Those of you who fish the Towi in South Wales should be aware that it may contain more than Salmon and Sea Trout..........
There is an Angler's Prayer you still come across occasionally,
painted on old mugs in fishing inns. It is a bit like a river itself, the couplet meandering towards a tired rhyme.(most anglers are sick of the sight of it)
Lord, grant that I may catch a fish so big that even I,
When speaking of it afterwards, may have no need to lie.
This is an account of a man, an excellent angler, and now with God, as Walton put it, who did just that. He caught a fish so big it would have needed two large men, their arms fully outstretched, to give cynics in saloon bars even a hint of its dimensions. But he did more than that. He went fishing for salmon one day and caught something so extraordinary, so far removed from even the footnotes of angling in Britain, that a grown man who was present ran off across the fields. Nobody would have thought it at all odd that day if the fisherman had been found trying to look up his catch in the Book of Revelations.
Alec Allen was a commercial traveller from Penarth in Glamorganshire. He was a well known sportsman and hockey referee. In later life he was to referee Olympic matches,but he was then in his early forties, a sporting bachelor. His great delight was fishing, but in him it was more than a delight. His great friend was Alderman David Price of Nantgaredig. He had known Alec all his life. All they had ever talked about, he recalled with wonder, was fishing.
In 1933 Alec was traveller for a firm of fishing tackle manufacturers. His father, also a great fisherman, was a traveller for a wallpaper firm. Father and son somehow contrived it that they could travel together in the same car. Both their commercial beats were South and West Wales, but a Wales wonderfully concentrated between the rivers Wye, Teify and
Towy. When their friends talk about the Allens it is with amusement. It was notorious that their business rounds were engineered for fishing.
Off-stage Hitler was ranting, Stalin drawing up lists of victims, Ramsay MacDonald droned his platitudes, and the dole queues lengthened. But in West Wales the Allens went their way, in a car full of tackle and wallpaper, their itineraries perfectly arranged to end in fishing inns beside rivers. It may have been a bit tough on you if your wallpaper shop was nowhere near a river, but nobody seems to have complained. In time the son succeeded the father as wallpaper salesman, but the itineraries did not change.
The two had rented a stretch of the Towy since 1928. This included some of the deepest pools in the river. But the summer of 1933 had been dry, and the water level was low. Walking by one of the pools that July Alec Allen noted enormous waves suddenly cross it. It puzzled him but at the time he would have discounted any suspicion that they had been made by a living thing. After all it was 15 miles to the sea, and tidal water ended two miles lower down.
A few days later Alec returned to the pool. It was evening and he had a friend with him, Edwin Lewis of Crosshands. There was a third man, his name lost to history, watching on the bank. Alec began fishing. It was a quiet evening. But then he felt a slight tug on his line. He pulled on it but to no effect. Alderman Price was fond of telling what happened next, "Alec used to tell me that he thought he'd hooked a log. He couldn't see what it was, except that it was something huge in the shadows. Then the log began to move upstream." A faint smile would come over Price's face. "Now Alec knew that logs don't move upstream."
Alec still had no idea of what was in the river. A more imaginative man might have become frightened at that stage. His line was jerking out under a momentum he had never experienced. In the darkness of the pool he had hooked something which moved with the force of a shark. He played it for 20 minutes, letting the line move out when it went away. When it came back he retreated up the bank. But there was no channel of deep water leading away from the pool. if there had been, no salmon line made would have held his catch. Then he saw it. Suddenly the creature leapt out of the water. Maddened, it crashed into a shallow run. It was there under them, threshing in the low water. Alec was confronted by a bulk that was just not possible. The sightseer ran shouting for his life. But Lewis ran forward with the gaff. He stuck it into the fish, but the fish moved. It straightened the steel gaff. Then the great tail flicked up and caught Lewis, and threw him into the air on to the bank. Just one flick, but it nearly broke the man's leg.
There was a large rock on the bank. Alec dropped the rod (it had been a freak catch, the hook snagging in the fish's head, a sturgeon having no mouth) and tugged at the rock. With it in his hands he waded out, and dropped it on the head, lifting it again and pounding at it. The creature began to die. The two men looked down at it. Neither had any idea what it was.
But in death it provided them with an even greater problem:
how were they to get it out of the river? Alec ran to a nearby farm. There then occurred one of those rare moments which cannot help but be pure comedy. Alec asked could he borrow a horse and cart. The farmer, naturally, asked why. Alec said he had caught a fish.
It ended with farmer, farmer's friends, dogs, horse, cart and all
going back to the bank.
It needs a photograph. The fisherman is dead. His friends are beginning to die. If a photograph had not been taken few people would now believe what happened. It was on July 28, 1933, that Alec Allen caught his fish but his obituary (far from the national press) says that it was on July 9. The Guinness Book of Records says that it was July 25. But the one contemporary cutting had no doubts. It was July 28. Appropriately it was a Friday.
The photograph is extraordinary. Alec, a short man in a pullover and baggy trousers, leans against a wall beside a trestle. It is a typical Thirties snapshot. His hands are in his pockets, there is a cigarette in his mouth. But of course you notice all this a long time afterwards, because of the thing dangling from the trestle. It towers over the man by a good four feet. It is a fish certainly, but the head ends in a dark snout. The body appears to be armoured. The surroundings, a farm gate, the field beyond, underline the oddness. In a farmyard a man is posing beside a thing the size of a basking shark. Alec Allen had caught himself a Royal Sturgeon in the River
Towy, at Nantgaredig, near Carmarthen. It was nine feet two inches long, had a girth of 59 inches, and weighed 388 pounds.
"I can remember it now," said Alderman Price. "Alec came running to my house. I had never seen him so excited. All he would say was, 'Well, I've caught something this time that you'll never beat.' I went back with him. They'd pulled it up on to the trestle you see in the photographs, and the news had got round. People were coming in cars and in carts. They were ferrying children across the river."
"It had these big scales, I remember. Very slimy. It was a sort
of black and white in colour. No, I wasn't frightened." He was in
the habit of pausing at that point. "It was dead."
As the anglers gathered it was determined that the thing out of
the river was a sturgeon. Vague memories stirred. Was it not the
law that a sturgeon was the King's prerogative?
A telegram was sent to Buckingham Palace inquiring after the King the next day. A stiff little reply came the same day, that the King was not in residence. Such trivia did not deter a man who had hooked the biggest fish in recorded angling history. Allen sold the sturgeon to a fishmonger from Swansea for two pounds ten shillings. That worked out at something like a penny ha'penny a pound, and this at a time when Scotch salmon at Billingsgate was fetching two and six a pound. More than 40 years later Alec's friends, who had helped him load the thing on to the train, were still bitter about the deal.
There had been so much caviar in the sturgeon that some of it had fallen on to the farm yard where it was eaten by those of the farmer's pigs with a taste for the good life. History does not relate what happened to the pigs subsequently. But selling the fish did get rid of one problem. There were no refrigerators in the Valley, and 388 pounds of sturgeon was a lot of fish.
Alec fished on until his death in 1972 at the age of 77. In photographs the lean figure became stocky. Spectacles were added. Catches got held up regularly to the camera, something he could never have done that wild July night when he was content just to pose beside his fish. So did he consider the rest of his fishing life to be a sort of epilogue?
Brian Rudge, who now runs the fishing tackle firm on whose
behalf Allen meandered through West Wales, knew him well. "I think he saw the incident as more of a joke than anything. He wasn't a man who was easily impressed. I think, you know, that as far as he was concerned it was a bit of a nuisance. He was out salmon fishing. The sturgeon had got in his way."
Alderman Price heard Allen talk about it a few times. "It was usually when he heard anglers going on about their catches. He wasn't a boasting man but sometimes he couldn't resist saying, 'Well, I suppose this would be the biggest fish I ever caught.' And then of course they'd say, 'Good God."
Yet outside the valley and angling circles it was a small fame.
There was no mention of it in the national press that July.
It was a small item even in the Carmarthen Journal. That august organ rose to its greatest heights of sensationalism. "Two anglers had an exciting time while fishing in the River
Towy," the report began.
In March, 1972, Allen died suddenly at the home in Penarth he had shared with a spinster sister. But there was a passage in his will which surprised his friends almost as much as the catching of the sturgeon. Though he had talked little about the incident, he left instructions that his body be cremated and the ashes put into the river at the spot out of which he had pulled Leviathan.
"I called on David Price one day," said Ronald Jones, the former Chief Constable of Dyfed, and another of Allen's friends, "and said what a pity it was about Alec. 'Aye,' said Dai, 'I've got him there on the
mantlepiece.' It was the casket, you see. We were all surprised. Nobody's ever heard of anyone wanting that done before."
"I suppose it was a romantic touch," said Brian Rudge, "but he
wasn't the sort of man who'd like people to gather round a grave."
It was a grey wet day when they put the ashes into the water. A dozen of his old friends, contacted by phone or letter, gathered on the bank. No clergyman or minister had agreed to take part, their religion not recognising a river as consecrated ground.
Despite the hymns in the rain, it would seem to have had pagan overtones. Among the first things a people name are rivers. River gods are the oldest. A man who had pulled out of a river its largest living thing would seem to be assuaging something very old in having himself put back in its place.
"We said the Lord's Prayer," said the Chief Constable, "as we committed the ashes to the waters he'd fished for 50 years. But then as the wind carried them I saw a trout leap into the air just where they were drifting.
"And I said to Dai: 'Look, Alec's there.'"
(If you don't believe this story, and at first glance it is unbelievable, I suggest you visit the Cothi Bridge Hotel where the original picture hangs and check it out while checking out some of their excellent ale, but if you are going night fishing for sea trout, and especially anywhere near
Nantgaredig, I wouldn't take too much or you might get pulled in...........! )