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'Spenners Tale' or 'Two Men in a Boat'

Spenner's Tale


Two men in a boat

By Greg Strelley

The day dawned bright and clear, and as Len Spencer closed the back door to the house and ambled up the garden path, he risked a glance skywards into the clearing gloom and felt the biting cold steal a tear from his eye. He closed the back gate, strolled across the quiet lane, and through the open barn doors. His wife Connie's collection of stray cats, of which there were many, ran across to him to fuss and be fussed. Len loved the cats; they kept the field mice from eating his keep-nets, and from damaging the leather seats in his old Humber, his pride and joy. He picked up his split-cane rod from where it stood in a corner of the ancient barn, and put it on the back seat of the old car, along with his old gas-mask bag which contained his thermos and the rest of the day's supplies.

Ten minutes later he arrived at Martham staithe and parked the car, quickly decanting the contents into the waiting boat. In the dyke alongside the boat was a three-foot keep-net containing about twenty small roach, which Len put into a bait kettle full of river water. He started the engine, cast off fore and aft, and backed the old girl out into the river, turning right in the direction of Potter Heigham.

Spenner motored through the gap left by the open swing bridge and downstream along the River Thurne, taking care not to foul the boat's propeller on the swing-bridge's chain hanging under the water's surface. A continuous row of wooden holiday chalets moved backward past him off the port side like a row of marching soldiers, until he turned to starboard and entered Candle Dyke. After passing the eel traps and the trapper's wooden shack, he no doubt chanced a glance through the entrance to the broad they would fish later today, wondering about the prospects of a pike or two. He ploughed onward through Heigham Sounds and into Deep-go Dyke, where it empties into the Sounds after draining Horsey Mere. He nosed the boat into the reeds next to the only bit of firm bank for half a mile in either direction. As the boat slowed to a halt, Len produced two items from his duffel-coat pocket, a shrill whistle and a duck-call, which he referred to as his "whistle and fart", and blew on them both, one after another. A figure appeared from it's hiding-place in the reeds and hopped into the boat, depositing a few bits of fishing tackle onto the seat.

Edwin Vincent was the son of Jim Vincent, the originator of the famous big spoons, and fishing for pike was in his blood. He worked at a blackberry farm in Martham, and today he was supposed to be at work, but it wasn't a busy time of year at the farm, and anyway, the salt was up the river and the pike would feed, so he'd arranged to go fishing with Len. Three days earlier, he and Len had been out piking on Horsey Mere and had witnessed the capture of Peter Hancock's 40 pound record fish. Len was a photographer by profession and fortunately had his cameras with him on that fateful day, and the results are without question some of the greatest angling shots of all time. With that memory still fresh in both men's minds, neither could have forecast what fate had in store for them.

Edwin knew the marshes like no-one else; his dad had worked there for years as a gamekeeper and had taught Edwin all of the marsh paths, but it had still taken him half an hour or so of hard walking to reach the rendezvous, breathing hard and sweating. The two men had done this before of course, so the quiet departure was well rehearsed. Voices can carry a long way in the quiet morning air and capture would mean instant dismissal from a good job, and good jobs were rare in Norfolk. Edwin Vincent spoke quickly to Len Spencer in a quiet voice and a quick decision was made as to a last minute change of venue; there were people out on Horsey today and they would be spotted by people who may talk, so when the boat backed out of the reeds it turned back the way it had come from. When a safe distance had been covered the two pals laughed and joked their way back down-river, until Len cocked the boat to port and killed the engine, the boat's keel skimming over the shallow entrance to the broad, in between the wooden stakes of some long-lost fence.

Poling the boat across the broad in the direction of the farm on the far side, they dropped the mud-weights fore and aft when they reached the centre, and tackled-up their cane rods and centre-pin reels. Len liked to use a simple live-bait set-up, with a small cork bung or a wine bottle cork and a single treble hook, and work the reed beds using the action of the wind with a greased line. Edwin on the other hand, preferred just a snap-tackle with sometimes a lead shot pinched on it, and liked to repeatedly cast out a live fish and work it back to the boat at varying rates. When the fish was dead, he would continue to use it but move the bait along near to the bottom with little jags on his rod tip. The term "deadbait-spinning" had not been invented yet, but was quite a common practice in Norfolk at the time and was referred to by most as "wobbling". Edwin liked to do it with a live fish, as you could keep the bait in the water longer and achieve more attraction than with a dead one. You could also let the bait swim right in among the reed-stems without tangling up, and the big pike sometimes lay in those stems in a few inches of water. Both men baited their tackles and made their casts, and started to fish in earnest on this historic day.

2. News of the World

If my life depended on the answer, I would say it was late July, possibly early August in 1975, as it was blazing hot on the Norfolk Broads. At no other time of the year could one envisage the East Anglian weather being so perfect for a family holiday. I use the term "family holiday" rather loosely, as in our family that meant another Sid and Greg fishing trip somewhere, usually the Broads or the Fens or Lincolnshire drains. This time saw us camping out with Mick Beech, my brother-in-law, and Graham Gibson, our mutual fishing friend, down at Martham ponds where my Uncle Len controlled the fishing.

To me at the time, it was heaven on earth. At the back of the ponds ran the river Thurne, and I could walk it's banks at will with my spinning rod, marvelling at the crystal clear water that turned a strange shade of brown not a quarter of a mile downstream. Many years later, that short stretch of river was to produce not one, but two record pike for Neville Fickling and Derrick Amies, just as my uncle Len had predicted. It is here, next to Martham Ferry, that the entire eco-system of the river changes, as the water upstream of the rickety old metal floating pontoon bridge normally remains crystal clear throughout the year, apart from an occasional algal summer bloom of deep green. Excepting one or two quiet backwaters on Heigham Sounds, northwards in the direction of Hickling Broad, the upper Thurne offers an environment like nowhere else in Britain; an entirely natural Norfolk wetland/river/marsh habitat. All of the massive pike taken from this river have been spawned here in these upper reaches , where I believe the pike have a truly ancient, pre-historic ancestry.

As long as this habitat continues to exist unchallenged and protected by man, and barring natural disasters occurring, I can foresee that the Upper Thurne area will continue to produce huge pike for generations to come. The genes of the pike that live here have remained unchanged for millennia, and the river has always produced big pike. In 1975 though, the heyday of the fishing was long gone according to local opinion, as back in Victorian times right up to the forties saw huge hauls of big pike killed by gamekeepers out to protect their flocks of ducklings. Monied "sportsmen", the majority of them from the big cities, were keen to adorn their walls with "Billingsgate" shots of massive hauls of big pike. Most of the area during these times was used extensively as hunting grounds for rich people from other parts, especially "White Slea" at Hickling, which had shooting parties most weekends during the Twenties and Thirties. Prior to the disastrous prymnesium outbreaks of the sixties and seventies, Hickling Broad was considered to be the best of the bunch both in numbers and average size of pike caught, yet these days the broad seems to be devoid of pike in any numbers. It is my opinion that this is because the original primeval stock was completely wiped out by successive outbreaks of this deadly malade. I think the pike that now populate this area of water are genetically different to those that existed before, as they have evolved and adapted in order to survive in the eco-system that now exists on the broad. I also think that any pike from the Somerton end of the Thurne entering Hickling would not survive, due to the changed conditions, thereby preventing the re-population of potentially big pike on this once fantastic broad. Maybe in future years, with man's intervention, the conditions on this huge expanse of water can be returned to what they once were, allowing Upper Thurne pike to re-inhabit Hickling again.

So the pike were culled unmercifully for generations, yet still the Upper Thurne continued to throw up giant pike. Odd big fish survived the onslaught, and after the Second World War when the hunting parties largely ended, they flourished on the rich feeding in the clear waters, and thrived on the neglect of long-dead gamekeepers, lost in foreign fields.

It was one of these pike that I grew up wanting to catch. My Uncle Len had done it a few years previously, and he'd taken the pictures of the record fish as well, so I knew that they at least existed, albeit in much-reduced numbers, and were indeed possible to catch. I also knew how to catch them, as every word that Uncle Len uttered was duly logged for future reference as it was spoken. He was my hero, because he lived and breathed fishing, and he was such a lovely man. I knew all about how he and his mate Edwin fished, and how all the other pikers fished too. Jim had liked his big spoons, but didn't fish much anymore, Dennis liked his dumb-bells and livebaits, and Edwin liked to wobble a roach, alive or dead. Ken liked his seabaits, as did the young Dave, but Spenner used a wine bottle cork and some grease on his line, because it was how he learned to catch pike on the canal when he was a young lad.

Uncle Len was always full of tales about fishing, and could hold you spellbound for hours, end less jokes and toilet-humour spilling forth punctuated by constant wheezy laughs, whistles, farts, raspberries, and swearing with a profanity matched by no-one I've since met. He was a photographer by trade, attending the swankiest weddings and engagements in the area, and was renowned far and wide for pulling no punches as far as his language was concerned. In fact his reputation as an excellent photographer was simply imbued with a certain "je ne sais quoi" by it, and his business flourished. He was a massive character locally, and most holiday-makers who visited the area on a regular basis either knew him or knew of him. He was adored by everyone. He was my uncle, and that made me proud.

"Where can we go fishing tomorrow Uncle Len?" I asked of him one fine evening in 1977.

"What do you want to catch?" was the reply. "Just a nice day's fishing on the float with plenty of bites of course! And it'd help if there were no boats!" The boat traffic on the main rivers of the Norfolk Broads during the seventies had reached epidemic proportions, making fishing difficult if not impossible on most stretches except at unsociable times. He described a place for us to go in great detail, and assured us of a good day's sport. He was very particular about the exact location of this spot, and made sure that I and my mate Graham understood perfectly how to get there and what to do when we got our boat into position.

We had a wonderful day, Graham and I, and caught lots of fish. They were mostly small roach and silver bream, with a few skimmers and pretty rudd thrown in for good measure. Nothing earth-shattering but exactly what was asked for, and what was promised. We sat there all day with our feet dangling over the side of the boat, cooling off in the green water. We had a real good chance to soak up the atmosphere and the view in the peace and quiet, out in the centre of the Broad, well away from any boat traffic churning up the river. The wind that day was quartering from the north-west, and with our backs to the breeze we fished all day with the features Len had described sitting in the background behind the tips of our wagglers.

I even had a few casts with a pike rod, after killing a roach and hooking it on a large treble hook, but on casting out towards the reedline, it soon became apparent that the spot that the boat was moored in was indeed the only spot that was weed free on the whole of the Broad.

My second cast was aimed in the direction of the old duck-hide that Len had been at such great pains to emphasize, and I quickly got stuck on some unseen immovable underwater obstacle. Graham manouvered the boat over so I could free it, and as I reached down I realised the thing it was caught on was old rotted cotton keep-netting stretched over the wooden frame of the duck-hide.The relevance of this went over my head at the time and I thought no more of it.

That evening, we all met up in one of the local pubs, the King's Arms, in Martham village. The conversation inevitably turned to fishing at some point, and what was said will stay fresh in my mind till the day I die. Present at this meeting were the four of us, namely me, my father, my brother-in-law and my best friend. On the opposite side of the table sat Connie, my aunt, my uncle Len, their son-in-law Maurice Williams, and my cousin Valerie, Maurice's wife. Len was seated in front of the fireplace, and on the wall directly behind him was a huge framed black and white photograph of Len holding his big pike. It was the only photograph that I've ever seen where the entire background of the shot was visible, and as I stared at it a strange recognition of the features began to dawn in my mind. Something wasn't quite right here, and as the conversation continued among the others, my imagination went into overdrive. Things suddenly clicked, and I nudged Graham's arm with my elbow. "Graham, that picture, look at the background, do you recognise it?" I enquired. "Yes, it looks like.................it's................. bloody hell!" Len had by now become aware that we were both staring over his shoulder, and he half turned to look toward the object of our collective gaze, then turned back and caught my eye. He always wore an old pair of half-moon spectacles, and now he was peering at us both over the top of them. "Did you have a good day today?" he enquired. "Yes uncle Len, we had a lovely day".

"Did you go where I told you?"

"Oh yes, exactly where you told us, and we caught lots of fish. We sat there all day, and the roach kept going off the feed just like you said they would. We tried for a pike but we didn't catch one."

"Too much food for them this time of year, winter's best on there."

"Uncle Len, you know how you told us to head across the broad towards the farm on the far side, and keep going until Martham church is in line with the old duck-hide in the reeds?"


"Well we sat there all day with the wind behind us and we could see the church and the duck-hide and everything else you described as we fished."

The expression on his face changed to an open-mouthed stare, and his eyes narrowed as he peered over his spectacles. "That photograph of you with that massive pike has a background exactly the same as where you told us to go, and I think you caught that fish on Duck broad, not on Horsey Mere." There was a pregnant silence, and he continued to stare at me for a second or two. A wheezy guffaw broke the spell, and he appeared to relax as a wide grin covered his face.

"Bugger me, no-one has ever noticed that before, and that picture's been hanging in here for years! You clever little bastard!" Never one to mince his words, he continued; "And I'll tell you sommat else, I didn't catch it, Edwin did". This time, it was me who wore the open-mouthed stare.


World Record Pike

He went on to explain the full story. Edwin caught the fish on a wobbled roach on Duck broad, and wanted to return the fish alive without a photograph, but Len would hear none of it. He realised the importance of the capture and wanted to record it for posterity, so Edwin agreed to have one photo of him with it, provided that it was never seen by anyone else, and then convinced Len that he should have some pictures with it to send to the angling press. Caught so soon after Hancock's record, it would have been tragic for the fish not to be recognised for what it was, the second huge pike in less than a week from the Thurne system. Neither man had any thoughts of reward or gain from the capture, but subsequently the fish attracted so much attention from the press that it won fish of the month from both the Angling Times and the News of the World, and the notoriety of the Thurne system as the best big pike venue in the country was sealed.

Edwin took several pictures of Len with the fish, and there were one or two taken of the pike on the bows of the boat. The day after the capture, Len developed the negatives in the darkroom at his photographic studio, and that evening summoned Edwin for a private viewing of the results. Edwin made Len burn the pictures of him holding the fish, and the two men agreed to crop the remaining pictures for publication, so no-one could find out where the fish was actually caught, in an effort to protect their own fishing. There were a number of notable anglers fishing for the pike of the Thurne in those days, Ken Latham, Dennis Pye, and the young Dave Plummer and Derrick Amies to name just a few, and Horsey mere was starting to get flogged to death, especially at the weekends. Hopeful pikers from all over the country were starting to turn up in droves on the Thurne system, and the local boys were starting to learn that keeping their catches quiet was the best way of preserving their own sport.

It's sad to say it, but Edwin/Len's pike was killed as the hooks were way down it's throat and unhooking methods in those days were basic , to say the least. It was taken back to Len's house on Martham green, where my cousin Maurice attended the autopsy. He remembers; "We measured it at 48 inches long, the same as Hancock's fish, and when it's stomach was opened it contained several fish including a four-pound bream! It weighed thirty four and a half pounds on Len's spring balance, the same scales that weighed the record. On subsequently checking the scales, they were found to be weighing a pound light. The body of the fish kept Connie's cats fed for weeks, and the head was cut off and mounted on a wooden plaque, and was displayed on the wall of the King's Arms along with the enlarged photograph (complete with background intact) for many years. It's a shame, but the pub was refurbished some years ago and I've no idea what happened to the photo or the head."

Edwin Vincent was the only son of Jim Vincent, and upon his death in the 1980's the Vincent family died out. He is buried in Martham churchyard.

Len Spencer died of a tumour of the brain on July 5th 1978. He is buried in Martham churchyard, and is still a local legend. In his will, he left two items for me; one is the rod he won from the News of the World, and the other is the Match Ariel reel he always used when float-fishing down at Martham staithe.

Maurice has kindly supplied me with some of Len's photo's, including some of Peter Hancock's record pike that have never been published before, and they are reproduced here. The two men kneeling next to the captor are Edwin Vincent and Cyril Burton, one of Len's old friends from his childhood in Derby, who happened to be out fishing with them that day.

I have yet to catch a pike as big as Len Spencer did, but it still remains as the main target of my angling career. And when I do, if I do, I hope that it will be on a fly rod and a fly that I have tied myself.

Miss you, Len.

Greg Strelley December 2009.

Author: Greg STRELLEY
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