Friday, 23 February 2018

Two guys and a Hi Lux

Nether Wallop Mill, Hampshire, England - 23 February 2018

I am still not exactly sure why we did it; it seemed like a good idea at the time. What would be so difficult about fishing the compass extremes of the world's chalkstreams? As it so happens, it is more problematic than you might expect.

Not a chalkstream?
Now, I think (all modesty aside) I know a thing or two about our unique rivers but finding the most northerly, easterly, westerly and southern examples was more challenging than I expected.

Do you define by where an individual river starts or where it finishes? Or perhaps by where the arc of its flow takes it. How do you classify a river that starts as a chalkstream but ends as something else? And if you do, where exactly is that point of difference? Are maps the definitive guide to each and every chalkstream? Not always. Are some so small as to be just technically a river? A trip took me to the Isle of Wight where I could barely see the Cawl Bourne even though I was on the bridge that straddled it. Was there any point fishing a river that was patently unfishable? And most importantly how do you precisely define a chalkstream?

On that last question I was extremely fortunate to have the assistance of the Environment Agency's expert Lawrence Talks and writer/conservationist Charles Rangeley Wilson. Both have done many years of research on precisely this question, with maps and lists of the English chalkstreams. There were a few points of difference but in the end finding where to head - Yorkshire to the north, Dorset to the west and Norfolk to the east - was relatively easily decided, give or take a few topographical compromises. But as for the south ......

Now everyone wants to claim a chalkstream; it is marketing gold. So, you'll find claims staked in New Zealand, Russia, Slovenia, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, plus plenty more I probably never came across. I am sure many of these simply arise from mistaken identity, plus a dose of wish fulfilment, for there are a great many rivers that look and act like a chalkstream but are, in one or more important characteristic, not the real deal. If you start from the basic premise "the technical definition of a chalk stream is any river whose base-flow index (the volume of river flow derived from groundwater aquifers) exceeds 75%, and whose course runs over chalk geology" you will get some idea of the geographical complexities involved.

Extent of English chalkstreams
The fact is chalkstreams only exist in two countries: England and France, the latter containing somewhere in the region of a dozen. Unfortunately for me there was no French equivalent of the EA or the Delphic voice of Rangeley Wilson to guide me. The best source I could find was a tour of French rivers by English Nature in 2003 which starts with the less than inspiring aim, and I quote, of 'understanding how rivers - particularly SAC rivers nominated by Member States under EC Directive 92/43 - are managed and protected in France'. It was useful but far from definitive.

Again and again in the research I ran into the same problem - it looks like a chalkstream but it isn't a chalkstream. I am sure plenty of you have travelled around Provence in the south of France and admired the gorgeous limestone rivers in towns like L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue (pictured). But they are exactly that - limestone rivers where the water arrives through fissures in the rock rather than being first absorbed into porous chalk. It makes a difference. Often you'll notice a slight 'milkiness' to a limestone river which is in fact tiny particles of limestone that the chalk would otherwise filter out.

So, I turned my thoughts back north to concentrate on the well-known chalkstreams of Normandy such as the Risle, a favourite of Frank Sawyer, and the Andelle. They seemed a good enough solution but something kept nagging at me - champagne. If you travel around the villages surrounding Stockbridge these days you'll see thousands of acres of recently planted grape vines since it has been discovered that our chalk downs are the geological twin of the Champagne region. 

Actually it is wrong to call them a twin, for one is really the continuation of the other. The chalk ground that the Pinot Noir grape and the other two varieties favoured in champagne making like to grow on is part of a seam that starts in Yorkshire, runs down the east coast, jinks south west, disappears under the Channel (hence the Cawl Bourne on the Isle of Wight) to reappear in Normandy until it finally peters out in the Champagne region. And the river that follows more or less along the Gallic leg is none other than the River Seine. All 482 miles of it. Could it be that the river that runs through the centre of Paris is really the southernmost chalkstream in the globe?

Next time in part 2: First stop Yorkshire


Who knew rabbits could be so controversial? In the last quiz I asked, 'Who imported the rabbit to the British Isles?' and gave the answer, 'The Normans from what is now northern France in the 12th century.'

Plenty of people subsequently pulled me up, pointing out that the Romans had bought rabbits to Britain and you are all entirely correct. The question I had intended to set was who introduced rabbits to the wild (the 
Rabbit brooch. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Roman ones were domesticated) and hence my answer. It is generally accepted that had rabbits existed in the UK between the Romans and the later introduction they would have been noted in some form or another in the Domesday Book of 1085.

However, just when you thought it was safe to put this one to bed I came across yet further research that may prove all the above could well be wrong as it seems we have proof rabbits lived here long before the Romans set foot on British soil as remains of rabbits dating back half a million years were found at Boxgrove in West Sussex and Swanscombe in Kent during digs in the 1980's and 1990's.

Palaeontologist Simon Parfitt of the Natural History Museum, who worked on the Boxgrove dig, is quoted as saying:

'We found all sorts of animals - from the tiny ones like shrews and bats to huge ones like elephants. All of these animals were living in the landscape and were buried together. We also found remains of hares, and a rabbit's tooth. This was quite a surprise, as previously the idea had been that rabbits were living in the Mediterranean coastal regions - around Spain, Southern France and Italy. We don't know if humans were eating the rabbits at this time - there's no evidence of that yet.'

There is a very long time gap between the Boxgrove and Swanscombe rabbits and the Roman rabbit... almost half a million years. As far as we know no evidence has been found of rabbits existing in Britain between those two dates. So what happened? Probably the last Ice Age.


Photoshop magic? No.

This is what happens when a shark catches up with the bonefish on the end of your line. This was all that was left of my friend's 7-9lb bone on a recent trip to East End Lodge in the Grand Bahamas. I rather like the sort of perplexed look in the eye of the fish that seems to be saying, "Is this really happening to me?"

And as for the video
, well I think we may have got off rather lightly with just a shark .........


Hopefully I have it all correct this time! As ever, all just for fun and the answers at the bottom of the page.

1)     Which is the longest river entirely in France?

2)   Alba is the ancient name for which country in Great Britain?

3)  The Latin name Galanthus translates to milk flower. What plant is this?

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director

Quiz answers:

1)     The Loire at 629 miles
2)     Scotland
3)     Snowdrop

Friday, 9 February 2018

The precautionary principle

Nether Wallop Mill, England February 2018

About now I don't think I'd much fancy being the PR officer for the Environment Agency (EA) who has chalkstream issues coming across the desk. Last month it was the charges furore. This month a petition that has been gathering a head of steam regarding an application for salad processing plant discharges into the headwaters of the River Itchen.

River Itchen headwaters
It is easy to see the EA as the enemy of the chalkstreams but that would be a mistake; they are in the end simply the body charged with policing the regulations handed down to them by central government and, for now at least, the EU. In fact many of those inside the organisation are sympathetic to the issues that upset us all so much. In response to my last blog Robbing Peter to pay Paulan EA officer wrote to me to say:

"Just to let you know I passed this [the blog] on to those internally who are dealing with the consultation. Your views are shared by all locally and nationally internally and externally."

So, let us not be quick to shoot the messenger. That said I do wonder about mechanics of the EA consultation process, this latest development on the River Itchen being a good example. This is how we have arrived at the point we are today.

The upper reaches of the Itchen have long been an industrial centre, at least in the sense of a chalkstream. For centuries barges ran up the river to gather at Alresford Pond, close to the source, to service an international trade in wool, the fleeces washed by the town's fulling mill. More recently this was a major watercress growing region, even to the extent that the steam railway was named The Watercress Line. However, in the 1950's watercress rather fell out of consumer favour and many of the beds slipped into disuse, some in turn becoming either trout rearing farms or fishing lakes. And that is pretty well how it stayed until the 1970's when a coterie of entrepreneurs, in most cases visionary local farmers, saw the commercial potential for watercress and they were, to their credit, hugely successful. But in recent times that success has come at a price to the river.

The Itchen for all its fame is not a big river even by chalkstream standards. It is under twenty miles from font to estuary and at few points would you ever struggle to cast across its full width. Its catchment is also very small, the valley through which it flows narrow and, until recent times, sparsely populated. Put that all together for something that is very fragile and is now, as I write, suffering badly.

Now, before we hang all watercress farmers from the highest tree it is worth stepping back. Hampshire was in living memory a distinctly rural county. Of course it has always had the thriving coastal cities of Southampton and Portsmouth but Basingstoke (current population 112,000 and source of the River Test) wasn't even invented in 1945. The market town of Alresford, location of the processing plant at the centre of this controversy, is in many ways typical of how the county has gone from rural to semi urban. In my early life is was a small town that serviced the farming community and the outlying villages, the highlight of each week being market day. The concept of commuters was unknown, visitors rare and new development unheard of. Well, why build when in 1960 you could buy any one of a dozen perfectly good houses for under £1,000? But how that has changed.

Ten of thousands of houses have, or are being built, within what used to be regarded as Alresford's rural catchment. Now that is progress but when concrete replaces grass nature suffers. Rivers are sucked of water as aquifers are plumbed for domestic supplies. Of course the water doesn't 'disappear' but when it does return to the river it is as unclean run off or less-than-pure treated sewage water. In the short term a river can stand that, but in the long term? Well, think of it a bit like your garden - for a while it might survive if only watered by your washing up water, but in the end ...... Agriculture has also had a huge impact for in the 20th century it went from chemical free to chemical dependent; all manner of farming practices and crops, entirely absent or alien to the English countryside in previous centuries have become common currency.

I say all this not to diminish the importance of the current fight but to put it in context of the wider difficulties; winning this is one of many battles that have to be won and it will not be easy. The one thing I learnt researching The Otters' Tale was that government and the bodies that work on their behalf are complacent to non-human risk. It was plain as a pike staff from the very first years of use that the agricultural pesticides that took otters to the brink of extinction were extremely bad but it took thirty years for them to be eventually banned. Why? Well, you can justifiably say that lobby groups and vested interests play a huge part, but the fact is that the regulatory deck is stacked in their favour. It presumes any application is innocent until proved guilty and for anyone fighting such an application proving guilt on the basis of effects that might be felt 5, 10 or 20 years down the road is almost impossible. If we are really serious about saving our countryside and wildlife we need to work on the precautionary principle to turn that on its head - guilty until proved innocent with the applicant providing the burden of proof.

But that will take a sea change that may or may not be possible in a post-EU Britain. For now we have to appeal to emotion, reasoned argument and common sense. It is not my place to tell you to sign this or that petition but do take a look at the River Itchen - Urgent Pollution Appeal.


I haven't put together a brand new brochure for two or three years; we have rather cheated by re-badging the same one for each new year. However, for 2018 I have bitten the bullet and I am so glad I did for I had the most amazing collection of photos from which to choose.
Californian photographer Ken Takata visited for two weeks in both 2016 and 2017, capturing thousands of amazing images. He always comes in mid June to early July which by my way of thinking is absolutely the best time to photograph the chalkstreams. You might think it would be May, but despite the excitement of the Mayfly the countryside still looks a bit 'raw'; plenty of trees will not be in full leaf, with the bank side vegetation yet to bloom into that amazing proliferation of summer colour.
I also had the bonus of the some great shots by Chris Cooper and Leo Cinicolo from CHALK. One of the bonuses of filming in HD is that every frame has the potential to be pulled off as a hi res image. I was truly spoilt for choice and the greatest shame was that I only had sixteen pages of brochure to play with.
If you would like a copy of the 2018 Fishing Breaks brochure please email me with your address or you may view it online here.


I know I regularly bore you with my well known winter rain obsession, but you could not do better than this for an illustration of the power of precipitation.

When we talk about rain for the 'winter flush' on the chalkstreams this is what we mean and this is the result. Pristine perfection of bright, clean gravel (did you ever know it could be this white?) not to mention the first sprouts of new season ranunculus as shot yesterday by keeper Simon Fields on the Test headwaters.

Bring on the spring!


I am not sure when Ellen DeGeneres, American stand-up comedian, sitcom actress and latterly a hugely successful TV chat show host actually said this but it made me laugh out loud. 
Thanks to Stuart Spindler, a Fishing Breaks regular for more years than both of us care to remember, for sending in these pithy few lines:
"Catch-and-release, that's like running down pedestrians in your car and then, when they get up and limp away, saying -- Off you go! That's fine. I just wanted to see if I could hit you."


The bleak February countryside, shorn of all cover, is a great time to watch the local residents going about daily survival. These are who I see from my desk as I write this. As ever, all just for fun and the answers at the bottom of the page.
1)     Who lives in a drey?

2)     Is the egret native to Britain?  

3)     Who imported the rabbit to the British Isles?

Have a good half term.

Best wishes,Simon Signature    
Founder & Managing Director

Quiz answers:
1)     It is a squirrel nest, typically a bundle of twigs. It may also be spelt 'dray'.

2)     No. This small, white heron first appeared in the late 1980's from mainland Europe and begun breeding in 1996.

3)     The Normans from what is now northern France in the 12th century.