Friday, 27 July 2018

The call of the river

Nether Wallop Mill Friday July 27th 2018

I could pretend I didn't really know what drove me out of the office on the dot of 5pm last Friday. After all who in their right mind braves the Salisbury ring road, a nightmare at the best of times, on what Sky News was calling 'traffic gridlock Friday' as the nation fled to goodness-knows-where on the first day of the school holidays. However it seems the British public are giving the Cathedral spire a very wide birth as I sailed through en-route for that bit of Dorset that snuggles in the nook of Wiltshire and Hampshire.

The truth is it was the prospect of 10 hours on a plane. A need to have a fix of the English summer to carry me through the bland anonymity of international air travel. A chance to know with absolute certainty that as the southern counties fast receded beneath the wing tips I'd grabbed a last smell and feel of summer to take on my journey. Actually I had rather too much of the latter laying out in my seat: my legs had that tingly itch which can mean only one culprit - stinging nettles. It was my own fault. Wet wading in thin trousers with Adidas windsurfing shoes which are on the plus side light, comfortable and easy to walk in. On the minus side the drainage holes offer perfect access to nettle barbs. But with the HiLux pickup temperature gauge still registering 25c at sunset there was no way I was going to don proper waders.

There is something other worldly about this corner of Dorset. A place that progress has largely passed by. You are not really near anywhere of significance. You don't pass through it. You actively need to choose to come here and there are not many reasons to come here. The lands are held in a few ownerships. Here are some of the largest farm holdings in Britain. I say farm rather than estate because they are not of the grandiose Blenheim Palace type. Granted they all have rather fine mansions in wonderful grounds but the ethos is rural, owned by families that count the generations in centuries rather than decades. You won't find safari parks or coach tours supplementing income, because if you dig a little deeper you discover that the same families have metropolitan wealth. Thus the economic imperatives that drive most places are absent. Here you will find tumbledown buildings that have yet to be gentrified. Farm yards that would make the perfect home for the Larkin family in any remake of The Darling Buds of May. All but a handful of the village houses tied cottages, occupied by farm hands some current, but most long retired.

A sort of somnambulance hangs over the place. Little stirs. It was too hot for even the dogs to bark as I walk by. The bumble bees are overwhelming the noisiest and busiest things in the whole district until I have to press myself tight against the hedge to allow a huge tractor to bounce past me on super inflated tyres that click and hiss along the soft tarmac of the narrow country lane. The driver gives me a mischievous smile and thumbs up. I almost envy his air conditioned luxury, air cushioned seat and state of the art audio system. His is a mighty fine office, with an ever rolling country view and he knows it. He has, as they like to say down here, gone green. That is to say invested in the most hi-tech of all the current crop of farm machinery, namely a green liveried John Deere tractor. They do a good line in irony down these parts.

The river here is not for the faint hearted. If you want to get back to nature chalkstream-style this is the place to come. A river that is untended. Period. What you see is what Mother Nature gave us. Weed cutting, such as it is, is done by the swans. Bank management by the changing of the seasons. The open water - the bits that are (relatively) easy to cast into - is impossibly skinny. To borrow from the Blackadder book of frustrations: so skinny that even the skinniest supermodel would accuse it of being too skinny. The most delicate cast scatters previously unseen fish in all directions. It is hard to understand how any fish could lie unseen in such thin water, but I fail to spot each and every one. But, as I remind myself, I am here for something more than the fishing. And it is rather lovely. The cool water is a soothing balm to my nettled legs. The wild mint I crush beneath my feet fills the air with spearmint. I heard not a single car. Saw no vapour trails across a clear blue sky. In fact all I saw or heard were tractors, which seems no sort of interruption at all.

Two pools, if you can call them that (they were more watery indentations) came and went. Sunset was fast approaching and I was running out of fish options. It is all very well communing with nature but my professional pride demanded at least one fish. As I drew level with the watercress beds the river all but disappears, the water drawn off to irrigate them from at a hatch pool further upstream. That pool I was pretty sure would be my last shot. The swans by this point have long given up their river keeping duties. Every step is like wading though weedy quicksand but frankly going back ¾ mile was harder than going forward the final few hundred yards.

The hatch pool was smaller than I remembered it. The brick walls funnelling the water into a narrow channel, with a rickety bridge above, into a deep pool, the open water the shape of a ragged artichoke with me standing just below the bulbous end, entirely surrounded by ranunculus. If you look carefully you'll notice the weed is ragged, with lots of chewed off stalks. That had me perplexed - that wasn't typically swan damage. And then out of the corner of my eye I saw this furry thing run across the bridge. At first I thought it was the most enormous rat. And then I thought maybe a tiny otter pup. But when its companion followed a moment later it was the hugest water vole I have ever seen. I had clearly disturbed them on the one bank so having crossed to the other side they barged their way though the undergrowth to take up station below me, out of sight but within earshot as I heard them in that masticating, lip smacking way that water voles have of tucking into a new crop of tasty water buttercup, for that is what ranunculus is.

As they squeaked and chewed I eyed up the pool. A fish rose. It was a good, clunky rise. No tiddler and I thought, no contest. I can't recall what fly I tied on. In situations like this I don't over think it. Free rising, wild fish don't usually over think it either. But this one clearly did. It didn't care for my first, second, third or fourth choice of dry fly. 'So,' as I usually ask myself at moments like this, 'what would Frank do?' Of course we all know the answer, but I guess it is my way of doing a deal with my conscience. So, Mr Sawyer you were indeed correct. A lightly weighted Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear fished Netheravon style with that 'lift' to induce a take in the most suspicious of fish worked not once but twice with my first two casts. Admittedly the next ten minutes elicited no further response, with me fishing the fly and technique long past any sell by date.

Getting out of the river wasn't any easier than negotiating its length. Some giant hogweed, another water vole favourite even though it is fatal to us with its high arsenic content though harmless to them, provided a useful handhold up and into another clump of nettles. I would say I vaulted the vicious barbed wire fence that lay between me and the route home but I am far too old for that; my body paid yet a further price for enjoying this bucolic idyll.

But hey, I had done what I came to do. The lane was deserted all the way back. Even my tractor buddy seemed to have gone home, my only companions the insect hunting bats that flicked and stunt dived in the gathering gloom. Ahead the village pub lay quiet, the car park a profusion of weeds. The notice on the front door announcing its closure three years ago is now curled and faded. There is a price to pay for being in the back of beyond.

August Special Offers
If you have been hiding from the sun in the past few weeks I would not entirely blame you though perversely the fishing has been unexpectedly good; this heat is harder on the fisher than the fish.

The chalkstreams have been largely unaffected by the heat wave as thanks to a wet winter and spring that filled the aquifers to overflowing. So much so that as late as June our river keeper Simon Fields was still unable to use his mowing tractor on some banks at Bullington Manor; if you stepped back into the woods today you'll find it still incredibly damp underfoot.

Next week I will be launching our regular August batch of special offers. If you are not on the special offer circulation list who will receive details 24 hours ahead of everyone else add your name via this link by ticking the special offer box.


More chances to prove, improve or disprove your intellect.  Answers, as ever, at the bottom of the page. 

1)   What is the chemical element symbol for arsenic?

2)   What does a toxicologist study?
3)   Which English cheese is wrapped in nettle leaves?

Enjoy the weekend.

Best wishes,Simon Signature    
Founder & Managing Director

Quiz answers:

1)  As
2)  Poisons and their effects

3)  Cornish Yarg

Friday, 13 July 2018

A very special legacy

You are sitting at home in your elegant Kensington house one evening. Your spouse arrives home from work. So far, so normal until the announcement that the time has come to pack up the London life to head for the country - a fly fishing business beckons. The details are vague. It might be a store. Or it could be a hotel. Nothing is precisely determined but the principle is decided. How do you reply?

Dermot Wilson in retirement
Well, I guess that might slightly depend on your circumstances but consider the person standing before you. He could be in no way considered unsuccessful or prone to flights of fancy. Educated at Winchester College he left to join the King's Royal Rifle Corps as an officer at the age seventeen, landing on the northern coast of France on D-Day plus one earning the Military Cross for his actions behind enemy lines. After the war he took the Civil Service entry exam, registered the highest score of his generation, was appointed to the Foreign Office but declined when he was to be posted to Japan; he doubted that there was much fly fishing available there. Advertising then called where our embryonic fly fishing entrepreneur soon rose to become the youngest ever director of the international colossus J. Walter Thompson. It was from their Mayfair offices that he had arrived that evening. Now it is to the enormous credit of Renée Wilson that she looked her husband in the eye and said, "Dermot, that is the most sensible thing you have said in a long time". And so something unique and special was born.

By the time the couple arrived at that life changing moment Dermot already had a head start on others who might embark on such madness. He was a well known and published fly fisher, his first (and sadly only) book Fishing The Dry Fly a best seller since the first edition of 1957 and he was a regular columnist for Trout & Salmon a position he held dear, rarely writing for any other publication. He was, I think it is fair to say, a fishing obsessive. His angling career had started early, his Irish mother shipping him back to her native land for long summers where he explored the lochs. At Winchester he revived the moribund fishing club, the River Itchen becoming the thread that ran through the remainder of his life. Renée relates that even during their courtship weekends were for fishing; it was fortunate that she always shared Dermot's passion and that his mother had retired to Winchester.

Like many things in life how the Wilsons eventually arrived at Nether Wallop Mill was something of happenchance. After toying and discarding various business models Renée and Dermot alighted on mail order which was at the time, remember this was the late 1960's, considered slightly down-at-heel. So the search was on for a base and whilst Dermot was away in Ireland (yes, fishing) Renée spied an advert in The Daily Telegraph for a dilapidated mill in Hampshire. A call to Dermot and thence the agent led them to making a full asking price offer that day, sight unseen. A week later, ahead of two hundred other enquiries, they drove to Nether Wallop and sealed the deal with a handshake for £13,000.

Whilst writing this article and researching the fifty years since Dermot and Renée walked across the threshold of Nether Wallop Mil, now my home and workplace, I have tried to place him in the pantheon of the angling greats. The names of Walton, Halford, Skues, Grey, Sawyer and Kite are so easy to recite that perhaps we don't bother to look much further. But we should for otherwise Wilson will be omitted. Charles Jardine, one time apprentice to Dermot here at The Mill, has put it better than any other person I have spoken to: "Dermot should be remembered as being one of, if not THE, best portrayers of the sport. His words and English usage were both sublime and minimal."

Fergus Wilson (son) with Frank Sawyer at The Mill
As Charles goes on to say if you want to measure the true worth of a man's literary prowess judge him by the company that seeks him out to be called his friend. Ted Hughes, Poet Laureate and often regarded as the greatest poet of the 20th century, was one such person. Herein lies the secret of Dermot's success for it was through the medium of the printed word he inspired a whole new generation of fly fishers and the business he founded was to be the perfect vehicle for that.

Today we very much take trout stillwaters for granted, but back around the time Dermot was setting up they were both ground breaking and sensational. The fly fishing 'business' exploded. Books, TV shows and magazines proliferated as trout lakes were dug across the country making a sport that was previously thought to be the preserve of the upper classes accessible to a whole new generation both in terms of affordability and geography.

Now you might just say Dermot was lucky with his timing. At this point I tend to grab for Henry Ford's great truth when accused of the same: the harder I work the luckier I seem to get. Today mail order, with the internet and next day delivery, is part of the fabric of our lives, but fifty years ago you needed to truly inspire sceptical shoppers. For Dermot it was with his words. His catalogue A Choice of Tackle became a staple of each new fishing season. As a regular traveller to North America, the powerhouse of post-war era angling innovation, he returned with exciting new lines, reels, rods and flies. But that in itself was not enough.

You need to make it all come alive on the page. Explain to the reader how and why the purchase would make your fishing not only better, but also more fun. In both he excelled. Who else would have featured a fishing chimpanzee? Added humour with cartoons? Weave the stories of how he had discovered or used this or that 'must have' item. When you bought from Dermot Wilson you became part of his extended fishing family; he invented the concept of customer service long before the term became common parlance. Nothing was too much trouble. Call, write or even drop in. 100% customer satisfaction was the aim or return the item no questions asked. Today we think of all that as standard but back then? Well, perhaps within that laid the seeds of demise.

Prince Charles & Dermot Wilson at 1980 Game Fair
It is an eternal sadness to me that I never visited The Mill in Dermot and Renée's time for it seems to me it was, for a while, the epicentre of the fly fishing universe. Frank Sawyer was a good friend and regular visitor; he even designed the most perfect trout teaching lake which we still use today. Dick Walker, for many years the British carp record holder and rod maker par excellence through his Bruce & Walker partnership, was a confidante. Bob Church, Brian Clarke, John Goddard, Barry Welham and Conran Voss Bark, great men in their own right, were just part of the fabric. Royal warrant holders Hardy Bros. beat a path to his door when they needed advice on building a special edition cane rod and the Royal household called in search of a reel for the Queen Mother's 70th. From overseas came the Perkins, the owners of Orvis who were to eventually buy the business, along with Lee and Joan Wulff, not to mention the great American angling writer Ernie Schwiebert. Of course, they didn't always come to him - occasionally Dermot had to go to them, most famously to Prince Charles who put out a special request to meet him and Renée at the 1980 Game Fair when it was held in the grounds of his uncle's house on the River Test at Broadlands in Hampshire.

Unfortunately the smiles on Fisherman's Row on that sunny July day hid some bitter truths. This was no time to be running a fragile business that relied on optimism and buoyant consumer confidence. The recession (some would say depression) of 1980-81 was gathering. Inflation reached 17% and interest rates were higher still. Unemployment surged. Taxes rose. Dermot and Renée sat down with their advisors to accept the inevitable. I can't better the words Dermot penned in the supplement to the 1981 Choice of Tackle:

Farewell edition of A Choice of Tackle
"We suppose all good things must come to an end - and that includes our small enterprise at Nether Wallop Mill. We're retiring. This is partly because it's high time - we're getting rather grey-haired and venerable. And it's partly because this miserable old Depression isn't doing the Mill any good at all. Financially, that is. So this is our last fond message to you. We'll be winding up as from September 2nd 1981.

But we want to finish on a high note. So before we leave the stage, we're making the offers contained in this leaflet. Not that it's purely altruism. Obviously we'd like to convert some of our stock to lovely money. We can, however, do each other a final favour - let us send you a bargain or two.

We simply can't depart from the scene, however, without saying how much we love you. If anyone doubted that flyfishermen are the salt of the earth, you've laid those doubts to rest. You've been kind and courteous and wonderful to us. (We've tried to reciprocate). Many of you have been with us since the early days; many of you have become close personal friends. We think you're the nicest people ever. With all our hearts, we wish you a long life of happy and successful fishing."

And Dermot did indeed retire. He and Renée bought a cottage in the village of Farley, not far from Nether Wallop with views over the Avon valley. Dermot continued to write, largely for Trout & Salmon, toured the USA lecturing and as Chairman of the Anglers Co-operative Association (now Fish Legal) led a successful campaign against a clause in a government bill that would have weakened the common law protection of the flow and quality of rivers. He continued to fish both on the Piscatorial Society waters and his beloved River Itchen until his death in 1996.

His widow Renée still lives in Wiltshire, now on the banks of the River Ebble. I am indebted to her for many kindnesses in helping me write this article and I am looking forward to welcoming her back to The Mill later in the year to unveil the blue plaque I have commissioned in Dermot's memory. It is the very least I can do for Dermot Wilson MC, soldier, writer and fly fisherman deserves to be remembered for a very long time to come.

Simon Cooper, founder of Fishing Breaks, has lived in Nether Wallop Mill since 1999, which is both his home and workplace
. My thanks to Trout & Salmon for allowing the reproduction of this article that was first published in the July 2018 magazine.

Bursaries: spread the word

News of two bursaries: do spread the word. 
The first award is from the Test & Itchen Association of a Bursary of up to £1,000 to a Hampshire river keeper. The aim of the Bursary is to help a river keeper improve their river management skills.

The Bursary might be used in any way to enhance the keeper's relevant skills, knowledge or experience. Examples might include part-time study, training for qualifications and visits to other fisheries in the UK or abroad, or a combination of these or different elements.

To be eligible for the Bursary, the applicant must be an active river keeper on the Test, Itchen or Meon or one of their tributaries. The keeper might act in a full-time or part-time capacity, and be paid or a volunteer.

For an application form and more details contact Jeremy Legge. The closing date for applications is Tuesday 31 July 2018.

The other is the Anne Voss-Bark Memorial Award. Set up by Salmon & Trout Conservation in collaboration with the Arundel Arms and Fario Club, the Anne Voss-Bark Memorial Award 2018 offers students:

*           One week work experience with the West Country Rivers Trust; learning catchment management and water science from the Trusts eminent scientists
*           Two day fly fishing course
*           Complimentary stay at the Arundell Arms hotel during the work experience
*           250

You can find out further details and how to apply by following this link.

June feedback draw winner

I must confess that June rather left us scratching our collective heads. 

On the last Thursday in June, at that point the hottest Hampshire day of the year, we hosted two groups on two quite different beats. At the end of the day the returns were colossal: better indeed than some Mayfly days. As we sat in the pub slaking our thirsts there was no explanation on which we could agree. Though we did conclude that the heat was worse for us than the fish. 

Well done to Tim Amps who collects the snood having fished on the River Dove with Andy Buckley. As for you all, you are back into the draw for the end of season Simms pliers.


More chances to prove, or improve, your intellect.  Answers, as ever, at the bottom of the page. 

1)   Dermot Wilson (pictured below) is fishing which Fishing Breaks beat?

2)   If you were scared of today what would you be?

3)   How high and wide is a football (soccer) goal?

Enjoy the weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 

Founder & Managing Director

Quiz answers:

1)  Beat 1 at Bullington Manor. Date unknown.

2)  A triskaidekaphobic.  A person who fears or avoids the number 13.

3)  8x8. Eight yards wide. Eight foot high.