1st May, believe it or not, was quite a nice day, something quite unfamiliar for us in Western Britain thus far this spring. I think it took us by surprise. Plenty of water remained rushing down our rivers. GM from Shrewsbury found the Usk pretty high at Abercynrig but managed 18 trout nevertheless. RG from Old Sodbury tried the Honddu at Pandy, where he found the river full and slightly coloured, but caught a bag of 7 trout including a specimen of 18 inches. Meanwhile commiserations to HK from Crickhowell with a friend who were off to Llwyn On, which they never reached as the car’s clutch burned out. Some fishing days just aren’t meant to be.

We had also some late reports from April. Abercothi (where the Towy meets the Cothi) had two salmon during the month, including a fish of 38 inches. And during the 27/28th April weekend no less than three fresh salmon, all around 17 pounds, were caught spinning from the Slaughter Crib of the Lower Symonds Yat fishery. This part of the Wye is what I call proper Forest of Dean fishing, where dark woods spill down the gorge to the river and where a few red deer still roam. The name of the Slaughter Crib, by the way, has a sinister history, originating from the legend of a Roman column which was massacred to a man by Silurian tribes who fell on it from the Forest as they made their cautious way along the river bank here. Foresters were a bit wild and woolly in those days, and one Roman historian wrote that they were: “changed neither by cruelty nor by clemency.” It would be tempting to add: “So no change there,” but perhaps that would be unfair on my neighbours. Today, this is a busy part of the river as there is a very pleasant public path along the old railway line which once ran from Symonds Yat to Monmouth. This walk and the towns are crowded with holiday makers in summer, while I promise that the foresters you meet will be doing nothing more aggressive than pulling pints and selling ice-cream.

High water at Penpont - JH from Bristol
Buckland - JS from Horsham

More familiar rain showers began again on the 2nd. DA from Llandovery had 8 trout between 8-12 inches from the Usk at Penpont, while NH from Truro caught 4 trout including a big one on nymphs at Buckland. The Usk was still high and cold. MH from Swansea was fishing the coloured Wye at Llangoed and Llanstephan where he lost a salmon, but caught a fat shad. It seems the shad are in early this year. KR from Aylesbury caught half a dozen trout in high water on the Cannop brook. (Note that the future of this section of brook is slightly in question as flood prevention works are now due to be carried out in the Cannop valley. We are talking to Forestry England and Gloucestershire County Council about this). Meanwhile Lawrence Birkin had another Wye salmon at Aramstone. This one weighed 16 pounds 10 ounces and still carried sea lice around the vent.

Aramstone - Laurence Birkin
Cefn Rhosan Fawr - SW from Backwell
Usk near Talybont - Seth Johnson-Marshall

By the bank holiday weekend the weather was becoming a little warmer and SJ from Crickhowell caught 10 Usk trout at Cwmwysg Ganol. Seth Johnson-Marshall of Afonydd Cymru reported a hatch of what looked like brook duns on the Usk above Talybont and caught a dozen trout to 2 pounds “off the top.” HJ from Bridgend caught 8 trout from Llyn Teifi on a day when “anything small and black off the top” would do the job. LC from Ledbury caught 7 trout from the Honddu (Monnow tributary) at Pandy. However, AF from Swansea was not very happy about his day fishing the Usk Reservoir: “If you want your day fishing ruined by abusive paddle-boarders the Usk is the place to go I’ve always enjoyed the Usk but it has gone downhill fast it resembles a campsite these days with anglers lighting camp fires on sunny days leaving litter everywhere such a shame for once it was a good fishing experience a distant memory. I’m sorry to say the site will not be seeing me again until they sort their act out.”

With or without punctuation, I think I follow his drift. Alas for human nature, particularly that of other people! NB from Presteigne with a friend had a different experience in the lonely wilderness at Llyn Bugeilyn where they took 20 trout on small black flies: “Bibio never fails me up here.” An osprey was seen circling overhead. KC from Bridgend fished Dan y Parc with heavy euro-nymphs and reported 5 trout…and a salmon! No more details or photographs about the salmon I am afraid. LC from Cheltenham must have had a better day on Usk Reservoir where he took 5 rainbow trout. Joe Alexander from Rhayader found the Edw had woken up with the spring weather, reporting 9 trout on the 5th from Hergest and 12 more on the 6th from Aberedw with a size 20 F-Fly. On the 7th he fished two separate sections of the Cammarch Brook for 7 trout on dry flies. BP from Pembridge fished the Edw at Cregrina with a Tenkara rod and reported 9 trout on nymphs. PP from Hereford reported 5 trout including a big one at Talybont Reservoir. Otis Ferry caught another Wye salmon, an 8 pounder this time, from the Lady Pool at Glanwye. Now the lower part of the river was starting to come into condition at last. An angler at Wyebank lost a big salmon at the beginning of the weekend, but then fish of 18 and 17 pounds were caught, all with the spinner. We heard of a big salmon – unfortunately we don’t have an accurate measurement or weight, but estimated at 22 pounds - taken on the lower Usk at Monkswood.

Aberedw - JA from Rhayader

By the end of the bank holiday warm weather and sunshine set in quite suddenly. This was more like an East European spring, the kind which comes with a rush after 6 months of snow. The onset of green everywhere was quite a surprise; only last week the shepherd taking supplementary feed to his sheep at Abercynrig had been complaining to me about “everlasting winter.” Nature seemed confused; we had bluebells out, but not yet yellow flag iris. Joe Alexander was still visiting the Edw and on the 8th he fished Hundred House – where he had complaints about the access, “Tis a pity no investment is put into these streams” - and reported 5 trout, and also at Cregrina where he reported 8 trout to 13 inches. PR from Bristol also had complaints about access to the Usk at Upper Tower, where he caught 3 trout on dries. DG from Nailsea had a day on the lower river at Chainbridge where he caught 5 trout on a nymph suspended below a dry fly and expressed his thanks to owner Barry Paraskevas for advice on the beat.

By the 9th we had something like a heat-wave, starting with early morning mist and then a hot rising sun towards 20 degrees and beyond. NT with a couple of friends from Carmarthen accounted for 18 rainbows from the Usk Reservoir. PB from Churchdown with a companion had a trout of 18 inches in a bag of 4 at Penpont, while BG from Exeter lost a big fish at Cwmwysg Ganol. Come to think of it, I lost a good fish myself about this time from the lower river at Kemeys Commander. All sorts of things were hatching that day, some of them seemingly out of season: some late grannom, yellow mays, olive uprights and pale wateries to name but a few. However, the sun was very bright and nothing was rising, while I was wading a heavy current with difficulty. The river was really too high to reach the particular bit of water I had my eye on, but a long cast with a Grunter resulted in a very rough take and some thrashing from a big trout which opened the hook bend and away it went. The hook was one of the old hand-made Captain Hamiltons too, usually much more reliable than the modern machine-made ones. For those who stayed out late that night, the aurora borealis could be seen across the British Isles, caused by electro-magnetic sun storms of unusual magnitude. Down at sea level we saw nothing, but up on the Forest rim viewers were photographing curtains of green and purple light. Next day the heat wave collapsed in thunder storms and showers.

Cregrina trout - JA from Rhayader
Edw Hundred House - JA from Rhayader
Edw mayfly - JA from Rhayader

SJ from Crickhowell with two friends had a very good day on the 9th, taking 23 trout to 50 cm at Glanusk Ty Mawr and the Canal and Rivers Trust. Apparently there was a good midday rise along with beetles falling from trees. Up at Nyth and Tyr Celyn PG from West Sussex recorded a salmon of 4.2 kg. CG from the Isle of Man fished the Ogwen Valley AA water and took 8 trout on dries such as Black Gnat, along with olive and sedge patterns. Lyn Davies from Swansea went up to Llyn Berwyn, known for its summer dry fly fishing and caught 8 trout. Knowing Lyn, he was fishing a pair of dry flies, 3 or 4 feet apart, on a long leader. JL from Street with three friends caught 36 Usk trout at Fenni Fach, first with nymphs and then with dries. The same group caught 32 on dries from Cefn Rhosan Fawr the following day. WB from Andover fishing for salmon at Gromaine was besieged by shad, early in the river this year as we have already heard. MH from Swansea had 8 of them in the region of the Heirag pool and remarked that they seemed large this season. I’m guessing that he had found a shoal of females. The shad usually travel divided by sex and the females are somewhat larger – across the Atlantic, the Americans call them roes and bucks.

RT from Peterlee caught 14 trout near Cauldron Snout on the Strathmore Estate of the Upper Tees. WM from Tintern with a friend recorded 8 trout to 1.5 pounds from the Usk at Abercynrig. JP from Blackwood caught 6 trout from the Llwyn On reservoir. Back on the Tees, GW from London recorded 8 trout from the Raby Estate on the 11th and 10 more on the 12th.  BP from Pembridge sent us pictures from the Llynfi Dulas Middle beat where he caught 11 trout to 12 inches. Interestingly he was using a Tenkara rod. It’s good to know that method hasn’t entirely gone out of fashion. MB from Kidderminster had 11 trout with the dry fly from the Ithon at Llandewi, which is quite a good return for that beat. Joe Alexander sent a detailed report from the Clwyedog brook where he experienced the “savage takes” of no less than 13 six-inch trout.    

Llynfi Dulas - BP from Pembridge
Lower Usk at Kemys Commander
The Wye at Erwood resembling coffee due to a landslide during heavy rain in the Ithon catchment.

The fine weather having departed with the weekend, we were once more beset with sudden localised rain and thunderstorms. Having slept soundly through a stormy night, I set out early on the morning of the 13th to meet clients at Cefnllysgwynne on the Irfon. According to routine I had checked online the evening before and Irfon water levels seemed OK. However, driving across the Forest, I found myself threading my way around slides of gravel and silt all over the tarmac of the roads. I realised that it must have been quite a storm. Much worse, as I drove alongside the Wyesham beat towards Monmouth I saw that the lower Wye was now running completely opaque. The colour was so red that it looked more like tomato soup than water. My immediate thought was that somewhere nearby very heavy rain had fallen into a freshly ploughed field waiting for potato planting and now we had tons of silt washing through the river. Could it be coming from the Monnow which joins just upstream? Or even the little Trothy, which is murky at the best of times?

However, immediately after crossing the main river over the Monmouth bridge, my route led me back over the Monnow and it seemed to be quite clear. Could a tributary joining further up the Wye such as the Lugg be the culprit? On to Abergavenny, where I crossed the Usk twice, and incidentally this also looked clear. Wherever the silt in the Wye was coming from, I assumed I would be above it by the time I crossed the pass to Talgarth and rejoined the upper river by Erwood. But no, as I drove alongside the main Wye stem as far as Builth, the water was the colour of thick milky coffee, distinctly unfishable. Oh dear! Could the Irfon be the cause of the trouble? Who knows how much rain had fallen on the high moors in the remoter upper part of that catchment? Finally, having reached my destination on the Cefnllysgwynne estate, I walked down to the Church Pool and found the Irfon running quite clear and even slightly low. Thus I knew we would have our planned fishing day, but the true source of the colour stain was still intriguing me. While I had an internet signal, I checked the main river webcam up at Rhayader and found the water there to be showing low and clear. By a process of elimination therefore, if it wasn’t the main Wye and it wasn’t the Irfon, the Ithon tributary entering above Builth had to be the culprit.

And so it was eventually confirmed by a local radio station. The previous day somewhere near Crossgates a sudden thunder storm had provoked a landslip which washed a whole road away in a mass of liquid mud, which of course found its way into the Ithon via ditches and streams. 36 hours later it was in Monmouth. Another few hours and it would be added to the giant mud-banks of the Severn estuary and Bristol Channel. The colour in the Wye took weeks rather than days to wash out and the salmon fishing for the following period was accordingly pretty slow, with the exception of a big fish hooked and lost spinning in the Rectory Pool by Brian Skinner.

Cefn Rhosan Fawr
Penpont - PB from Churchdown

Anglers pressed on despite more showers of rain. DH from Cheltenham recorded 10 trout from the Monnow at Skenfrith, a pretty good result from that beat. Wyesham, despite the mud, recorded a sea-liced salmon of 8 pounds taken on a Flying C.  Some smaller fish were arriving now. GP from Stockbridge on the Test caught 6 Usk trout at Buckland. PC from Taunton recorded 18 trout at Cefnllysgwynne using a Red and Black Buzzer – a pattern I would normally associate with still waters, not rivers, but I’m all for experiments, particularly when as successful as that. For the next few days, anglers were still complaining about mud in the Wye. GM from Shrewsbury had a good time on the Usk, catching 30 trout at Dinas after a disappointing morning at Upper Tower where access to the river was difficult or blocked. AP from Caerphilly was unhappy with his day at the Usk Reservoir on the 15th: “I caught nothing but perch which is very annoying considering I’m paying to catch rainbow trout.” However the important point here is that anglers are not paying to catch anything; they are rather paying to fish, with quite a variety of methods and locations available to them. How successfully ticket holders manage to fish has much to do with their own efforts, skills and experience, along with the lottery of weather conditions on the day. RB from Carmarthen, who also fished the Usk Reservoir on the 15th, recorded 5 rainbow trout – along with 8 perch. AC from Lydbrook in the Forest of Dean managed just one trout at Greenbank on the Usk, about which he had no complaints, but during his day he saw a goshawk, oyster catchers and an otter. JD from Patrixbourne with a friend had a 20 inch brown trout on a dry fly at Buckland. I believed that potential 3 pounder would be the largest trout reported from the Usk so far this spring….but see the end of this letter for news of more specimens.  DP from Fordingbridge with a friend had 12 trout to 2 pounds on dry flies at Dinas, while PJ from Crediton had 10 trout at Abercynrig.

Buckland - JD from Patrixbourne
Abercynrig - DP from Fordingbridge

Meanwhile on the mountain lakes, MB from Towcester with two friends fished a couple of Aberystwyth AA’s Craigpistyll lakes and reported 30 trout to 12 ounces on such reliable upland flies as the Half Hog and Kate Maclaren. KG from Bath with a friend took 25 trout on Llyn Bugeilyn with small black dries and pulling wets. DF from Coventry had 8 trout on a dry Greenwells from the Tees at Raby Estate. AC from Mellor had a big fish in a bag of 4 from the upper Neath. Coarse anglers were able to fish on enclosed lakes and PA from Usk float-fished corn on Trelough Pool to take 20 roach and small bream. On the 18th NE from Bridgewater had some serious complaints to make about access to the Middle Bran, where he couldn’t reach most of the water. DM from Wetheringsett caught 13 trout from the Usk at Fenni Fach, using nymphs as no fish were rising. KC from Blackwood had 6 trout from Llwyn On. BP from Pembridge took 9 trout using Tenkara gear from the Duhonw.  Around this time we had a series of reports from JA from Rhayader who was by now using the Wild Streams section of the passport on a daily basis. He suggested that anglers carry a set of pruning secateurs in their pocket, which is commendably good advice, especially during this wet season of explosive growth. I certainly often do it and it’s not a bad idea to have a stick as well, if only for bramble bashing. LN from Andover was not happy with the situation he found at Glan yr Afon on Sunday 19th. This is a beautiful Usk beat, but it was a sunny weekend, there is a small village there with a post office / shop selling ice-cream, and there is also a public foot path along the river. Given such circumstances, it was almost bound to be busy.

BG from Exeter sent in a thoughtful report from Chainbridge where he found the fish “properly on yellow mays” and took 8 trout to 16 inches using imitations. True mayflies were hatching, but the trout were apparently not displaying much interest. Given a little time, I was sure they would. In fact I was watching a fish at Dinas feeding on mayflies that same evening. Idiot that I am, I had left the box of mayfly imitations in the car! We used to say that the Usk, with its bed more rock and gravel than silt, is “not really a mayfly river,” but I seem to be seeing a lot of them this year. IC from Gloucester caught 14 trout to 16 inches on the Glanusk Ty Mawr / Canal and Rivers Trust section. He was using nymphs as fish were not rising. JB from Oxford arrived at Glan y Cafn to find another angler fishing and was “not sure whether he was a poacher or an angler lost from another beat.” He was a poacher, JB. Did you try hailing him politely, showing him your ticket and asking to see his?

Llyn Berwyn - Lyn Davies
Llyn Berwyn

Gillie Nathan Jubb broke the deadlock on salmon catches with a fresh 16 pounds hen from Upper Bigsweir on the 21st. It was caught on something called a Yellow Tiger Tail, which I think is a new pattern in very bright orange, presumably because the earthy stain was still in the river. Tony Davis reported a fresh fly-caught fish of 10.5 pounds from the Golden Mile; another one came from Wyesham, also fresh and also on the fly. Wyesham also reported a bass of 3.5 pounds, which is fairly unusual even on the lower river. Then on the 24th, Wyesham had a fish of 11 pounds taken spinning, while Glyn Cawte reported a fresh fish of 18 pounds from Lower Carrots and Luggsmouth.

Turning back to trout fishing, TC from Ware reported 8 from the upper Wye at Craig Llyn. JL from London had 11 trout from the Usk at Dinas, mainly on the dry fly. On the 22nd JL from London with a friend reported 12 trout to 16 inches from the Usk at Dan y Parc, although this river was also quite coloured after a cloud-burst. 7 were on dry flies such as Bob Wyatt’s inspired Deer Hair Emerger and 5 on nymphs. NS from Macclesfield was battling the coloured water up at Penpont and took 7 trout on nymphs. JS from Horsham fished at Buckland and caught 11 trout up to 20 inches, all on a Parachute Adams. On the following day, RG from Alcester was less than happy with the access directions at Buckland, wondering how anglers should reach the end of the beat beyond Beech Pool. Similarly MB from Aldershot who booked Upper Tower for the 23rd pointed out that there is now almost no access due to recently collapsed banks – see the photograph. Other people managed to fish it. It’s difficult to advise what should be done about this without enormous expense, because the river in this section is inherently mobile with a steady undercutting of silt banks. 

Bank erosion at Upper Tower - MB from Aldershot
Dinas - NH from Truro

GM from Shrewsbury reported 12 trout taken on a chilly May evening at Ty Mawr at the top of the Wye. JG from London with a friend had yet another specimen Usk trout of 20 inches in a bag of 11 taken at Ashford House. They were using a tiny parachute emerger on a 6X tippet. MW from Neath with a friend caught 8 trout from the Usk Reservoir. On the 24th I had the pleasure of watching Craig Spader, a retired fire-fighter from Colorado, put together a bag of 12 trout on the dry fly at Dinas. It was another cold and cloudy day with rain threatening. Except just for a couple of busy corners, there were surprisingly few fish rising naturally although plenty of flies, mainly olive uprights and later pale wateries, were about on the river. J from High Wycombe reported a big one, not weighed or measured, in a brace from Buckland. PL from Tredegar was very proud of his 9 year old grandson who caught 6 trout on the Usk Reservoir. JA from Rhayader had another dozen trout from the Clywedog using dry flies. And AK from Churt reported a really excellent day at Greenbank catching 12 trout on dry flies during a hatch of medium olives. The catch included individual fish of 15, 16, 18 and 20 inches. SRDM from Sugarbush Farm, Zambia, was not very happy with the access arrangements for the Llynfi at Talgarth. As he was wearing shorts rather than waders through all those nettles and brambles, I can imagine the experience wasn’t pleasant! KS from Bridgend caught 9 Usk trout from Abercynrig on dry flies. GM from Shrewsbury again found much to like about the upper Usk at Cwmwysg Ganol, despite the annoyance of barbed wire on the stiles. He took 20 trout on dry flies.

On the subject of access, I have a complaint of my own to make about the two stiles leading down into fields above and below the famous bridge on the Lugg’s Lyepole beat. These were always a bit awkward and overgrown, but now a fencing contractor, presumably in an attempt to keep sheep confined, has adorned both of them with barbed wire. This is pretty annoying and makes it almost impossible to pass over with waders intact. If you don’t want to wreck waders worth several hundred pounds, I would opt for the long walk round by the field gate, at least until somebody visits with wire cutters.

Upper Tower - KN from Weston Rhyn

Salmon fishing was still slow, with the mud stain remaining really quite strong in the Wye. A 9 pounds fish was taken in the Cafn Stream of the Nyth on the 27th. John Harris caught a 2 sea winter fish on the Lower Usk at Newbridge on the 29th. Cold and rainy weather continued and the Usk too as well as Wye tributaries were often coloured with mud. BP from Pembridge reported 20 trout from the Edw at Cregrina during a mayfly hatch using a largish Klinkhammer. JA from Rhayader reported 22 from the same stream next day, again with a mayfly hatch in progress. Spencer John took a fresh cock fish weighing 10 pounds from the lower Usk with his favourite Reverend Mole Fly. Abercothi reported only one salmon for the whole month of May! Meanwhile BR from Merthyr Tydfil expressed in printed capital letters his dissatisfaction with his own failure to catch a fish at Usk Reservoir.    

Arriving now at the end of the May reports (bar one day to come), I conclude that despite sometimes difficult conditions, never quite knowing what the weather was going to do, we really had a pretty good month. This was particularly true for spring trout fishing on the Usk where some days were truly spectacular. As one example, a late report came in from two well-known characters on our rivers: Seth Johnson-Marshall of Afonydd Cymru, who kindly edits this newsletter, and Simon Evans of the Foundation. On 11th May they shared a rod on an upper middle Usk beat and took 15 trout up to 3 pounds 4 ounces (weighed in the net), all on dries. Seth came back and fished the evening of the 16th and took 16 trout on dries such as CDC Emerger and Ducks Dun. 3 of these were over 2 pounds and 3 more over 3 pounds (which included Simon’s 3 pounds 4 ounces fish from the previous visit). The biggest of the bag was 3 pounds 6 ounces. The fish were still rising hard when Seth left at 9.30. That is the sort of day you will remember all your life. At the end of the month Simon had an evening at the bottom end of Abercynrig and took 15 trout to 2 pounds. Undistracted by a drift of white caenis, trout kept sipping spinners regularly and apparently fell for a size 16 Jingler while the light lasted.

3 pounder no 1 - Seth Johnson-Marshall
3 pounder no 2 (the one caught twice)
3 pounder no 3

Here’s a bit of good news for once. The old Cammarch Hotel beats on the Irfon at Llangammarch Wells, marketed now under the name of Serenity Hotel Upper, Middle and Lower Irfon beats, are back in the WUF portfolio. The hotel has had a number of owners since I have known it, but over many autumns I have fished these beats for grayling with a very special pleasure, enjoying a most beautiful and peaceful landscape. It’s nearly all good fishing with dry fly, spiders or nymphs, although particular areas stand out as particularly memorable: the gutters in the upper beat, the Pump-House Pool in the middle, and that wonderful long run and deep bend overhung with oak trees below the railway bridge in the lower beat. The river also gives you a chance of a late season salmon as Lyn Davies will attest. I caught my first Wye system salmon with a 10 foot 4 weight rod while fishing a team of wets below the Pump-House Pool for grayling.

Serenity House Lower Irfon - LB from Bude

Lyn Davies, by the way, sent in another of his spring videos, this time about fishing for brown trout in his local River Loughor at Ammanford in South Wales. Lyn was born and practically raised beside this stream and still lives within a few yards of it in Pontardulais. The story of the Loughor is a strange one: first a great battle by fishing associations against pollution from coal mines and other heavy industry and then the development of the river as a night sewin fishery by an earlier generation of anglers. Many of these were miners who worked in the same pits which were blackening the stream. Lyn’s family are very much part of this sewin fishing tradition; he has an uncle who it is said has never been known to cast a fly in the Loughor by daylight, but after dark he would fish it several nights a week all through the season. Is that really true, Gwynlais? When it was good, this river was really good – the club’s sewin record is a fish of 17 pounds – but after the pollution was cleared up, sad to say, the sewin run mysteriously dwindled. Lyn is not one to despair and abandon his local river, so he has been spending time developing the brown trout fishing by various methods, some of them quite new to the nearby angling community. He points out that as the sewin run has declined, so has the incidence of larger native brown trout increased, and this in a stream which used to be known only for “tiddlers.” People who make the effort are now coming across brown trout of 2 and 3 pounds on occasion. The same changes are being experienced in the much better known Towy, just a few miles away. See what you think of the video:

The Conservative Party received a well-deserved drubbing in the recent council elections. It is hard to sympathise with a party which started so well in power after the last general election, but went on to waste so many of the opportunities provided for it by Brexit, and then turned in on itself in a spiral of vicious internal infighting. They did it to themselves and deserve what they get, former supporters might be thinking to themselves. The problem is that the likely alternatives might be even worse for the country. Now, with rumours about how many letters are in the hands of Sir Graham Brady and the definite news that we face another general election, I’m feeling a bit like Brenda from Bristol. Here we go again!  

Meanwhile we were treated to the spectacle of a newly-elected Green councillor making his victory speech in Leeds. This chap, we are told, is an accountant, father of three, and keen on gardening. Just the sort to make a good local councillor, you might imagine. However, he had focussed his election campaign, not on local issues, but almost entirely on Gaza and the conflict between Hamas and Israel. The Palestinian conflict was also the subject of his victory speech. He has a right to do that in a democracy, you might argue, just as an organisation called Muslim Vote has a right to be demanding, as indeed they are, a list of policy concessions in order to provide their votes to a “presumably about to govern” Labour Party. Now, dressed in Middle Eastern garb, his face suffused with anger and hatred, the new Green councillor concluded by shaking his fist in the air. “Allahu Akbar,” (God is Great), he shouted. Useless for apologists to suggest this was just a suitably pious phrase; used in that way, everybody knows it was a war cry. How divided have we become, that our UK elections are now to be defined by Middle Eastern conflicts and the differences between religions?

Mostar 93

In the early hours of the morning of 9th May 1993, now 31 years ago, the Croatian Catholic HVO sponsored by Zagreb attacked the mainly Muslim Mostar Brigade inside their home city. The breakdown between the two armies had been feared for weeks (my wife was the interpreter for the Brigade waiting at the planned meeting with UNPROFOR on the afternoon of the 8th, to which the Croats failed to arrive). The attack in Mostar had been expected, but it was almost overwhelming when it came. The Brigade withdrew across the river after its West Mostar headquarters was destroyed and the staff there killed. UNPROFOR’s Spanish Battalion left the city. Bosnian Muslim civilians living in Croatian controlled West Mostar were ordered on pain of death to wear an identifying white rag tied round their left arm. There were round-ups of Muslim men to the football stadium and helicopter factory. The torture and executions which followed have since been well documented by the International Criminal Court. Women and children were expelled from their apartments and sent under fire across the front line. A few weeks later, the situation for 60,000 Muslims blockaded in the eastern part of the city seemed quite desperate. A couple of kilometres behind in the mountains lay the line against the Orthodox Serbs. In front, where the River Neretva flows through the city, was the line against Catholic Croatian forces, encircling now across the river to the north and south. The road in both directions up and down the valley, to Sarajevo or to the coast, was therefore blocked. The only way in was by mule across the mountains from Konjic. 

Mayor of East Mostar at the time was Safet Orucevic, SDA (Society of Democratic Action) local party chairman, strong-man for the Neretva Valley, and now leader of what had been dubbed the War Cabinet. Safet had begun the war well by his own lights, arriving in Mostar in 1992 with a van load of guns bought on the Austrian black market. His family were already safely in Spain. Since the previous year, however, the situation in Mostar had deteriorated beyond measure as a three-way war between Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats developed. One evening while I was staying in Safet’s house his bodyguard showed me the Mayor’s personal side-arm, a nickel plated automatic pistol inscribed as a gift from Alija Izetbegovic, then Bosnian President and SDA party leader in Sarajevo. Take out the clip and you could see that the nose of each round had been drilled down to hollow point.

With the ring of steel complete, bombardment almost continuous and no aid getting in, Alija Izetbegovic made a satellite phone call from Sarajevo to his henchman in Mostar and ordered Safet to surrender the city and move his whole population north to Central Bosnia. Despite the desperate circumstances, Safet refused. To their eternal credit, Safet and those around him were not about to make a present of the city of their birth to hard-line Croatian nationalists. Instead a decision was made to attack the north kasarna, the old Jugoslav Army barracks on the outskirts of town, force out the Croatian troops holding it, and so open up the road north to Sarajevo.

Mostar Brigade

The attack on 30th June was led by my wife’s old school mate Midhat Hujdur, one of several junior commanders of the Mostar Brigade. Around 40 by then, though short and slightly ugly, he was generally liked for his good humour and known by the nickname Hujka. Never in any way academic and unremarkable by ordinary career standards of achievement, during the past year Hujka had discovered a couple of things he was really good at: soldiering and urban warfare. The attack was nothing very complicated or tactical, quite simply a series of human waves, but the effect was quite terrifying. Ill-equipped Bosnian soldiers, ragged and bearded, charged downhill over open ground towards the fire coming from the Croatian positions. Many were unarmed but picked up weapons from the fallen as they went on down the hill. The troops in the kasarna kept up firing for a time – Hujka was killed as the first wave reached them – but then their nerve broke and the well-armed Croatian soldiers fled back across the river.


There immediately followed a furious orgy of attacks by defeated Croatian soldiers against those Muslim civilians still living in West Mostar and a new and very violent round-up of Muslim men began. People do the strangest things in times of peril. My mother-in-law went to the hairdresser according to an existing appointment and walked there through all the chaos in the streets. She said afterwards that if they came for her husband, she didn’t want to be in the flat to see it. Poor Adem, who had already spent 10 days in the helicopter factory, waited alone in the apartment until Croatian friends came to stay and put their Catholic name on the front door along with the Muslim one.

As it turned out, the north kasarna remained in the Mostar Brigade’s hands and the road towards Central Bosnia and Sarajevo remained open for the rest of the war, permitting some transfer of weapons and personnel as well as the UN aid convoys. Mostar today remains in most ways a divided city but East Mostar was never evacuated and the city has not yet become part of a planned Greater Croatia. Hujka’s name is now commemorated by a new children’s sports centre in East Mostar, which he would have liked.

The scream on the lips of the ragged Muslim soldiers pouring downhill that day and which seemed to have caused such terror was “Allahu Akbar, God is Great.” The Jugoslavs of that time were not accustomed much to religion, having been raised in a secular socialist state. Certainly Jugoslav Muslims rarely spoke Arabic. However, war is nothing if not polarising. I know that some of the Muslim soldiers of the Brigade by then were wearing a miniature quran enclosed in a sort of locket at the neck of their battle dress. Their Catholic opponents had gold crosses and occasionally some old fascist regalia from World War II. If you ever find yourself in an existential situation, a real “to be or not to be” crisis, then it seems to me that a call of “God is Great” might be appropriate or comforting. On a blood-stained battlefield they might after all be the last words you utter.

But in a council office in Leeds?

Oliver Burch 

Wye Valley Fishing         

Please note that the views within this report are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Wye & Usk Foundation.