Away with the fairies
Jon Beer and friends have company beside a North Wales lake
IWISH I KNEW MORE ABOUT birds. I’ve got a fair armlock on the ones that fetch up in my garden: it’s all the others that elude me from time to time – the various big black jobs, scores of small brown jobs and half-a-dozen more-or-less white seagulls. Only they’re not called seagulls, apparently: to blokes who know about birds, they’re “gulls”. Brian knows about birds. He’s a wildlife and fishing guide in the corner of north Wales between the Rhinog Mountains and the sea. On Saturday mornings he guides a wildlife walk in the fields and foreshore around the seaside hamlet of Llandanwg. On the last walk he’d noticed a scatter of large birds working across the fields behind the dunes. Jackdaws, herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls, he said, were diligently picking their way through the grasses. The garden chafer, Phyllopertha horticola, is unloved by gardeners and farmers because its larva feasts for most of its life on the roots of grasses and cereals. But around June it emerges as a charming jewel of a beetle with a bottle-green head and bronze wing-cases – which isn’t the best look if you’re tasty. The garden chafers’ solution to tastiness is to time their hatching into a few days, giving their predators a feast but ensuring that enough survive to mate. It’s the same tactic adopted by the tasty mayfly – and with much the same effect on any trout in the vicinity. Phyllopertha horticola is beloved by the larger sort of bird and by the lucky fisherman who finds himself amid a thorough-going hatch of these coch-y-bonddu [their Welsh name]. It was just such a prospect that had lured us into the hills above Harlech, to the little Llyn y Fedw, a couple of days ago. There Brian and I had fished all morning for a few small trout. No fish rose on that sunny day in June and no coch-y-bonddu were to be seen on the surface. A single coch-y-bonddu arrived on my waders early in the proceedings but whether that was the first of the hatch – or the last – we couldn’t tell. In a normal season, Brian said, the coch-y-bonddu hatch starts in the lower pastures behind the dunes and moves up to the cooler heights of the Rhinogs in the following days and weeks. This had been anything but a normal
season: we’d had tropical temperatures and wall-towall sunshine every day of our holiday in Wales. But still, there was a chance the beetle bonanza had yet to get going up in the hills. It seemed a shame to hog it all to ourselves. I happened to know that Digby Lewis was holidaying on the Lleyn peninsula, just around the corner from Llanbedr where we’d rented a cottage for the week. Digby was lately back from a holiday in Greece, catching large trout in the hills of the Peloponnese – but not, apparently, as large or as many as he’d expected from previous visits, poor chap. He needed cheering up. And so it was that the three of us set off for the Llawllech hills and Llyn Erddyn. Or Irddyn – depending on which map you happen to be looking at. Either way, this is the “Priests’ Lake”, described in Frank Ward’s The Lakes of Wales in 1931 as “traditionally associated with Druids”. I wasn’t surprised. This corner of north Wales, as Judi and I had discovered in the first days of our hols, has more ancient history than it knows what to do with. The previous day we’d visited a couple of neolithic burial chambers, behind the school in Dyffryn Ardudwy. The information board described them as “portal dolmens” – that is, capped with a dirty great slab of stone. And lo! here was another one, unheralded, beside the path to Llyn Irddyn. We crossed the little River Ysgethin on an old packhorse bridge and climbed gently along a pleasant grassy track with a panorama of sea and the Lleyn peninsula opening behind us. Digby, it turns out, knows a thing or two about birds himself and our way to the lake was enlivened with some polite birdy armwrestling as Brian and Digby traded ever more esoteric information on ring ouzels, mistle
thrushes and similar matters. And so the three of us arrived at Llyn Irddyn. It was mid-morning and nothing was rising. As we tackled up, a coch-y-bonddu beetle landed on Digby. The same thing had occurred when we fished Llyn y Fedw. The Welsh tourist board, I suspect, have a few specially trained coch-y-bonddu to encourage the visiting angler. We were encouraged. Brian tied on a traditional imitation with its peacock herl body and furnace hackle. I went for a foam beetle: the naturals float when they fall on to the water and a foam beetle will float forever. Frank Ward again: “It is fairly deep, though shallow near shore, and holds many trout of exceptionally fine quality, averaging about ½ lb. This the only lake of the group on which there are boats.” The boats are long gone and those shallows “near shore” are crowded with large, irregular boulders which make for interesting wading. I could see Brian teetering out from the shore. Boulders littered the windward end of Llyn Irddyn: Digby was picking his way across these irregular stepping stones to cast into deeper water. I was contemplating my own way out when Brian’s rod bent, just a little. He had found our first fish. It was not a large fish. No matter. If the fish are going to average half a pound then for every tiddler there must obviously be a near-pounder round the corner. Trust me: I once wrote a book on statistics. Digby was next into a fish. It was slightly smaller than Brian’s: clearly the next fish was going to be well over a pound. I needed to make my way out to the deeper water if I was going to catch it. I was planning a route across the boulders and looking carefully at the one nearest the shore when I noticed the bright bronze back of a coch-y-bonddu in a fold of the rock. And then half-a-dozen more. And once I’d seen these, I looked around: there were beetles everywhere on the rocks – thousands of them. But they were decidedly defunct. The ones that had first caught my eye were intact, recognizably coch-y-bonddu with bronze wing case and emerald head. But when I looked around and looked closer there were other remains, heaps of small coch-y-bonddu parts: legs, fragments of shell and assorted beetle bits all jumbled together. These were on the larger rocks of the margins, rocks streaked with guano. A flock of seagulls squatted on the rocks further down the shore. It didn’t take Tonto to work out what had happened here. Some time ago there’d been a prodigious hatch of coch-ybonddu. Beetles that had fallen on the water had drifted among the rocks. Some may have crawled out or collected in drifts and been washed up by waves. These stayed intact. Others were eaten by the gulls – picked from the grass or the rocks, who knows? The breaker’s-yards of small beetle parts were the pellets
“There were beetles everywhere on the rocks … but they were decidedly defunct”
of indigestible bits that gulls collect in their gizzards and hoof up from time to time. The more digestible bits of a beetle emerge from a seagull as those white streaks on the rocks. I could see tiny coch-y-bonddu fragments in that as well. We were a week too late: the hatch had been and gone. We fished on, catching the smaller sort of trout while the larger sort slept off their coch-y-bonddu feast. And so to lunch, lounging on the grass while the steak and sausages barbecued on the rocks of the shore. “At Irddyn,” says Frank Ward, “there is a tradition that it is wise to shun the edge of the lake and walk on grass in order to avoid certain mischievous fairies, the old belief being that no fairy could molest anyone while touching grass.” Now, of course it is easy to dismiss these old beliefs as so much taradiddle. I’m not so sure: as we began fishing after lunch, there was a resounding “badoosh” off to my left. I turned to see Digby rise, dripping, from the water. He said he’d just slipped on one of the underwater boulders. I’m not so sure: he had the forlorn look of a man who’d been molested by a fairy. And with that we retreated in disorder from Llyn Irddyn. Digby retired to change before chafing set in: Brian and I had one last little item to explore. The holiday cottage Judi and I had rented for our week in Wales came with fresh cream cakes on arrival and a mile of fishing on the Afon Cwmnantcol. We’d eaten the cakes. I had yet to try the river. The Afon Cwmnantcol is the principal tributary of the Afon Artro, a small spate river that runs to the sea at Llandanwg beach where Brian and I had fished for bass at the beginning of my holiday. Sea-trout run the Artro in a spate but few, if any, climb the Cwmnantcol because a few hundred yards above the confluence a dam holds back a small reservoir. And half a mile above that begins a series of formidable plunges – the spectacular Nantcol Waterfalls. They were not as spectacular as maybe at the minute. A month without rain and a week of sunshine had reduced them somewhat – but I’d trade a spectacular waterfall for a week of sunshine on my hols any time. And so, I fancy, would the folk in the pleasant campsite just below the falls. Which is where our fishing began. Place any child – or idle adult – in a rocky stream and they will build a dam. We have an urge to harness nature. Or perhaps we just like playing about in water. Just such a makeshift dam had created a splendid pool in the middle of the campsite. It was early evening and the pool was lately empty of children. Also, I suspected, of trout – but Brian had spotted a small rise where the stream trickled in. He missed the first lightning rise at the fly. But not the second. A small trout, exquisitely spotted, came to hand. We worked our way up the rocky little river, rising dashing little trout in the pools and runs and occasionally hooking them. A riverside walk and nature trail follow the river to the first series of falls. There are deep plunge pools beneath each spout, deep enough to hide the larger sort of trout, but the larger sort of trout stayed hidden as we cherry-picked our way from pool to pool. Half a mile above the campsite, the river slips and slides down the face of a high rock ledge. And at the top we discovered a very different Afon Cwmnantcol. This ledge of hard rock once held back a lake. Over the years the lake had filled with silt, leaving a plateau of marshy pasture. And through these damp acres a reed-fringed river winds slow, wide and very deep. It looks like Norfolk – halfway up a Welsh mountain. It is mysterious and very intriguing. It looks like the haunt of very large trout: I can’t wait to see it in a hatch of coch-y-bonddu. And there’s another mile of it beyond the old bridge and lane that Brian and I took back to the cottage. But that must wait for another holiday.
“Place any child in a rocky stream … and they will build a dam”
A Neolithic portal dolmen (burial chamber) beside the track to Llyn Irddyn.
is the president of the Wild Trout Trust. He fishes all over the world and is the author of three books: Gone Fishing, The Trout and I, and Not all Beer and Bezencenet.
RIGHT Brian next to the guano-strewn rocks.
ABOVE The coch-y-bonddu beetle that landed on Digby.
RIGHT Brian fishing beyond the boulderstrewn margins.
RIGHT A scatter of dead – but intact – coch-ybonddu on a rock at the edge of Llyn Irddyn. One of hundreds.
ABOVE Digby ensconced on his rock at the edge of deeper water.
ABOVE Carved stone (1762) on the packhorse bridge over Afon Ysgethin.
ABOVE A shrunken Cwmnantcol cascades down the Nantcol waterfalls.
LEFT Brian with a nice Irddyn trout.
RIGHT The band of hard rock at the top of the falls that once held back a lake.
LEFT Digby after molestation by fairy folk.
ABOVE Relaxing while lunch cooks on the barbecue.
ABOVE A speckled trout of the Cwmnantcol.
The pools beneath the old bridge on Cwmnantcol There's another mile of slow, deep water upstream – to be explored next visit.