Politician turned TV railway explorer Michael Portillo tries his hand at sea fishing on Walton Pier in Essex, guided by John Popplewell
It was just a normal morning with the usual routine: get up, a quick shower, breakfast and then checking emails, just the daily emails. Normal stuff: angling reports, some new rods to look at and loads of spam, however there was one email that caught my eye and it came from a TV company interested in coming to Walton-on-the-Naze to see me. I saw the words ‘Great Coastal Railway Journeys’ and ‘Michael Portillo’; surely this was an email to get excited about?
I’m a great fan of anything that Michael Portillo has done over the years and have avidly watched every series of his railway journeys. I clicked on the email and to my surprise I had to read it twice. Michael Portillo was travelling around the coast on his new television series (which will be coming out in spring 2023) and wished to stop off at my hometown of Walton-on-the-Naze on the Essex coast and speak to me. So without further ado I answered yes!
It took a few days before I received an answer, and to cut a long story short, Michael was pencilled in to head for the Walton coastline to meet me. In between time the film crew wanted to come down and do some preliminary film shots with me. We all met outside Walton Pier for an early film shoot and headed up the pier to get the morning sunrise and the Walton coastline with the houses along the seafront stretching all the way up to the famous Naze Tower and the Red Crag cliffs.
I told them all about the history of the pier and also about the town. We then headed down to the beach below the pier and got some great film footage of the sea and surf under the barnacle encrusted pier piles. It was then a quick goodbye and I was soon back to servicing reels and catching up with local fishing reports.
Another week went by and another email from Great Coastal Railway Journeys arrived in my inbox.
This time it was with a date that they would like to arrive for the filming with the whole crew and Michael Portillo. I was to meet them in the afternoon; the tide wasn’t brilliant for fishing. Michael had asked to use one of my fishing rods in the hope of catching a bass or wrasse!
With low tide at the same time as the filming it didn’t look very promising. I had asked a few local anglers along, so the film crew could get a feel for our seaside town and maybe catch a fish or two. They didn’t let me down. But to be honest the film wasn’t about catching fish it was about the fishing history of the pier and the seaside town of Walton-On-The-Naze.
ON THE DAY
I arrived earlier than Michael and the crew, so I could set up a couple of rods – one for me and another for him. I really couldn’t resist a fish before they arrived. It was the very last of the ebb tide with hardly any run left. I dropped a rig down the side of the pier with a small segment of ragworm on a size one hook and instantly started getting bites. With hardly any tide run it was a case of holding the rod and striking as soon as the rod tip rattled. This resulted in two corkwing wrasse within a few minutes of each other. Things were certainly looking up and with that my phone alerted me that the crew were five minutes away and could I meet them at the front of the pier.
A quick slick back of my hair, trying to look half smart, and I headed for the pier forecourt only to be greeted by a crowd of people. My guess was this was the film crew along with Michael in the middle somewhere! I had already met the camera crew from our previous meeting and they introduced me to Michael. He was easily recognisable with his bright yellow trousers and blue shirt. I must say what a thoroughly nice chap he is. We all headed through the arcade, which at much cost has been revamped to a very high standard after two years in the Covid doldrums.
It was a very hot and the sea was calm with just a ripple here or there. I knew that it would be difficult to catch fish around the low water mark, but we would certainly give it a good go.
The cameras rolled, I was mic’ed up and Michael introduced me; it doesn’t matter who you are, it’s at this time that nerves start to tingle. I have done a few stints on that great fishing programme Sky Sports’ Tight Lines with Keith Arthur, in fact we even recorded a film on Walton Pier in 2014, but I do always worry that my mouth overtakes my thoughts!
I showed Michael the rudiments of sea fishing as he had never fished before. He quickly picked it up and was soon handling a rod and fixed spool reel. We talked about the history of Walton Pier from the original pier that was built in 1830 to the pier that we know now that stretches out 790m into the North Sea. I reminisced about being raised in our old coastguard cottage overlooking the pier and the sea, and the giant stingray that I caught as a young boy from the head of the pier! I can’t tell you anymore; you will have to wait for the series next year.
We then got on to serious stuff and we discussed the winter fishing around the Thames Estuary, I told him about our dwindling cod stocks and the overfishing in the 1960s/70s which decimated the cod. I did say that we have started to see some of those early spring six-inch codling return. So we could see some bigger codling return soon, hopefully.
In between all this chat Michael talked to some local anglers and they discussed fishing recipes on how to cook bass.
One of our old Waltonian anglers, Malcolm Hutchins, who started fishing Walton Pier in 1946, recalled his stories about how he was stung on the leg by a stingray and then having his shoulder dislocated be a big bass while he was lure fishing. The afternoon went quickly and before we knew it, it was time for Michael to go. What a great time we had! Check out my Facebook page for details of when the Walton Pier episode of Great Coastal Railway Journeys is going to be broadcast.