The world is full of giants. They lumber about me and I, at four years, scamper between their legs waiting for the occasional face to peer down at me or a hand to appear bearing a Quality Street chocolate. The green triangular ones are the best and these treasures I unwrap with reverence before savouring their delicious velveteen centres. Beside the little tin fishing hut, I visit with my father every Sunday, grows a tiny cherry tree, little more than a sapling. Small as I am, if I press my thumbs together I can place my palms against the silvery bark and just touch my fingertips together on the far side of the tree. Sometimes I stand like this for a few minutes, listening to the leaves rustling in the wind and feeling the tree sway, fascinated by the enormity of the fact that I am big enough to hold a tree in my hands.
The land of my Merseyside home is rich in clay. In Victorian times men would arrive in the fields with horses pulling carts and begin to dig. Their goal was the clay beneath the soil which they would cart away to make bricks for terraced houses of the growing armies of industrial workers who work in the shipyards of Birkenhead. These clay pits were soon abandoned and in time they filled with water, trees grew around them, and they were populated by fish, water voles and aquatic plants. My father is a member of a small club, The Wirral Angling Association, and spends most of his free time away from his job as a shipping clerk, fishing at the ponds.
As a small boy I roam around the ponds, exploring the trees and bushes, walking across the precarious wooden bridges that lead out on to islands or small pontoons. Here I battle space monsters, have shoot outs with many foes and follow the vivid footsteps of my imagination. Gradually my father introduces me to his world, shows me the Whirligig Beetles and Water boatmen, tiny insects who spend their lives rushing across the meniscus of the water, miraculously balanced on the surface tension. The Whirligig beetles race in circles across the water pursued by the Water boat men who look like tiny oarsmen in miniature boats.
My father shows me the criss-crossed tracks left by water voles, mice and other creatures. These little pathways fascinate me and I spend hours following them and wondering what animal made them. Merseyside is a crowded place, crammed with people, industry and intensive agriculture. The Mersey river is so polluted it is toxic to life and even capable of bursting into flame. Around these few ponds however, in a small, sometimes almost microscopic world, my father and I cling to these tiny outposts of nature surrounded by a man-made jungle.
Beneath the water there lies a secret world full of myriad lives. Some days, when there is enough sunshine, I will climb a tree and look down into the water from above. On days like these I watch as underwater shapes rise from the depths. I see bulbous carp basking below the surface and feeding beneath the lily pads. Shoals of silvery roach flit nervously between the shelter of weed beds in cloud like formations. Sometimes my pulse quickens when I see, the long, streamlined shape of a Pike sitting motionless amongst the weeds waiting for a careless Roach to swim too close. When a fish comes within range, the Pike, the stripped tiger of these small waters, explodes with lightening like speed to hurtle through the water and close its many toothed jaws about its hapless prey.
My father’s only transport is an old sturdy bicycle, he is unable to afford motorised transport on a clerk’s wage. As a child I climb into a small seat on the back and, with me on board, he cycles the three miles to the waters of the angling club. As I get bigger he teaches me the art of angling. We spend hours watching the quills of the floats he has made from birds feathers sit motionless in the water. The only fish of any size are Tench, slimy green bottom feeders, but even these are rarely caught.
When it rains or becomes too cold we retreat to the shelter of a few small wooden huts which keep away the winter winds. The huts are full of fishing rods and nets. Dusty and dank they smell of damp and the paraffin that leaks from the small stoves that my father lights to offer some warmth. In the dim light of the huts, when the weather is foul, we sit together, my father and I and few old men who have been fishing here for over twenty years. As the heat from the stoves rises from beneath the table the old men sit, drinking tea and swapping stories of the great fish that they believe lurk somewhere beneath the murky waters of the ponds. The roof of the tin hut reverberates to falling acorns and the rattle of twigs.
In the summer we rise early and walk across the meadows laced by a million spider’s webs sparkling in the early morning dew. The hours just after dawn are magical times, caught in the moment before the world wakes when it is easy to believe that we are alone. After hours fishing, we return to the hut and feast on sausages and the mushrooms we pick along the way. Anyone who has eaten in the outdoors will know that there is no taste richer than a meal eaten in the fresh air and spiced by hunger.
In the winter, when the icy wind blows, we would build fires in old oil drums to warm out hands whilst we fished for the elusive pike. Short winter days and cold winds gave these days I spice I grew to relish. Once I a while, even on mild Merseyside, temperatures would sink low enough and long enough for the small ponds to freeze over. Even then, with all pretence at fishing gone, we would spend our weekends walking round the ponds and marvel at the ice crystals and the changed white landscape.
My father died last year at the age of 90, only months after catching his last fish in those ponds. That gentle man had spent over 70 years beside those waters. They had been his companion, his source of peace, a place away from the pressures of life. He had a connection with those few acres of land that is rare in the modern world and something precious
It has taken me many years to realise that the sense of belonging I feel when sitting in a Highland bothy comes from those days, many years ago, when I sat in that fishing hut listening to the acorns bouncing off the roof. Even today, as I walk into bothies, that habits he planted in me persist and I find myself scouring the ground searching for the tracks of animals. In nights beside the bothy fire part of me is still a boy surrounded by giants.
If you go to those ponds now, you will see that the cherry tree still grows beside the hut. It is mature now and even my adult hands can reach only halfway around its trunk. It is more than fifty years since I first held that tree in in the palms of my hands. In all those years a half a lifetime has passed by. Perhaps that cherry tree will live another fifty years, in a time when no one will remember the small boy who placed his hands around its trunk.