The stereo is broken. The radio doesn’t tune. The windows don’t work. Neither do the cigarette lighter or the fan, while the wing mirrors are a patchwork of gaffer tape. I could go on, but I’m starting to think it would be quicker to make a shortlist of the parts of Norbert Darby’s white van that actually work than try to catalogue the defects.
It’s certainly got character, I’ll say that much about this rusting white vehicle. Don’t ask me why, but fishing vans always seem to be white. Norbert talks to his own like it’s his darling, but it’s a disaster waiting to happen. “She’s been running for six years now,” he says, and I add nothing, not wishing to tempt fate as we rattle onto the M5, two scruffy anglers in a scruffy van.
Tidy it isn’t, but certainly spacious. Lying in the back in no particular order is a spectacularly random collection of two fishermen’s aspirations for a weekend in Wales: rods, reels, baits, buckets and bags. In spite of this wealth of tackle, I keep glancing round and scanning the back with my usual paranoia of some small but vital item missing. Usually with Norbert there is plenty of cider and a treasury of odds and ends, but no sign of any solid food.
In between scraps of idle chatter I study the contents of the van. The sun shields conceal several dozen unopened bills and in one corner a dash of yellow with the bold letters: FIXED PENALTY NOTICE.
My head is scraping the roof because, naturally, the seats don’t work. I try wrestling with the wheel thingy at the side, thrash backwards and forwards and search for non-existent levers. I’m beaten, so I ask Norbert “so how do you adjust the seats?” He just chuckles. “You can’t. I mean…they don’t,” he admits. So I just sit there, head wedged in place.
I was lying when I said the fan didn’t work. It does. The only hitch is that it constantly blares hot air out, stuck on “slow roast” temperature. Combined with windows that are stuck solid, the effect is like sitting in a sauna with your clothes on. A little desperately I ask if the windows open. Like some kind of white van sage, Rob tells me a little mysteriously “yes, there is a way.” The way in question involves a pair of pliers and brute force, but I manage to jam open an inch or two of space and cool air floods in.
Even more pressing than the need for air however, is the matter of getting to Wales. I look for a map but the only printed matter I can find is a tattered copy of “Swahili for the Broken Hearted”. Not your average white van literature. With a touch of drizzle spitting down, Rob flicks the windscreen wipers on and the left blade flaps and squeaks limply like a dying bird.
An hour later we’re rolling our way beyond the wide, muddy banks of the Bristol Channel, beyond the hulking concrete and steel of the great bridge and the rip off five-quid-something toll charge. But still the wilderness must wait. If heaven is a wild lake somewhere in Wales, hell is possibly Newport Services. But needs must. Over a quick coffee I escape from the confines of Rob’s white angel and try to straighten my craned neck, the blood finally returning to my feet. Along with the flaky looking smokers and chipped picnic tables are a trio of feral cats, one no older than six months, picking through the leftovers.
Back on the road we push on into the wide-open heart of Wales. Things begin to shift. The houses thin out and the trees get their revenge. There are no cash points or cul-de-sacs. No designer developments or hulking Tescos. Sadly, not many road signs either.
Mile by mile though, we edge closer to our destination, the remote lake of Pant-y-Llyn. A weedy, ancient place populated by wild carp that have been resident for centuries. It is not merely the lack of air conditioning that makes me hot and excitable. But first we must find our lake. “It could be bloody anywhere” concurs Norbert, as I make hard work of the map.
As we back track on ourselves after another wrong turn I pray that the rattle in the back is just a loose bit of tackle. Should the van suddenly splutter to a halt I have no idea what location we’d give the AA. I simply don’t know. Norbert never knows much either. But that is essentially why we’re here. Because we’re sick of knowing. Bored of platformed ponds and well-worn paths. Bored of the local lakes with their weights and figures and ranks of camouflaged regulars.
The lake itself starts with a slope. To call it a track let alone a road would be a filthy lie. The dirty white van roars and groans, shudders and rocks. Norbert, who enjoys this sort of vehicular abuse, seems oblivious while I feel every dip and bump, every rock. But by now it’s too late to turn back. Suddenly we come to a halt, but it is not the terrain but the view that stops our progress.
Looming before us is an epic, boggy beast of a lake. At last, we have reached Pant-y-Llyn. A vast, prehistoric looking pool that seems more weed than water. A great bowl whose sides are broad heaths and rocky crags. “Unspoiled” doesn’t come close. And here we are in a sodding white van. It seems rude somehow, like attending a gentleman’s club in a white tracksuit.
Leaving the white wonder at a healthy distance we make our descent to the shoreline below. A mere sliver of clear water circles the lake. Beyond is a tangled mass of weed thicker than a village idiot convention.
First out of the van come not rods or reels but a weed rake. It is hot, blistering work in the naked sunlight, but rake we must. The bottom clouds thick like smoke and in come clots of stringy tendrils, knots of weedy mess. Into this exercise we place our backs, our sweat and finally our bait, before the lake falls silent once more.
For almost the whole of a long, hot afternoon little happens. Swims are primed, rods are assembled. Only the breeze stirs our float tips. Every so often we are taunted by the scaly shoulder of a carp, turning in the weed beyond. Further along the bank two young children are having better luck armed with nets. Every few minutes their excited voices call out as they pick out bugs, snails and newts. And then it dawns on me that this rich soup before us provides these wild carp with all they need. Why should they eat our bait? These fish will need time to get used to bread or sweetcorn. But time, at least, is something we have plenty of. And there are worse ways to spend an evening than cracking open a cider and taking the piss out of Norbert and his van.
Only as the light dims a little and the evening draws closer do the carp start to appear within reach of the clear fringes of the lake. One raked area shows billows of silt kicking up as dark shapes emerge. As we sneak into position, a fin grazes the surface.
Within seconds of lowering a bait into the water, the response is decisive. Norbert’s float lifts, then plods under before the rod is almost wrestled from his hands. The calm of the lake is obliterated as our first wildie plunges headlong for several acres of dense weed.
Steady pressure avoids disaster and in spite of the inevitable collection of salad on the line, the rod still kicks with life as he wrestles the hooked fish clear. Moments later, several pounds of weed join the muscular creature in the landing net.
The wild carp is a very different creature to the fat, farmed fish we know from home. While the big mouth and whiskery barbules remain, it is a longer, sleeker creation of leathery gold scales and raw power. A strikingly long dorsal fin reaches almost right to the tail.
After we release her, the others are spooked and take a while to settle, so I must be patient for my own encounter. Bizarrely, the next battle is not with a wild carp but a two-pound chub, a mysterious presence at such a lofty place so far from the river.
The carp awaken again in the cool of the evening. Once again, the bite is decisive, a steady, almost naive sliding away followed by an explosion of heaving water. After another pulsating, tangled fight in the shallows I’m sat clutching the most primitive, whiskery looking carp I’ve ever laid eyes on.
Each time a fish is hooked, the others scatter and we must move elsewhere to keep the bites coming. They fight dirty and we lose as many as we land, quickly discovering how easily a hook loses its hold when the fish find giant clots of weed.
By about half past nine all I can see is the end of Norbert’s roll up cigarette. It’s getting late but it’s a struggle to tear ourselves away from the lake, back to take on the rutted track in Norbert’s rusting pride and joy.
Shadows fall and in the dying light the lake resembles a huge, dark crater. As I peer back for one last glance, something rolls way out in the swampy beyond, and I’m still spellbound as the shabby white van rattles back to life.