Sunday, 25 March 2018

The otters tale continues

I can barely believe that a year has passed since TOT (The Otters' Tale) as we nicknamed it, came out in hardback. It has been a somewhat hectic time with talks, awards and articles as the book sold so well as to go to reprint.

Footprints in the snow
I have to admit it is not a book I would have ever imagined writing; Life of a Chalkstream fell squarely from my daily experiences, but for TOT I had to watch, learn and research - for creatures that have lived under our feet for centuries it is surprising how little we understand about otters, and how much we misunderstand.

Of course, I was lucky to have Kuschta living here at Nether Wallop Mill for three years. She wasn't the most compliant subject for observation, but her almost daily presence and the routine along the Wallop Brook gave me enough scope to intrude on her life.

Sadly I fear the worst for Kuschta; I have not seen hide nor hair of her since last summer. She would be at least six by now; five is a grand old age for otters and successfully raising two litters is a notable landmark. Our sole otter presence is a young adult, one of her offspring. He, or perhaps she, is currently living somewhere upstream of The Mill, which is strange as that means this otter is in the village rather than the desolate Badlands below.

Caught on camera
With the snow, which they pay scant regard to, I've been able to track her nightly arrivals and departures - I am going to assume it is a female because I think it is doubtful a young male would be a less regular visitor, more prone to wanderings. 

She comes down the mill stream, hauls herself up the bank just below my bedroom window, traverses 30 yards of garden and Brook to silently slide into the trout lake as you will see by the photo.

Sometime later she returns via much the same route, I can only assume fish-in-mouth, as there is no blood red slush of a dining area unless she has taken to eating on the island.

The Otters' Tale came out in paperback yesterday. It is available in all good bookshops or on-line via Amazon or Waterstones.

Editors note: I wrote the first draft of this on Monday and the following night I heard the tell-tale eeking of meeting otters. Maybe we'll have a new family soon ....... they must know the first stocking is due next week.

Trout fishing in the metropolis

As you read this we'll be very much out of our natural environment, battling our way on the Northern Line to the Business Design Centre in Islington for the first day of the London Fly Fishing Fair.

The New River
Actually Ilsington isn't as unfamiliar to me as you might think; those of you who remember Fishing Breaks from the very early days might recall that we had a N1 postcode at a time when I did this strange reverse daily commute to the chalkstreams. 

That said north London is not completely alien to our pure rivers. The River Fleet (the same one of Fleet Street nomenclature) ran from Hampstead Heath, past Kings Cross, down what is now Farringdon Street, under Holborn Viaduct to join the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge. I could be wrong but I don't think any part of the Fleet remains visible today, what is left all being underground. 

However, you can still see the remnants of another ambitious plan when nineteenth century town planners created a completely new chalkstream to bring clean water to a rapidly expanding north London. Less than imaginatively called New River you can still see parts of it today in Canonbury Gardens Park, ten minutes walk from the Design Centre.

If you would like to see us we will be on stands 56/57, sharing with Farlows. We are overlooking the casting pool.

The show hours are 9am-6pm on both Friday and Saturday.

Fancy a walk?
Recently I was asked to write a brief piece for The Guardian Lifestyle section for their Top 10 spring walks in the UK

Now I'm lucky enough to be able to tramp up and down our many miles of chalkstreams, but the brief demanded somewhere everyone could go. This had me dragging out my trusty Ordnance Survey map and piecing together what is , though I say it myself, a rather good route with the reward of beer at the end. Here is what I wrote:

Chibolton Cow Common
Start/end | West Down nature reserve (Google map)
Length | 5 miles/2 hours
Grade | Easy

Trains on the Spratt & Winkle line once steamed their way to London with a daily consignment of the watercress that still thrives on the banks of the chalk-rich Test. Today the disused line is the perfect path from which to catch glimpses of the gin-clear water, pausing on bridges to see trout, fresh from the deprivations of winter, gulping down olive mayflies that alight on the surface.

Soon you turn from the old track to head up the chalk downs. These absorb the winter rains, filling the aquifers from which these chalkstreams spring. As the path takes you to higher elevations, you'll see in the valley below, between green shooting wheat and the soon-to-be-yellow rapeseed, rows of vines: this is English champagne country, with vineyards such as Cottonworth, which produces a classic cuvée and a sparkling rosé. The chalk seam here runs south for hundreds of miles, finishing in the Champagne region of France.

Dropping back down to the river plain, you come to Chilbolton Cow Common, now bursting into spring bloom. Tall flag irises are still curled inside their buds but the marsh marigolds splash vivid yellow along the banks. Mallards fight for mates, and water voles duck and weave between the reeds eager to build the first nest of the season. Finish at the riverside Mayfly Inn in Fullerton, with local beer, local bubbly and local trout on the menu.
If you register on the Ordnance Survey web site (there is a free 7 day trial) you can pull up the route yourself to adapt or amend. Alternatively here is a link


Last time we had prizes! Well done to Chris Rocker who won the pair of tickets to the London Fly Fishing Fair.

1)    What is a Koch snowflake?    
       A mathematical curve resembling a snowflake.

2)     Who wrote Salmon fishing in the Yemen?
        Paul Torday

3)    The coarse fishing season closed on what date?             15 March

No quiz this week, but a rather a quirky video. But before you watch do take a look at the photo to take a guess at what the shrimp pattern is made from. 

I have to confess this is not the most all action You Tube clip you will ever watch, but it is a cunning bit of plastic origami. Maybe just fast forward through some of it. Click here to watch

Hope you are able to make it to the Fair.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director

Friday, 9 March 2018

The saving nature of ARK

I have always been a great fan of ARK having followed their work and spoken at Action for the River Kennet events in the past. It wouldn't be fair to say ARK is unique (we have our own Test & Itchen Association and there are many others) but if you had to find a template for a proactive body that campaigned on every level - national, local, in the classroom and educating the wider public - you'd struggle to find anything better.

River Kennet
As part of their ongoing guardianship of the Kennet catchment, which includes the Dun, Lambourn and Og, ARK has a monthly river fly monitoring programme on up to 57 sites in the valley.

The long term aim is to build up an accurate picture of how the rivers are coping with change (the population in the region increased 318% 1931-1991 and goodness how much since ....) but in the short term the regular count of the eight indicator species from the sedge, mayfly, stonefly and shrimp groups, alerts the team to pollution and keeps tabs on general water quality.

If you want to see more visit the ARK website where you will see that the highest scoring invertebrate count for January 2018 was at our very own Donnington Grove.

Two guys and a Hi Lux - Part 2 - Yorkshire

One of the things that struck me when I was plotting my route to take in the compass extremes of the chalkstreams was how incredibly helpful people were. I'd get on the phone, call a total stranger and essentially invite myself to fish their river. One such person was Alan Mullinger, who founded the East Yorkshire Rivers Trust.

If you ever have cause to cross the Humber Bridge it is hard to reconcile that the massive river below started life as a tiny stream in the chalk hills that make an arc from the Humber estuary west of Hull up to the North Sea coast between Bridlington and Scarborough where the white costal cliffs give something of a clue, not to mention the lighthouse on Flanborough Head built of chalk. Here is the genesis of that geological seam that will run all the way to the south of Paris.

For not only does Yorkshire boast the most northerly chalkstream on the planet but also 35 of the Britain's 224 chalkstreams, the longest being the River Hull at 16 miles. 

Illustrious writers such as Skues considered the Driffield Beck, the best known of the Yorkshire set, every bit as good as it's more famous southern counterparts and is the only river in the Eastern Wolds to have the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) classification.

Gypsey Race
Now, as ever with this tour, my problem was reconciling the most northern river with the one that was actually fishable. In terms of latitude plenty of advice was offered for the Gypsey Race; as you will see from the photo probably a good job I didn't pin my hopes on that one. Wintringham Beck was certainly the one the map indicated as the prime prospect but it was, at least in terms of fishing and access from my southern desk, Google proof. So it was to Foston Beck that photographer Ken and I were heading as we crossed the Humber Bridge to meet Alan Mullinger.

Since retiring from the Environment Agency Alan has been the driving force behind the restoration of the Foston Brook; looking at the photos you might think he has done a great job. That is a perfect chalkstream. However, you'll probably be more amazed when you know this bit of river didn't exist 5 year ago. Here is the story. 

Many years ago, probably in the 1800's the river was diverted into a straight canal to provide water for a mill that operated in the farm in the background and there it remained long after the mill fell into disuse, a silted channel with sluggish flow and the impoundment of the historic structures. Now Alan and the East Yorkshire Rivers Trust could have tried to make something of what remained but really what was the point? It was never a natural feature of the landscape, entirely suited for the job it was dug for and nothing else. Why not, they reasoned, re-create the river that was abolished in the first place?

And that is precisely what they did. With a little bit of geographical investigation they traced the route of the old river and simply dug it back out again (well, it wasn't that simple ....), used the spoil to fill in the mill canal and voilà, a new/old chalkstream came into being. You have to admit it is pretty impressive.

Foston Beck

Foston Beck simon with fish

If you are being picky you might say the water isn't crystal clear but that was a factor of the deluge we drove up in the previous day. By lunchtime we Ken and I had ticked the boxes: blue sky, sunshine and fish so it was off to find the Gypsey Race and Wintringham Beck. My thanks to Alan for being such and open and generous host.

Wintringham Beck
As you have seen the Gypsey was a bust but, in any case, even with water and fish it wasn't the most northern but frankly the prospects for the Wintringham, an even tinier line on my rapidly dog-earing Ordnance Survey map, didn't seem to offer much more hope.  

But eventually we found it, and wow, what a perfect gem. The only problem was finding someone who would admit to ownership and give us permission to fish. We knocked on doors. Drove up drives. Accosted dog walkers. Other than the collective incredulity that anyone would want to do such a thing nobody seemed to know much besides suggest that I find 'the man' but he wasn't about much they said. Dead end.

Even in the pursuit of my worthy cause I didn't feel it right to poach so Ken and I mocked up some shots on the road bridge, giving way to a passing tractor who stopped. I guess we were an odd sight. He driver wasn't 'the man' but he worked for 'the man' and he was sure 'the man' would not mind. Help yourselves.

So, I fulfilled my wish in fishing the most northerly chalkstream on the entire planet almost entirely by accident and the goodwill of strangers. If you are 'the man' and you are reading this - thank you - I hope we didn't cause any offence.

Next time: Yorkshire to Champagne.


Last year's inaugural London Fly Fishing Fair was hailed a great success, a tribute to the show organisers John and Fergus Kelley, the father and son team who just also happen to be keen fly fishers themselves. Maybe therein in lies a clue?

Unfortunately I wasn't able to take a stand first time around but this year I am delighted to say that Fishing Breaks will be sharing booths 55/56 with our friends from Farlow's. Do come along to say hello. I will be there both days, along with Diane on the Friday and river keeper Simon Fields on the Saturday.

The show is on March 23rd/24th 9am-6pm at the Ilsington Design Centre.

Tickets and details on the LFF web site.


This week win a pair of tickets to the London Fly Fishing Fair, kindly donated by John and Fergus Kelley. Answers by email only no later than 12 noon on Monday March 12th.

1)    What is a Koch snowflake?

2)     Who wrote Salmon fishing in the Yemen?

3)    The coarse fishing season closes soon. On what date?

Look forward to seeing you at the show.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 

Founder & Managing Director