Most boys of 14 are not great waggers of the chin, but my son Tim's verbally animated flashes had become restricted either to diatribes against school which, as we all know, "sucks", or enthusiastic tales about his fishing exploits.
Now, I'm no angler. Say "chub" and I think "locks"; say "pike" and I think "Dad's Army". Yet the thought of a weekend spent soaking up some rays with a good book, swallows diving, dog snoring and No 1 son to do all the knot tying sounded pretty good. Add some sea-fishing (big game, naturally), horse-riding (which I can actually do), and something really cool such as clay-pigeon shooting (which neither of us have ever tried), and I felt I had the perfect opportunity to recapture that best-matey mode which those teen hormones seemed close to banishing.
Dorset has it all. River, lake and sea-fishing; riding in the New Forest; long walks; thatched pubs with flagstone floors and heavy farming implements on the walls ... a plan was forming in my townie mind.
We launched our 48-hour assault on the rural idyll from Ash Cottage, which sits in 18 acres of charming landscaped gardens around Hurn Court, a Victorian pile just outside Christchurch which, until 1950, was home to the Earls of Malmesbury. The second Earl, James Edward Harris, was a keen sport and seldom let a day go by without wandering the estate - like Porky Pig - looking for something to blast.
These days the house is divided into flats and these tidy little cottages fringe the grounds. Shooting parties are less regular but pheasant and partridge are still raised for the gun. We didn't want to shoot anything that might actually die so I turned to the Yellow Pages in search of a local gun club that welcomed unarmed beginners with a serious grudge against clay. No luck. The nearest that would give a novice lesson was in Dorchester, but it was all booked up. "You could try further up country or even London," the manager said. So in order to find country living, I should head for the capital. That can't be right.
"OK, forget shooting," I declared. As I let my fingers walk to the equestrian section, I realised, too late, that the key to a successful spontaneous activity weekend is forward planning. A two-hour ride in the New Forest, during which we could spot deer and I could show off a bit and regain my boy's complete admiration. That's the ticket!
"How tall are you?" asked a self-satisfied voice on the other end of the line. "And how heavy?" "Five foot 10 and a half and a little over 15 stone," I muttered. "Over 15 stone? I'm sorry we can't accommodate you for the two hours. It's too hard on the horses," she said. My hackles were rising. I've ridden horses all over the world and this was a first. "Are we talking about little New Forest ponies here?" I asked. "No, but 15 stone is our limit."
I told Tim I felt we should concentrate on the fishing. Hurn Court backs on to the Lower Stour with more than five miles of prime swims that boast good stocks of barbel, carp, roach, tench, chub, dace and bream. What could possibly go wrong? First, we would need permits as the signs along the bank made very clear. The lady at Davis' tackle shop in Christchurch was very helpful on all but one point. She could not actually bring the river-fishing season forward and we were a week early.
A pattern was developing. That became painfully clear as thoughts turned to a day's sea-fishing, a real treat down here because of something called "the shelf" where the seabed falls away sharply off the Dorset coast allowing you to hunt really big fish without going too far out.
"The weekend charters are all full," the lady told me at The Quay in Poole. "The skippers all have other jobs and don't wait at the quays like taxi drivers. You have to book weeks in advance."
I turned to my lad who was masking his disappointment well. "I'm happy to find a carp lake," he said not realising that he had just rescued our boys' own break. Even the dog was looking more optimistic.
We spent all of Sunday at one of the many local fisheries. Tim caught carp by the ton and his first tench. He didn't talk huge amounts, but I suppose fishermen, real fishermen, don't. However, I could see the delight he took in showing his dad what to do. I had been pretty hopeless but, suddenly, he was the alpha male and I was, well ... I was rather proud.
THE COMPACT GUIDE
WHERE TO STAY
The Ryans stayed at Ash Cottage (ref DNB), which sleeps four and accepts pets. Two-night holidays start at £162. Contact English Country Cottages (0870 197 6890; english-country-cottages.co.uk).
For outdoor activities in Dorset go to dorsetforyou.com and thenewforest.co.uk. River fishing permits on the Dorset Stour from Davis Fishing Tackle, Christchurch (01202 485169). Day fishing permits at Orchard Lakes (01425 612404) and Whitemoor Lakes (01202 884478). For sea-fishing go to seafishingpoole.co.uk or call the Poole Sea Angling Centre (01202 679666).Reuse content