On the Thames with Crayfish Bob
In early Summer, I always get the longing to go up river where the banks are lined with willows and yellow flags, and elderflowers hang down at the water’s edge. So I was delighted to accept Crayfish Bob’s invitation to spend an afternoon with him on the Thames, all the way upstream at Abingdon Lock, where he was emptying his traps in preparation for the event at Toynbee Hall in Commercial St next week where you can eat his Crayfish for dinner for five pounds.
“Hello there!” Bob says in a cheery, friendly tone as he heaves the traps up from the river bed, peering out from under his hat to greet the Crayfish that are gathered in his net eye-to-eye. Then he unzips the trap and gives it a good shake, bouncing the Crayfish up and down, revealing their dramatic orange claws and blue undersides, as they dance and prance along the net to fall ungainly into the bucket. “That’s right, come along now,” he encourages, as if he were a professional tour guide – with an edge of impatience.
You see, Crayfish Bob is a dissimulator as far as freshwater crustacea are concerned, because the blunt truth is he that has made it his personal mission to wipe out the American Signal Crayfish which infest our rivers. With his glinting eyes and twitching smile, Crayfish Bob is a connoisseur of irony, and the irony here is that these American Crayfish were introduced by the government in the nineteen seventies as an alternative to the diminishing stocks of the native variety of White-clawed Crayfish, which they now threaten to replace entirely.
Where others see a problem, Bob sees a business opportunity – and, since 2003, he has devoted himself to finding the means to rid our rivers of these interlopers, by encouraging people to eat them. This is where the second irony becomes apparent – since as Bob’s efforts to promote Crayfish have succeeded in encouraging the fashion for eating Crayfish, more are imported from China to meet the demand. Supermarkets sell cheap inferior Chinese Crayfish labelled as “produced in the United Kingdom” when the fact is they only package them in this country. A disappointing sleight of hand that Bob illustrated to me in a supermarket famous for its declared ethical credentials, when we popped in to buy mackerel to bait the traps on our way to the river.
Bob is driven by a frustration compounded of these ironies. When he drives his fishy van, when he spends countless hours shelling crustacea, when he stands in his tiny boat hauling the traps up from the mud, Bob is single minded in his intent. “I haven’t made any money out of it yet, but if I did I would invest it back in the project,” he admitted to me, clenching his jaw in determination.
“How’s it going Bob?” yelled a fellow fisherman from the towpath, with a smile and a hint of sceptical superiority, provoking Bob to cease his labour, and stand erect to cock his hat and reply with dignity, “It’s going to happen this year.” And Bob has real reason for this belief because he has just got his first big break. The week after the event in Spitalfields, Bob will be catering the Glastonbury Festival, serving Bob’s Crayfish Bisque to the hoards of hungry revellers. Now there is a sense of urgency to the endeavour because this a chance to shift some Crayfish, to dredge them up from the river and feed them to the festival-goers. “I don’t know if I will be able to offer more than a thousand portions of Crayfish,” Bob muttered, shaking his head and thinking out loud as he picked up the errant Crayfish that strayed from his bucket and were crawling across the floor of his tiny boat in a feeble escape attempt.
Trippers on pleasure boats drifted by, they saw the two of us in the scruffy little boat, but they did appreciate the nobility of our purpose, nor did the Crayfish realise their fate. Five ducklings bobbed past and a red kite dived overhead, yet we alone knew of the grand plan that was underway. “The population here is diminished,” Bob confided to me in modest satisfaction as he emptied another trap, “these have wandered in from elsewhere.”
If you want to help Crayfish Bob redress the balance of Nature, come to Toynbee Hall next week and consume as many as you can of the plague of alien Crayfish that swarm in the Thames.
A Moorhen’s nest.
Bob finds a Pike in his net and holds it for a moment before throwing it back.
Bob impersonates a Crayfish.
Learn more about Crayfish Bob’s Dinners at Toynbee Hall 13-17th June.