Not long after the war, when food rationing was still in place, one of my occasional (some may say many!) transgressions took place. I was about 10 years old and my pal Milf and I spent many a happy hour on and around the River Avon at Ringwood in Hampshire.
At this time my Grandfather was the publican at the White Hart and my Father worked for The Ringwood Electric Company. My Father’s job meant that I had easy access to the river around the hydro-electric station which is sadly no longer there.
In order to help the salmon navigate around the sluices and turbines of the power station, the company had installed a ‘salmon ladder’. This was made up by a series of small locks (think miniature canal boat) that at certain times, by judicious use of sluice gates, could be turned into a water-filled stairway up which the migrating salmon could jump. A similar ladder can be found at Pitlochry in Perthshire.
This was such an interesting part of the river that it was always worth a visit and at times salmon could be seen running through like hurdling horses as they raced to spawn in the streams of the New Forest and Wiltshire. On arriving on one occasion we were disappointed to find a lack of water in the mill stream due to the recent dry weather and because of this the salmon ladder had been shut off and weed was beginning to build up in the small locks. As young boys tend to do, we started poking and prodding the weed with sticks until we noticed the unmistakable tail of a large salmon that must have jumped the first part of the ladder only to get stuck further up.
We quickly worked out an ingenious plan and making sure that neither my father, Bunny (his workmate), or Mr Garwood (the managing director) were about, we went into action! I acquired the sluice padlock keys from the office and released the bottom sluice, letting out as much water as possible, whilst Milf found a broken grappel used for cleaning weed from the power station grids. Armed with the grappel and a hessian sack we were ready to do battle!
We removed our shoes and socks and jumped into the water at the bottom of the ladder, expecting to find it only knee-deep but it came up to my chest and was very cold. The act of despatching the salmon and getting it into the sack is probably best not written about – suffice it to say that some considerable time later, totally exhausted and soaking wet, we had our quarry. Panic began to set in when we realised just what we had done! Should Mr Garwood (the Gough Thomas of Shooting Times fame) catch us, what would the penalty be – prison? Milf said he had even read somewhere that poachers were transported to Australia!
We were struggling home with our prize when suddenly the game was up as Jim, an old regular of grandfather, approached us and asked what was in the sack. “Eels!” we replied. “You’ve done well” he said, opening the sack and peering in at the 20lb fresh salmon that was lying in the bottom of the sack, glistening like a bar of silver. I stood shame-faced whilst Milf bolted – no doubt driven by the thought of transportation. “You’re in trouble boy” says Jim, “we best go and see your grandad”.
Crestfallen I stood in front of my grandfather who, as a retired gamekeeper, obviously had strong views on salmon poaching and poachers. After a suitable admonishment I was told not to breathe a word of what we had done to anyone, including my father who could lose his job if this dastardly deed was discovered. The evidence would have to be disposed of and grandad assured me that he would see to it. I was sent to my room wondering whether my fate would be borstal, the remand home or even Australia!
The following day was a Sunday. After their lunchtime drinking session, Jim and a few of the pub regulars departed with mysterious paper packages, smiling faces, and a kind word for me. Relief was short-lived as Sergeant “P” arrived at the pub and asked to see me. I was marched into the parlour where he told me that there had been some poaching on the river and asked if I had seen anything as I had been spotted there. He put me in absolute dread of what would happen to the miscreants should they be caught and I vowed to myself that, should I get away with my crime, I would never do such a thing again.
I was relieved to be sent to clean the dog kennels whilst grandad sat having a pint of beer with the policeman. A little while later I saw Sergeant “P” leaving on his bicycle clutching a similar paper parcel to the others, albeit slightly larger! That Sunday evening, tea at the White Hart was a fish salad and I was far too scared to ask what type of fish we were enjoying. Thank goodness Dad was working and Mum seemed only concerned about the high quality of our meal.
This episode and the way it was handled by friends, family and police alike was so firmly imprinted in my psyche that it placed me firmly on the path of good behaviour (for a little while at least!). How fortunate that I had a community around me that cared, and a policeman who was not totally shackled by the rules. The War was fresh in everyone’s minds and people had more time for young and old alike, and perhaps more common sense.
Grandpa’s next blog sees him with rattlesnakes in Texas………………….