South Devon Eel's (Cream Teas & Monsters) - by David O'Sullivan
It is Saturday 13th December; I am six floors up in a swanky (?) hotel in Warwickshire. I am planning on gate crashing my wife’s Christmas Do and should be safe to make my grand entrance when the disco starts. Eight cans of Stella are staring at me as I wait like a lonely rock star, counting down to show time.
The Do will be mainly women and I will be treating the ladies to my Ted Baker suit, pink shirt, infamous pink shoes and socks and glitter- a lot of glitter (all over). The shirt always comes off; I hope my wife has prepared them for what lies ahead. I check myself in the mirror for the 32nd time and say, “Damn I look good!” but in reality I look like a right ponce. But when has that ever stopped me before?
Pretty in pink.......
With 2 hours and 8 cans to kill, my mind starts to wander and I am inspired to right yet another article, for I have secretly hidden my notebook and pen in the overnight bag. (I promised her there would be no more typing before Christmas)
So here goes….
I have been known to get on the great silver bird to sunnier climes, but every year I am still drawn to South Devon, after all this is where it all started.
I still pay homage to that overgrown, neglected lake where I caught a 4lb and then a 3lb eel a few years after that.
Later, my parents chose to holiday in a different location but we were still near a lake and I hoped there were eels there too. It’s funny but as a kid the summers seemed hot, sunny and endless, but now I can be sat on the beach on my summer holidays, in my shorts, in the howling wind and rain while every other sane person has long since pegged it indoors. However, I refuse to move because after all, I’m on holiday and it is AUGUST.
For the last two years I’ve gone back up the M5 after two weeks of indifferent weather only to find the second I pull off at junction 9 the sun bursts forth again.
It was shining on the way down too, until we reached Bristol, then the traffic and the rain clouds took over. I sat in the holiday cottage and cursed the weather on Teletext for the whole 2 weeks.
The summer of ‘97 was very different. The whole family had come down and we had taken over three holiday cottages in the village around the lake. On the first evening I went down to the little bridge with the sluice gate at one end of the lake, and looked across the rest of its 180 acres. The sluice was full and was clearly jammed up with debris further under the bridge and looked much deeper and more still than usual. I then saw a small eel basking in the late evening sun, on the surface.
The following evening I was back out there with a can of tuna. I dropped in small chunks, straight down near the crumbling brickwork of the bridge supports and I didn’t have to wait long before the eels came out to investigate. I stood there feeding them until it was too dark to see anymore. The next evening I put more tuna on the other side of the sluice, in a real shallow area on the other side of the reeds and again they came.
I climbed down to the waters edge - and this is the mind blowing bit - I was able to hand feed one of these eels. It actually took bits of tuna out of my hand. I even tried to grab another which looked about 2lb, but it was like trying to grab a bar of soap - it just shot off out of my hands. So it was on the beach by day and feeding eels by night because the lake is a nature reserve and can’t be fished from the bank sides.
One night my brother-in-law and his mate, Nick, (both obsessed carp anglers) came down armed with a head lamp, line, hook and lob worms. Down went the tuna and out came the eels.
Then it happened - the unbelievable.
Whilst a small bootlace eel was eating the tuna a massive eel came from nowhere, grabbed it and took it down a hole. We stood there absolutely stunned. It must have been at least 6lb and it had just taken the smaller eel right there in front of us.
Nick immediately put the line down with the worms on, into the dark and foreboding hole. Bang! It was on! After a few savage and violent pulls the hook came back with the worms stripped clean from it.
Twice more, the same thing happened…but no eel on the other end. We tried again the next night but this time there were no takers for the worms and the big eel just poked his head out of the hole, like a conger down on a wreck, arrogantly refusing to take the bait.
Towards the end of the holiday, I had a log moment (which sounds bad but it’s not what you think!) I was standing on the other side of the lake (which is now so overgrown you can’t get near the waters edge) where I threw some tuna out and then came back at dusk. There was nothing to see, other than a long log floating near the tuna….you’ve all heard something like this before…because after a moment or two I realised there hadn’t been any log there before.
Then it moved. It happened so quickly, yet seemed to be in slow motion; my hair stood on end as I watched it slowly leave the scene. The size - well I don’t know, but honestly it was massive and there’s more evidence to support this monster sighting. I have a book about the area, and I quote:
“There are also many eels lurking in the mud at the bottom where there is a fine food supply available to them. In the 1950’s there was a spate of stories about a monster eel that had been spotted on a number of occasions. It was believed to have been longer than the typical rowing boats used for fishing there.”
The last evening before we came home, I stood at another part of the lake where the tourists feed the ducks and swans. In the twilight I saw two small eels swimming around in the shallowest water feeding on the discarded pieces of bread left by the ducks.
A young couple stood behind me and mumbled something about eels. How dare they?! They were MY eels.
The following year and we were back again, same time same place and I was there ready with my tuna to feed the eels again. How gutted was I when halfway through the holiday the sluice was unblocked and the water began to flow free and fast again?
I felt like that couple from Tamworth on Bullseye who had just lost out on Bully‘s star prize (let’s have a look at what they could have won) a speedboat! But then again - what use is a speedboat in the Midlands? So in the immortal words of the great Jim Bowen- smashing, super, lovely!
And with that, here is my tribute to this special place in South Devon.
This scene is like a paint box, long since spilt.
The hills are like a colourful, patchwork quilt
Of brown, gold and green around the ley,
And the sky boasts orange, dark blue and grey.
She was once the rolling sea’s only daughter,
But now a beautiful haven of fresh water.
A priceless jewel in the West Country’s crown,
Where even the sun is reluctant to go down.
It’s spring, and otters, unnoticed by the world, play
In the reed fringed margins of the lower ley.
The mischievous water snake glides the water ways,
And the pike, by the reed beds, pretend to laze.
Whilst hidden migrant warblers sing their song,
Kingfishers flash past and then are gone.
Swans gracefully advance, ducks splash and seagulls scream
Into the bird watcher’s long sought dream
Your three thousand years, what are they to me?
When I give my short span and sight to thee.
Yet I will pause life’s fast playing tape
For you, my sanctuary, and you, my escape.