By Don Grant
Everything was perfect for a day’s fishing. It was warm without being too hot; there was some wispy ‘cirrostratus’ to take the edge off the summer sun; the water was, if not gin-clear, certainly ginger beer clear; there were some mayfly coming off the water virtually all day; the picnic had been unpacked and the Provençal rosé was on ice in the collapsible bucket, with a couple of beers; I had remembered the celery salt for the soft-boiled quails’ eggs; the avocado had a sticker on it stating that it was guaranteed to be ripe and ready to eat right NOW; the 50-50 crab was chilling out in the chiller bag; the olives were large Greek ones from the deli; the rods had been strung up and ready to go, loaded with a grey Wulff dry fly on each; the journey down had been relatively traffic-free; the shop in the village, called The Shop, had pork pies and their own delicious boiled ham; the bench was in the dappled shade of a willow tree; a kingfisher shot past at zero feet from the water. Everything was perfect for a day’s fishing. Except for one thing: there were no fish.
One year, some old colonel had complained to Mr Penny, the riverkeeper, that there were no fish in a particular pool. He replied that when they had to divert the course of the stream to put in a small waterfall, they used electrolysis to stun the fish and remove them to a tank while the drainage work was carried out. The fish came to the surface, where they were netted and counted. There were over two hundred fish in a pool the size of a tennis court, including trout, tench, carp, grayling, bream, barbel, chub, perch, eel, dace and an enormous pike, which they failed to return. There was even a sea-trout, known as a sewin in Wales, but he could offer no explanation as to how it got there. So, when I say there were no fish, I knew there were hundreds on this beat alone. They were just not rising. Because of a self-imposed restriction of only casting a dry fly to a rising fish upstream, in a purist Piscatorial Society ethos, as there were few rises, there were even fewer fish to catch. Well, in round figures, none. Robert managed to hook one, more through persistence than judgement, but then managed to lose it, purely through driver error. And that was that. I saw two small rises, but failed to capitalise, and I began to think that fishing was not really about catching fish. It was about the day. A day on the riverbank, with enough picnic food to feed five thousand, even without the two little fish. It was about communing with nature, bird-watching, just being there, with a sense of privilege, place and history. Most rivers in England have been flowing since the ice age, and it is sobering to think that, apart from man’s intervention with dredging, irrigation, raising banks, felling trees or creating flood plains, the rivers have been flowing roughly along the same course every minute of every hour of every day for thousands and thousand of years.
Most chalk streams in Hampshire, like the Test, the Itchen, the Anton and the Dever flow from around the hills south of Basingstoke and into Southampton Water. The Avon, with its tributaries the Wylie, the Nadder and the Ebble, flows through Wiltshire and enters the sea at Christchurch. Calling it the River Avon is tautological, as avon means river, and it would be like calling it the River River. Of the two hundred-odd chalk streams in the world, 160 of them are in England. The River Loddon also has its source in the chalk hills around Basingstoke, but flows north and enters the Thames at Wargrave, while the Kennet has its sources near Marlborough and flows into the Thames at Reading. Across the Channel, in Northern France, there are a handful of beautiful chalk streams, like the Risle, the Charentonne and the Andelle, which were fished by the likes of Eisenhower, Hemingway and Charles Ritz, who penned a great book on angling called A Flyfisher’s Life; the foreword was written by Hemingway. He described him ‘as one of the very finest fishermen I know. He is not only a great flyfisherman for trout and salmon, but he is an articulate writer and splendid technician.’ The Somme in Picardy is also a chalk stream, or river, as the geology of the region is not dissimilar to the Downs in the Southern counties of England. It still amazes me that, in just over an hour from London, one is in a riverside idyll, with birdsong all around, a cuckoo in the distance, wildlife, woodland, rolling hills, fields swaying with corn and barley, country pubs virtually untouched by the big breweries, serving beer that tastes like beer used to taste, and tranquility. Sir Edward Grey, later Earl Grey of Falloden, loved flyfishing so much that he built a cottage on the Itchen near the riverbank on land belonging to his cousin, Lord Northbrook, where he and his wife Dorothy would find refuge every weekend. They kept a diary of the local flora and fauna in the river meadows and fished for wild brown trout. He wrote one of the seminal books about angling on Britain’s chalk streams called simply Fly Fishing in 1899, and in it he said, ‘It became a sanctuary. The peace and beauty of the spot made it a sacred place.’
On 3 August 1914 Sir Edward Grey made his famous quote, ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime’, and it was Grey as the foreign secretary, who took Britain to war later in August of that year, and in 1916, she suffered the greatest number of casualties in British Army history. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 57,470 men were wounded, mostly from German machine gun fire, of which 19,240 died. In one day. In total, the Battle claimed 419,654 killed, wounded or missing in the 141 days it lasted, with 72,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers with no known graves and whose names are recorded on the British memorial at Thiepval, at the heart of the Somme Battlefields. It is ironic that the name Somme comes from a Celtic word meaning ‘tranquility’.