They don’t make ‘em like Colonel John Blashford Snell anymore. This larger than life soldier and explorer has done it all. He made the first descent of the Blue Nile, crossed the Darién Gap,drove from Alaska to Cape Horn and pioneered the navigation of the Congo River.
Oh yes and he also blew up a village fish pond in Kent in a bid to destroy a monster which had been munching its way through thousands of valuable goldfish.
I know because I was there. Forty four years ago to this very day I was a young reporter on the Kentish Gazette in Canterbury. I had been despatched to the nearby village of Ickham after the newsdesk heard that the British Army was rolling into the Garden of England in pursuit of a rogue fish that had been causing havoc in a local goldfish breeder’s pond. There were even rumours that the aquatic killer – instantly nicknamed Jaws – had been deliberately bred by the Russians.
To be honest I didn’t believe a word of it but, if nothing else, it was a morning out and had the makings of a cracking little tale. Imagine my astonishment when I arrived in Ickham to find a large pond in the grounds of a posh country-manor care home surrounded by a team of Army frogmen and explosives experts. The Colonel – known universally as Blashers – was directing operations. They really did pull out all the stops. An armoured car, complete with machine gun, sat incongruously on the adjacent ‘Darling Buds of May’ lawn.
The owner of both the care home and pond, a former trawler skipper turned goldfish breeder called Alf Leggett, was making it clear to anyone who would listen that blowing up his pond was fine by him. There had been 3,000 goldfish in its murky waters just a few weeks ago but now so few were left that their death by friendly fire was a small price to pay for the demise of the dreaded Jaws.
The Army press office, sensing some positive publicity plus the opportunity for an exercise, had put the word around and gradually the UK media – always game for a quirky yarn – started arriving in the village. By the time Blashers gave the order to detonate the charges half of Fleet Street and a couple of TV crews were preparing to witness the demise of Jaws. The resulting explosion sent a plume of water, pondweed, fish, frogs and heaven knows what else at least 50 feet in the air and swamped the assembled press. Someone made a joke about a ‘newt-tron bomb’ and Alf Legget looked on in delight.
Had Jaws been exterminated? No one knew. And gradually it dawned on us that Mr Leggett wasn’t particularly concerned. He had a 30 or 40 strong press pack in his back garden and as Blashers and his men started to pack up their kit, he invited the reporters into the care home for Champagne and a good look around. Before long brochures were being handed out and details of the perceived delights of the care facility were being bandied around,.
Viewed from the perspective of 2021 this story offers a curious snapshot of an era. A time when the British Army was still big enough to enjoy a bit of fun, when newspapers could afford to send multiple reporters and photographers on jobs that took them away for days at a time and business people believed that no effort was too great in the pursuit of publicity.
But what of the killer fish? Well, a couple of days later two men from the Southern Water Board clambered into a rowing boat and set out across the pond clutching a fishing net and an electric prod. They eventually found a large perch which was stunned, slightly damaged and possibly rather hungry. It was removed and released into nearby reservoir but not before having it’s photograph taken. The caption simply read ‘Jaws’.