PsychoGeography #87: The crayfish quadrille

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The Independent Online

My mate Jamie says he's driven to the moon in his beaten-up old Renault van.

My mate Jamie says he's driven to the moon in his beaten-up old Renault van. I take this claim with a whole packet of Maldon sea salt (which, as any gourmand knows, is revered for its distinctively "salty" taste), but there's no disputing the fact that he's done a lot of driving. The old van had clocked up 150,000 miles and the new one was nearing 100,000 before he'd finally had enough. Enough of delivering shapeless parcels to businesses in Corby and Basingstoke; enough of grinding down the blacktop for service centre after service centre; enough, in short, of passing life by.

One day, maddened by inertia, Jamie parked up the van and, lunging through the overgrown verge, found himself on the banks of a stream. He got into conversation with a bloke who was ambling about and talk turned to fishing - which Jamie is keen on. It transpired that the ambler was in possession of a stretch of the Thames bank outside Oxford and wanted to rent the fishing rights for 50 quid a year. Visions not only of hooking monstrous barbel, but also of being able to say "I have some fishing rights up in Oxfordshire" spurred our man on - and he cut a deal there and then. However, when he took possession, instead of hooking fish, on the end of his line were feisty little crustaceans.

Crayfish to be precise. American crayfish. Mississippi delta crayfish sucked up into the ballast tanks of ocean-going freighters, then purged into the treacly waters of the Thames estuary. For the past couple of decades these involuntary economic migrants have been sneaking up our sludgy byways, slowly but steadily infiltrating the entire river system of southeast England. They eliminate our native crayfish; vermiculate our river banks; gobble up aquatic plants and fish eggs; in short, do everything they can to de-oxygenate the water, making it fit only for themselves. Bastards. However, in their defence, they are right tasty - heavier, denser and gamier than langoustine, with a certain muddy piquancy.

Jamie certainly thought so once he'd boiled a few alive and snaffled their tails. He also discovered that there was a market for crayfish up in the Smoke. With the dreamlike clarity of El Dorado glimpsed through a pass between mountains of shit, Jamie saw a permanent way out of the van. He obtained a licence from the Environment Agency to rid 20 miles of the Thames from this troublesome plague; he obtained orders from restaurateurs of his acquaintance. He went down river - way down river to the mudflats of South Benfleet, where he maxed out his plastic on a 25ft cruiser, the Alberta, and a little launch, Petulance.

Anchored out in the middle of the estuary in stygian darkness, awaiting the dawn and the flood tide, while multi-storey tankers cut upstream towards Gravesend and Tilbury, Jamie had understandable misgivings. Here he was, a native Londoner, about to be washed into the heart of England. It was a leave-taking worthy of some latter-day Catherine Cookson heroine, and as God turned up the contrast knob, and the Alberta swung about, Jamie vowed to do his best. Gargled upriver and through the humungous, steely bracelet of the Thames Barrier, ingurgitated by the Pool of London, gulped up by Teddington Lock, the cockleshell at last arrived on the banks of Port Meadow outside Oxford, where, since time immemorial, dozy cattle have cropped the sward while gyrating ravers spit ecstatic cotton.

Oxford has always been a magnet for travellers - whether by road or river. Although the colleges no longer dispense alms, the psyches of water gypsies and new-agers alike are ingrained with ancient folkways. There's a peculiar feeling I always get, looking at the sterns of the vessels moored along the bank where the river crosses under the ring road, that Avaricious, Dandelion Clock, Sportive and Catalina are about to cast off and head for the Prescelly Mountains, to load up with bluestones in order to construct a Modernist henge.

Needless to say, Jamie has fitted right in. He's made friends with a hairy narrowboatman, and together they set the traps out each evening, every one baited with chicken and cod liver oil. Mmm! Then, at dawn, up come the crayfish, for a few, short hours' doze under their trapper's watchful eye. Then it's into the van and down to St John or The Admiralty, or any one of those eateries where you can gratify your need to preserve the environment and your tastebuds simultaneously. It definitely beats driving to the moon when it comes to reducing emissions.