November 2019

As we all know, the rains continued relentlessly during the last month, producing widespread flooding in many parts of the country. We saw snow on the hills a couple of times, but generally the weather was warm for late autumn. Nevertheless, with the ground quite saturated, renewed bands of rain every second day or so were quite enough to keep the rivers charged.

Thus there is precious little fishing to report from November, when high water levels defeated all but the most determined river anglers. Again the barbel fishers were the exception, continuing to catch from the middle and lower Wye and doubtless helped by warm water temperatures. Even while the river was over its banks, some brave souls managed to make their way across flooded fields to cast into the channel and succeeded in taking both barbel and chub – see the photographs below. Note the rod propped at high port position to minimise the line fouling with flood debris.

The upper Wye in November with white Black Mountains in the background
How barbel anglers operate in floods - SC from Leeds
Guy Fawkes night and a pristine middle Wye barbel - GP from Basildon

Turning to game fishing (to the extent that it was possible), on 1st November grayling fisher AB from London did manage to take 5 grayling to 15 inches from the Colonel’s Water on the upper Irfon (he also did well at the Cammarch Hotel on the last day of October). Several of these were on the dry fly, a Griffiths Gnat. AG from Harleston in Norfolk fished the Dee at Glendwr Preserve on the 4th and, despite high water, distinguished himself by taking 21 grayling from 12-13 inches with nymphs. On the 8th MH from Llandrindod Wells made another visit to the GPAIAC water at Builth, and fishing a slack at the side of the flood with the trotting rod took 30 grayling to 2 pounds and 10 chub to 4 pounds 15 ounces, along with some dace. MB from Seaton was another who went to the top of the Irfon at Cildu and managed 5 grayling, 4 of them on a dry fly.

On the 16th CD from Northwich with a companion trotted the Irfon at Cefnllysgwynne with the gauge at a full 1.0 metres and managed 9 grayling between them. They fished the same beat on the following day with the level around 0.75 and caught 8, this time with heavy nymphs. Other than the examples above, there was only the odd grayling caught. As we finished the month, the rivers remained high but the weather pattern seemed to have altered at last with some cold, dry, high pressure conditions in place. For that reason, I still have some hopes for December!

Irfon at Cildu - MB from Seaton
Autumn leaves and grayling - MH from Llandrindod Wells
Late autumn grayling

Probably unwittingly, BBC News provided a nice example of an old debate about how rivers should be managed. At the height of the floods in Yorkshire, a group of disconsolate Don Valley farmers faced the reporter’s microphone. All their farms were flooded, movement only possible by tractor, while livestock were mostly knee deep in water and deteriorating in condition by the day. “We desperately need the River Don to be dredged and cleared out,” one of the farmers was saying. “It’s there to transport water and it’s not doing its job properly.” They obviously felt that flood relief maintenance had been neglected in recent years. The EA’s response later in the bulletin urged caution: “We don’t currently dredge the River Don because we don’t think that’s the right thing to do.” But the spokesman said the situation would be kept under review.

As we all know, the modern ecologists’ argument, certainly one supported by most anglers, is that rivers should not be turned into gutters, rushing water away one week and dry as a bone the next, but instead wetlands above the headwaters should be left to preserve their natural function as sponges, holding the water back and delaying floods, spreading the discharge over a longer period. Flood plains are exactly what their name implies. And dredging rivers, apart from the well-known damage to wild-life entailed, just tends to move the flooding problem downstream.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to face and ignore the complaints of those whose houses and farms are under water. And it is particularly difficult, I would imagine, for politicians campaigning for election to avoid reacting sympathetically. Is river flooding a local or a “national” disaster? As the situation worsened, the prime minister called a meeting of the Cobra Committee to discuss it. The leader of the opposition predictably criticised him for not calling such a meeting earlier. The obligatory “sympathy visits” to flood-affected areas took place, but were as usual criticised for occurring too late. Meanwhile, another opposition party leader promised if elected to provide 5 billion pounds for flood defences, a promise which she is most unlikely to have to make good on. I don’t know what took place in Cabinet Office briefing room A, but I doubt if much original thinking on the subject of flood control is going to emerge during the election period. Meanwhile and thankfully the EA, local authorities, Fire Services and the Army appeared to be working hard to resolve problems in flood-affected areas.

Lower Wye in flood

Given our burgeoning population and consequent demand for new housing, there is tremendous pressure on councils for building land these days. There isn’t much choice about this, whether or not local people want to see small country towns turned into large country towns. Plans must be made for so many new housing units, public and private, according to the dictate of central government. Advice can be sought from the EA about low-lying sites, but there is no rule that such advice must be followed. Modern engineering surveys tend to a certain optimism about what can be achieved with the right measures for management and mitigation and today we have a touching belief in experts, statistics and forecasts.

However, when you look around at the weathered stone and brick of older buildings and their location in the countryside, you realise that our forefathers must have been a different breed. They did not have the benefit of modern engineering surveys. Probably they believed in God; certainly they believed in Acts of God, which is what floods and other disasters were then considered to be. At any rate, they were not such damn fools as to build on flood plains.

Upper Wye in flood

This month both sea anglers and what remains of the professional fishing communities in South Wales and North Devon were in some kind of uproar about the presence of massive EU owned factory vessels off Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel. Theoretically these ships were sheltering from rough weather, but their recorded routes indicate that they were making regular trawling passes in the Channel. The deployment of very large (over 5,000 tons) pelagic trawlers into British waters has caused near despair in coastal communities hosting traditional small boats. However, the fact is that under the Common Fishery Policy under which the owners have either been given, traded or purchased quotas of British fish, the factory ship activities are legal enough while we remain an EU member. One of the largest is the Dutch-owned Margiris, a self-contained giant 465 feet long and weighing 6,200 tons, capable of catching and processing 250 tons of fish a day taken from the surface to mid-water. Having been hounded by Greenpeace and local authorities from the coasts of Australia, West Africa and Chile, it was recently photographed trawling within 6 miles of the Sussex coast – legally as already stated, and with the right to a large part of the British quota. However, British offshore fishermen are understandably concerned about the monitoring of the big vessels, how much of which species they are catching, what is being discarded and what damage is being done to local and migrant stocks. “We need a tailor-made UK fishing plan,” they argue, which sounds reasonable enough, and both in the interests of our national economy and the sustainability of our sea fisheries. Clearly the EU plan has not served us well.  

Meanwhile, dismayed freshwater rod and line anglers discuss another very poor season of results for migratory fish. Just 344 salmon were taken on the Wye in 2019 and other Welsh rivers have produced similarly worrying results. This is very depressing coming just after a more optimistic period when we seemed to be seeing some steady improvements. No doubt the old debate about spending money on restocking versus freshwater habitat improvement will resurface and the blame game between organisations will continue. In line with other anglers, I have always been ready to argue against factors perceived as threats to our waters and fishing: pollution, abstraction, acidification, poachers, fish eating birds and all the rest. We know about the damage the salmon farming industry is doing to Scottish rivers and the measures negotiated to restrict the commercial harvest from North Atlantic wild salmon feeding grounds. Perhaps we should be taking more interest in what is going on just beyond the mouths of our rivers. I would love to know how many of our salmon and sea trout die in pelagic trawls (none, if you believe the reports). And I would suggest some more purpose-built fishery protection vessels would be a good investment for the Navy in years to come.

It’s the time of year for making up the Christmas book list and I have another sporting recommendation for you. Following on from TH White’s England Have my Bones, here is a more modern biography in which angling plays a big part. Colin Willock, who died in 2005, was a professional journalist and film maker best known as the writer and main mover behind the Survival series of nature programmes made by Anglian Television. He spent his working life as a journalist, concerning himself to the greatest extent possible and sometimes against all the odds with wildlife and field sports. It is much to his credit that he was able to persuade the people who control the money in television that there is a wide appetite among the public for these subjects. He was the founding editor of Angling Times. He also found the time to write around 20 successful books on outdoor subjects together with several novels. He was a friend and colleague of both Jack Hargreaves and Richard Walker, which in itself probably speaks as much as needed about his credentials.  Landscape with Solitary Figure, published by Longmans in 1966, is best described as a sporting biography (although an early one, as Willock was then only 47). As a sometime editor himself, Willock wrote in a spare, disciplined prose and was a delightful story teller with a wry sense of humour. For these reasons I suggest this may not be such a good bed-time book, as you always want to stay awake and see what’s happening on the next page – at least, that’s how I found it! 

Willock was not a born and bred countryman as you might perhaps expect, given his interests, but instead was brought up in dull North London suburbia. Quite plainly he didn’t like it much and occasional trips out of town to the countryside with his mother (his father was a somewhat distant figure) formed the highlights of his early childhood, which he did not portray as being particularly happy. Nor did he enjoy his time at an expensive private school, the only benefit as he saw it being that it was situated in the countryside. The archaic system of rules denied him much access and as a child he was barred from field sports. But there was a natural history society and he could see anglers on the Medway while he was engaged on seemingly pointless cross-country runs. He looked at the anglers by the river and just knew that he wanted to do that too. Willock always described himself as a “city slicker” but nevertheless one determined to break out, although he had to wait for adult life and the end of the Hitler war to start doing so.

Landscape with Solitary Figure

Later, a career as a journalist based in London offices ensured that his home would necessarily be urban or at least suburban. We find him immediately post-war living with a wife and new baby in a mews flat off Harley Street. However, he owned a 1929 Alvis kept in the garage beneath the flat, a noisy and unreliable conveyance, but one which took the family on holidays and got him out to gravel pit fishing in Buckinghamshire on Saturdays. On the coldest and foggiest of winter days he caught roach, perch and what seemed at the time to be giant pike. There were dace and chub in a nearby stream. His wife was Welsh, so there was a trip to visit her family in a small Glamorgan town which “…if not actually under Milkwood, is very close alongside it.” This led on to fishing the Towy, where an accidental salmon was hidden from the bailiff in one half of a pair of waders. He also fished the Kennet, in its lower reaches a wonderful mixed fishery and well within range of London.

About this time we are introduced to what becomes Willock’s other great love: wild-fowling. This came about due to fellow-journalist Jack Hargreaves and an article which they wrote together about shooting with black powder guns. Willock and some of his friends became hooked on muzzle loaders, most of which were already by then century-old weapons, and took to using them on the marshes of the Medway and later the Wash. Those were different days and after the war you could still encounter the wreckage of a Spitfire or a Dornier out there in the mud. And before the arrival of modern wild-fowling restrictions some of the old professional shooters and decoy operators were still working. The business of muzzle loading with black powder is explained. There is also an account of converting an old double 4 bore, albeit a breech loader, into a rather terrifying punt-gun which, when a lanyard was pulled, fired both barrels simultaneously and threw 6 ounces of BB shot to devastate any flock within range. Despite this experiment, mass killing of birds was not really Willock’s style. Restrained shooting in general and wildfowling in particular continue as main themes through the rest of the book.

An angling journalist gets a fine overview of everything to do with the sport. Willock got to write articles on such disparate matters as specimen fish, match fishing and running a maggot farm. He also engaged Dick Walker as a columnist and they became friends. This fact impressed me tremendously because Walker, captor of the giant carp Clarissa from a Herefordshire pool, was the great hero of all my boyhood fishing friends. About this time Willock also encountered the charm of small river trout fishing for his own pleasure. This was the Barle on Exmoor, which he first fished just after the great Lynmouth flood which had briefly raised even this stream flowing southward off the moor by 17 feet. Best of all, Willock had discovered a good old-fashioned fishing pub – which is an even rarer establishment today – and annual fishing holidays on the Barle became a family tradition. In due course Willock the journalist was to go fishing with such famous names as Oliver Kite, Arthur Oglesby and Reg Righyni.

A growing family involved sale of the Alvis and a move, this time to Walton-on-Thames in Surrey. This might be described as an outer suburb, but it’s undeniably a suburb, chosen as it was for access to the main London – Portsmouth line. Willock, you might think, would subsequently spend much of his life as just another morning commuter, dreaming that he was heading for green fields and clear waters rather than for Waterloo station. In fact he came up with the most imaginative schemes and in a sense made his own escape from suburbia without even leaving it.

It strikes a chime with me because, at what must have been about the same period, I also was doing my time in suburbia, even while my sister and I dreamed of holidays at our grandmother’s home on a hill in the Forest of Dean. The streets around us seemed grey, but the Forest was the most romantic place in the world to my young mind. We lived where we did because of my father’s job at the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington, but I am pretty sure he would have preferred to have been back in Gloucestershire and he escaped there at every opportunity. 

Meanwhile I was travelling every day on the same railway line as Willock. Imagine a raw winter day and an 8 year-old boy on his reluctant way to a prep school he didn’t like much, waiting for the electric train on a grimy platform and looking down from the embankment at the sewage farm seen below through a line of bare poplar trees. The Hogsmill River in its concrete channel, where during the summer holidays I had caught sticklebacks in a net, was not far away. I was staring now at a line of men with spades working slowly with an air of weariness and resignation, digging out compacted sludge from one of the concrete settling tanks and turning it by clods into wheelbarrows before carting it away. The pervasive smell was acrid and thick, even from my viewpoint. The men’s clothes and hats were old and tattered, but what caught my attention was that every one of them engaged on this unpleasant task was black.

It’s hard to imagine now, but this was strange to me. At the time I didn’t know any black people. There were no black people at my school, on the streets familiar to me or visiting my family. I wondered where they had come from. They were there, about 20 of them, working on the tanks every morning. All I knew was that they were “different” and engaged together on an obviously unpleasant job. At 8 years old, you tend to see the outer world through the eyes of your parents, without much understanding of your own. We had no television then, but the News Chronicle arrived every day and my parents would discuss it in front of the coal fire which heated our living room. Apparently something had been wrong in a place called Suez and my mother said: “That President Nasser is a very bad man.” Something else was wrong in a place called Cyprus and “that Archbishop Makarios is an evil man,” again according to mother’s analysis.

A few minutes later in the school day, now on the train approaching New Malden, I would pass a huge sign written on a brick wall. Efforts had been made to scrub it out, but it could be read clearly enough and over 60 years later I can remember the words: Empire Loyalists say Ban Coloureds. Who were the Empire Loyalists? I know now that they were an intermediate link between the British Union of Fascists and the British National Party. At the time, child as I was, I had no idea what this meant, nor did I make any direct connection between the two scenes, but somehow they both made me feel uncomfortable. There’s a bleak little picture of post war commuter-land life and the newly arrived Windrush generation for you.

Meanwhile and on a more cheerful note, Willock had found another old-fashioned sewage farm a little further down the line at Walton-on-Thames. This one also had neglected sludge tanks, in this case overgrown with tomato plants (the seeds pass very effectively through the human system). For most of the year there was open water too, on the filter beds. There was also a small farm or market garden, almost surrounded by houses, adjoining the sewage works and Willock’s keen eye discovered that mallard had a flight line between the filter beds and a small reservoir a few miles away (this would be Island Barn at Molesey, I am guessing). Willock, canny fellow, went to see the farmer and offered to shoot the pigeons and rabbits off his peas. They signed a shooting lease for a shilling a year and the ducks were not mentioned until later. Thus began Willock’s urban shoot, which continued for many seasons and prompted contributions to shooting magazines under the name “Town Gun.”

Another real coup was to get access to the shooting rights on one of the giant metropolitan reservoirs north of the Thames at Staines. To get a proper look at these today you either need to fly into Heathrow while peering down through the window, or use an ordnance survey map, because they were made by creating 50 foot embankments to enclose flat land and nothing can be seen of the water from below. However, once up on the concrete rim you find yourself facing a windblown inland sea with an amazing collection of water fowl which have migrated here from all over Europe and the far reaches of Asia. Willock entitled this chapter in his book Messengers from Kamchatka.

The birds were wary and it wasn’t an easy place to shoot for a man exposed on the rim. There is a story of a duck which falls into the Shepperton Film Studios and trying to recover the body from a disbelieving caretaker. In the end, Willock went too far. Dogs were not allowed on the reservoir and the recovery of shot birds drifting over a mile onto the downwind shore was problematic. More importantly, Willock was supposed to be shooting the steep grassy banks and when he got into the habit of dawn visits to the long concrete breakwater which nearly bisects the reservoir, he found his permission abruptly withdrawn. Another strange experience was shooting inside the halls of Surbiton Water Works which was suffering from the attentions of messy feral pigeons fouling turbines and pumps. Making shots just beneath a roof of reinforced glass seemed unwise, but the water company engineers were quite sanguine about it.

There is more, switching subjects between fishing and shooting. Willock and his family made many trips to Ireland and there are tales of fishing the loughs of the West. He also met and shot with a professional pigeon shooter in Hampshire. This seemed to be a precarious profession as contracted with farmers anxious to protect their crops. The economics of the affair, meaning income from birds shot against the cost of cartridges, defined that you needed to kill two for every three cartridges used. The whole day was planned with military precision. “What has the Master got? A good day, he says. Fired 280 cartridges, picked 224 birds. Fifty-six misses.” I would have been nowhere in this operation. Then there is fishing in Denmark, spinning for sea trout and catching perch in brackish Baltic water, followed by grayling in the Swedish Arctic.

Willock wrote, perhaps inevitably, but quite movingly, about his shooting dogs. (You may think that my imprecations against owners who allow their pets to spoil other people’s fishing means that I dislike dogs, but I can be as soppy about a liquid-eyed spaniel as the next man). He also made some intelligent remarks about taking children fishing. He insisted that children need to ask to go fishing several times before being taken (or it will not be valued) and that when you do take them, you must ensure there is lots of action. It is particularly important that they catch something quickly, and never mind what kind of fish, the method or the circumstances; something must be caught. There is a nice account of fishing on Exmoor and the Kennet with his son Paul.

There is another account, more difficult, of fishing for the camera, which is often less than fun. Let’s face it, there is always a strong element of chance in fishing, and the best of anglers dread the thought of having to produce something for the photographer/journalist whose time means money and who will be with us on the river for no more than a couple of hours. What if the fish are “off” that day? Willock would have known all about this.

His final chapter, On the Box, deals with his professional career and a move from Rediffusion to Anglia Television, which turned out to be a move from current affairs to programmes about wild life, everything from urban foxes in London to conservation in African parks. The result was the extremely successful series Survival. Willock picked the making of two of these programmes for the final part of his book: the history of the fenlands and the life of professional wildfowler Kenzie Thorpe, and Blakeney on the Norfolk coast and the working of a decoy (for the Wildfowl Trust) at Borough Fen.

Willock finished with some thoughts about conservation, moral issues and the place of field sports in the future of our wildlife and countryside. Fifty years on, his views still seem relevant and apart from the fact that the urban sprawl which he recognised continues to spread, not so much has changed. Friends in the shooting world who knew Willock tell me he was great company. I think the title of his book is quite inspired. Landscape with Solitary Figure may provoke a smile because of the artistic allusion, but it does encapsulate the charm of field sports, fishing and shooting both. Many of us like to go out with friends, but if you really have the bug for either sport, you will also love to go alone. Either waiting alone beyond the sea wall on a freezing dawn, or hidden in the reeds by the water ready to cast, you know there is nowhere else you would rather be. Explaining the obsession to others may be difficult, but Colin Willock made a very fair job of it. Landscape with Solitary Figure is still available from Coch y bonddu Books.

Happy Christmas to all angling readers,                               

Oliver Burch 

Wye Valley Fishing

Please note that the views within this report are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Wye & Usk Foundation.