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Opportunity Taken
By Keith Hilton

It was the 15th of June 1999; the weather was calm, sunny and very hot. This day found my good friend Mike Mintram and I set up in our respective swims on the banks of the Red Spinners famous old carp water, Cheshunt Reservoir.

Cheshunt South Reservoir was excavated in 1836 to form part of the New River System, which was constructed to carry a new water supply in to the city of London to help cope with the ever-increasing population of this rapidly expanding city. By the time my dad and I fished here, the lake was completely surrounded by seventy-foot high trees that covered a bank, which lead up all of the way around the pool from the waters edge. This supported many different species of wildlife, and made one feel most privileged to share their habitat and be able to observe their activities while fishing at this water. When you looked down the surrounding banks through the trees it was as if you were peering deep into another world far away where time had stood perfectly still since this worlds beginning. It made you feel that the place was almost prehistoric and that you were the first person to ever discover it, l remember that feeling of wanting to keep my discovery to myself and tell no one else ever. I think that l was about four or five years old when these thoughts first entered my head having been fishing and spending many a happy hour at the place with my late father Jack Hilton along with Roger Smith and their friends since before l could even walk. But you know, the same thoughts and strong feelings have come back over me upon every visit that l have ever made to the place. On walking down the long flight of steps that lead to the waters edge my dad and l always said, “it was like entering another world” you could smell the jet black soft mud around the margins along with the fragrances of the many different plants and trees, there was an air of calm and peacefulness about the whole lake. My dad summed up these thoughts on Cheshunt years later in his book Quest for Carp when he wrote “once one had walked down the long flight of steps under the archway of trees, into the hollow marked by the pool, it was like entering another world where only the leap of a big carp could disturb one’s tranquil thoughts”

Big carp, you must be thinking how big? Well back in the early part of the last century Cheshunt had attracted a lot of attention from within the British carp scene with many double figure captures of carp from the water being reported. Then on 6th September 1916 John Andrews cast out a potato to put the final jewel in the crown with the capture of his beautiful common carp weighing 20lb 3oz, which at the time was acclaimed as a British record. This water had a seriously good pedigree for carp fishing.

Both Mike and l were so excited and eagerly awaiting the stroke of midnight like two kids waiting for Christmas, for many generations of real carp anglers both past and some still present have graced these very banks with their presence. With the atmosphere of the place so strong, it made you feel that some of these past anglers were still sitting in their old swims with their rods at the ready. That evening in the distance l could have sworn that at times l could hear their voices, Hugh Sherringham discussing his ground baiting techniques and how he would present his bait on the triangle-hooks with his close angling companion whom he referred to as the ‘master’ William Senior whose nom de plume was ‘Red Spinner’
Then there was the nice polite elderly gentleman who had fished here regularly for many years but during the 1960s while in his twilight years he was accompanied by his nurse. When l was a young lad both mine and dad’s path often crossed his while fishing here. This gentleman’s name was Dr Norman Benjafield, he was known as ‘The Doc’ and as with the others l could almost hear his voice faintly and picture him in front of his hut just as he used to be, quietly calling his dog Rufus whilst chatting with Sam the bailiff, Sam having brought fresh milk, newspaper and other supplies down to him at the waters edge as he had done on so many occasions all those years ago. Throughout his life Dr Benjafield had achieved some very interesting things from being an eminent gynaecologist while at the same time entering the fast lane of racing Bentley’s part time at Brooklands with his brother. Normans brother Dudley was known affectionately as ‘Benjy’ and was the second of the famous Bentley Boys racing for Walter Owen Bentley during the roaring 1920s and 30s. All of this mixed at the time with the quieter and more tranquil lane of fishing at Cheshunt with the likes of John Andrews and J.C.S Mummery who was responsible for a great many captures of double figure carp during this period.
I then looked further along the far bank and as in my younger days l could faintly see and hear Bill Keal and Alec Lewis sitting in the porch of Bills hut planning the night ahead over a few good drinks along with their supper. Bill still being in a bit of a daze as to how they had reached the lake in such record-breaking time, in Alec’s highly tuned E-Type Jaguar.
Then I am sure l caught a glimpse of my dad, rushing along the bank in pure excitement, to show “The Doc” a carp that he had just caught, not long after his arrival there one evening. “The Doc” having sat there for many hours during that day without even a single bite. On turning my head and so as not to be out done, Mike was in deep conversation with Hugh Sherringham, l will have to stop giving him all that red wine, but it does help us both!

This was our first of a four-night visit to this beautiful old carp water, and l never wanted it to end. We cast out at midnight with even more excitement. Little did we know what laid ahead of us on that beautifully calm and warm summer’s night? By morning, l had landed seven 16lb carp. Two of which weighed 16lb-10oz, all were mirrors and all of them had the classic large tails that the Cheshunt carp are well known for. Mike was just as surprised for he had landed a 21lb-12oz along with a 21lb-6oz both mirrors followed by an immaculate common of 17lb-3oz. Needless to say, that by this stage all of our close season preparations were now classified information! For this was real carp fishing just as we had done with our late fathers Jack and Tom all those years ago, but with the results that they could only have dreamed about back then, until that is a certain young master Rod Hutchinson came along! During the next couple of days we both caught a few lower double figure carp, and were enjoying every minute.

Our good friends Roger Smith and Kerry Barringer paid us a visit just in the nick of time as l was about to move swims so they kindly gave me a hand to move all my gear along and set up in the “The Docs” swim. I rewarded their hard labours with a well-earned brew. A little later we walked around the lake chatting while spotting the carp in their old haunts. This was like old times for me, nosing around a lake with Roger. Having been carted around the English countryside as a young lad, by Roger and my dad looking at different waters, being hauled up and down large trees, then across miles of fields with some funny looking cows in them wearing the usual brass ring through their nose, as funny cows do! Then while making our swift escape, with me being launched over some pretty high fences. Lucky though because l think that if the late Bill Quinlan and Roger had got their way, they would have used me to plummet the depths of some of the deeper lakes that they came across!

After Roger and Kerry had left, Mike and l found ourselves just taking the place in and absorbing the atmosphere. At the end of that hot afternoon we were talking carp while preparing our evening meal and both agreed that we could not get a much better start to our season than with the Cheshunt carp along with the brilliant weather and with only the two of us on the lake; equally good company of course!
Suddenly l was surprised to see my wife making her way around the lake at great speed. My immediate thought was that work was calling. As she explained that her appearance was due to good news, my heart stopped pounding. The news was that both Mike and myself had been granted places in the Ashlea pool syndicate with immediate effect, what great news and what a great wife!

All of that groveling and ear ache that l gave poor old Dave Gawthorn for two places in his Ashlea syndicate had paid off and he is now St Dave Gawthorn to Mike and l!
No sooner than my wife had finished speaking Mike had uncorked another bottle of fine red wine. We celebrated late into the night with a few more bottles; l think at some stage Hugh Sherringham and a few of the others may have had a glass or two with us! The next day we started making some outline plans for what was to be our first trip back to Ashlea pool in many years. Throughout the day our plans intensified with us both discussing in great detail, the characteristics and many difficulties that the pool had presented to my dad, Roger, the late Bill Quinlan and indeed Mike himself, along with Mike’s late father Tom Mintram who controlled the fishing at Ashlea from the mid 1960s.

These events were followed that night by a screaming run and my landing of a very clean 20lb-8oz mirror, and later a 13lb-8oz common which put up real battle, after managing to reach some dense weed. Mike also came up trumps with yet another twenty, a cracking
22lb-13oz mirror. What a pleasant ending to a somewhat strange but most enjoyable trip.

Sadly little did we know that this was to be one of our last trips to this most beautiful and historic old water. However we did return on the very last day of December 1999, we arrived early and had the place to our selves for the day. We fished late in to the night just to make sure that Mike and l were the last two anglers to ever fish at Cheshunt in the twentieth century. After almost one hundred years the Red Spinners were to lose the fishing rights as Thames Water the owners of Cheshunt Reservoir sold the land and it has since been bulldozed and completely wiped off the face of the earth in preparation for building approximately one hundred dwellings on the site. A very sad end for such beautiful and famous old carp water along with all of its wildlife and inhabitants, of which many perished so l have been told.
Who says that money doesn’t talk?

The big question now, was when would we get to Ashlea? We both had heavy work commitments, so l thought that if our trips to the pool were to be limited then September might be our best chance. Remembering back to what my dad had said to me about the heavy weed along with the lilies and underwater cabbage. I started thinking back to 1967 and with Roger and Bill left hard at work on one of dad’s many landscaping jobs. I was sitting in the passenger seat speeding through the English countryside with my dad at the wheel of his Ford Thames 15cwt van on one of our numerous journeys to Ashlea pool. My dad was a fast driver in these days so around trip of two hundred odd miles didn’t take us long at all; dad and l seemed to live in this van during this period of my life! These trips like so many others to numerous different waters were for swim building, baiting up along with the many many hours that we spent at the pool together just climbing trees, creeping around the place very quietly while patiently observing the fish from different vantage points along the banks. We watched these fish intensely while trying to figure out their feeding patterns and general behavior to our baits at all different hours of the day, and sometimes too, even well beyond dusk just listening for any fish activity in the dark silence. This was pretty serious stuff for me being a young lad, but my dad noticed so much that was going on both in and around the pool, that he just kept me totally hooked with all of his observations explained with such enthusiasm and fine detail of which l never tired of, as this was yet another of our many adventures together. Our favorite fish was a mirror that dad estimated weighed around the thirty-five pound mark it looked absolutely huge. We often used to see this mirror as we noticed that it had a little white spot on his right shoulder thus we named him “White spot”. We would use our new friend “White spot” as a guide as to estimate the size and weight of the other fish that we observed, some of which appeared to look noticeably bigger. Baits at this time were potatoes par- boiled, balanced crust, meat paste on the hook or floating crust and at Ashlea most of the bait presentation was only possible through precut holes in the weed. My dad had also showed me this weed dying off in the latter part of the summer, thus presenting a better opportunity for Mike and myself l thought?

I then plagued Roger for any useful tips that he might share with me, bearing in mind that he never really liked Ashlea, as he prefers larger waters. The best tip among many he said was “If you catch one carp you had best go to the local pub and drink as many pints as you can plus two! You wouldn’t be missing out on anything having probably spooked the rest of the carp being such a small water” Funny l thought, he does the same at Savay!

Our first opportunity taken was in early September; this found Mike and myself on the long journey with my little Ford van bursting at the seams with the enormous amount of tackle that we all seem to need nowadays, for only a one-night stay. On our arrival at the village, which is in almost casting distance from the pool we stopped an enjoyed a pint in the local pub that Tom, Mike and the others used to frequent. On leaving the pub Mike noticed that the old fish and chip shop was still there. He recalled that there used to be a young lady who lived there whom he really fancied, I said, “Come on lets pay her a visit” Mike replied, “What do you want to see her for?” I paused for a moment then said “I m not interested in her, she’s probably some right old boiler by now as that was nearly forty years ago, But she may have had some nice looking daughters!” This seriously rubbed salt in Mike’s wounds for his sad reply, somewhat crest fallen was “Christ was it that long ago?” He then snarled beneath his breath bitterly “My how the time has flown!”
On that note we decided to leave the village and traveled the short distance to the pool arriving during the late afternoon, the skies were clear and the sun still beating down on us.

Our first impression was how the surrounding trees and undergrowth had matured so much. This made the pool look a lot smaller than we remembered it and different in many ways. While making our way around the pool coming across some of the old swims along with my dad’s hide, the memories flowed back to me as a young lad, sleeping and fishing in this swim with my dad. Back then l shared all of dad’s rods and tackle, as he seemed to have enough! Mike and l were full of nostalgic banter, which was soon to fade as we found ourselves admiring some of the fine residents of Ashlea pool. The carp looked radiant as they were gliding through the water above dense bright green sunlit underwater cabbage, just as they had done all those years ago. Our conversation took on a new dimension “look at these fish here Keith” “What do you think this one weighs Mike” and so it went on. There was an extremely powerful feeling for both of us, being back here after such along time.

The fish all looked immaculate, and they were real reason why we were back here.
We chose our swims and set up for the night. Mike at the end of the deep bay behind the island. I chose the same swim that Tom Mintram had fished by the Ash tree on his first ever visit to the pool back in 1965. This was not only because Tom had caught an 18lb-4oz mirror on that first night, but the swim also had a good vantage point. I was able to cast too many different areas of the pool and at this time of the year with the weed dying off is a great advantage.

It was around 8.30pm that Mike noticed a fish bubbling just a few feet from the bank to the left of my swim. Without further prompting my bait was placed on to the scene, Mike was of the opinion that the fish may well have been either concussed from my lead or spooked “it’ll be back” l replied a bit tongue in cheek as l lightly baited the area then immediately cast my other rod out into the middle of the pool to a small clearing amongst the underwater cabbage, l baited more or less a line across the pool hoping to attract cruising fish in to my hook bait. All went eerily quiet so after a while l made my way the few yards through the undergrowth towards Mikes swim. As l approached, Mike was hunched over his rod watching a serious amount of bubbling right over his bait. I knelt down beside him slowly gathering his landing net in readiness to pounce on what was surely to be our first capture from Ashlea Pool. The atmosphere was electric while the fish cunningly held us both there for what seemed an eternity. Then without even a tremble on the line the bubbling ceased.

I started to think back to the days of my dad and his friends remembering the characters complete with their wicked sense of humor’s and what their typical conversation may
have been after such an event. I could hear their familiar tones as l had done so all those years ago with my dad saying, “What’s happened here smudger?” Roger replying “dunno master lets put a large lead weight on Bills foot and send that small eyed common Irish labourer down to find out master!” To which Bill Quinlan would have probably snarled “err you bloody crawler smudger getting up the masters wind pipe again and move over l wanna sit near him!”
Where as Tom Mintram would have probably burst into a chorus of some pretty choice rhymes with language that could not possibly be included within this piece!
Bill would have probably muttered the words under his breath “you plonka you missed it Hilti!” whilst scraping off the bright green fur coat that donned his pork pie! In readiness for his evening meal along with an out of date tin of cold peas as he so often did. None of us ever realized just what punishment the human body could really take until Bill came along! The words “Its life Jim but not as we know it” come to mind!
We on the other hand although both have a sense of humor felt mentally exhausted, so we had a brew and sat there for a while just taking the place in and what had just happened thinking of some of the previous keen and well proven anglers that this had happened to in the past. We later prepared our evening meal and drank some red wine to celebrate our return here.

On looking up l noticed an object moving amongst the stars above the clear night sky. I mentioned to Mike “See that moving light among the stars? That’s the Russian Mir space station” Mike looked then turned a whiter shade of pale and shrieked “Thirty odd years ago your dad stood over on the opposite bank on top of his hide swim and said” “Mike that moving star up there is a Russian Soyuz space ship” Mike explained that my dad went on to catch his 28lb 12oz mirror shortly after that, possibly, even the following day. I said nothing but made a point of looking at my watch, it was just before midnight, that’s handy l thought!
After a few more glasses of wine and a good laugh we then turned in for the night both feeling that it was good to be back here.

4am and l was awoken with a couple of bleeps from my left hand buzzer, then off it went from a slow take quickly gathering pace to a screaming run. Within a split second l was on it and struck hard, everything went solid and being that the bait was only a few feet out from the bank to start with the fish hadn’t managed to take a lot of line. I felt the fish start to lunge towards the weed, l managed to turn it away with Mike already standing beside me with my landing net at the ready anxiously whispering odd instructions like “don’t let it get over here there’s snags” for we both wanted this fish so much. I played it around to the front of us first giving it some line and then gently started a steady pumping action with the rod coaxing the fish in towards us. After playing it for a while the fish began to tire and calmed down enough for Mike to slide my net out and safely secure it “cor it’s a twenty” Mike said as he peered down in to the net then as he tried to lift the net he had to lower it back down to get a firmer hold saying “Bloody hell l think it’s a thirty” l nearly dropped the rod with excitement! As Mike turned and faced me with the net he was beaming. At this point l knew things were very good! We lowered the net onto the mat and immediately recognized this fish as the ‘Redmire common’, a gift from the Redmire syndicate during the latter part of the 1970s while under Tom’s reign- and what gift this turned out to be for us on this early September morning. We could hardly believe our eyes this beautiful two-tone common carp looked as though it had never been caught before as all 29lb of it looked so immaculate.

We photographed the fish and returned it straight away. It was then that Mike reminded me about the space ship and my dad’s fish. I said, “come with me” we walked a few yards along the bank to opposite my dad’s old hide. Looking across the water in the poor light l said in a low voice “Hard luck dad, I’ve beat you by quarter of a pound!” You know l could almost hear his excited and happy reply “That’s my boy”

We didn’t get much sleep for the rest of the night although no further bites were had. In the morning we cooked up a hearty breakfast putting Bills diet firmly out of our minds while we ate it!

Tom always used to call the pool Cerney but agreed to my dad renaming the pool Ashlea so that he could write of his experiences there without giving any indication as to its whereabouts. Dad came about the name because of all the ash trees around the pool and thought of the Ash before the Lea thus Ashlea came to be.
John Carver had said to me prior to our visit “It’ll do you good Hilti to catch that ‘Redmire common’ as your dad had also caught this same fish while it was still in Redmire Pool in the early 1970s” Today at 29lb l think that this may be the largest common that has ever been caught from Ashlea Pool at the time of writing.

Later we had a stalk around the pool; just as used to happen here in years gone by, all of the fish had disappeared without a trace. This reminding us that Ashlea is still not an easy water and indeed has demoralized and shattered many a good anglers dreams over the years.

It seems funny that just as my dads quest to catch good quality large carp had lead him to fish this little pool with Tom Mintram all those years ago, that my own quest had lead me all the way back here again today to fish the pool with Tom’s son Mike.

Later that day just before leaving our eyes were drawn back across the pool. I was thinking that just as with my dad that thirty pound carp had eluded me but standing there in complete silence l was captivated by the strong and almost magical powers that Ashlea Pool still seems to possess, which keeps drawing you back time after time. In my mind, detailed plans were already forming for my next visit- my dad used to say that “carp fishing is like that, once you start, you never want to stop” And d`you know, I’m sure I like it that way too!

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