Friday, 18 August 2017

Writer's block

In music it is often said that the second album is the hardest; likewise the second book. I can't say I found this to be true. But my first film script? Well, that is a whole different story.

Now by my way of thinking a book is easy. You pitch the idea. A kind publisher shows some interest. You work it up into synopsis. In my case about two sides of A4 with thirty or forty words for each chapter heading.  The contract is signed. You are given a word count and deadline. And that is it. Over to you. For nine months nobody takes a blind bit of interest in your scribbling. The occasional email might appear checking you are still alive (the first clue is that you have cashed the advance cheque) but that is about it. The only boundaries are your imagination. The structure, the story, the beginning, middle and end are all of your choosing. Essentially you can do what you like. Of course the whole literary edifice may well coming crashing down upon your head when the manuscript is submitted for the red pen of the editor but you are a least given that freedom to roam. However a film script is a whole different beast.
 As you will have gathered I have never attempted a film script before. Like all good novices I turned to Google for help. Frankly don't bother. If anyone has written the definitive 'how to' guide it is defiantly refusing to give itself up to the algorithms refined by the finest programmers of Palo Alto.  I did glean that for most scripts one A4 page generally equals one minute of screen action. So, CHALK is eighty minutes long, my books are 80,000 words, so maybe I can make some equivalence of this? No. Film words have a whole different purpose to book words. I don't need to describe the scene. Word pictures are replaced by real pictures. As the song goes, a picture paints a thousand words.
You might think that the visions of the others involved in the project - filmmakers, editors, producers, directors and so on would make it hard but strangely, at least for me, that is not so. Of course people have conflicting views, but really that doesn't bother me. In fact compared to the solitude of book writing it is a blessing. Working with really creative people is a joy. Building something great from just the tools inside our collective brains is a buzz hard to beat.
So what is so difficult? Well, strangely when I set out to write this piece I didn't know but now I do. I have to give myself up to the amazing footage filmmakers Leo and Chris have shot. My job is to fill the gaps. Provide the links as we move from one scene to the next. You the filmgoer doesn't need great literature from me but rather the thread to the story of the movie. The narration should be subservient to everything you see before your eyes, the gentle guiding hand that outstretches whenever needed. You will hear the words but you will not have to listen for them.
There is no reason why you should be relieved - you probably never knew there was a problem but take some comfort that I am relieved. The writer's block, such as it was, has gone. The words written thus far will be left to slumber forever in some virtual cloud. All I need do now is to start again ......


The arrival of the Pacific Pink salmon to our shores hit the headlines last week. I must admit my first thought that is pretty amazing; after all the north-east coast of England and Scotland is one hell of a way from the northern Pacific.
Russian White Sea
As it turns out the truth is less spectacular and evidence, if any was needed, that fiddling with nature has consequences.
Apparently for half a century, starting from the 1950's, these salmon were introduced into the White Sea, north of Russia in an attempt to create a self-sustaining population. It seems they have succeeded with the fish now in Russian, Finnish and Norwegian rivers.
The Pink or Humpback salmon has a short life of just two years, dying after spawning like the other Pacific salmon species. We are seeing them at this time of year because they arrive in the lower reaches of rivers in July and August to spawn. The Environment Agency update suggests that there is no imminent danger to the Atlantic salmon or sea trout population. The Pacific salmon eggs hatch in late spring with the juveniles quickly smolting heading to sea without ever feeding in freshwater.
Are the Environment Agency right to be so relaxed? Other than the fact there is probably very little they can do even if the fish are a threat, I suspect we'll be fine. The British Isles has a long tradition of taking in new fish species without too many ill-effects - in fact the list is surprisingly long. I couldn't find a definitive tally but from my researches at least twenty-three species commonly found in lakes and rivers are not UK natives.
Now some have been here so long as to be regarded as now 'naturalised' - Common and Crucian carp, Goldfish and Rainbow trout all falling under that heading. Some of those have been here a mighty long time; Common carp were probably introduced by monks in the 16th century and Rainbow trout first arrived in the 19th century.
Of the others that are classified as non-natives I have to admit some I had always assumed were natives and others  I hadn't heard of, let alone caught. This is the list I compiled:  Bighead carp, Bitterling, Black bullhead, Bluegill, Brook trout, Channel catfish, Fathead minnow, Grass carp, Landlocked salmon, Orfe, Pacific Humpback salmon, Pumpkinseed, Silver carp, Sturgeon, Sterlet, Sunbleak, Topmouth gudgeon, Walleye, Wells catfish and Zander.
Updates of any omissions gratefully received.

Natives of the White Sea


Come the autumn I will be on the road with a book tour for The Otters' Tale which I am delighted to kick off in Nether Wallop for a whole variety of reasons.

Firstly, and most obviously, it is where the book is set - the talk takes place just a few yards from Kuschta's family home. Also it is a fund raising drive to save not only our village pub (we are trying to buy it) but also to conserve the wall paintings in our Norman church.  The paintings, that have survived a thousand years on the fragile chalk and limewashed walls, do not do well with modern heating. So, rather than turn it off and let the parishioners freeze to death a solution is at hand - all it takes is money!

Do join us if you can. I'll probably make a few sidetracks into chalkstream territory and you will be greeted with some good wine to mellow the mood.

Thursday September 28th at Nether Wallop Village Hall. 7.30pm. £10/ticket with all proceeds to St. Andrews Church and Save the Five Bells Fund. Includes a glass of wine. Buy on-line or call Diane 01264 781988.


You might have seen this coming. Identify four on the non-native species mentioned above; one is naturalised.  It is just for fun and the answers are at the bottom of the page.

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers: 

Top to bottom: Bluegill, Pacific Humpback salmon, Crucian carp and Zander

Friday, 4 August 2017

Losing isn't so bad

Nether Wallop Mill, Stockbridge, Hampshire

Years ago I recall David Frost getting extremely annoyed at the loss of his Breakfast TV franchise. This was the moment that someone, usually so urbane and relaxed in front of the camera, showed his true feelings. Pushing through the media pack to reach his limousine, he briefly addressed the crowd: "At school they taught me it was not the winning but the taking part that was the important thing. I thought it was b****cks then.  I know it to be b****cks today." With a face like thunder he ducked into his car, speeding off down Camden High Street and that, with the honourable exception of TV gold Through the Keyhole, was pretty well about the last we saw of David Frost.

l-r Stephen Moss, Madeline Bunting, me, Christopher Somerville, Clover Stroud and John Lewis-Stempel
At the time I think I may well have cheered him on - it seemed a suitably anti-establishment sentiment but actually Frost was wrong. The taking part is important and I was reminded of this as the winner of the Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize was announced yesterday at Blenheim Palace. 

As I hope you have read elsewhere it was not me for The Otters' Tale but rather John Lewis-Stempel for Where Poppies Blow, the unique story of the British soldiers of the Great War and their relationship with the animals and plants around them.

It must be said the Wainwright process has felt like a long one from when submissions closed on 31st March to yesterday, with the various longlists and shortlists along the way; any of you waiting for exam results have my sympathy. 

But it has been worth it. To start with I never really ever expected to write one book, let alone two and then to be nominated for a literary prize, well in the words of Ian Drury, knock me down with a feather, Trevor.

And the prize process, aside from the agony of awaiting the result, has been a revelation. There is a whole community out there who I never realised followed nature writing with such interest and enthusiasm. I have had tweets, posts and emails from all parts, each and every one kind, encouraging and thoughtful. Some people say social media is a hateful place to inhabit. It may be for some. 

But for those of us who love our natural world, be it as twitchers, walkers, fishers or whatever you choose, it is a place to share in the wonderousness of the creatures and countryside that inhabit this very special isle.


You can't help but love the British weather. One moment we have our heads in our hands with drought despair and the next looking to the skies as the summer hoses down volumes of rain that should have by rights fallen months ago.

The 'headline' if you like is that the past twelve months have been the driest since 1992 across the southern chalkstream region and in localised parts since 1976. By most metrics you'd think we should have all packed up and gone home, but the latest data from the Environment Agency shows nearly all the chalkstreams with Normal flow rates, a smattering (mostly in the north-east) Above Normal though both the Kennet in Berkshire and the Coln in Gloucestershire are classified as Below Normal and Exceptionally Low respectively.

This happy reversal of fortune (unless of course your summer event was washed out) is due to plenty of rain in both June and July with 35-50% more than the average. In theory it is not the sort of rain that will have an immediate impact on the aquifers but it does have an impact when sustained over a period of weeks. It counters evaporation (a surprisingly high amount disappears this way), agricultural abstraction falls off, as does domestic consumption. And, naturally enough a certain amount finds its way into the rivers. It is fair to say crisis averted and we can uncross fingers between now and the end of the season.

Plenty of you battled the rain in July, one of those being Geoff Cheeseman who fished Deans Court on the River Allen which wins him the Fishing Breaks snood from the Feedback Draw.

You are now all in the hat for the Abel reel at the end of October.


In which river would you find a dolphin, brown trout, flounder and seahorse? Well, it may not quite be the exotic location you'd expect as it is our own, sometimes murky and dirty, River Thames.

Regular surveys by the Zoological Society London (ZSL) show life is thriving beneath the surface with seven sightings of dolphins so far this year. And they are not just in the estuary, having been spotted near Battersea Bridge, Hammersmith, Chiswick, two near the rail bridge in Chiswick and in Brentford, a full 60 miles from the sea. That is in addition to 19 harbour porpoises, 61 harbour seals and 106 grey seals.

Here are some of the other species ZSL have highlighted as making a comeback:

Atlantic salmon - These used to migrate from northern waters to the Thames but went extinct in the river after heavy industrialisation in 1833. They're back now and research indicates that's thanks to improving water quality.

Bullhead - A small fish often found in freshwater streams and rivers.

Common smelt - Once one of the most common fish in the country and a popular food source. One of the few significant colonies lives in Greater London.

Depressed river mussel - This large mollusc species loves the north side of the Thames, between Richmond and Twickenham.

European eel - Once common in - you guessed it - Europe, this species is now critically endangered. Some small eels, known as elvers, still swim up the Thames each summer.

Flounder - Usually found near the estuary, the marine fish has been known to swim much further upstream.

River lamprey - These primitive fish have no jaws and need relatively clean waters to breed. That means they were all but extinct from the Thames but a resurgence may be under way.

Brown trout - 2011 saw a record number of these fish swimming up the Thames to spawn.

Short-snouted seahorse - Usually preferring warmer Mediterranean waters, there is believed to be a small colony in the Thames.

Twaite Shad - A narrow, streamlined fish which is struggling to recover from the pollution in the Thames.

I did read somewhere the other day that the River Avon or Hampshire Avon as sometimes called (the longest chalkstream) was home to more freshwater fish species than any other UK river. Subsequently I have found no way to prove this but it has a ring of truth as the Avon has such a variety of water along its 80 or so miles from the tiny streams that percolate out of Salisbury Plain to the swirling mysteries of the Royalty Pool.  

Does anyone have any ideas?

Twaite shad


In case you missed the Newsletter Special last week here is the link for the August special offers with a 2 for 1 at Bullington Manor (Upper Test), Fisherton-de-la Mere (Wylye) and Dunbridge (River Dun).

Bullington Manor - Four beats over 2.5 miles. Perfect for sight fishing. £100/Rod. Suitable for 2-6 Rods.

Dunbridge - Has a wonderful new cabin for 2017 and some deep pools with big fish. £97.50/Rod. 2 Rods.

Fisherton-de-la Mere - Sample Mrs. Thompson's famous afternoon tea on a pretty beat. £50/Rod. 2 Rods.

Bullington Manor John above Venice Bridge
Bullington Manor from Venice Bridge


As I touched on TV this week, a few questions about famous angling TV shows. It is just for fun and the answers are at the bottom of the page.

Jack Hargreaves with Ollie Kite
1)      Who were the anglers in Passion for Angling first aired in 1993?

2)      Who was the star of Channel 4's Go Fishing (1986-2002)?

3)      Jack Hargreaves fronted which fishing and country TV show 1963-81?

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,Simon Signature    
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers: 

1) Bob James and Chris Yates  2) John Wilson  3) Out of Town

Friday, 14 July 2017

A lifetime dream fulfilled

When a man you think you have never met leaps out of a pick-up and greets you with the words 'You won't remember me but you interviewed me for a job 17 years ago' fast comebacks are hard to come by. Guilt is also not very far away. Did the interview go so badly that I had made an enemy for life? Was this payback? Fortunately the demeanour of Martin Browne, river keeper for the Services Dry Fly Fishing Association (SDFFA), on the famous Army water of the River Avon, suggested otherwise as he warmly shook my hand.
Tim Sawyer, Martin Browne & Tony Wells
Funnily enough, though I confess I did not immediately recognise Martin in person, his name had rung a distant bell when I saw it on the cast list for CHALK. 

Way back in 2000 he was working on a fish farm and I was looking for a keeper for Bullington Manor which I had just taken on with full management at the retirement of the incumbent keeper. Being a bit tight I reckoned that 2-3 days a week would be enough for a younger man - oh, I was such an innocent back then. The current keeper Simon Fields has his work cut out with the full five. So, it turned out that my part-time job wasn't what Martin needed, which was bad for me as he is clearly a really good keeper but good for him as there are not many better billets than Frank Sawyer's famous water.
Of the twenty or so filming days for CHALK this was one of the few I was determined to attend. I have only ever stolen glimpses of this part of the Avon from bridges and handy vantage points. Just to walk the banks of the river that Sawyer stewarded from 1928-80 was enough for me - I didn't need to fish. All I needed to see is what Sawyer saw. I did, I have and now I am happy.
If that wasn't sufficient we were also blessed with the company of Frank's only son Tim (he had three daughters as well) who is retired and at 71 lives on the outskirts of Salisbury. Tim didn't follow his father into river keepering - not well enough paid and damn hard work - his words not mine! Instead he went into forestry, travelling the world before eventually returning close to his birthplace.
I don't want to pre-empt what we show in CHALK but the interview with Tim Sawyer gave a loving and fascinating insight into Frank Sawyer, the man most never knew. Tim took us to the place he caught his first ever fish, perched on the shoulders of his father, in the shadow of Netheravon church and the self-same spot where Frank died in 1980.
I have a feeling this may be one of the centrepieces of the film and a special word of thanks must go to recently retired SDFFA Vice-President Tony Wells who made the visit happen. It is a day that fulfilled a lifetime dream which will live with me for a very long time.
Tim Sawyer on the bench that marks the spot his father died


Well, June was a busy month for the CHALK team, with Chris and Leo visiting the Rivers Itchen, Frome, Test (thrice) and the Avon since the last update. 

We're really starting to get into the meat of the project now, interviewing some of the people with the strongest connections to the chalkstreams, whether they're river keepers or those with a more personal connection to the history of the rivers and our sport. But we've also been fortunate enough to host several more of our guest anglers and contributors, including one of our corporate sponsors.
River Itchen from the air

The first stop was a private beat of the Itchen with actor and charity fundraiser James Murray who had kindly offered up a day of fishing on his stretch of river as a reward for a Kickstarter backer. The person who snaffled this particular reward was Mark Husson, who was not only blessed with great conditions on the day, but also benefitted from the guiding skills of Get The Rods Out owner Simeon Hay's guiding skills. It also happened to be Simeon's birthday, and he kept up his personal tradition of always catching a birthday trout.

Neil Swift
Next the road show moved on to Motttisfont Abbey for a short day of filming with the National Trust's river keeper Neil Swift who has the solemn task of maintaining the very water where Halford spent his summers - it should make for a fascinating segment. He talked to us about one of the most important parts of his job, one that's carried out up and down the chalkstreams, the weed cut; as well telling us about Halford's time on his patch.

From the perfectly manicured to the downright wild, the next stop was the Frome in Dorset where guides Tony King and Ian Pople battled the bushes as well as the fishes. As with last month's Wandle shoot, we're keen to make sure that we show the chalkstreams in all their wonderful variety, and not just the pristine posh bits. 

This was a chance to get to find out how two real chalkstream experts make their approach to the water, and what it is that makes a professional guide go fishing on their day off! They talked techniques, watercraft and about the Frome's legendary big grayling.

After a much needed break for a week the end of June saw one of the most enjoyable filming days so far when Chris and Leo headed to the famous Broadlands Estate. They were joined by guest angler Brian Norman, FishingTV star Rae Borras and, most excitingly, Imogen and Edward - pupils from Prince's Mead School, which you may be interested to learn also educated your correspondent's father, youngest brother and little sister - all supervised by headmistress Penn Kirk. I'm told that both kids did brilliantly but that Miss Kirk had her work cut out with keeping Rae under control, much to everyone's delight. 

Imogen, Jon & Edward
Jon Hall, the keeper was on hand to share his wisdom with the kids and the cameras, as well as to talk about the importance of entomology to fly fishing, and the history of Broadlands. It was great to have the next generation of fly fishers involved and to see the enthusiasm they have for the sport - we think it is in good hands. The two youngsters were on a mission to land their first ever brown trout: to find out if they succeeded you'll have to wait for the movie to come out!

Finally, the chaps had a real privilege last week when they paid a visit to the Avon in the company of Team Wychwood anglers Glen Pointon and Steve Cullen for a masterclass in nymph fishing. The Services Dry Fly Fishing Association, to whom we are very grateful for allowing us to come and film, controls the particular water they were fishing, and we were able to meet and speak to the keeper Martin Browne, and the club's recently retired Vice President Tony Wells, both mines of fascinating information.

What I've not said, is that this is what might be called the 'Sawyer Water', and that we were lucky enough to meet Frank Sawyer's only son Tim, who gave a moving interview about his family life and memories of his father. We learned all about Sawyer Senior's work in restoring the Avon, his life as river keeper and in the media as a journalist and television presenter. To top it all off we were shown some of the earliest examples of Sawyer's now ubiquitous Pheasant Tail Nymph, tied by the great man himself - talk about getting close to history! 

And just a little more news for you all - we have now booked the cinema for the premiere. We will be sending out proper invitations in the near future to those backers whose reward includes an invitation to the premiere, but for the time being, pop this in your diary. Thursday 23 November 2017, The Prince Charles Cinema, Leicester Square, London. Now, anyone know where to hire a red carpet?

Thanks to George Browne at FishingTV who posted this update to Kickstarter on Wednesday and kindly allowed me to reproduce it here.


It must be because the best fishing is in the most out-of-the ways places that I often struggle to find top notch places for you to stay within handy striking distance of the rivers. However occasionally a gem pops up.

It is not a name you will often hear banded about but there is a pocket of southern England that goes by the not very romantic title of the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) taking in the overlapping boundaries of Wiltshire, Dorset, Hampshire and Somerset which includes the chalkstreams Allen, Nadder Stour and Wylye, along with some obscure Avon tributaries.
Hurtling west on the A303 you will probably have passed through this AONB without ever realising it but turn off the highway and you will find yourself amongst rolling chalk downland and ancient woodland. Guided by the spires and towers of village churches the country lanes take you from one sleepy habitation to another, to occasionally pause your weaving journey on the narrow hump-backed bridges to glimpse the sparking streams. Time seems to belong elsewhere.
Why has it turned out this way? Well, I am no socio-economic historian but my best guess is roads. Look at the map and you will see that Cranborne Chase AONB is bounded by roads with the exception of the A303 that goes straight through it. In essence that thing we call progress either went around or through but never stopped. Many might say that is a bad, and maybe it is most times, but not always.
10 Castle Street
So, if you have a chance to stray from the well driven path follow those lanes to Cranborne, the perfect guidebook village tourists never find. Two pubs, a village shop, the poshest garden centre on the planet and the newly opened 10 Castle Street. The Telegraph described it thus:
" ......a hotel, restaurant and private members' club combined, Babington and Soho Farmhouse-style, but on a smaller scale and much more affordable ...... it's great, because it is a hotel that doesn't feel like a hotel".

I have visited and it really is gorgeous. If you want somewhere lovely to stay and still have money left for fishing you will not do better.


The theme this week is the UK's 15 National Parks. It is just for fun and the answers are at the bottom of the page.

1)   Which National Park was listed last week as a UNESCO World Heritage site?

2)  Which are the biggest and smallest National Parks measured by land area?

3)    When was the first National Park designated?

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers: 

1) The Lake District (pictured)  2) The Cairngorms is the biggest and the Norfolk Broads the smallest  3) 1951, a full 20 years after a government inquiry recommended their creation.