbon twinkling through the undergrowth.

So, where does this leave me, I ponder, as I pull into Saxthorpe and rest on the village green? I’ve been receiving mixed messages all the way and to add to my unease, I realise my aged Nikon has finally given up the ghost. Tomorrow I realise, I’ll need to get into the river physically and poke around and see what lies beneath…




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John Bailey

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A culled Bure crayfish
Upper Bure Investigation: Wednesday



Weed looking drab and lifeless

It’s a cold, dank day, with a vicious Northerly wind blowing down the valley. Hardly what I’d expect for the last day of June. I’m on the Bure by 9am, and I’m struck yet again by how murky the water has become, something I noticed these last ten years at the least. This is NOT scientific. My notes from the last century suggest the upper Bure then was as clear as the Test, a river I was fishing a lot at that time. That is certainly not the case now, even though there has been very little rain these last days or weeks.


My Bible

I’m feeling rather down. Perhaps it is the weather, perhaps the fact that my camera of decades has finally collapsed on me, and I’m having to use my iPad to record events. Nor have I really got the kit I need, my own fault of course. I had meant to pack a net and trays for sampling, but goodness knows why they were forgotten. I’ll do my best.

I notice, once again, that all the weed types are coated in a rusty brown film. I get in the water and find I can slide off material that feels like fine soil… perhaps it is. The overall impression is of vague ill health, but again I’m aware I’m hardly being objective.

What I do find is a super-abundance of signal crayfish, and not a sign of a white clawed. Nothing new or unexpected there, and most Norfolk upper rivers hold them. Here I guess their only predator is the otter (and I do find endless bits of crayfish discarded by the animals). At least lower down the Bure there are plentiful chub and pike that make inroads into the population. Of course, there are dark suspicions about the “crayfish effect”. Do they eat trout eggs dramatically? Do they destroy invertebrates? Do they destabilise weed growth, like they do the river banks?

Of course, fly life is one of the big questions. My handbook back in ‘81 was An Angler’s Entomology by J.R.Harris in the Collins New Naturalist Series, and I still have a copy today. Then, inspired by Clarke and Goddard, I was totally immersed in the subject… before I met Stuart Crofts who made me realise what an amateur I truly was. I do remember Tim Gaunt-Baker, that Norfolk fly Titan, conducting a kick sample investigation about twenty years ago, and turning out a plethora of goodies… caddis, olives, shrimps, snails, nymphs of all sorts… until his tray was a seething brown ball.

Today, I am nowhere nearly as well equipped or professional. I grope around under stones and into woodpiles, and find bits and bobs… some shrimps, some snails, but not a lot. There are a good few emptied swan mussel shells, but I suspect that these have been brought from nearby lakes to be eaten in the privacy of the river?

By 2pm, wet through, I give up. You can lose heart on these river quests, and it’s good to leave before depression sets in and colours your judgement. Tomorrow is another day, my final one. I’ll try to make some sense of it then, at least to my own satisfaction.






One of the few sticks I unearth that harbours a caddis…

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John Bailey

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Last look at the river

Upper Bure Investigation: Thursday

Another bleak day in Norfolk, and hard to believe this is the start of July – though of old I know how desolate even the summer can become here when the wind comes in from the North, full of sea frets, drizzle, and tumbling temperatures. These are the worst of times, for sure, when it comes to a river exploration, but my last day is here and I need to form some sort of conclusion.

I have half accepted the river is not what it was when I leased it four decades ago. Possible reasons start, as ever, with agricultural pollution. We have grown used to the damnation of chemical cocktails off the land, and perhaps I need to look no further in my search. It’s fine to talk about buffer zones, but of course the river is fed here by springs that would gush out nasties into the river direct. We anglers have known all about this for years, so I’m saying nothing new I know. Therefore, we’ll move on.

Sewage overflows we hear every day cause pollutions. A farmer I trust implicitly told me about the damage caused by the sewage treatment plant at Corpusty. Releases after rain, he said to me, have caused havoc. Look at the complete absence of weed for half a mile downstream of it, he says to me. I motor up and look for the plant for a good while, and I’m ashamed to admit I could not even find it. Awful. But I’m in a slight race against time, and there is no one out anywhere in this weather to ask. What to do? Take the the word of my farmer friend is the best I can do.


Signals collected in an hour

Predation. My personal crusade. I’m relaxed about otters in general, after living with them for twenty-plus years. They can do damage to fish in certain circumstances, but surely not here? Given the miniature stream, the miniature fish, the jungle of woody debris… can we really think otters are the slayers of these wild browns? And much as I hate them with every fibre of my being, can cormorants be the culprits here? They might have devastated still waters all around this piece of paradise, but the Bure so close to its source has to be too shallow and too overhung to be an easy hunting ground.

It’s 4pm. The wind has not eased but guess what? The sky above the poplars is a playground of swifts, and as I stand on one of the Bure bridges I see rises up and down. I reach for my rod and in an hour take five fish and prick one of a pound at least. I have to leave, I want to hang on. I take with me a plethora of thoughts. There is life in the old lady yet. There has to be hope, there has to be some belief that the world here can be changed round. All most certainly is not lost. Perhaps this little river just needs serious, committed help and TLC. I think of Robbie all those those years ago down river at Abbots Hall, the efforts he drove us to perform, and the successes we achieved. How many similar streams around the UK are similarly ignored, waiting to be saved, wanting to fulfil their purpose?

I’m shut up now in my cottage. Probably I have had a gin too many, but my wits are with me. It might be that our trout streams have always needed tending, and that left to fend for themselves their downward spiral begins. Think of the Test. Imagine what it would be like if for the next forty years all the keepers left and the river saw not a soul. Would the paths be managed? Would the weed be cut and the cover be trimmed? Above all, would the fish flourish, or would numbers dwindle eventually down to nothing? In my view, tired as I am, thank God for bodies like the Wild Trout Trust. How we need that energy, that inspiration, and that vision if we are to save the lesser streams like my upper Bure well into the future.



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