Cley bank pulled a stark scar across the horizon, an obstructive fault line between marsh and sky, the North Sea hidden behind it. A stiff and cooling breeze rolled up and over the bank and, like the footprints of the Invisible Man, betrayed itself on a rolling wave of reeds, a dark ruffle of water, finally a tremble of puddle before it caught my face, my coat and was away behind me, rattling briefly in the vanes of the eco-windmill installed to power the Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Cley Marsh visitor centre, where I was due to meet the writer Mark Cocker at eight. It was 20 past. The car park was empty. Mark was going to teach me how to bird-watch.
Though I have known or lived on this coast on and off all my life I have never consciously watched birds on it, not in the "twitching" sense anyway. I've walked my dog along the beach at Brancaster late on many winter afternoons and been stopped short in wonder at the skeins of geese riding from the inland fields of sugar beet to overnight on the marshes and sand off Scolt Head: how they fold their wings and drop in a dense whorl, like a film of wreathing smoke played backwards. I've watched our resident barn owls ferry mice to their chicks, them and their ancestors, every year now for at least two decades, dreading the day, hoping it will never come, when that privilege might end. And I've stalked the Fens, with my dog again, and – I'm wondering what Mark will think of this – a shotgun, "watching" birds all the way to the ground and back to my kitchen. I've never been greedy, never shot more than I was happy to eat, but my bird-watching as it has existed has always ended in this very abstract sense of wonder, or this very heuristic pot, and sometimes both.
All this I'm turning over in my mind when Mark finds me and worries that he's late. I confess I was too, and we're hitting it off right from the start, two writers late for meetings. Mark explains that he is going to teach me the mechanics of bird-watching, the basic structure of the diagnosis that will enable me, three hours from now, to understand how I go about the process of identifying any given bird.
"You need to learn how to see them, not so much as a bird, but as a feather map. My gran might spot a bird and say to me it was sleek and not very big and with a bit of blue in it, and expect me to know what it was. But birding is about reading and interpreting that feather map in a really precise way."
I'm looking forward to this, but feel it is not all that I want out of our morning. If I'm blunt I suppose I'm looking for the point of it all, in part because I suspect there is something there that mirrors where I'm going with my obsession for fish and fishing. A line in Mark's book describes what he does as "ornithological fishing" and so I'm looking perhaps for our common ground. The fact that bird-watching, in part at least, boils quickly down to a process of identification is a surprise to me. It seems more fitting that it should end in a poem, a painting, some kind of hymn to the wonder of birds. The mechanics may be prosaic, a little bit anorak (OK, just like fishing) but the end-point must be awe.
With Mark I become confident it is. He has brought to bird-watching and nature-writing a sense of the connectivity of things, an eloquence – in his latest book, Crow Country – that uses birds as a metaphor for how the ordinary can lift contemplation to the wider wonders of the natural world. The building blocks of bird-watching, the bit I'm about to learn, must only be the key to that universe, not the universe itself. A parallel, now I think about it, with the pain barrier I'll be putting Mark through by early afternoon – the mechanics of casting a fly rod, a re-wiring of co-ordination circuitry that will blow his synapses, but which is that same key. It isn't fishing. Fishing is a wider world, physical and mental. But swishing that rod back and forth is the door to the part of it I love.
And so I start banging on about this, with us still there in the car park, the breeze not quite deciding whether it wants to be fresh or balmy. Before we've even got out there on the marsh I want to understand why we're going. I tell Mark about the last lines of Jim Corbett's book The Maneaters of Kumaon, how he described when the Indian government stopped commissioning him to shoot tigers, he took to photographing them instead. Something he described as far more difficult and dangerous. It involved all the field-craft he'd learnt as a hunter, but ended with a shutter, not a shot. He needed to get a lot closer too. I sometimes wonder whether that's where I'm going with fishing, whether one day I'll stay sitting on the riverbank, just watching the brown trout rise to mayflies, knowing I can catch one if I want to, but deciding in the end not to bother. Or whether I'll always be stuck in that place where my reverence for nature has to lead me towards something much more proximous and tactile.
I suggest maybe birders have skipped all that and gone right ahead to the Zen end-game of just watching. Mark agrees, describing how he once noticed a wildfowler sitting quietly down in the marsh from him, how for over an hour they were doing exactly the same thing. Until the wildfowler shot a goose. Mark could not understand why he did that, why for the fowler the shot made sense of the watching – though Mark did not disapprove of it. I, on the other hand, could completely understand it. There is a lot in fowling that is like fishing, most significantly the fact that to do it properly involves a complete immersion into the wild. But I suspect also that a good bird-watcher does the same.
And so we have found more common ground than alien, and agree finally on one big thing. That these pursuits of fishing, fowling and birding all depend on good land husbandry. So long as that link isn't broken (as it was when I watched watchers watching swans fly in like 747s to feeding time on the Fens, and under artificial lights too; and as it is when too many fat fish are stocked into sterile ponds to keep the sport alive) then the pursuits make sense, are healthy things to be doing.
And so on to the feather map and the birds. Birds have a structure of feathers. This is the most important thing to take on board, a hieroglyphic of colours and tones, stripes and splashes that break them into groups and sub-groups, right on down, until a green splash here or a blue one there makes the difference between teal and widgeon, ruff and redshank. The wing is made of primary, secondary, and tertial feathers, coverts smothering the front. (I'm taking notes in my head here.) The tail has coverts too, top and bottom. The head an eye-stripe and a supercilium. Beaks have distinctive shapes (I knew that anyway) and legs, too, have proportions and colours that feed the crossword of identity.
So Mark takes me down to the hide, admitting (after he guffawed with laughter at the very thought of them on the phone last night) that my Second World War "bins", inherited from an uncle in the artillery, are actually quite good. I'm stuck in front of a waddle (I think that must be or at least ought to be the collective noun) of ducks. Front ones are easy: mallard. Even I know that. Further back in a long line, as if planted by the county council on a roundabout, is a group of quackers of altogether different size and hue. Mark asks me to describe them, leading me past "brown head ... er ... white belly" to the panel of coloured feathers on the wing. "It's green." "Right. There's only one duck with a green panel on the wing and that's ..." "A teal," I reply triumphantly.
Further over is another pair of larger Donalds. Again I'm directed to the tell-tale panel, obviously a good starting point with duck. This time it's white, the duck is slightly larger and is obviously a wigeon. I'm doing OK at the ducks, but they are close by, relatively stationary and distinctly different from each other. And I've occasionally "watched" them before in that way I dare not say too much about. Farther off though is a group of waders, smaller, skitting about the place like they've drunk too much Tango and looking pretty much all the same to me. We need to move hides and from the closer hide the light is poor. Then the birds fly off. The next lesson is patience, but I'm OK at that being a fisherman. You have to learn, Mark tells me, that if you wait and wait the bird you're trying to nail a name to will finally come close enough.
The waders may not know this. The birds never stay still for long, take off en masse, circle and re-settle endlessly, eking out the painstaking process of ticking off each species, feather by feather. The subtlest (to me) variations of scale, leg length, hue, feather pattern and beak shape prove to distinguish the ruffs, black-tailed godwits, redshanks, dunlins and curlew sandpipers that skitter about on the mud in front of us. But Mark can scan across a group and decide how many species are in it within seconds. Later he spots a ruff in the air about three hundred yards away and I start to wonder if there's any puzzle left for him. Mark is well and truly through the door. More than can be said for the nice, tidy gent who joins us in the hide and proudly names a heron as the enormous, lumbering and completely unambiguous creature circles a matter of yards in front of us. Oh help, I'm a twitching snob already and I've only been at it three hours.
At the end of our morning, as we walk back in for a good brew in the ever-so-smart visitor centre, Mark is most keen to know whether I enjoyed it. I did. Thoroughly. A hide hider I will never be, but more aware of what is in the air when I'm looking at the water – definitely. Later, when we're fishing and Mark can't stop himself from looking at the sky and gasping at the sight of a marsh harrier, I get a glimpse also of the reverence beyond the crossword puzzle. Mark is drawn to the skies as I am to water. Neither of us can help it. I don't own up to the fact that while naming waders I had more than half an eye out for the giant pike I've heard inhabit those marshes.
'The Accidental Angler' by Charles Rangeley-Wilson is now available in paperback (Yellow Jersey Press, £7.99)
The bird-watcher as fisherman
By Mark Cocker
It is the only day in my whole adult life when I could, with justification, have hung the proverbial notice on my office door: "Gone Fishing". And since this one outing was designed to teach me the subtle arts of rod and line, my resulting article should perhaps now rise towards that inevitable climax, in which I drag from the deep, after an arduous Hemingwayesque contest, a record-breaking monster fish.
Alas, it didn't happen like that. I can't even claim it got away. Try as I might, I didn't get a bite. But my sole excursion into the angler's world taught me something far more important than mere success. However briefly, it allowed me to know just what it felt like to be God. Could I possibly have wished for anything more?
In truth I wasn't wholly without experience as an angler. Forty years ago a fishing trip formed one of the most memorable days of my childhood. The catch involved about a dozen gudgeon, each tiddler at least an ounce in weight, and as I landed those tiny shimmering silver treasures from out the river, they seemed about as important as anything that had ever happened to me. But for some reason, fish inexorably lost ground to a far more elusive, resonant and enduring childhood prey. Ornithology has held sway in my life ever since.
But if I were ever going to revert back from birds to fish, I suspect the latter could never have found a more convincing advocate than Charles Rangeley-Wilson. Immensely skilled, passionate about his art and eloquent on its accompanying science, he is as adept with words as he is with his own hand-tied flies. He's also the star of his own recent television programme, Channel Four's The Accidental Angler, and now the author of a book with the same title.
Even before I'd donned the waders and practised my cast, we'd found acres of common ground between the birder and fisherman. We both agreed that Ernest Hemingway's perfect, distilled brace of fishing tales, "Big Two-Hearted River I" and "Big Two-Hearted River II", are among the finest short stories in the language. There was also instant agreement that our respective passions made us proud inheritors of the largely lost Palaeolithic traditions of the hunter-gatherer.
Both of us admitted to a deep atavistic fulfilment in pursuing our respective prey. The only difference between birding and fishing is that in the former there is no thought of taking it home for the pot. And it is notable that in Rangeley-Wilson's own journey through fishing, the desire to do so is waning with the years. "Occasionally I take one home," he admitted, almost solemnly, "just to keep my hand in."
As well as our common principles, I quickly realised that birders share something with fishermen of slightly more dubious ethical content. Both activities license the adult male's familiar boys-with-toys obsession. Each tried to convince the other that we were purists. Not for me all that unnecessary expensive optical equipment ... except, as Charles kindly pointed out, my £700 binoculars and the twelve-hundred-quid telescope.
In turn, he tried to argue for his own bent-pin-and-stick brand of fishing ... aside, that is, from the £100 worth of flies in his pocket, the £200 jacket to carry them, the swanky £300 fabric waders and the £300 rod-and-reel, etc, etc.
Actually the bit of equipment I derived most pleasure from were Charles's conventional old gumboot-style waders. I suspect it's the bit I'd always longed to do. And it was just as I'd imagined. Walking up to your crutch – legs and thighs housed in rubber – in crystal-clear, fast-flowing water was a heady and profoundly sensuous, even mildly erotic, experience. Had I perhaps stumbled upon fly-fishing's inner appeal? Whatever the truth, I recommend it for this alone. A river had never looked so beautiful.
It was when we came to the more technical details that the pleasures palled a little. Only a few hours earlier I'd chuckled inwardly as Rangeley-Wilson, the nouveau birdman, struggled to tell me if a godwit's bill was upturned or down-turned, or whether the speculum on a mallard's secondaries was blue or green. Now it was his turn.
I sank instantly from master of the universe to a snivelling Gollum-like wretch, desperate for any crumbs of encouragement. In fact, Charles was amazingly supportive, and I must say, I did momentarily feel that I might be, as he so reassuringly suggested, "a natural" at the cast. It did appear possible to take the rod behind your head to exactly one o'clock and then whip it forward, arm and wrist straight so the movement was transferred solely to the rod end. Subsequently an appropriate length of nylon did seem to shoot out roughly in the direction I'd intended. Alas this was before we'd attached a hook, and while I was practising on dry land across an area of open grass.
Once we were in the water, bushes all around, river dangerously close to the top of my waders, I found my recollection of all those precisely defined stages began to blur. My cast seldom produced a length of line and a fly upon the water's burbling surface. Usually it got stuck behind my head, the hook buried in the nettles or the trees, or Charles's clothing, or mine. And if the line ever did manifest itself in front of me, it was usually in a limp coil by my feet. But very occasionally I did replicate in battle, so to speak, what I'd learnt on the parade ground. Unfortunately that was the most disappointing moment of all.
When the fly did descend exactly where I had willed it, I wanted time to savour the experience, to dwell upon my achievement awhile, perhaps to enjoy some of the fabled tranquillity that fishing was supposed to entail. Not a bit of it. The fast-flowing current instantly carried the fly back to your feet, when you were expected to repeat the achievement all over. I realised very quickly that fly-fishing was a sport more akin to doubles badminton than the game-of-chess-paced meditation on the water's surface that I'd hoped for.
Fortunately Charles's choice of location for my maiden fly fish would have had deep resonances for any kind of hunter-gatherer. Stiffkey, perhaps the most beautiful village on the north Norfolk coast, was once legendary among shell fishermen for what was known as the Stiffkey (pronounced Stewkey) blue, a type of cockle much appreciated in London's most fashionable restaurants. A former resident of the village was also the author Henry Williamson, famous for such great works of nature-writing as Salar the Salmon and Tarka the Otter.
But a lesser-known asset of Stiffkey is its chalk stream of the same name, a short, narrow rill which meanders gently in a landscape of green pastures and shaded woodland. Gradually I found myself reverting to type and succumbing to some of its more familiar pleasures – the buzzard swaying lazily over the trees, a pair of grey wagtails bounding downstream and the moorhens diving nervously for the bankside vegetation, a flash of white undergarment as they fussed away.
Then, just as I was straying badly from the intended mission, our excursion reached its climax. I'd lost all ambition of landing one myself but Charles's X-ray vision located a small shoal of fair-sized fish, all loafing together in the shade of an overhanging bush. Like a kingfisher he dived down to the water's edge, plopped a fly with millimetre precision upon their heads and struck with split-second timing.
Neither I nor the fish really knew what was happening, and in its confusion it shot momentarily free of the water, flying sideways like a misfired rocket, and vanished again beneath a hem of weed. Charles swooped to extricate his catch and there it was, its copper-rimmed dark eye staring vacantly upwards. It was a wild trout the length of a man's two outstretched hands, its slack belly a subtle pale gold, while along the length of its mid-line was an intricate map of dark-centred spots.
This large shimmering silver treasure had arisen miraculously from another world and now seemed as beautiful a creature as any that I'd ever seen. Charles asked me if I wished to take it home for my supper, and as I debated his kind offer, the downturned mouth opening and closing in a silent, unhurried, rhythmic desperation, I knew just what it felt like to be God.
Mark Cocker's new book 'Crow Country: A Meditation on Birds, Landscape and Nature' is published by Jonathan Cape, £16.99.Reuse content