The Tackle Box Opening Night Parties
Countdown boards and specially commissioned cakes… Kevin Peet recalls a time when, for some, an enforced three-month break from angling proved almost unbearable
When Joe (the editor) asked me to put something together about the old close season, and in particular, the night before fishing recommenced, I was four weeks into self-isolation. Like many, I was missing both my life as an angler and the buzz of being at The Tackle Box. Joe’s request saw the memories and emotions of a past era return. The enforced break that we’re now experiencing bears similarities with the time when we used to have to hang up our rods for a period of three months, but which seemed, every year, an eternity.
For those unfamiliar with our history as a business, I’ll give a brief summary. We started up late in 1983. Evidently, we broke the rules straight away by choosing to set up in the village of Sutton-at-Hone, Kent, smack in the middle of the Darent Valley. (Yes, that’s ‘Darent’, and not as is commonly said, ‘Darenth’. To be clear, Darenth is an area within the Darent Valley.) The valley is famous within angling circles. It’s renowned particularly for its carp fishing history and for venues such as Darenth, Brooklands Lake (Dartford), DDAPS Sutton, Sutton Leisure Sport (now also DDAPS) and Horton Kirby. Back in the day, the fish just seemed to be bigger here than anywhere else. As a consequence, the area attracted carp anglers from all over the country and is where Fred Wilton and his cohorts, instigated the birth of boilies, and where the Hair Rig was tested by its inventors, Messrs Maddocks and Middleton. These are both stories in their own rights, but I digress…
According to most trade suppliers at the time, we should’ve set up in a location with chimney pots - this term referred to a concentration of population, but again, that’s perhaps a story for another time. The point is, that from the outset, we didn’t adhere to the so-called “rules” much, if at all. We didn’t break any laws obviously, we just did things our own way. As an example, the close season as far as the valley was concerned, was about to get a bit of a makeover!
Our first shop, housed within a terraced building comprised an area of about 8ft by 16ft, with a small kitchen and storage area that was accessed by a door at the rear of the shop.
After a sticky start to life as tackle retailers, we began to receive a steady flow of customers and built up a nucleus of regulars. March was approaching, and with it, our second close season. For the business, things were tight financially, so an enforced three-month lay-off wasn’t welcomed. The timeline regarding all this is, for me, a little cloudy, but as I recall we’d been going for about 16 months and our discussions centred around how we could plan to get through to June when we’d become busy again. I say plan, but it was more a case of simply wondering whether we’d get enough casual footfall to see us through.
Referring back to those supposed rules, our thoughts turned to what we might do that was different, or that would attract attention. For the next few weeks, trade was reasonably okay. In those days, we made nearly everyone who walked through the door, a hot drink. Although only Gary and I were working in the shop, the flow of customers was such that we had enough time to serve, as well as prepare teas and coffees. Each day brought with it an almost continuous social, and when chatting to those that came in, you could sense their solemn mood at the beginning of the long close season. This though, was contrasted by a rising excitement as the weeks passed, which would then culminate in a buzz that you just don’t get nowadays, that led up to when fishing started again on 16 June.
About four weeks into the close season, we started to think outside the box a little. The shop was within walking distance of all the above-mentioned venues, except perhaps Brooklands, which was about four miles away. Darenth and Kirby though, were within easy reach, and the two Suttons were just across the road. All except Kirby in those days, were members-only. Kirby was still a day-ticket venue which attracted anglers from as far away as North London.
The format on the members’ waters was that anglers were obliged to arrive in good time for an afternoon draw on 15 June, before they then headed to their respective selected swims to set-up. They weren’t permitted obviously, to cast out until midnight, and this resulted in a lot of anglers clicking their heels for six or seven hours. With this in mind, we considered that there were no rules in place that prevented us from putting on a party for these frustrated souls, and supplying them with buffet-style food as they whiled away the last few hours of what always seemed a very long close season. There was though, just one problem with this idea, and that was space.
As I alluded to above, the shop area wasn’t big enough to put on such a function, but no more than 20 paces away was The Ship, a pub whose landlord we got on with fairly well. We explained the situation to him and asked if we could put on a bit of food in the corner of the bar for the anglers, and on seeing an opportunity for beer sales, he agreed.
We spent the weeks leading up to the start of the new season, putting the word out, whilst also wondering what sort of response we’d get come the evening of 15 June. At the same time though, we were also wishing we had a shop large enough to host the planned celebration ourselves.
When we got to tell customers about our plans, we received mixed reactions. These ranged from casual acknowledgement to almost excited disbelief. The impression we formed was that most would do as they’d always done, and just sit by their rods waiting for midnight; it didn’t seem as though all had taken in what we were organising, and they looked upon it as too radical and different.
This is where, once again, details get a little fuzzy. For that first opening night, I believe Mum made all the food, which was transported to the pub from our home in neighbouring Horley. The scheduled start time was 7 o’clock. In those days our opening hours were 7.30 a.m. to 7 p.m., so as soon as we’d closed and locked the shop, we walked the short distance to The Ship.
The turnout, I recall, was okay. We didn’t have a huge number attend, but as luck would have it, some of the anglers enjoyed a tradition of setting up and then heading to the pub anyway, and there they’d remain until closing time. This swelled the numbers a little, but in any event, this was our first attempt at doing something just a bit different from the norm. Word got around that we did indeed go ahead with what we’d promised and there appeared little question that we’d be doing the same the following year.
The lead-up to the next opening night was more organised, because we had a lot longer to advertise the event, and by then also, we’d moved to bigger premises not thirty yards up the road. Our new shop was huge in comparison to the original place, which we’d rented. Business had grown to a level that saw a move desirable, so when a larger shop with a flat above came onto the market in a small parade, we couldn’t believe our luck. Relocation was a reasonably simple affair as the new premises were so close. Customers were familiar with our location and we remained right in the middle of one of the most popular fishing areas of the country at that time. The one downside was a fairly large mortgage, shared with Dad, who was to live in the flat. This saw his nickname of ‘Security’ come about… a small cat couldn’t pass wind within thirty yards of the shop doorway without Dad knowing about it!
The year progressed after our inaugural party night and all too quickly, another close season was upon us. The same solemness of the local anglers preceded that intense three-week period that saw every customer seemingly wired into a mainframe of excitement… all they were living for was the moment when they’d be able to cast their lines again. We undoubtedly heightened the intensity and anticipation after erecting a large board at the front of the shop that counted down to opening night. From memory, it began by announcing ‘30 DAYS TO GO’. Each day, we replaced the number as the start of the new season approached. The sense of anticipation, and of the potential highs and lows of the new season, emanated from each and every customer that entered the shop. The countdown board could be seen from the village’s main road, so even those that weren’t planning on visiting, could still see it as they drove past.
The plans were in place then, and once again Mum was charged with the catering. Word seemed to be getting around, even to anglers from further afield, and so anticipated attendance figures went into orbit! Back then obviously, there was no social media of any kind and communication was really just by word of mouth. Someone offered to make us a cake for the occasion, and we willingly accepted. We also laid on a few beers to get proceedings underway. Over the coming years, our specially commissioned cake became a feature within its own right, and was usually baked in the shape of an item of tackle or bait, or to depict a fishing scene.
We decided to move all the displays to the edge of the shop to make room for as many guests as possible. We also had a small grassed area immediately outside, in front of the shop door… everything was nicely teed up. The days ticked by and then the countdown board announced ‘1 DAY TO GO’. It was party night, but we remained unsure as to how many would attend.
Come 6.30 p.m. we started clearing the shop. How many anglers, from the numerous lakes that lined the valley, would leave their swims? Would all our efforts be in vain? We’d certainly have to eat a lot of food, and drink a lot of ale if nobody turned up. We had two wallpaper pasting tables with cloth covers for the buffet. Then there was the special cake - which I seem to remember one year, was a replica of a set of Reuben Heaton scales. There was also a generous supply of beer!
Once again, the rest is a bit of a blur. Anglers turned up from all over the valley and excited banter about bait, rigs and tactics filled the air. There were a few decoy conversations shall we say, regarding tactics, instigated by the craftier attendees. In those days, if you thought you had an edge, you kept it to yourself and told a few white lies about what you intended to do. The buzz was tremendous, and all the effort and trouble of organising the evening was more than worthwhile.
Some people left after a quick drink and making some last-minute purchases, but most stayed until near-midnight - a few stayed on a little longer! The atmosphere was fantastic and all those that came along were orderly and well behaved. Our second event of its kind proved to be a very successful evening which, if I’m truthful, was the cementing of a solid relationship with a lot of the local, and indeed visiting anglers.
Once everyone had gone, we tidied the shop ready for opening next morning at the usual time of seven o’clock, before heading home for a few hours’ sleep. At that time, we hadn’t realised what we’d created… the ritual of our party night would continue until 1995 when the close season for stillwaters was effectively abolished.
There were many opening nights that equalled or surpassed that first one in the shop. Each one has its own story, and I’m sure each guest that attended has their own, personal recollections. The nights became a fixture in a lot of people’s social calendar, and future events would see anglers who weren’t even intending to fish, turn up just for the celebration, just to share the banter and soak up the atmosphere with those that were.
I remember in particular, one occasion during the lead-up to party night. We’d not got to the time when we’d put up our countdown board, but one customer came in and virtually begged us to do so, as he couldn’t stand the strain of the close season for too much longer - he said that each year, all the stress of waiting began to fade once he saw the board go up!
We still get customers mentioning those times even today, and with some affection too. Knowing that we helped create such fond memories for our customers is certainly humbling.
There you have it then, the story behind the legendary party nights at the Tackle Box.