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Winter on the Meres

George Christopher Davies
Stacks Image 959
Engraving from Mountain, Meadow and Mere.

Winter-time on the Meres

G. C. Davies
Extract from Mountain, Meadow and Mere, published in 1879.

The meres of Shropshire, so pleasant to the eye in the bright summer, are even more attractive, to my thinking, in the depth of winter. Black water beneath, grey sky above, bare trees, gaunt and grim, with equally grim shadows on the water; dull green of sodden grass, with brown stains of decayed vegetable matter soiling it here and there; over all a chill wind sweeping - such are the meres at a first glance in the winter.

Not by any means an attractive picture, one would think; but a little careful use of the eyes will make it most interesting. At such times the book of nature is freely opened to the observer. No longer hidden by the summer foliage, bird life especially is more distinctly revealed to us. Pushing along in a punt by the wooded margin, many a discovery of some rare bird is made; many an action of dumb life, that leaves us in some doubt as to whether instinct has not a wider meaning than we are generally disposed to give it, is observed; and many a lesson to oneself is learnt in a few short hours.

Still more beautiful are the meres when a keen, hard frost has been for days binding the land in its iron chains; when the upland and plain are hidden in a soft white carpet of snow; when the wildfowl nestle among the rotten reeds and long dead herbage by the side of the mere, and send forth their strange cries to the wondering air. Then numerous tracks in the snow tell of the passage of animals and birds, whose existence one scarce suspects in the summer. The holly bushes near the houses are crowded with blackbirds and thrushes, eager for the crimson berries. If the trees are leafless, yet they are not bare, for the snow hangs in fantastic shapes from every branch and twig, all its feathery crystals glittering in the sunlight. By the shallow and undisturbed part of the mere you can hear in the night the ice crystals tinkling like fairy bells in the starlight, as they shoot across and across, to and fro, in strange intermixture, along the surface of the water that by the morning will be black and hard. Hark!

'Then arose a joyous clamour from the wildfowl on the mere,
Beneath the stars, across the snow, like clear bells ringing.'

There is a beauty in the dead of the winter that is unlike everything else. Mornings dawn in a rose-red flush, with interspaces of pearly green, and myriads of gemlike sparkles flashing from the snowy waste between you and the east; long purple and violet shadows of delicate purity lie along and beautify the bright white snow between you and the west; on the moors the distant hills stand out strangely clear in the weather gleam, when from the brow of the upland you can see up glen after glen far away into the heart of the hills, between the marble peaks with tinted outline that shoot up so silently into the pale cold blue; and silence is over all. The evenings shine with an amber radiance; moonlit nights are wonderfully bright; on starlit nights, far overhead, you hear a clanging and calling of passing wildfowl, and see a star momentarily blotted out by the intervention of a dark body - wild geese, for a certainty. Verily there is beauty in the winter, and he who can enjoy it most is he who has an object in view which leads him with a purpose into the country. Be it fishing or shooting, some active pursuit is necessary to the perfect enjoyment of a winter scene.

When the frost has cut down the weeds, and the cold north-easter ‘hungers into madness every plunging pike’, make your way to the water’s side ready for the fray; for I can promise sport to anyone who can stand the inclement weather. That pest of the meres, the ‘breaking of the water’, has passed off, and the water is clear and fresh. If there is any sort of a breeze, a spoon is as killing as anything on these meres, and you escape the nuisance of baiting with fingers benumbed with cold.

Some years ago I had capital sport on Ellesmere, the day before Christmas day. It was bitterly cold, and the snow lay deep on the ground. It was in my early days, and an additional charm was lent to the adventure by the fact that I was playing truant. There was, as it happened, a wedding from the house; and, as I have a mortal hatred to any sort of fuss, I had arranged with a friend to drive to Ellesmere and escape it all. The dog-cart was ready waiting in a byway, with our rods deposited in it. As soon as the ceremony had been performed (and it was early) I made my escape, and off we drove exulting. We managed to secure some small roach for bait, and were soon at work. The rods were stuck out from either side of the stern, and one of us took charge of them while the other rowed. Of course little skill was required, but simply a knowledge of the localities, and some little care in shortening lines when the water shallowed. At the end nearest the workhouse we caught several magnificent perch, and when the shoal ceased biting we rowed up and down by the boathouses, where we succeeded in taking several small jack. When a sudden tug at the rod told of a run, its owner seized it, while his companion laid hold of the sculls and backed water. With clear water and no favour, it may be supposed that very few fish were lost.

That day we caught a ‘whopper’. On the Otely side of the mere my rod gave a heavy lunge that told of a big fish; and after a severe contest, during which it was a wonder the crazy old boat was not upset, we got him close alongside, and a frantic and lucky dip with the net secured him. I forget the exact weight of the fish, but it was so large that we could not get it into either of our creels, and we hit upon the happy expedient of dividing it in half. We cast lots for the portions, and the head and shoulders fell to my share.

Lately, on Whitemere, two of us made a large bag on just such another winter’s day, but by far the greater number were caught by my companion. The first run was at my rod; and, after I had played a large fish until it was close to the boat, my friend made an excited lunge at it with the landing net. The flight of hooks caught in the meshes, a savage shake of the pike’s head followed, and I lost my first fish - always an unlucky omen, and peculiarly so in this instance. My companion had nearly all the runs afterwards. Although we changed rods and places, and fished in exactly the same manner, and I was a constant fisherman while he was only an ‘outsider’, he had all the luck, and nearly all the fish.

I remember we had the best sport on the leeward side of the mere, where the waves were such as to toss our punt about in quite a lively manner, and make it difficult work to row. The fish would touch nothing but a large spoon, and they rushed at it frantically.

Large flocks of coots, and numbers of teal and widgeon, swam cautiously in the centre of the mere, at a very safe distance from the boat. A great crested grebe kept popping up in all sorts of unexpected places, and diving again immediately; vast clouds of starlings wheeled and manoeuvred in the air; and a heron or couple of wild ducks would rise from the sedges as we approached. I confess I allowed my attention to be distracted by these and kindred sights, for I am not unselfish enough to take a keen interest in a companion’s sport if I have none myself.

The meres in the winter are full of interest to the naturalist as well as to the sportsman: a better hunting ground for specimens of all kinds could not be desired. I write from Norfolk, and it will be a long time before I again wet a line in sight of the Wrekin; but of all the places I have seen for pleasant memories and never-failing gladness, give me, in summer or winter, the seven meres of Salop.

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