Where to fish
Early spring - The Axe Valley - Shute Estate water - Dovedale - Small holdings - Sport and simple like.Pages: <1> 2
'Tis a month before the month of May
How soft the music of those village bells
I was always rather taken with the account of a City man who never made a plan of where he was going for his holiday, until he had packed his portmanteau and was ready to hail a cab. He would then suddenly settle which terminus to drive to; and be guided by his fancy or caprice, either on seeing a train ready to start, or after looking down a time table, in the matter of taking a ticket for a station over a hundred miles away.
His pleasure also was to make just the same haphazard choice of an inn, leaving his luggage at the station, and strolling about until he saw what he thought would suit him. He might stop a night, or spend a fortnight; and usually managed to enjoy his holiday as much as others who had laid them plans for months before, and knew to an hour where they would be every day.
Although I have never actually done this, I must own the plan sounds attractive. We all see rivers from train windows the very names of which we do not know, yet which wind among quiet old world villages miles away from a station. I have often longed to take my bag and fishing rod, book to the station nearest to such a river, and put up at the village inn for the night, relying upon my being able to hear of some meadows where I might throw a line.
My first introduction to the Axe was brought about in a very similar manner years ago. It was the first week in April after an exceptionally early Easter, when having on a previous journey to Exeter seen the Shute Arms Hotel from the carriage window, I made up my mind to send a wire, and book to Seaton Junction, arriving there early in the afternoon in time to go on to Colyton or Seaton, in case I could not be taken in. As it happened, all turned out most pleasantly. A fishing ticket for the Shute Estate preserved water was going to be available the following day when a visitor was leaving, and that same visitor, a young schoolmaster, who came in at teatime with four brace of small trout, took me for a walk before dinner and proved a most entertaining companion as we sat up and smoked together afterwards.
So much was his company appreciated that I decided to forego the next morning's fishing, and went for a walk with him instead, through woods and lanes round Axminster, Chardstock, and Colyton. It was my first country holiday that year. The masses of primroses, as well as the sight of the first swallow, made me in love with the district from that day forward.
Acting upon his advice I fished the Coly more than the Axe during the four days that the ticket covered, getting a few trout each day of over the limit (nine inches) headed by a brace of ten ouncers. The Axe I found very difficult for the want of knowing which part to fish. Roaming about is often a mistake; and so it proved on this occasion. There is always an inclination on new water to try the whole length during a first visit, which results naturally in taking plenty of exercise with but little to show for it at the end of the day.
For a week in early spring the Shute Estate maintains a good reputation, provided one is lucky enough to avoid a gusty or cold snap I know few places where the effect of a north wind is more biting and disastrous than in the open Axe valley between Colyton and Colyford. That is perhaps why I always look back to the first visit, when the weather could hardly have been kinder, and when the whole face of the country, and of the river, smiled a welcome. It is only fair to remember too that, on one of the days I was fishing, a local angler brought home seven brace from the Coly of a distinctly better average than my best day's basket.
There is another good piece of fishing above Axminster, a rod on which can, I believe be obtained for three guineas a season, where excellent trout are obtained on June evenings. On all the lower reaches of the Axe sea trout or peal are taken after July, and although 1 have never caught any of much over a pound, other anglers have had a far better expedience. Salmon of good size run up the Axe freely; but that is another matter altogether.
From those who have been fortunate enough to obtain a day or two on the Shute stream, I have heard good accounts. It is really a tiny brook, with a few open pools and a dam, which winds down through hilly meadows from the high ground under which the Honiton tunnel has its boring. Many a Sunday evening in summer have I walked along it to watch the trout rising in the small pools from behind a screen of willows. They must give pretty sport with an eight foot rod, as they apparently run to a better size than the average on the Estate water.
Although glorious Devon begins between Chard Road and Axminster, I always feel that the centre of the Honiton tunnel is the real gateway. The train, even with its most powerful engine - it used to be two - pants and groans up the incline past almost deserted orchards, so old that most of the trees stand on crutches; past swampy copses and meadows starred with primroses, marsh-marigolds, and daffodils; past a cottage close to the line, guarded by giant sows, where the children always wave me a welcome from a broken stone wall; past sleeper-propped huts, where the gang of workmen, whose task at the tunnel seems never ending, keep their tools and frying pans; up further again, alongside a quarry which yields water from its rock, as though Moses with his rod had a week-end retreat among its gullies; until the hoarse croak, which is all the engine whistle can manage from its wheezy throttle, is drowned in the entrance to the steep and gloomy tunnel.
Then comes the steady acceleration, a vision of popping lights, a shiny roof - still as always dripping upon its patient repairers - and we rush down the gradient into sunshine again, knowing we have passed from the Axe to the Otter valley.
This year (1912) there are to be for the first time Sunday trains on the Sidmouth and the Budleigh branch lines. The old walk alongside the river, until Otterv St. Mary church stands out against the yew trees and the setting sun, will probably be discontinued. I, for one, shall always regret it. For many years that walk in mid March from Sidmouth Junction has been an event looked forward to as the opening of my fishing season. By a certain gateway, leading into a tangled copse, a friend so often met me that I used to wait at the place much as younger men do for their sweethearts on the same Sunday evenings.
This friend was a white owl which beat along the hedgerows parallel to my walk, crossing and recrossing, always appearing and disappearing at the same places. Of late years it has failed me: though I have waited by the gate n the gathering dusk until the cold evening air obliged me to walk on, after deepening my initials on the top bar, cut some seven years ago when I first saw it. Nailed to a barn door perhaps by some well meaning gamekeeper, has too probably been its fate.
Speaking of picturesque villages far from the beaten track reminds me of Gittisham. As one strikes up from Tipton St. John to the high ridge above Ottery, and passing through Wigaton, the road through Gittisham is not the nearest way. Like the Autocrat's first walk with the Schoolmistress, that is why we take it. There is plenty of time to pick up the Sunday train, which used to stop at Honiton at 2 p.m., and get back to work after the two days' fishing.
Thee is no walk I can remember which brings more vividly before you the absolute desertion of the country on Sunday morning. For miles and miles you will not see a solitary human leg. What becomes of the few labourers who work during the week, I cannot think. While we all talk in theory of ' back to the lane!,' the trend of this entire England seems to be to get ' back to London.' Many of us cannot help ourselves. I among others can never sufficiently appreciate the good fortune that has enabled me for so many years to enjoy these week-end journeys.
Perhaps it is the natural instinct of a City worker. Perhaps it is a morbid or unnatural restlessness: but the mere fact of distance in an express train adds to the luxury of the outing.
A week end trip to a very different line of country is that to Dovedale in Derbyshire. The train has for many years past left Euston at il a.m., never stopping until Nuneaton, and setting you down at Thorpe Cloud a little before three o'clock.
I have stayed at both the ' Isaak Walton ' and the ' Peveril of the Peak ' hotels, each of which gives access to fishing in the Dale. The Isaak Walton has a portion of the Manifold - as well as the Dove - a stony stream below the hotel, containing good grayling in the autumn. The Peveril water is above the stepping stones on the right bank, looking up, and leads you through the narrow Dale, where the sport can be better described as pretty than actually good.
For a trip to Dovedale, May and October are by far the best months for the angler, owing to the comparative absence of trippers. Those who can take a week in the latter half of a fine October, and who lay themselves out to enjoy the crimson, brown, and gold masses of foliage, which rise for hundreds of feet above you on either side, as well as the mountain air, can hardly be disappointed with the fishing. They can climb Thorpe Cloud on Sunday morning, then taking their luncheon with them, can spend the day wandering up the Dale, returning at tea time to plan an evening stroll to Ilam church.
At either hotel the visitor is hard to please who does not feel at home after the first half hour, and is fairly sure to secure some pleasant sport on the Saturday and Monday. To obtain the advantage of the week-end ticket, it may still be necessary to book to Ashbourne instead of Thorpe Cloud.
Grayling, in the. Dove and Manifold, do not attain the size of those in the Hampshire rivers; indeed a fish of a pound and a half is perhaps as uncommon as a three pounder at Stockbridge or Bishopstoke. But they are bright and beautiful, game and cunning, fu: all that: yielding the most enjoyable blank days to many a skilful angler. I mean of course upon occasions.
Fishing on Small Holdings.
There are small farms within five miles of Torrington, Honiton, and Thorverton where the most enjoyable fishing can be obtained by those who lay themselves out to get it, and who do not mind the food and accommodation of the smaller inns or cottages. Many a City man will reply eagerly that he is always prepared to rough it for the sake of good sport. He is 'quite game to live on chops and steaks.' If his idea of chops and steaks is derived from Simpson's or Baker's, it would be amusing to watch him tackle the samples which can be produced in the west country.
Where they get the shapes of meat which they sometimes produce, I cannot divine. The very bones of the chops seem different to those belonging to ordinary sheep or goats - double as long - while the meat, which is fastened to them by thews of twisted gimp, causes the teeth of a mincing machine to ache in anticipation,
I remember once asking my landlady if she could manage to give me a fowl for Sunday midday dinner; and after a long morning spent in looking for white violets, I looked forward to the comely form of a roast chicken, with perhaps bread sauce and chipped potatoes. The cooking and the serving had been deputed to her small maid. At length the dinner hour arrived, and when the soup plate was removed from the dish a (furious sight and steamy odour alarmed the senses.
In the dish was a substance which I took at first for an unfortunate boiled suet pudding, or an overlooked bran mash. It was without form or void, and emitted a suppressed hissing sound; in fact it moved uneasily in the dish like cooling lava, as though it had been well below the face of the waters during a volcanic period. I touched it with a fork, and after slight pressure the leg bone of a fowl or rabbit came through as clean as a museum skeleton. A further probing proved that all the bones were there. They were curiously mixed however, wings and legs being indistinguishable. It was not a roast fowl at all. No, it must have been boiled. It certainly looked as though the boiling had been over-extended by a week in a hot water cistern, and it had then come down the waste pipe. The flesh was grey and fibrous, having a faint taste of saucepan lining with soot flavouring; but it is only fair to add that, although 1 eat much of it, 1 never felt better in my life than during that afternoon or evening. It was the most unconventional treatment of a veteran rooster that I ever saw attempted even by a Tamil kitchen-cooly, which is saying a good deal.
Many of the small farms in question own nothing more than a couple of good pools connected by a gravelly run of fifty yards. These farms lie perhaps two miles from a station from which the last train leaves at nine o'clock. This means that they are good enough in Spring when the best fishing is between ten a.m. and four p.m., but are useless in Summer for the evening rise to anyone who had to reel up and leave the bank just at the only time (8 o'clock) when there is the chance of good sport.
Yet if one cares to map out a plan of campaign upon so modest a field, and can manage to get put up at some adjacent cottage, so as to be able to stay until at least nine- thirty, the sum total of a week's sport in a well behaved June does not compare amiss against similar evenings spent upon a club water.
The two pools and the run are often quite enough for one, if you are that one; or if you can feel sure that a good fish which you have pricked or lost on Monday; and mean to revisit on Wednesday, has not succumbed to another man's fly in the meantime.
One great difficulty is to keep your little preserve secret; that is if you happen to know other rods and are in the helpless position of having to run the fire of cross questioning that the exhibition of any decent brace of trout always invites. One can parry this ordeal with strangers without giving offence or illtreating truth; but the desperate inquisitiveness of neighbours is a more difficult matter to evade. They want to know when, where and how you managed to get leave; where you put up; whether they may share a trap to the same or an adjacent place. They generally succeed in worming the small discovery from you, and chart it accurately upon their survey - for annexation. You do not like to own to the modest finesse employed in attaining your object, to the ground baiting used in the form of fowls bought from the farmer's wife - for the proprietor as often as not declines a money payment - or rabbits left at the house during the preceding autumn or winter.
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