Al Fresco Dangling & The Bulgarian Fish Racket

BY MANDY BALDWIN

There’s much written about the weirdness of the Celtic Fringe, but only rarely does anyone mention quite how gloriously bonkers we English can be, unleashed in the countryside where nobody can hear us scream.

As a regular camper, I’m used to a certain amount of oddity, but this last place has such a dreamlike quality, I’m glad my daughter was able to join me for a few days, or I’d think I’d imagined it all.

The weather was glorious.  Picture the scene: a gently-sloping meadow backed by delightful shady woodland, and beyond, private fishing lakes, where club-members peacefully camp on the banks, cool-boxes of beer to hand.

OK, it’s slightly creepy when the site is full of apparently empty caravans, then one finds they are actually occupied but the occupants never leave, only stare in solemn silence through the windows, but hey, whatever floats their boat. And it’s a little unnerving to discover that the site is owned and run by a family who look and sound like characters from ‘The Darling Buds Of May’ but whose glaring hatred of either sight or sound of the campers who keep them in pocket indicates they are the product of an unholy coupling between Ma Larkin and Hitler. But that’s OK, too – I’ve logged their details and I’ll put them in an upcoming book.

I had wondered about the angry voices I sometimes heard late at night from beyond the woods, but they seemed some way off. It’s even acceptable that, to get a phone signal, it was necessary to stand by a particular tree, facing north. But what makes this place unique is The Great Bulgarian Fish Racket.  And we would never have discovered it if not for The Woodland Flasher.

There is a path leading past our tent to the woodland, and for the first couple of days it was a delightful place to take Hemingway (my dog) for a walk. And it was while waiting for a planned phone-call there, standing behind the Magic Tree which enables EE, that the only caravan-dweller I’ve seen from below shoulder level joined me.

Boy, did I see him from below shoulder-level. No sooner had he arrived, than he unzipped his flies and – tackle out – wandered happily among the sun-dappled trees, apparently unaware that he was observed by a startled woman who was, on the one hand, dreading the ‘phone ringing in case it alerted him to my presence and he decided to cover his guilty secret by doing me in with a fallen tree branch and, on the other, wishing it would ring so that if the flasher did see me, there would be someone to report hearing a thud and a muffled scream.

This is a man who, I suspect, has built a life based on appearing ‘normal’ (picture John Major in jelly sandals) and, if addicted to ‘al fresco dangling’, might not want others to know it – least of all his wife, back at the caravan staring out hopelessly as if chained to a wall.

The upshot was that, in future, when my daughter and I walked Hemingway, and her mini-Dachshund, we took the other path, down near the lakes. And here it was that we met Gavin – name changed to protect his job – who was in charge of security at the fishing club.

My daughter is a dead-ringer for Holly Willoughby, so I am used to men walking into lamp-posts when she goes by, and Gavin was clearly smitten. Does anyone reading this remember the old St Trinian films, where the Spiv played by George Cole would appear at random out of a hedge? Well, that’s what Gavin did, every time we passed.

Gavin explained to us what the arguments were, which we heard at night – it was a dedicated couple of Bulgarians, who creep in at night, throw stones at anglers and steal the contents of their keep nets.  One of them claims to be an expert in local by-laws and, before stealing the fish, he threatens to report the anglers for fishing out of season.
Sometimes, Gavin said, they make off with two bin-liners full of fish.

What do they do with it? Who knows?  (I imagine them going back to some over-crowded house after a sleepless night of fish-rustling, emptying the bags onto the table as ten compatriots gather, cackling in triumph: “Ha ha ha, Stanislav! Again we will dine upon Tench!” But maybe that’s just me.)

Disgraceful as their theft is – and it is – you’ve got to hand it to them in terms of physical courage because Gavin is the Ramsay Bolton of the Fishing Club world. He never sleeps.  He does, however, grin incessantly – and carry a base-ball bat.  And he’s winning the war, because one fisherman told me there used to be another gang – Poles, they said – who stole ducks, but these felt the wrath of Gavin and decided to check out Sainsburys for their dinner, instead.

When Frau Larkin reminded me daily, resentfully, that we were on their grass – yes, that happens, with tents, and we’re paying you – and when the Woodland Flasher shuffled past us on his way to, ahem, air his grievances under the trees, there was something comforting in knowing that a scary man with a baseball bat and an eye for a pretty blonde stood ready to defend something as placid and English as the right to sit quietly in the sun drinking beer, catching fish and then letting them live to spawn another day.

I’m told that, next week, a large party of Wiccans will be coming here to celebrate the Summer Solstice.  I would usually think that sounded a lot of fun, if all the members of the Hitler-Larkin family hadn’t gathered to tell me this, as a warning to get myself gone before they arrive.

In any case, it’s time to leave. I’m naming no names –  mostly because one person’s ‘What The Hell?” is another person’s “Piece Of Heaven” – but also because there are dark forces at work here and I wouldn’t be surprised if a wicker man and some cavorting druids might enter the equation to deal with adverse comment.

I’m leaving on Sunday. Thankfully they don’t know where I live.

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