To set off on a blast up the motorway north from Wiltshire is to launch oneself on a magical journey with the promise of excitement at its end. The threat of sticky jams 'round Birmingham's contorted tarmac is entirely offset by the thought of spending a few days with a clutch of like-minded individuals intent on fishing hard, eating well and drinking long into the night.
My drive to a friend outside Earlston in the Borders the Friday-before-last was accomplished in 7.5 hours, two off my best-ever time. Maybe I am getting old; perhaps I am getting to know this stretch of blacktop overly well. It was a tedious run. Not even a drop-in to John Norris - temple to all things game fishing-related - in Penrith could lift my spirits since I tripped, stiff-legged, through their doors 5 minutes shy of closing time, leaving no time for a good rummage through their racks of tempting flies, banks of shiny accessories and stands of improbably expensive carbon fibre.
Arriving safely with my host, a glass of cool Chablis was thrust into my hand and we took to the outdoors and seats on the wooden decking. Calm began to be restored.
Later, over dinner, we drank 2001 District Shiraz from a producer in the Canberra Hills called Clonakilla. Jammy-bright, shiraz fruit with the added lushness of a slug of Viognier. A glossy wine and one that, in its maturity, has a very particular smell: a cereal mealiness. Unusual, but far from unpleasant. Good wine.
1995 Château Batailley followed. I've had mixed experiences with Batailley, finding some vintages rather too solid, charmless and clumsy. The '95, however, is lovely. Sure, it's a touch stern, a little square. But there's delightful purity of Pauillac blackcurrants and classic, claret cedar, along with those pencil shaving aromas of happy Cabernet. I wrote, "A wine for landowners", which pretty much encapsulates its style.
I thrashed the Tweed at Ravenswood the next day. The morning was rather tortured and casting awry as my head was pounding from the night's indulgence. A hair restorer and a kip at lunchtime, however, and I was flying straight in the pm, casting adequately well off my left shoulder. If only there had been some fish there to see it!
Sunday and we blasted north: a four hour blat to the River Findhorn and Dunearn lodge, which was to be our home for the next four nights. Large, Victorian and functional, with fully operational boilers and welcoming sitting and dining rooms. We were six on the first night, number swelling over the next few days to 13 on the Wednesday evening: a feat-and-a-half for Kay, who did a fantastic job of feeding us all and clearing up after us.
Alas, despite the fact that it feels to have been raining virtually all summer here in Wiltshire, the Cromarty Firth had been dry as a chip for weeks and the stunning Findhorn was a fraction of its most fructiferous self. In short, I blanked.
But what excellent craic: the days spent clambering about in some of the most beautiful scenery, on one occasion swimming in a gorge in a black river pool that appeared to be entirely bottomless, fishing in an environment so wild it feels like Narnia. One almost expects to catch a dwarf in the nose with a back cast.
And at night we drank well, if not from the world's greatest vineyards. We quaffed cool Roero Arneis, pure and bright; sipped the brilliant 2006 Côtes-du-Rhône Les Deux Albion from St Cosme; poured out lashings of the '04 Chilean Carignan Orzada produced by Odfjell and a star of The Daily Drinker. Ah, and many others.
Thursday morning last and I clambered into my car for the 9.5 hour drive back to Wiltshire and home. As ever, I broke the journey at Westmoreland services, that privately owned haven in the Cumbrian hills south of Penrith. A crusty steak pie with golden chips and the view of that stunning landscape never fails to act as a restorative, although it fell short of entirely restoring my confidence after four fishless days.
Now, how will I prevent 2009 from being a salmonless vintage??