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.

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