There is no back-country in southeastern Great Britain, no new frontiers except those of the mind in one of the world’s most densely populated areas. You can see this if you are lucky enough to make the descent into Heathrow on a clear day, and since the industrial revolution in the 17th century its waterways have come under continuous pressure from abstraction and pollution. Now I found myself anticipating something a bit different, trout in the urban jungle. The Wandle is in South London near Wimbledon. You can take the tube there, walk its length along the Wandle Trail, and fish if you have a UK licence. In the 19th century the Wandle was a noted chalk stream. Nelson bought a property on it and some say fished here prior to Trafalgar. False casting was first practised here to dry a fly fished on the surface and was known as the Carshalton dodge after an upper tributary, an important step before paraffin became the first fly floatant in the 1890s. A young Halford learnt to fish the dry here before moving to Hampshire in the 1870s. By the turn of the century though, the river was in serious decline as its thirty mills were converted to textile and paint factories; its last trout was caught in the 1930s and by 1960 it was officially classified as a sewer. Then in 2002 the Wandle Trust formed and in 2004 the Wandle Piscators (an all species, all methods club), who together began the long task of restoration with assistance from the Wild Trout Trust, including substantial river rehabilitation works and community engagement with the Trout in the Classroom project. This was nearly fatally derailed in 2007 when Thames Water discharged industrial strength chlorine into the river. Clearly the price of environmental restoration is continual vigilance and accountability. Today the Wandle has stretches with golden gravel, ranunculus, water celery and starwort, self-sustaining trout and many other fish species, and most is open for all licence holders to fish. I had given myself a day to see this wonderful environmental rehabilitation achievement, but couldn’t decide whether or not to take a rod. Should I try to catch a trout here? In the event it rained overnight, enough with the urban surrounds to raise the river and drop its visibility to less than six inches. The Trail is just under 20 km and has numbers of parks such as Wandle Meadow Nature Park, the Watercress and Beddington — classical England interspersed with housing projects, abandoned factories and concreted drains with graffiti (I looked hopefully for a tagged ‘Dry Fly or Die’ or ‘Nymphomaniac’). I left the rod in its case, and bought a cap and hoody from Theo Pikes UrbanTrout instead, part of whose proceeds go to urban river restoration projects. Though it was unlikely I’d ever return I left content, daydreaming of days future when the water would be clear and the trout on the fin. The Great Debate The honorary curator and archivist at the London Flyfishers Club, Mr John Knott, had, knowing me no more than as an email address, very kindly found, copied and sent me the club’s Spring journal 1938 with the transcript of the famous Skues v. Ball encounter — the Nymph debate. On the flight to London I had read Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream (1910) and The Way of a Trout with a Fly (1923). I had never read Skues in the original and soon found myself entranced. How otherwise when the dedication of Minor Tactics is to ‘my friend the dry fly purist, and to my enemies if I have any.’ The Way went even one better with a Rubaiyat from Omar Khayyam inside the dedication page and the preface concluding ‘but the way of a man with a maid and the way of a trout with a fly remain with us to be a delight and a torment to thousands of generations yet unborn.’ Skues has proven himself one of the great original thinkers on the water but I hadn’t known he could write like that and found myself agreeing with the Birmingham Post’s review of The Way that he had a ‘charm of manner and all the fascination that attaches to attractive heresy.’ I knew then that I should also read Halford… the greatest villain in fly fishing. Floating Flies and How to Dress Them from 1886, Dry-Fly Fishing – In Theory and Practice 1889 and The Dry-Fly Man’s Handbook from 1913, the year before his death. Halford will win no literary awards, and he was clearly no match of Skues for charm and wit, but he had an earnestness I had to end up respecting and I realised that the Dry was as revolutionary in its day as European nymphing is to us now. What took me by surprise was his unfailing generosity as a correspondent (to a then unknown Theodore Gordon he sent in reply a full selection of his flies), he always gave credit where due, and the sheer breadth of his work. And that he was not landed gentry or even establishment. Halford was Jewish, his family changing their name from Hyam in the 1870s. Who would be willing to say that they are not flawed? Halford was undoubtedly a fine angler, a gifted tier, perhaps even one of the greatest, and generous person. In my mind his advocacy of a Purist approach was about how to leave the water and trout least disturbed for the angler following after, by limiting your technique (it’s worth noting that this predated catch and release). Halford’s great mistake was to argue only the Dry could do this and when Skues called his bluff it inevitably led to the debate and the subsequent blow to Halford’s reputation. What’s often forgotten is that Halford was 24 years in his grave by then and had little or no chance to reconsider, and that the nymph fishers were no more egalitarian than the dry. After a week in London reading Halford and Skues at night I was tired of dispute and longed for a day on the water before heading for home. Love and the Mayfly Stockbridge on the Test in Hampshire is an hour and a half by road southwest of London, central to the major chalk catchments (north is the Kennet, west the Avon and Stour, south and east the Itchen and Meon). With a trout on its town hall weathervane, in its pubs you can catch up on the current hatch and the state of Northcountry Dales rivers, Scottish lochs and Welsh sea trout. Stockbridge itself is criss-crossed by carriers and you can see rising trout from the main street, duns on the windowsills, spinners and caddis under the street lamps, a primer for the technical hatch-driven angling still to be found here. I’d come to buy half a dozen daddy longlegs from Robjents Fine Country Pursuits, the store’s signature pattern perfected to bring the trout up when nothing’s happening. Robjents is quintessentially English, irresistible to a trout tragic, full of custom gear, handmade clothes and good advice where they still proudly say they will never get a website. In the late ’90s backpacking I’d turned up during the Mayfly and drawn a blank trying to find water at Farlows and Orvis, and Alistair Robjent had taken pity on me, found me some water (and put me onto Simon Cooper’s Fishing Breaks, who have the most entertaining and informative newsletter I’ve come across) and even came down to the river in the evening at Fullerton. I remember being surprised at how carefully he had me approach and how far back from the water to cast, and how successful a twitched daddy could be. It was an unexpected kindness (and superb customer service) I still remember. Wild trout and unstocked chalkstreams do still exist. Waters noted for this include the Bourne Rivulet, the Wiltshire Bourne, the Ebble, the Meon, the Allen, the upper Frome in Dorset and the upper Itchen. And you can still get surprises, even here. After a pint one evening I was invited to have a cast on a tiny chalk stream over the field behind the pub. It was so small it was neither let, kept nor stocked but was clear, cold and beautiful… an hour in heaven. The Bourne Rivulet has ridden the environmental roller coaster since Harry Plunket Greene’s day. Where the Bright Waters Meet was written in 1924 at the height of the dry/nymph controversy by a man who made his way in the world singing, and I think it has remained a classic precisely because it emphasised friends, companionship and the joys of nature as the core reasons why we fish. Throughout the second half of last century the Bourne Rivulet was poorly regarded, its fall due to effluent from a watercress farm which devastated invertebrate life. By the late 1990s the Environmental Agency, Natural England and the Hampshire Wildlife Trust had collaborated with Vitacress to identify and rectify the problem. The stream has since repopulated from its unpolluted small right branch and due to the Cascades preventing upstream migration from the Test is home to a wild chalk stream fishery. A genuine credit to whole catchment management by all involved including both industry and government agencies. The Bourne Rivulet today is quite simply beautiful. Sadly for us anglers not all environmental success stories have a happy ending. The Abbotts Barton stretch of the Itchen which Skues fished for 56 years was bought by the Hampshire Wildlife Trust in 1981 and closed to fishing in 2000, Skues’ memorial bench going into private storage. Hopefully this will prove an overall benefit for the Itchen catchment and wildlife, and so for anglers too. Despite successes like the Bourne and Wandle much is still at risk environmentally, but for a visiting angler there is still beauty and wonder here with great fishing to be had, and people and stories to surprise you. I think anglers are romantics at heart — why else do we long so for the wilds and mourn so at the loss of a great fish? Now back at home I somehow can’t stop tying Iron Blue Duns and imagining a rise on the Merri Creek. A day on the chalk streams can be from £40 to £400 with most somewhere in between. You should book well ahead for the Mayfly (prices drop after mid June, and many locals consider autumn the best season). For recommendations, contacts and licence details refer to the FlyLife website.

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