A La Carp Diary

We arrived at à la Carp at 10.30 a.m. after a smooth, comfortable, overnight crossing – but rough breakfast cuisine (why is it always?) – aboard a P & O ferry, to be greeted on the patio of his house, overlooking the lake, by Martin Chard, owner of the fishery and immediate supplier of a welcome cup of tea. I had no idea where I was, geographically, until informed by Steve (Wadey) Brown, who had driven us for miles across French countryside, that this was deepest Brittany and that the nearest big town was Vitre.

Gorgeous, isn't it?

None the wiser, and while the boys unloaded the trailer and Martin prepared a huge, full English breakfast for us, I sat on the terrace and took stock of my surroundings. First impressions were of flowers and warmth, not only due to the 90° heat, but to genuine hospitality.

Adjacent to the house there is a huge oak, sporting squillions of acorns, and a hazel tree laden with nuts – a state not entirely dissimilar to the minibus that brought us here, really. Bright red gladioli, busy Lizzies in pots, blooming shrubs, and undulating lawns that swept down to the lakeside completed the picture. Don’t worry, I’ll get to the fish, just let me set the scene, O.K.?

There is a Sky-connected TV in the house, for those who are that way inclined, large squishy sofas to curl up on, the absolute luxury of a bath, showers and beds available if sleeping in a bivvy is not your thing. All this, of course, is from a female point of view – there is no way the boys were going to succumb to temptation and leave their rods for a second more than necessary – but à la Carp has a reputation for ‘family fishing holidays’ and you need to know that this is no idle boast.

Maggie Sigward sat peeling spuds on the patio, in bright sunshine, a job usually close to my own heart – no, really! – I enjoy sitting in the open air and am happiest when doing something useful at the same time to assuage any guilt that I might feel for lounging about. Maggie was due to return to England that day, having spent a fortnight at à la Carp. I hoped that I might be allowed to peel potatoes in her absence.

After setting up and getting ourselves generally organised, we took a walk around the perimeter of the lake. Carp were topping, throwing themselves out of the water in displays of ‘come on then, if you think you’re hard enough.’ Things looked promising and, a couple of hours later, promises were fulfilled by Chris ‘Starman’ Hull’s capture of a fine 35lb mirror. We gathered, admired the fish, we said disparaging things to Starman about him having golden b…boilies, and we drifted back to our swims to carry on carping.

We were served dinner at 7.00 p.m. Two massive shepherd’s pies with an assortment of vegetables. Being waited on is an unusual experience for me and I had to consciously prevent myself from helping to clear up. That was the whole point of me being there, I was told. A new angle on the fishing holiday. This week I was to be completely idle and waited upon. I lasted until Tuesday, by the way, until the compulsion to wash up just would not be denied.

We sat on the terrace for an hour after dinner, drinking wine while talking about fishing and strategies to be employed over the coming week. My bedchair collapsed three times during the night. I was nocturnally laughed at, then fixed with a brace of bungees. It’s my version of equality and it works for me.

Hubble bubble....

During Sunday, Terry caught a bonsai pike and Rick’s patience was rewarded by an equally small, but perfectly formed, tench that I thought was quite attractive, despite Rick’s disinterest. Sunday roast for dinner that evening – turkey with four veg., apple pie and cream.

We sat up late into the night listening to the frog chorus, hedgehogs rootling, coypu scuttling – how frogs so small can overwhelm birdsong and a wedding party in the local village hall is one of the mysteries of nature; no wonder Paul McCartney was inspired to choralise them. I looked forward, every night, to their orchestral manoeuvres in the dark. It was like being sung to sleep. Not that I ever have been, you understand.

Monday was Starman’s birthday. Curry night followed by birthday cake and bottle of wine. I slept all night. Clearly this combination of food and drink is the answer to my ongoing ‘get up at 3.00 a.m. for a wee’ problem.

Tuesday morning dawned hot and bright, with a yell from the other side of the lake. Colin ‘Gaylord’ Nash had struck into a big fish. Everyone, except me, rushed to his swim offering support and probably unnecessary advice – Colin is a top angler but they’d be telling him what to do, anyway – you know how it is. I was not allowed to go and join in – someone had to stay and keep an eye on the rods – but I knew that I’d have a full action replay at breakfast and there’d be photos. I missed, they told me afterwards, Colin with his kit off, gently replacing Grey Lady into the water. Just as well, really. Colin is pretty damn irresistible at the best of times, and the sight of him in wet boxers…be still my beating heart!

Gaylord with his 'unlucky' 49-pounder

Colin’s throwaway remark on catching this fish of a lifetime (for some) sounded ungrateful, until we realised when he said, “I never was lucky,” that he really meant he was just a little disappointed that he had not caught one of the 50s in the lake – just another 10oz would have clinched it.

I must tell you about the swims at à la Carp. They are expertly pebbled, with grass on both sides of the business area, should you prefer a more earthly base for your bivvy. All swims are supplied with Euro-sized unhooking mats and carp sacks, and a set of Reuben Heaton scales – mounted on a tripod – is ready and waiting. If you are fortunate enoug
h to be located in the Director’s Swim, where I was, you also get Martin trotting down from the house in the mornings with a mug of tea. Bless! That was fantastic. It’s quite a few years since I had a man, who wasn’t a hospital orderly, bring me tea in bed.

Colin’s Homer Simpson underwear was a tad the worse for wear after his encounter with a Grey Lady, so, as I’d already asked Martin if I could use the house washing machine to rinse out a few things of my own, I offered to tackle Colin’s lake-soiled undergarments. Spotting an easily-exploited bandwagon, several of the party jumped on it and I found all sorts of grubby items being thrust in my direction – me being a girly and therefore disposed towards domestic appliances. This is their version of equality, which obviously works for them.

I asked why everyone kept directing remarks about ‘head and shoulders’ and ‘in your breams’ towards Colin. They told me that he had recently hooked into a fish back home at Horton Church Lake, thought it was another 2.00 a.m. bream, hauled it in to cheerfully unhook it without sliming up his landing net – and discovered that the fish wasn’t so much a bream, but more of a famous 40lb carp called Shoulders. Now, I’m no expert, but even I’d know that a landing net is fairly handy around 40lb carp. Colin didn’t have his handy, and he didn’t have Shoulders either, which spat the hook in disgust at being considered a bream, and gave Gaylord…er… the cold shoulder.

On the Tuesday, in searing heat, Martin took Julie (girlfriend of one of the sub-30 youngsters in the party) and I to a supermarket, where we bought the usual staples, items such as wine, chocolate, bread, cheese – not that Martin didn’t give us enough to eat already, but males get peckish about 3.00 p.m.!

On the way back, our host took us to a bar “to see a bit of the local colour.” We had a couple of beers, then he ordered BMWs which, I found out afterwards, was one shot of Baileys, one of Malibu, and two – count ’em – two of whiskey.

Now, I’m not a drinker. I’ll have a couple of glasses of wine but that’s about my limit, mainly because I hate not being in control of my brain. By the time we arrived back, giggling, at the lake, the alcohol had kicked in, and I proceeded to demolish a fishing chair, fell over in the shower, broke a coathanger while trying to disentangle a dress for dinner, spilt Diet Coke down the front of it once I’d finally worked out the combination to get it over my head and, several hours later, threw up. I put it down to the weather.

By the time I had transformed from being drunk and disorderly into attempting to be sober and responsible for my actions, Terry had managed to haul in a 30-odd-pounder. It was pink with golden highlights and shimmering silver and light-brown bits. Absolutely gorgeous.

Terry’s 30lb , caught whilst I was falling about in the shower.

Wednesday morning it was the turn of one of the youngsters. Giles Harris connected with what was obviously a substantial carp and, watching from the opposite side of the lake, I noticed that the scene was almost choreographed. As Giles and carp moved along the water’s edge, so Terry followed with the landing net, peripheral players moving out of the way and regathering as the play progressed. Someone could write a modern ballet from a carp capture performance.

After a good 20 minutes, a 26lb 8oz was in the net and a celebratory breakfast saw a full verbal replay of the event. Now there was just Steve Burgess, Giles’ friend, to break his carp duck and all efforts were set towards his prospective deflowering. Julie celebrated her boyfriend’s carp by clearing out their bivvy with a dustpan and brush. Don’t mock, she’s just normal.

Me and my Yorkshire fan club!

That afternoon, we had visitors. Some Yorkshire lads, fishing at a nearby venue, had come over to à la Carp to have a look round. I was recognised from the photo heading this column, which I took to be a great compliment since it was taken, through gauze, about five years ago. They stayed for a chat and a beer (my resolution never to drink again didn’t last 24 hours, incidentally) and a coffee demonstration form Terry, who is inordinately – and some say unnaturally – fond of his portable espresso coffee maker. My fan, Stuart Holliday, seemed impressed, although he mentioned that he usually has his coffee from a catheter (we think he meant cafetiere), so it’s questionable whether his reaction should be given too much credence.

After a huge meal of chicken and chips, followed by fruit salad and ice-cream, we had an early night. Weather was far too hot to talk, although the frogs didn’t think so.

Giles and his prize for persevering.

The following morning, at 6.20, we were awakened by jubilant shouts from Julie. Boyfriend, Giles, had caught “a massive fish!”

I remained on sentry duty but reports from the front assured me that a 46lb 11oz mirror had been caught on Carp Company Icelandic Reds, which I imagine are boilies rather than thermally-challenged communists.

Poor Steve Burgess, I felt really sorry for him. Everyone had caught a few, Colin had bagged another 40, and it was now Thursday, two days before we had to pack up and return to the real world.

Over breakfast – our sixth full English in a row (I noticed that Martin either doesn’t own bathroom scales or had strategically hidden them until we’d gone) – discussion of Giles’ carp took precedence, but Martin revealed that the lake’s sole resident leather carp only allows itself to be caught on Thursday. The boy Burgess was in with a chance, at least.

At 11.00 a.m. a yell from the carp virgin had me on the scene – first this time. Armed with a borrowed came
ra, I was grateful to put the photography to one side and net the fish. Photography is not one of my few talents and, I’ve been told, unlikely ever to be, since I “just do not have the eye.” I thankfully delegated the photo-taking to Rick and ran back to the other side of the lake so that Terry (left in charge of rods) could also feast his eyes on the monstrous leather, now being cuddled by a non-virginal Steve.

Steve Burgess had to borrow a weigh sling.

“I’ve never caught one as big as this,” he confided in a lovely Gloucestershire accent. “Never thought I would. My PB is only 17lb so I never bothered to get a bigger sling.”

He is so sweeeet!

The leather weighed in at 41lb 6oz and Steve was still smiling three hours later.

Rick clung manfully to his ‘queen of the pasties’ status by landing a 20 at 1.00 p.m., while the youngsters went with Martin to visit a local tackle shop. They didn’t quite make it, having been sidetracked by several bars en route – young Burgess had to celebrate his carp, they said. He subsequently provided entertainment for several hours with spectacular examples of projectile vomitry, and complete lack of control of his limbs, that reminded me of why I don’t drink much. Eventually, Steve imploded in a heap beneath a shady tree, finally re-applying for membership of the human race at 10.00 p.m. He then slept all night, his rods safely propped against his bivvy, and his brain still mostly propped on a bar stool in the village. Bless.

Seafood combo

Thursday, Martin told us, is usually barbecue night but, because we had a couple of seafood fanatics among us, he decided to treat us to the most amazing display of marine fare I have ever seen in my life. An oval dish, a metre long, contained a cooling nest of crushed ice, into which rested a magnificent array of crustacea. I live by the coast and regularly eat various kinds of fish, but this cast-of-thousands gathering of shellfish was truly outstanding. Langoustines, tiger prawns, whelks, mussels, oysters, crab, brown shrimp – you name it and we probably ate it with crusty bread, spuds, salad and both meanings of relish. Such indulgence!

The weather looked as if it was about to change. Storms had been forecast and the daytime temperatures had certainly been hot enough to warrant at least a small tempest. Dark clouds gradually spread across a twilight sky and I was convinced there would be rain enough to suppress the aqua-batics of the carp and turn their thoughts to food. Wrong again, Rosie!

We sat chatting until after midnight, waiting for rain, watching the water, counting the species of wildlife we’d seen over the week, anticipating a sleepless night during which carp would be queuing up to be unhooked and lovingly replaced into a heaving habitat.

So, a dry Friday morning dawned, hot as ever. Rick caught a small carp (as ever) and the lake remained enigmatic. I took the opportunity to have a chat with Julie – turned out that her middle name and surname are the same as mine (pre-Barham), which was a tad spooky. She told me that she had been with Giles for four years and that he had always fished. She loved the idea of meeting new people at different venues, sitting by the water and generally helping out by being around.

One of Rick's pasties

“I don’t fish myself yet,” Julie said, “but maybe I will one day.”

Friday night we had the last supper, several bottles of wine, and Martin wound up the jukebox. I have to say that the young ’uns thought his taste in CDs left a considerable amount to be desired, but Gaylord danced on his own – to anything Martin produced, regardless of rhythm, or his total lack of any – so we watched him, laughed, took the p and loved every minute.

At 3.40 a.m. Terry lost a huge carp in the margins. He was gutted, hoping for a last minute victory. Sadly, this wasn’t to be, but he was comforted in his loss by wonderful memories of à la Carp, the highlights of which include Rick’s terror of everything that flies, squeaks, or makes deadly rustling sounds behind his bivvy, the frequent flashbacks of Colin attending dinner wearing nothing but a T-shirt and damp Homer Simpson pants, Steve’s chuck-up circus, Starman’s perfectly cultured “Barrows are for lager, mate” approach to transporting carp gear, and the splendid hospitality of Martin, our landlord for an all-too-short week of paradise.

Saturday morning, we had our last full English breakfast in France, packed, stowed everything onto the trailer, and left to return to the rat race. Except for Rick, because he’s scared of rats. I, for one, did not want to come back. Martin presented me with an à la Carp fleece, which I shall wear to shreds once the weather turns cool enough, and it’ll remind me of my French home from home.

As you have probably guessed by now, I was totally impressed by à la Carp and I would recommend it to anyone wanting a luxury break, with a real chance of catching some impressively massive fish; you’ll have a seriously good holiday, I guarantee! Most impressive of all was the willingness of venue owner, Martin, who was always available to help with every aspect of the holiday, whether it be angling advice, bait supply, taking the girls shopping, or offering the lads a break from fishing with a visit to a local tackle shop and several bars on the way back. Oh yes, and I must mention the expert assistance of Steve (Wadey) Brown, à la Carp bailiff, who drove us there and back and kept us entertained with tales of his holiday in Thailand. Don’t ask. And definitely don’t ask to see the pictures on his phone!

If you want more information on à la
Carp, phone 01903 892735.

Ronnie, Reggie & me


It was this big!