Wednesday, 4 May 2016


Many of you won’t know [and probably don’t want to] that before I made ‘A Passion for Angling’ with Bob James and Chris Yates I was a cameraman at the BBC’s London Film Studios at Ealing. I spent nine years there before fulfilling my ambition of making wildlife films for a living but loved every minute of it because I worked on a huge range of programmes, including some of the best the Beeb have ever made.

I was lucky enough to work on several successful series, including Z Cars and Dr.Who, classic dramas such as David Copperfield and Little Women, comedies such as Porridge and having been trained in music, got to work on many music programmes, including a trilogy of films by Barrie Gavin to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Another highlight was working on Jonathan Miller's remarkable interpretation of 'Alice in Wonderland' and also had the privilege of working on some of Ken Russell’s inspiring TV Features, including Isadora Duncan and Delius. I learn't a lot about making films at the Beeb and will always be grateful.

New Guinea is covered with dense jungle

Due to my passion for the natural world I worked on anything involving wildlife [and walking!] and in 1971 I was selected from fifty Film Unit cameramen to be David Attenborough’s cameraman on an extraordinary expedition to New Guinea looking for natives that had never seen white man.

David was Head of Television at the time, the ‘biggest cheese’ in TV and I was told that some of the cameramen were surprised and jealous that I was chosen because I was comparatively junior to many of my colleagues. However, I was summoned by David to his office at London’s TV Centre and after a searching interview was accepted by him as being ‘suitable’ for his needs. Being a rugby player I was super fit, a keen birder and walker too and apart from being a ‘promising’ cameraman, these were deemed important qualities for the challenges ahead.

In our conversation, it became clear that David was taking the expedition very seriously and ever the professional, had been training in Richmond Park for three weeks. Upon returning to Ealing I was summoned to the Head of the Film Unit’s office and was told in no uncertain terms by the head, Jack Mewitt “you’d better do a good job Miles as the future of the film unit depends on it”. No pressure then! He also suggested that I try to curb what he thought were David's excessive use of hand gestures but a junior cameraman telling the Head of Television how to perform ain't going to happen is it.

We were to be making three one hour films, one on the discovery and exploration of New Guinea [as recently as the 1930's] which included an interview with one of the explorers who had been speared in the thigh by one of the locals! Another film was to be about the remarkable art and culture of the native people but the main reason for going to the other side of the world was an expedition into the Central Highlands looking for natives that had never been contacted by the outside world.

we would be searching just to the north of the central highlands - not exactly walking country
It would be a David Livingstone style walk because no white man had ever been into this bit of the interior. There were no roads, no tracks and certainly no map, hence the title of the film “A Blank On the Map”. But aerial surveys had revealed signs that people actually lived there, the tell tales of tiny clearings in the dense jungle.

an amusing Christmas card from Laurie

New Guinea was administered by the Australian Government so upon landing in the colonial style frontier town of Port Moresby, we went to see the patrol leader Laurie Bragge, a young and alarmingly fit looking Australian.

Us soft bellied pommies had already been warned and wound up by the local lads, telling us that the walk would be ‘real bad’, so we asked Laurie just how bad and he said in his authoritative drawl, “well, every patrol that I’ve been on, someone’s died”! David, our sound recordist Ian Sansam and I looked at each other with alarm, convinced it would be one of us.

the sketch shows our journey by boat, canoe and on foot
The expedition up country started with a flight to Wewak on the Pacific coast, then a little plane into the grass strip at Ambunti, not so much a one horse town as half a donkey. It lay alongside the majestic Sepik River which would give us access to the mountains where the natives lived. It would also provide the many porters we needed to carry our equipment and supplies for the three or more weeks walk.

a treasure from paradise

While Laurie made preparations, we ventured downriver to film some of the wonderful local art in the valleys villages. Beautiful masks, carefully carved and colourful spears, bows, arrows and ceremonial shields were common and when we ventured into the vast marshlands of Chambri Lakes, the locals living in houses on stilts made colourful pottery which they traded for salt and cloth. 

pottery was an important product - probably still is

I’ll never forget the multitudes of wildfowl, huge flocks taking off as we explored the marshes in a small boat though all the wildlife of the area was stunning.
a blue-crowned pigeon, similar to the one we eat

the butterflies are BIG - stunning too
celebrating the country's diversity

Also memorable was the village drummers, a hollowed out tree trunk providing the instrument on which eight drummers hammered with remarkable accuracy, including rhythm changes and syncopation. They were really sophisticated and had us all tapping along as we filmed.

I only brought home little pots

[David bought some huge pots from the villagers in Chambri Lakes and  lots of other artistic pieces on our travels … and he kindly allowed me space for my small collection in his two large shipping crates. We often wonder if he will open a museum as he has a stunning collection of artefacts from around the world].

a lovely face mask gift from David
We also ventured into a marsh where David thought we might find a rare bird-of-paradise but we were soon driven out by clouds of twin engined mosquitoes. We welled up with bites and it was then I decided to grow a beard to provide some protection. It seemed it wouldn’t be the head-hunters that could be our undoing but malaria.

some of the most exotic birds in the world
this is the species we filmed
Birds-of-paradise are one of David’s passions so early one morning, guided by a local, we climbed high into the hills to find a lek in tall trees. We had to hurry as we needed to be there as the sunrise hit the bare branches of the display trees. In those days our gear was hardly adequate but we did film the males’ exotic displays as they swung upside down while screaming for attention from the shy females. Their beautiful yellow plumes are coveted by the locals to adorn exotic head dresses for their ‘sing sings’, colourful dancing, singing and drumming parties - exciting to film.

shame this isn't in colour © David Attenborough
It was soon time to depart on our expedition with dozens of porters, so we set off down the impressive Sepik River in two large boats before transferring to dug out canoes to head up a tributary that would lead us into the mountains. It soon became too shallow and rocky, so the search would be on foot, guided only by poor quality aerial photographs and a compass.

Laurie's primitive radio for emergencies

The jungle was dense, requiring frequent slashing with machetes to force a way through. It was also steep and even precipitous in places and required strenuous climbing, especially through the mud. I filmed what I could, running back and forth to cover the journey but on one memorable occasion the patrol were using a shallow river to wade upstream. I filmed them all pass me, took a moment to check the camera and then realised I had lost them, not knowing where they had left the water and in which direction. A brief moment of panic washed over me before I found a slightly broken twig and was able to follow and catch them up.

Our staggering progress led us up to eight thousand feet, crossing numerous river gorges, one particularly deep one requiring a liana bridge to be constructed. Some we nervously crossed by walking over slippery tree trunks felled to provide a bridge and it didn’t go un-noticed that if we fell off, we’d be dead.

Another fast flowing river could only be crossed by wading … fine for the long legged locals but for this short-ass cameraman, not ideal. I got swept away and with white water rapids just below, decided to duck under the water and grab a rock to avoid going any further. Luckily, one of the porters saw me and dragged me out. Luckily I wasn’t carrying one of our cameras, though I did drown my light meter, so from then on I had to guess the exposures when filming.

It wasn’t the only time we got wet. The climate was ‘tropical’, warm during the day, cold enough at night for pneumonia and mosquitoes and leaches constantly attacked us. Worst of all were the late afternoon downpours, so heavy that everything was soaked and there was no way of drying out. The worst bit of the expedition was at dawn, having to pull on wet pants … but you’ll be glad we didn’t film that bit.

We didn’t have tents, roles of canvas stretched between poles providing shelter and a bed. The priority at the end of the days walk was to cut straight poles with your machete so your bed was reasonably flat. Like I suggested, it was true David Livingstone stuff … and the food wasn’t a lot better, Australian army rations in tiny little tins … and when we attempted to make an air drop with more supplies, the first pass over-shot and much of our precious food was lost down a ravine.

impressive birds and hoped for dinner
We tried to shoot some of the local wildlife, only for food of course, missing an ostrich like cassowary which, weighing up to one hundred pounds would have solved our food shortages in one shot. We did nail a Victoria ground pigeon, a large bird adorned with a beautiful three inch high blue and white fanned crest, but when hacked into small pieces with a machete and boiled among some forest leaves, it was a big disappointment, the shatered bones being particularly unpalatable.

this is the species we did eat - I still have the plumes in an envelope somewhere
As for the natives we were looking for, we followed a very subtle trail they had left through the dense bush, a bent twig or leaf being the only signs except where they had slept the night. Here a couple of large leaves on which they had slept and a few smouldering ashes were obvious. They didn’t want to leave any signs because they were stone-age head- hunters and didn’t want to be followed and get the chop. We had two police with us, armed with rifles. They were on their way to arrest a local who had lived up to the area's reputation for head hunting - trouble over a woman apparently!

It was exciting as we seemed to be getting closer each day and suddenly we came across a clearing and there they were, tending their crops. Upon seeing us, the men ran to their stilted thatched hut, grabbed some spears and other weapons and dived into the dense forest.

Laurie decided that we needed to avoid frightening them, so left the porters and others hidden while he and David led the way to the house. Ian and I followed, filming and recording whatever might happen. I was acutely aware that as I filmed Laurie and David removing the fortified door on the balcony of the house, behind me were several 'head-hunters' armed with spears, bows and arrows. I imagined, like in the ‘Strongbow’ advert, the arrows plunging into my back.

Nothing happened of course and we were disappointed that no women or children had been left behind to film, just the smouldering embers of a fire.  However, I won’t spoil the rest of the story because you can see what happened when David presents the complete film on :
BBC 2 on Saturday May 7th at 6.30pm

Suffice to say that we did survive to film the locals and retreat out of the mountains and it was with some delight to see the surprised faces of our doubters when us soft 'pommies' returned to Port Moresby several weeks later, still more or less intact.

We were in good shape considering the rigours. I had lost two stone [I could do with an expedition like that now] … and we were all suffering from tropical ulcers, those deep and poisonous wounds in our skin caused by disagreements with trees and rocks. I also had a bug that had burrowed into my leg but we had brought home a memorable film, a piece of history that is unlikely to be repeated.

the moment of truth - David, Ian and I filming the locals bringing us food
exchanging food for salt, an essential ingredient in presserving their food, especailly wild pig
David returned to his office in the highest echelons of television and Ian and I returned to the exotic world of Dr.Who. Some years later I left the BBC to join the RSPB’s Film Unit, fulfilling my dream to be a full time wildlife film-maker. David had beaten me to it by a couple of years, leaving the Beeb to return to the wilds for good, his first project being the remarkable landmark series “Life on Earth” and here our paths crossed again. I had just gone freelance [or self-unemployed if I wasn’t good enough] and my very first commission was on David’s series and the very last bit of filming to be done, to film a lion hunt in the Ngorongoro Crater. They had tried to film this sequence a couple of times before and failed but our trip went remarkably well and we had several kills in the can within a few days. The series was a stunning success and the rest, as they say, is history.

we tried not to fall off

‘Life on Earth’ was the first of the many blockbuster series that David has presented, some of which I filmed sequences for, notably ‘The Life of Plants’ where David and I found ourselves climbing together again, up Mt.Kinabalu in Borneo to film the largest pitcher plant in the world. We also hung onto ropes to film epiphytes, orchids and the like in 200ft high trees.

David’s repertoire of films is as remarkable for it’s variety as for it’s number, including films about fossils, tribal art and Darwin but it’s for his mammoth wildlife output that he is best recognised and admired. We in the profession have been lucky to be a part of his team but above all to be so well represented over so many years.

He’s a marvellous ambassador for us all and more than that, a champion for wildlife throughout the world. It is difficult to imagine that anyone will ever come close to achieving what he has for the natural world, inspiring us with the endless diversity of life on our planet and doing so much to encourage us to conserve it. So on his 90th Birthday on May 8th we can only hope and pray that he lives for at least another ten years so he can continue his life’s work.

If you want to view our adventures it’s called “A Blank on the Map” – Saturday BBC2 at 6.30pm.

that famous gorilla sequence in 'Life on Earth'
PS : a celebration of David’s life will be showing on the 8th May, at 7pm on BBC1. 

Also showing are three other one hour specials from his extensive repertoire, along with a compilation of his early success, ‘Zoo Quest’. 
a charming chimp moment in 'Zoo Quest'

Hopefully the BBC will show again his wonderful film on birds-of-paradise soon : “Attenborough in Paradise”. 

You can read more about David's many adventures in his book 'Life on Air', published in 2002. It's full of splendid stories and covers some of the early days of television. You probably didn't know that David was responsible for coming up with the idea of 'Match of the Day'. Quite a good call on his part!

Wednesday, 27 April 2016


a lovely brace of River Kennet biggies while filming 'Catching the Impossible' with Martin Bowler - the best went 2lb5oz

I’m going to nail my flag to the mast and vote for the roach because I believe it should be the national fish. Thriving in every sort of water in Britain and available to all, it is not only beautiful but if you’re seeking a big one, a real challenge ... so please excuse me if I show a few too many pics of the rare moments when I got lucky.

a scale perfect roach and close to three pounds
roach live in some beautiful places too
Many of you will be aware that there is a vote in progress that is going to lead to a decision on what is to be the nations favourite fish. It might not be as important as deciding whether to leave Europe or stay but it sure is worth a moment or two of your time.

The idea and initiative has been created by our very own underwater hero Jack Perks. He is masterminding an attempt to raise awareness of our fishy wildlife and we owe it to our watery critters to get behind him and VOTE. After all, the birders among us recently chose the robin as our national bird and we don’t want them to think we don’t care about fish.

So this is the link which will enable you to get behind the venture and make the general public sit up and pay more attention to our fishy wildlife and the places they live ... and who knows, they might even respect us anglers more too.

Jack has managed to gain the BBC’s support by having the vote publicised on the ever popular ‘Springwatch’ so several million will be aware of his initiative.

Ely Cathedral was the place I grew up and thanks to the Great Ouse nearby, also became a fanatical roach angler
I chose the roach because it chose me, for when fishing in the Great Ouse at Ely as a child, I caught a big one by design. We normally caught  just small fish, a few roach along with gudgeon and perch off the wall at the Cutter Inn but one day I cast a lump of flake to a large bed of cabbages and fluked a 10oz lump which to this small boy was a monster. I was hooked for life and have been trying to catch big roach ever since.

a Hampshire Avon two from the good old days
Luckily I grew up in the glory days of the H.Avon and Stour when two pounders were the expected catch and I had dozens, even managing a three pounder from both of those rivers and all on trotted bread flake. I even managed two pounders from the Broads, notably from the River Bure and Wroxham Broad, often using cheese paste as bait. This was in the 50’s when it seemed big roach thrived everywhere.

To catch the Broads roach I’d cut up Kraft cheese slices into small particles and scatter them around the float and it worked a treat ... but not before I’d used a quant pole from our cabin cruiser to poke around the bottom to find gravel runs. There was a particular patch on the start line of the sailing club in the middle of Wroxham Broad and though I irritated the sailors at race starts I caught many big roach from the spot, especially in the middle of the day, perched in my little 8ft plywood dingy. Happy days for sure ; I wonder if they’re still there?

2lb6ozs - fat as butter but not taken on cheese

I learnt the cheese technique when fishing with the old boys on the Regents Canal at Paddington in the school holidays. It was good roach fishing and if using cheese paste using a small porcupine quill, we’d avoid the small ones and catch them to over a pound, my best going one pound two.

The bait also worked well on the Serpentine where I caught numerous good roach but never as big as a pound. Unfortunately the bait also attracted eels and when struggling to unhook an above average wriggler, an old lady ran up and angrily telling me I was a cruel boy, beat me over the head with her umbrella!

I’ve tried the cheese technique in notable roach water several times since and never had a bite, though this is one of the joys of roach fishing. You can never be sure where or when you are going to catch a big ‘un, if at all!

good mate Trevor Harrop of Avon Roach Project fame with an Avon two pounder
We all know about the dramatic declines in roach due largely to the invasion of thousands of non-native cormorants but I’ll spare you a rant and simply celebrate the apparent recovery in several rivers, even in the iconic Hampshire Avon, not least because of all the work by the Avon Roach Project.
Trev releasing the future into the H.Avon and hope for keen roach anglers

Britford still produces two pound roach, largely because of the tireless work of river keeper Stuart Wilson in protecting them from the 'black death' .... that's cormorants if you hadn't guessed.

the LAA's river keeper extraordinair Stuart Wilson with one of his precious Britford roach
Still waters are providing some great roaching too, especially when they thrive under the radar, fattening up on carp anglers bait. Sway is just such a water, though Stuart thinks still water roach should only count as half and I kind of agree!

what massive roach those Linch Hill beasts were ... this one went 3lb3oz. caught while fishing with friend Gary Newman
The famous Willow Lake at Linch Hill produced amazing roach, even if they tended to be caught on 'unsporting' bolt rigs. I am guilty of trying the technique there too, just so I could see one of those huge roach you understand! I became known as a ‘jammy bar-steward’ because in only four visits I was lucky enough to catch a three pounder every time. In defence, I did try a sliding float and caught a few two pounders but never a three on the float.

admiring my PB of 3lb5oz - caught on a float too
I had roach to 3lbs4ozs at Linch but my PB came from Sway, just an ounce heavier but caught ‘properly’ on a delicate float. I also had my PB pole caught roach there too, an ounce under three pounds, so a much desired three on the pole is still out there to achieve. However, in my book any roach of a pound or more is a big fish and makes me a happy man and even if I’ve wasted a lot of my life in a quest for big ones I’ve loved every minute of it - well almost!

the pole can be deadly for really big roach
a gorgeous early morning two pounder - what beautiful fish they are

Sadly, a two pounder is now a distant dream on several once famous fisheries but the challenge remains and for me and many of my best pals, roach are still a constant cause of much head scratching and effort. So please get voting ... and if roach are the species that pulls your string, good on you ... but if not then still vote. I could easily have chosen tench or barbel, perch or pike, sea trout, mullet or bass, even carp for I love them all but as the saying goes, my favourite fish is the one I'm fishing for at the time. I just need to go out and fish more often!

beaut. 'nuisance fish' - carp are quite a struggle on roach gear!
As for my wife Sue, she loves tench, as I do ... but she says her favourite fish is the last one she eat!
time for tench

Saturday, 16 April 2016


The sun is out … days longer … air warmer … trees bursting … bees buzzing … butterflies flapping … migrants singing … flowers blooming … water temperatures rising … and it won’t be long before the tench are bubbling.  Happy days … Spring is simply wonderful.

I love the variety that our seasons provide and though most folk dislike winter and aren’t all that keen on autumn, I have never heard anyone saying they don’t like spring.

The great joy of all the seasons is the variety of wildlife that each month brings, from the wildfowl flying south after a summer in the wildest Arctic wilderness to the spring songsters arriving from dusty African savannas.

Wildfowl are a speciality here in Corfe Mullen, probably because we have five ponds linked by a small stream that runs through marshy areas I’ve dug over the years. Sometimes it seems more like the Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge. 

We have regular visits from the delightful mandarins and mallard nest on the island in the main pond and produce broods of ducklings. This year one of our females had an escort of six males. She must be some lady to attract that many men!

our annual production of mallard ducklings numbered fourteen this year, though another pair will hatch soon

We’ve also attracted a gorgeous male pheasant that we’ve called ‘Prince Wilhelm the Second’. He’s recently pulled a bird that we’ve simply called ‘Princess’. She’s nesting somewhere in the garden and her offspring had better not eat our precious plants.
there are still a few days to go before our giant oak bursts into leaf

Wilhelm has been keeping an eye on us for several weeks now
Our garden comes into sharp focus in the spring, not just because the migrant birds come here to take advantage of the habitat we’ve created for them but because all the flowers and shrubs turn our patch into a colourful wonderland.

we love our camellias, amelanchiers and magnolias and reckon it's a privilege to live here

Admiring these flowering shrubs while listening to the fluty calls of blackcaps and blackbirds is an annual treat.

blackcaps sometimes overwinter in the garden, though spring is when they serenade from the shrubs © Raymond Ching

Sue has done a lovely job planting lots of pots so that we have colourful displays throughout the year.

The snowdrops might be finished but the daffs are still blooming and have recently been joined by great clumps of vivid yellow marsh marigolds.

These in turn attract butterflies, especially the yellow Brimstone and as the sun’s warmth increases, these are joined by all the usual suspects such as peacocks and commas, the wild flowers providing an early nectar feed.

One lawn has been left to become a wild flower meadow where numerous orchids rise up in the summer but until then, we have to make do with the delightful snake's head fritillaries. Unfortunately the pheasants took a liking to them so next year our adopted 'pets' with friendly names might simply be called dinner!

stock doves are among many birds that enjoy a bath in our clear spring water
Our ponds provide a home for hundreds of minnows and when the water temperature rises enough, they gather at the streams entrance.

Once confident enough, they migrate up the shallow flow to spawn in the gravel. It’s quite a sight to see the violent contortions as the dozens of males compete to fertilise the eggs, sometimes causing the females to become stranded.

This doesn’t go unnoticed by the magpies and even the blackbirds. They are always quick to take advantage of an easy meal.

Hundreds of eggs are laid each day but the ducks soon thin them out. An otter visited four years ago and destroyed the pond in front of the house while chasing and eating the minnows. It looked like a bomb site by the time it left, the lilies ripped up and almost all the fish gone.

We’ve recently stocked it with four golden orfe to go with the two surviving rudd and hope the ‘playful’ otter doesn’t return any time soon.

over the years, most of our treasured fish have been killed

I love otters because I enjoyed the privilege of living with them in Shetland for three years while making the first ever films of truly wild otters for the BBC. Their return to almost every county in the UK is a conservation success story but after a deadly raid in our garden I sometimes wish they had stayed in the far north!

Our twenty year old cat called Tiger used to fish for our minnows but he's a bit too slow now, just like me when trying to catch roach.

Once the local waters really warm up, the garden will be abandoned in a quest for a tinca or two. Happy days to come … even if I can't catch them.

I have only managed a few days fishing, mainly with my pal Trev of Avon Roach Project fame and he snared this cute little tench last week while all I could catch was large perch. I was trying for a big roach of course but they have so far proved elusive.

this perch did weigh over two pounds but I still wished it had been a roach

However, we have lots of colour to enjoy in the garden and a summer of sunshine to look forward to. We hope you are able to be out there too, enjoying those long, warm days by the waterside.
the magic of a summer dawn