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Desmond Family Canoe Trail
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Urban pike fishing on the Grand Union Canal, by Luke Jennings
There's something about canal fishing which is quite unlike any other aspect of the sport. It's those hard edges, perhaps. Those incised, engineered boundaries between land and water. If the river represents nature and its timeless processes, the canal represents human intervention, ingenuity and entrepreneurial vision. Walking the towpath, you are constantly reminded by the presence of brick, stone piling and concrete that you are witnessing the waterway's second life. That this wind-ruffled waterway was once a vital artery of trade.
Angling, and particularly pike angling, is an act of the imagination. There's the visible landscape, from which we draw every conclusion that we can. That overhanging stand of trees. That bright-rimmed, eddying whirlpool, and that sullen, near-motionless slack. Concealed below these visible features is a complex architecture of weed and root and holt at whose contours, most of the time, we can only guess.
Pike: the most gothic of fish
Canal angling tests that act of the imagination to the limit. Canals were constructed to have uniform and unhurried flow. There is rarely much variety in depth or breadth. Their surfaces give nothing away. Over the years, most of my canal angling has been done on the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal. My favourite stretch is at Kensal Green. Above the towpath rises the skeletal ironwork of the old Kensington gasworks; opposite you is the Victorian cemetery of All Souls, where my ancestor, the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, is buried. GK Chesterton made optimistic reference to the cemetery in his poem The Rolling English Road:
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.
That final journey might have been spectacular indeed, had the plan gone ahead to add a landing stage at Kensal Green cemetery so that funeral processions might arrive by barge. But even though such Pharaonic scenes never took place, the place has a pleasingly gothic atmosphere, with its catafalques, sphinxes and esoteric deities.
And the pike, lean and grim, is the most gothic of fish. Catching them here is hard. There's disagreement about the ideal conditions for pike-fishing, but in my experience you want a sharp winter's morning, ideally following a night during which the temperature has dropped dramatically. A ghostly dawn vapour lifting from the water's surface always inspires confidence. A deadbait is the surest method for London pike, although you risk getting snagged, unless you're fishing well off the bottom. Who knows what ancient detritus – prams, shopping-trolleys – lines the canal floor? A small silvery lure flicked under the trees on the far bank very occasionally gets results. More often than not you will get a cautious follow and see the swirl as the pike turns away, suspicious, at the last moment. A catch is a real achievement, to be relived for months or years.
Monsters in inky shadows
Don't stay too long. The pike are either on the hunt, or they're not. Every angler knows the moment when the hard-edged clarity of morning fades into the flat dullness of the day. Time to acknowledge that the pike have once again eluded you, and to go in search of a café, and a good breakfast. It's not a defeat, it's just another paragraph in the story.
The canal guards its secrets, especially in winter. As above, so below, you tell yourself. The more neglected the bankside structure – the inkier the shadows, the older the weeping brick – the better your chances that the underwater substructure holds a monster. But there's no logical reason why this should be so. No reason that pike should prefer hundred year-old warehouse foundations to the underpinnings of a 1990s supermarket.
That said, I've fished the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal from the Limehouse Basin up to Alperton, and the best pike I've had have been from those corners which developers have left alone. There are still many such places, and although you've got to put in many hard, cold hours before you catch one, there are still undoubtedly specimen pike ranging London's canals.
Nature reasserts herself
In the end, it's a matter of belief. That within a stone's throw of busy flyovers and roundabouts, and in the shadow of steel and glass-clad office blocks, pike are still going about their atavistic, Darwinian business. And perhaps there's something to be learnt here. England's canals were once cutting-edge conduits of trade; today they serve a more oblique, meditative function. Nature has, at least in part, reasserted itself.
To walk the canal in winter is to see two dimensions overlaid. Surface and subsurface, real and imaginary, present and past. To land a pike, and to see it before you in all its olive-armoured beauty, is to draw those dimensions together into a single, fully-realised moment. So let the temperature fall. My fishing bag is packed.
© Luke Jennings
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