Friday, 17 November 2017

Weekend in Wallop

Weekend in Wallop


On the news last week I saw Billy Connolly at Buckingham Palace being transformed into Sir William Connolly. Somewhere in the deep recesses of my memory I felt sure he had some connection to Nether Wallop but it would not come to mind. So, like the hard-chasing investigative reporter I am I turned to Google and sure enough there it was: Weekend in Wallop on YouTube. I would re-write the Wikipedia entry but it says it all:

"Weekend in Wallop is a made-for-television documentary of the First Nether Wallop International Arts Festival. The premise was the creation of a new arts festival to compete with the Edinburgh Festival. It was broadcast on Channel 4 in 1984.

The village of Nether Wallop is located in rural north Hampshire, close to Middle Wallop and Over Wallop. It was used as a location for the BBC Television version of Miss Marple, starring Joan Hickson.

Nether Wallop hosted the festival on a scale far less grand than Edinburgh. The main review show was held in the scout hut with a video feed for the overflow audience in the village pub (the hall looked as if it could only hold about 150 people). Ned Sherrin and Gore Vidal vied in the village shop for the best location to hold their book-signing sessions. Norman Lovett did his turn on the back of a farm vehicle. The festival included a guided walk of the village with Michael Hordern and a quiz hosted by Bamber Gascoigne which pitted village locals against the greatest minds in the world featuring the philosopher A. J. "Freddie" Ayer (the locals won!).

The main review was compered by a local dignitary (Major Billy Jepson Turner) and performers included Rowan Atkinson, Mel Smith and Peter Cook (as two members of a "lesbian" synchronised swimming team), Rik Mayall first as "Kevin Turvey" and then later singing "Trouble" with Jools Holland on piano and John Otway on guitar, Jenny Agutter, Wayne Sleep, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Arthur Smith, John Wells, Roger McGough, Stanley Unwin in a sketch as a school teacher trying to dissuade Bill Wyman from going and playing that Rock and Rollode. It also featured local people doing their "turn". The closing act was Billy Connolly.

Although the festival was a "one off" and was not repeated, all the stars gave their time for free in aid of charity. A seed was sown in Nether Wallop and many of the same performers went on to found the highly successful Comic Relief which has raised millions for charity since."

Being a bit of film bore at present CHALK has taught me the pecking order between Executive Producer, Co-Producer, Producer, Associate Producer and so on. Believe me it is quite the contentious subject worthy of a special edition of Burke's Peerage in itself so I watched through the closing credits. It is surprising what you will learn, not least when the caption:

SCENARIO Vanya Hackel

appeared on screen. Now I know a Vanya Hackel. He is an uber keen fisherman, a Fishing Breaks regular for two decades, was involved with Broadlands and is a regular in Norway. Surely not the same? I phoned the Vanya I knew immediately. "Goodness", he said (actually he said something a bit more expletive), "I haven't thought of that in years". 

It transpires that Vanya, who was living in Timsbury down the road by the Test at the time, was one of the moving forces behind the Weekend in Wallop that was six months in the making. Why Nether Wallop? 

Well, the village will not be flattered to hear that the name sounded sufficiently absurd to match the silliness of the whole concept. The Wikipedia entry is not entirely accurate; not everyone gave their services for free. Michael Horden leveraged a day of fishing on the Wallop Brook. Jenny Agutter, based in Hollywood at the time, was only available because the date coincided with her twice yearly return to England to tend her garden roses. And such a stellar cast? I suspect Vanya is being modest but he attributes this to the address book of producer Richard Curtis (Not The Nine O'clock News, Blackadder, Mr Bean, Four Wedding and A Funeral ....) who knew all the upcoming talent.

Nobody seems exactly sure who had the original idea but it was probably a combination of director and writer Stephen Pile and charity fundraiser Jane Goodall. At that time Stephen was the columnist Atticus of the Sunday Times so provided invaluable publicity whilst Jane was trying to change the ethos of these headline events so all the money raised went directly to the cause. 

So from what Vanya describes as a 'totally mad' idea the event gained a life of its own. Once a few names were on board the festival snowballed. The two hour slot given by Channel 4, still in its infancy itself, gave the First Nether Wallop International Arts Festival yet more momentum. 

As you watch the grainy footage the thing you have to keep in mind was that this was 33 years ago. Many of the participants, if not exactly unknown, were at the outset of stellar careers. Rowan Atkinson is now one of the most recognised faces in the world thanks to Mr Bean. Hugh Lawrie an international star after the US hit House. And so it goes on to the hundreds of millions subsequently raised by Comic Relief.

I do wonder if some of the sketches would pass the censor today, but you can judge for yourself on You Tube here. This is less than half the original broadcast but if you Google/YouTube Weekend in Wallop you will find more. Truly some comic gold.

I consider myself to have been lucky with my two books Life of a Chalkstream and The Otters' Tale because they have made it to print at a time when nature writing has never been more popular. Shops like Waterstones dedicate prominent sections to a category that a decade or two ago would have been a single, dusty shelf as publishers vie to sign the best talent and put their considerable marketing heft behind each new title.

I must admit I was slightly unaware of this phenomenon until nominated for the Wainwright Prize earlier this year and all the subsequent hullabaloo that came with reaching the final short list. As Land Lines, a major new research project, says, "The diversity and influence of nature writing has never been so great" and they are asking people across the UK to help find the nation's favourite book that captures our special relationship with the natural world. Which nature book is a real favourite? Or maybe inspired a life-long love of wildlife?

Stretching from Gilbert White's seminal The Natural History of Selborne back in 1789 to Helen Macdonald's soaring and award-winning H is for Hawk in 2014, this pioneering project will look at how nature writing in this country has changed over the last 200 years, and what it might say about the world today and our connection with nature. Land Lines is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and is being undertaken by the Universities of Leeds, St Andrews and Sussex.

Everyone can take part in the national survey by nominating their favourite UK work on nature - along with up to 100 words about why they have chosen it. Entry must be in by 30 November, after which an expert panel will take these suggestions and compile a shortlist of 10 popular books. Then in January, an online vote will decide the nation's favourite piece of nature writing.

If you'd like to nominate your favourite book visit the Land Lines web site here.


The past few days have been busy as the final touches are put to CHALK. Actually I am not being 100% honest with you. A better word would be frenetic. With the premiere just a few days away directors Leo Cinicolo and Chris Cooper disappeared into the recording studio on Wednesday with actor James Murray to lay the voiceover onto the film.

Now if you think this smacks of being a bit all last minute you'd be right in one sense, but wrong in another. It has been planned this way for months. It seems to me the film and TV business thrives on the buzz of running up to the wire. For me, where a book has a leisurely nine month gestation, the flurry of emails as one script re-write follows another was something of a shock. But it is worth all the pain, effort and struggle - Leo and Chris have created an amazing film.

If you'd like to attend the premiere of CHALK, our much talked about documentary about the chalkstreams of England, we've kept just one pair of tickets back to offer as a prize to one lucky person. 

You'll get to come along on Thursday 23rd November 2017 to the pre-screening drinks in Leicester Square and then be among the first 104 people in the world to see the film. The whole cast and crew will be there, including the likes of Marina Gibson, Alex Jardine, Pete McLeod, Steve Cullen and Glen Pointon, plus a few selected guests from the world of fly fishing.

Please note that the event begins at 6pm on Thursday 23rd November in Leicester Square, London. Please make sure that you are able to attend. The dress code for the event is Black Tie. It is a premiere after all!

Be quick: the completion closes at noon today Friday November 17th.  If you don't win we have two screenings planned as part of the River Test One Fly Festival. Click here for details.

Swans are not always the anglers' friend, seemingly having an unerring instinct to swim right over the top of the only feeding fish you have found in the entire river. They are, of course, haughtily dismissive of your shouts and waving arms.

So, it should really be of no particular surprise that this particular swan at Dunbridge has found an easy source of food, stretching up to rattle illicit batches of fish pellets from the feeder. You have got to give him credit. 

Now our river keeper Simon Fields has what Baldrick of Blackadder fame would call a 'cunning plan' to foil the pellet thief.

We will see. It may well be a very long winter.


A very random selection this week and again no theme other than the topics of this Newsletter.

1) Who wrote the book on which the 1992 film A River Runs Through It starring Brad Pitt and directed by Robert Redford, was based?

2) Young swans are known by two names. Cygnets is one. What is the other?

3) What typically are the constituent elements of a fish pellet?

It is just for fun, with the answers at the bottom of the page.

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director

Quiz answers:
1) Norman Maclean
2) Swanlings
3) Fishmeal, vegetable proteins and binding agents such as wheat or soya


Saturday, 4 November 2017

The Shetland secret

The Shetland secret
(or: What they never taught you at Harvard about the Scottish Isles)
I am currently in the Shetland Islands looking at (actually judging by today's total of one more accurately for) otters.

I didn't really plan this trip very well for the salmon and sea trout season ended the day I arrived, October 31st. Correction the day I was due to arrive for I was delayed by 16 hours, spending the night, courtesy of Logan Air in the Aberdeen airport Hampton Inns by Hilton. I include the last two words not because the hotel is near a nice place called Hilton but rather as it is a branding tag that the staff seem to have to chirrup at every opportunity. Welcome. How may I help you today at Hampton Inns by Hilton? You know the sort of thing.

I shouldn't be cruel. It is a perfectly fine Eurobox hotel, as one of my fellow delayees described it. That is unless you judge it by the food, which I can't. Because they didn't have any. Well they did. Here is how it works at Hampton Inns by Hilton. You queue at the bar to simultaneously order drink and food, a perfectly fine idea assuming your hotel has not been recently inundated with delayed travellers or that the bar is not solely staffed by one harried barman. I tried the queue for a while but gave up, figuring I'd give it an hour. Plan of genius as at 8.45pm just seven ahead of me. Not as clever really as when the queue became six the barman announced that the kitchen was overwhelmed so no further orders would be taken. I think it is to our credit that we didn't riot for a second time that day.

For that is what nobody ever tells you about this place, just how damn hard it is to get to. Yes, the plane timetables look alluring simple: London-Aberdeen-Sumburg with just a short layover. What could possibly go wrong? Well, the weather. I never knew. But everyone else does. I gave up on my tale of woe after the reactions of first three people I met on Shetland:

Hotel receptionist: Aye, that happens a lot.

Car hire guy: Lucky you didn't come in summer. This is the fog capital of Europe.

Otter guide: I usually take the ferry.

So near, but so far ......
I should have guessed this was part of island life from the collective reactions of everyone at the Aberdeen airport departure gate - oil workers, gas guys and local residents - when we were told, just a few minutes before takeoff, that the Sumburg flight, the last of the day and already 3 ½ hours late, was cancelled. Hardly a murmur. No pounding of the desk for restitution. No frantic stabbing at iPhones for alternate routes. Just calm acceptance.

I have to give the two girls at Menzies, the ground handlers for Logan Air top billing for how they conducted the next hour. I guess this is a well rehearsed routine but nonetheless they were marvellous, as were all the passengers. The elderly man in the wheelchair with his companion was whisked off in a trice. Two sisters, one eight months pregnant and the other still breast feeding, were similarly treated. And the rest of us were in the Hampton Inns by Hilton courtesy bus in not so long.

In my time I've seen some horrible scenes in airports but on this occasion I can honestly say not a voice was raised. Not a scowl. No demands or threats. It was, in a strange way, rather life affirming  and probably proves you are a better person for living on an island that, for all its stark beauty, will never make life easy. And that includes looking for otters.

PS You will be reading this on Friday morning, so you should know that Thursday was the otter day of all otter days. You see more otters here than you do badgers back down south.


As an agent you live in fear of the phone call that involves one of the three Ds - death, divorce or disaster as any one of the three inevitably leads to some sort of dislocation to the daily life of a fishery. Over the past two and a bit decades I've had all three and, in truth, when one or other occurs there is very little you can immediately do as the ownership morphs from one person or body to another.

Nick Richards
In most cases the transition is fine; you have that slightly awkward 'getting to know you phase' but otherwise as the ripples of disturbance fade to nothing things return to how they were. Sometimes I'll have to go head to head in a beauty contest with other agents (yes, I acknowledge you have a choice ....) but that is all perfectly fair. But occasionally you are simply cut off at the knees. There is still one bit of fishing I have to avert my gaze from any time I pass it by as the loss still hurts. Not because I lost out to a competitor but because I lost out to well, nothing. The new owner had no interest in fishing and even less in having others fish his river. As the current argot goes, end of.

So back in the early summer I received one of those D calls from Barton Court Fishery on the River Kennet, some three miles of water that radiate across lovely water meadows. It had been sold. All was very amicable but the bottom line was that the leaseholder of the past fifteen years, Bob Bailey was hanging up his strimmer in favour of the new owner, the Conran family.

Barton Court House
For those of you who know Barton Court you will have seen the magnificent house that lies at midst of the estate. For as long as I have known it the house has been the home of Sir Terence Conran, originally of Habitat fame but more recently better known for his restaurant chain.

However, Conran only owned the house. If you think of the entire estate as a doughnut, Conran had the hole (the house) but the doughnut itself (fishing and meadows) was the owned by the Hills brothers, who let the fishing to Bob Bailey. No doubt back in the mists of time the entire thing - land, fishing and grand house was in a single ownership. Well, the wheel has turned full circle and it is again.

This is great news; some of the Conrans are passionate fly fishers so the new purchase has been met with much excitement with many plans and improvements in discussion. But taking on a new river project is rarely something you can simply throw money at; the final outcome will be years in the making but most immediately you need someone to do the job. So, almost before the contract ink was dry, a full time river keeper was appointed. Some of you may know Nick Richards. He was until quite recently the keeper at Nursling on the River Test but since then has been on the staff at Sparsholt College before the lure of a new river drew him away from teaching. 

Crayfish bank damage (holes at water level)
He certainly has plenty to do to achieve the plans of the new owners we both agreed as we walked the river last week. In fact, I think Nick may almost dread walking around with yet another set of new eyes as his to do list becomes ever longer. But in that lies the excitement and possibilities. In truth Nick's opportunities for anything truly big are limited for the moment. His feet are just under the table and the new season is just five months away so he is concentrating on the must do, receiving great help from Bob Bailey. All the bridges, walkways and stiles are under repair. He is taking a good look at the stocking. The hut will be upgraded. The bank side vegetation cut back for better access. His unwanted guests, the mink and crayfish will no longer get a free pass. And that is all before he has even looked at in-river work and upping the wild trout population.

It is a daunting task but I suspect with the conservation of the water meadows alongside a passion for the river Barton Court will soon become truly very special.

Early works


The autumn can be a melancholy time for fly fishers: a moment to reflect on a season past - the victories ever sweet, the defeats lessons learnt. But we are not great ones for the past; optimists all, we look ahead to maybe sneak in that last grayling day when a weather window opens up or at the very least, plan for the year ahead. Like the ever rolling stream, anglers always keep moving on.

So, aside from the grayling, we are wrapping up the season. Stuart Mattingley, an Upper Clatford angler collects the October snood. I am going to hang on for a few days more to gather up any late feedback form stragglers. Look out for the Abel reel winner in the next Newsletter.

It could be you!


A very random selection this week and I'd be hard pressed to pretend there was a theme.

1)      Where is the northermost point of the British Isles?

2)      In which UK river was the last recorded catch of a greenback trout?

3)      Which apparently erogenous part of the body is known in Latin as the genu?
It is just for fun, with the answers at the bottom of the page.

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,Simon Signature    
Founder & Managing Director

Quiz answers:
1)      Out Stack, Shetlands Islands, Scotland
2)      River Kennet; now probably extinct and not to be confused with North American cutthroat variety
3)      The knee