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Exmoor's Inspirational Streams

May 26 2009

I had a good friend around the house recently and as always we were deep into talk of fish and all things piscatorial. Having become enthusiastic about the delights of river trout I began waxing lyrical about good books on river trout. Selecting several tomes on the subject I made some suggestions on good reading matter.

A few days later it struck me how many of these books related to fishing for the wild trout of Exmoor and how the small crimson spotted trout had inspired some of our greatest angling writers. I guess this should come as no surprise with such fantastic rivers as the Exe, Lyn and Taw having sources within its boundaries.

Books often give a fascinating insight into the times in which they were written and angling books are no exception to this rule. Portraying life from the view of the angler gives far more information on the times than many would imagine. Of course I am inclined to refer here to a time when angling literature was less technically inclined than today. These days angling writers have a tendency to focus on technicalities, techniques and tackle. In days gone by the day by stream and the delights of the waterside took precedence; as it should. One of my favourites has to be “Exmoor Streams”, Notes and jottings with Practical Hints for Anglers by Clavde. F. Wade published in 1903.It tells of an Exmoor before the age of the motor car. A horse drawn carriage takes the angler to the upper reaches of the River Lyn.

Conservation was certainly not a major consideration as huge numbers of small trout were taken from the streams. “catching eighty trout in this comparatively short piece on one July day, all with the fly”. Compare this to today when the vast majority of fish are returned to preserve stocks. I had imagined that in 1900 visitors would have had little impact but this is not so even in the days before the car. “There is a beautiful bit of water up from the farm at cloud, but its not so easy to catch fish in as it used to be in the old days before all the tourists came to look for John Ridd’s “water slide”. Trains and steamers brought rich Victorians to the area and our author is concerned at how they will impact on his beloved Exmoor.

Of course one of the fascinations in reading an old book is comparing what was then to what is now. On New Years day my wife and I took a walk at Brendon. On crossing the road bridge I looked downstream and immediately recognised the old bridge pictured in my old Exmoor Streams book virtually unchanged over a century later. Looking at other old sepia images within the pages of this book I realise that in some places little has changed.

Inevitably there are tales of big fish and it’s the salmon of the Lyn that give the big fish stories in Exmoor Streams; “ In the sixties a well known actor, who was very fond of salmon fishing in the Lyn, got hold of a monster in this pool said to have weighed 40lb and I believe nearly died of exhaustion. All day long messengers were going to and from Lynmouth telling the latest stages of the struggle.” Note that when the author talks of the sixties he is referring to the 1860’s

“Exmoor Streams”, has been reprinted in a limited centenary edition by Rothwell and Dunworth. A few copies may remain in their shop in Dulverton. Failing that it may be possible to pick up an original copy from Antiquarian book dealers.

“Going fishing” Travel Adventure in Two Hemispheres, by Negley Farson is considered by many one of the all time classic angling books. The author visits the rivers Exe and Barle where he talks of an old bailiff who tells “of the flies which are inevitably killed by the oil seeping into the water from the tarred roads and motor cars”. Despite this reference to fears of pollution there is always the feeling that years ago things were far more romantic and this is reinforced when the author talks of “An imperturbable scene which fills you with contentment.” And “ I like to watch the plover, tumbling about in the sky over the red, ploughed fields ; and Mr rat ,emerging from his hole and going about his business; the silent, ceaseless flight of the swallows over some shallow stream”. Of course today’s angling authors seldom wax lyrical about such things as I stated earlier.

The Carnarvon Arms at Brushford has a rich tradition of angling history. Sadly it has been converted into luxury timeshare apartments. In a book entitled “The Philandering Angler,” Author Arthur Applin romances about his visits “I suppose the charm of fishing at the ‘Carnarvon Arms’ was an informality and friendliness that pervaded both the river and the Inn”. Speaking of the Rivers Barle and Exe Mr Applin writes,“ You could not wander along the banks of either the Exe or the Barle without finding happiness waiting for you, whether you chose the valley where the rivers united to slide quietly through sleepy meadows, or on the moors where the Exe rushes down narrow channels.” The book is illustrated by that fine writer and illustrator “BB” who also mentions his travels on Exmoor in his travel book, “The White Road Westwards”.

Reading these angling writers accounts from a different age we realise how much has changed in the Britain of today. The gentry who walked the river banks undoubtedly had much leisure time in contrast to the lower classes that had to work each daylight hour. Society has changed whilst the waters that tumble down through moorland valleys remain relatively unchanged their inhabitant’s descendants of the crimson spotted trout and silver salmon that delighted earlier generations who cast a line.

In more recent times Exmoor waters have proved inspiration to that fine modern day angling writer John Bailey. In his 1985 book, “Travels With A Two Piece” John describes trips to the Barle and fishes near Tarr Steps. He revisits the river again in his book “In Wild Waters”, where he describes the capture of a summer grilse in his normal beguiling manner.

Exmoor’s gurgling streams have inspired many anglers over many generations and I feel sure that they will continue to do so for many more generations. If you are inspired to cast a line for Exmoor’s trout or salmon and cast in the shadow of some of angling greatest writers then a day with a professional guide such as Nick Hart is to be recommended.

Angling Books With Reference to Exmoor
Exmoor Streams - Notes and jottings with Practical Hints for Anglers by Claude. F. Wade. Published in 1903 by Chatto & Windus London - James G Commin, Exeter.

Philandering Angler - By Arthur Applin
Published by Hurst and Blacket

Travels with a Two Piece - By John Bailey
Published by The Crowood Press in 1985

“In Wild Waters “- By John Bailey
Published by The Crowood Press in 1989

Reflections from the Waters Edge -
By John Bailey.
Published by The Crowood Press 1987

The Fishing Year - By John Parsons.
Published by Collins in 1974

The Art of Trout Fishing on Rapid Streams -
By H.C. Cutcliffe F.R.C.S
Published by Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington in 1883

The Pursuit of Wild Trout - By Mike Weaver
Published by Merlin Unwin Books in 1991