Down the Beck

by G. Christopher Davies


Like the dormouse, the approach of spring draws forth also the angler. So early as February trout-fishing begins in the West of England, and good sport may be had during March and April. May, however, is the month of months for the trout fisher, certainly in the Midland Counties, and wherever the May fly is found, and probably in the West as well. With the first sunny gleams of February that herald the full burst of spring, Halieus and Poietes may be seen rod in hand down their streams, rejoicing that the many cold days, during which they have been longingly fingering flies and tackle at home, are at length ended. So many eulogies have been heaped upon fishing, which culminate in the enthusiasm of gentle Isaak, the father of the craft, that the world must indeed be tolerant if it can read any more.

But between his zeal on the one hand, and the venerable dictum of Dr Johnson on the other, lies a truer appreciation of the art of angling with a fly as being the busy man's most suitable recreation, in the strictest sense of the word, in these feverish days of intellectual and social bustle. Besides the love of sport for its own sake, fly-fishing provides numerous secondary delights and occupations for thoughtful, observant natures. Whatever be a man's hobby, he can ride it as hard as he chooses down the banks of a trout stream. The rigour of the game is all very well for whist; but fishing, with no other object than killing fish, is altogether mean and ignoble. In this pursuit the fisherman may be conchologist, ornithologist, or botanist as well—nay, he may be all at once, and probably is so if he be a devoted student of nature. The poet can throw off a sonnet while he flings his fly; the clergyman will be taught by angling, as truly as by Shakespeare, how to find sermons in stones, and books in the running brooks. Did not St Anthony convert heretics by preaching to the fishes? Like Narcissus of old, the lover may see his other self mirrored in the quiet waters. Whatever be his profession, while the angler meditatively saunters on with a blade of grass between his lips, his thoughts will sooner or later be certain to find their own peculiar bent. Even the philosopher ought to be attracted from his study to the brook. Plutarch tells how the Pythagoreans abstained from eating fish, deeming them, on account of their dumbness, creatures most kindred to the philosophic mind. Theology itself has not scrupled to embalm the highest mysteries under the symbol of a fish; and grave bishops at present do not disdain exploits with the salmon-rod that are duly chronicled in the columns of the Field. Thus, the true angler may well join Sir H. Wotton in deeming the hours spent on his favourite sport "his idle time not idly spent," even if he cannot echo his sentiment that "he would rather live five May months than forty Decembers." [1] We have always regretted that good Bishop Andrewes, the model of a saint, a scholar, and a divine, did not angle. What additional zest would it not have lent to those rambles of which his biographer speaks in such simple language! "His ordinary exercise and recreation was walking, either alone by himself, or with some other selected companion, with whom he might confer and argue and recount their studies; and he would often profess that to observe the grass, herbs, corn, trees, cattle, earth, waters, heavens, any of the creatures, and to contemplate their natures, orders, qualities, virtues, uses, &c., was ever to him the greatest mirth, content, and recreation that could be; and this he held to his dying day." [2]

"Wisdom's self

Oft seeks to sweet retired solitude;

Where, with her best nurse, Contemplation,

She plumes her feathers."

There is little doubt that had the writer of these well-known lines been able to tear himself from his books for any diversion, it would have been in order to angle. A great authority recommends a man weighed down with overwhelming mental trouble to learn a new language by way of diverting his thoughts from self; it would be far more efficacious for him to sally out fishing, not, certainly, to stand for hours beside a sullen pool angling with float and worm—this would be to invite suicide—but to ramble down the bank of some winding stream, burdened with nothing heavier than a clear conscience and a light fly-rod. Then may St Nicholas speedily befriend his votary!

Now put on your flies—a green drake, by all means, if it be May—if not, nothing can be better than the "red spinner," the "coachman," and, above all, "the professor," from its taking qualities—fit namesake of Christopher North. We have reached the Beck, and this warm south wind "will blow the hook to the fishes' mouth." Without the abundance of trout, which, according to Audubon, characterised the river Sehigh in North America, where he "was made weary with pulling up the sparkling fish allured by the struggles of the common grasshopper," the Beck possesses—what is more grateful to the true angler—a fair amount of fish, which it requires considerable skill to hook. The local name, "beck," shows that it runs through a country which was overrun by the Northmen, and its character is not dissimilar to theirs. It has none of the abrupt headlong manner of a pure Keltic brook, overcoming all obstacles by sheer persistent force, as seen in Wales, in the Highlands, and in North Devon. Nor does it wind along in slow, deep volume, like a Teutonic brook, or the offshoot of a Dutch canal, bereft indeed of all the lighter graces which adorn a beautiful stream, but irresistible withal, and beneficent. It rather unites the two characters, meandering with crystal eddies and murmurous flow,

"Kissing the gentle sedges as it glides,"

now circumventing a hillock that could not well be sapped, and now, as befits the length of its course, flowing silently, with full streams, through a croft knee-deep in daisies and meadowsweet; lovingly cutting its sinuous S's through the sward, as Izaak Walton carved his initials on Casaubon's tablet in Westminster Abbey; and yet again, like the Laureate's brook,

"Chattering over stony ways,

With many a silvery waterbreak

Above the golden gravel,"—

happy combination of elements from the diverse nationalities that make up the English nation. It distinguishes the names of the parishes through which it passes in some places by the Norman addition to them of "le beck," while they themselves frequently terminate, after the Scandinavian fashion, in "by" (i.e., dwelling). However, as there are in Lincolnshire alone two hundred and twelve places which have this termination, the exact locality of this particular beck can only be dimly guessed; and, sooth to say, if the angler has a failing, it consists in a natural dislike to reveal the exact situation of his favourite "stickles" to another.

Few objects in nature are so beautiful as running water; it soothes the mind as well as the eye, and disposes to reflection, sobering the jar of contending passions in the soul as it gleams along, always different in its chequered eddies, and yet always the same. The vegetation that springs on the brink of a stream very much heightens its charms to the true angler, who is always more or less of an artist and poet. Round this beck there are, indeed, no ferns tufting each projecting shelf, and seizing upon every bare stone and decayed tree. East Anglian scenery is wofully deficient in this element of the picturesque; but wild flowers gem its banks,

"Thick set with agate and the azure sheen

Of turkis blue and emerald green

That in the channel strays."

At every turn the marsh marigold blazes in brilliant golden clumps, while the water violet and bladderwort, most curious of our water-weeds, find place round many of the deeper pools. Overhead, too, hoary willows lend a great charm to the scenery, and patriarchal thorn bushes, that glitter with snow-flowers every May, and wonder at returning winter as they view their whiteness reflected below, while abundance of forget-me-nots, "for happy lovers," seek the most retired spots. Too often in the south of the county, as, for instance, round Croyland Abbey, lines of melancholy poplars disfigure the prospect, as they do (alas! did) round Metz, Avignon, and other French towns. It is curious, by the way, that so vivacious a people as the French should be fond of this, the most triste of trees. Here, however, willows are in exact keeping with the landscape; and as they turn the glaucous under-surface of their leaves to the light in the shivering breezes, instead of sadness, they speak of joy to the angler, for it is just when these capfuls of wind blow that the lazy trout in the holes under their shade rise eagerly at the fly. Once every year, in the city church of St James, in accordance with a benefactor's will, a sermon on flowers is preached from some floral text, to a congregation mainly composed of young people, each of them careful to carry a nosegay with them to the service. A walk down the beck, to one who knows anything of botany, or, better still, who really loves our wild flowers, is in itself a perpetual sermon. And how much are its exhortations strengthened if the angler be somewhat of an ornithologist! What a joyous melody proceeds from the ivy-covered fir, as Will Wimble [3] makes his way to the beck!

"That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,

Lest you should think he never can recapture

The first fine careless rapture."

On this sunny bank, in the first gleam of spring sunshine, may be noticed a sprightly little bird hopping along, glad to have completed his migration to our shore—the wheatear, which Tennyson aptly terms (if we read him aright) "the sea-blue bird of March." And later on, the cuckoo is first heard down this glade, gleefully "telling her name to all the hills," till June renders her hoarse, and the clear note becomes "Cuck-cuckoo! Cuck-cuck-cuckoo!" and endless is the harsh iteration if another of her family answer the challenge. Peering carefully round a thicket, too, may be seen the waterhen, proudly tempting her black brood to cross the stream for the first time; or haply a wild duck, that has sat on her eggs till the angler's foot almost touches her, flaps suddenly her wings, and skims under the overhanging alders. If the fisherman be an observant lover of nature, these and the like country sights and sounds will bring him great contentment even though he take no fish. And so speaks Dame Juliana Berners, in her "Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle"—one of the quaintest productions of early English literature:—"Atte the best he hath his holsom walk and merry at his ease, a swete ayre of the swete savoure of the meede flowres: that makyth hym hungry. He hereth the melodyous armony of fowles. He seeth the yonge swannes, heerons, duckes, cotes, and many other foules wyth theyr brodes. And yf the angler take fysshe, surely thenne is there noo man merier than he is in his spyryte."

Down this beck an artistic eye will find many a feast of colour. The keeper's cottage stands on a high bank; and a more charming domestic subject was never painted, even by Millais, than one which may be noticed there any day in August. His little girl, bare-headed and rosy-cheeked with the merriest of light-blue eyes, stands under a forest of sun-flowers, which spread their huge yellow discs above, while sunbeams break through and leave their gold on the little maiden's hair, and play round her, earnest, we will hope, of her future, as she drops a courtesy to the passing angler. A little farther on, the briony, with its brilliant berries, will festoon the grey trunk of its cherishing oak with a glory, in autumn, that cannot but charm the eye. The wild hyacinths of April are like a fold of blue sky that has descended upon the wooded hollows. In the thatch of the labourer's cottage is one deeply-set window, with a few tiles under it, on which lichens and moss have established a footing. It has just rained, and the contrast between their vivid greens and the brilliant red tiles is delicious. It is thus that much of the monotony inseparable from a dull country may be relieved, by judiciously educating the vision to find beauties where ordinary eyes see nothing unusual. The pensiveness of an angler's "sad pleasure" will be found agreeable leisure for this purpose.

The various animals again to be found down the Beck, and the intimate acquaintance which can be made with them in their native haunts, form by no means the least of its charms. It is wonderful how tame all wild creatures become, and how their characters expand to men, who, like Waterton and Thoreau, the American naturalist, take pains to gain their confidence. The water rats, timid enough when any other foot approaches, look with fearless friendship on the gentle angler. At his ease he may watch them perched on a raft of drifted sticks and weeds nibbling the arrowhead with the utmost composure, or swimming about like a miniature colony of beavers. It is cheering to reflect, when they are seen under such circumstances, that although the miller may owe them a grudge for undermining the banks of his dam, they are of all animals the most harmless to the farmer. He is too often, however, apt to confound them with the destructive pests of the granary, and (though they are really voles and not rats) to lump all together as vermin, and issue an edict of universal extermination accordingly. What a blessed day will it be for the lower animals when farmers imbibe a taste for natural history! At dusk may often be discerned down the Beck another innocent creature, the hedgehog, long remorselessly hunted down because vile calumnies had attached themselves to him of eating partridges' eggs and being addicted to sucking milk from cows. The latter accusation is simply an impossibility, while as to the former, we are afraid it is too true that he has a sneaking liking for eggs; but the damage he does is infinitesimally small, when not computed by gamekeepers' arithmetic. A pair of hedgehogs making love in their curiously awkward fashion, puffing and blowing like grampuses, is a strange sight; while the piglings, before their spines have grown, form the most amusing of pets. About the saddest spectacle that we ever witnessed was an old hedgehog that had been cut asunder by a train, at a railway crossing, while her brood of six or eight were still round her, unharmed and wondering what had happened. We transported the poor orphans to the nearest damp ditch and left them to the rough care of Mother Nature. Not very far from the Beck is a colony of badgers, an animal much persecuted where any linger in other parts of the country, but in this East Anglian shire acquiring a decided commercial value. Anything that will encourage foxes is here greatly in request, consequently badgers are deemed useful creatures in a cover, as they make earths which afterwards tempt Reynard to take possession. An angler is a subject of perpetual wonder to cows; but too often as he turns round from the water's edge in some rich meadow, he finds himself the centre towards which the curved fronts of two or three oxen converge uncomfortably close, literally placing him on the horns of a dilemma. The sleek heifers, however, approach him without any signs of attack or trepidation, and often run the risk of being caught as he rapidly draws his flies back for a cast. Tame ducks and water rats are frequently thus caught; but the most singular coincidence of this kind happened to a friend who, on going down the Otter to fish, had to cross a bridge. Whirling his flies over this as he passed, a swallow, darting underneath, took one and was captured. On his return in the evening he again whisked his flies over the bridge, and a bat, snapping at one under the arches, was taken in the same ignominious manner.

All this time, as is not uncommon with lovers of nature, we have lost sight of our main purpose in coming down the brook—fishing, to wit. The art boasts a long descent, according to Walton, the highest authority to whom a fisherman can bow. "Some say it is as ancient as Deucalion's flood; others that Belus, who was the first inventor of godly and virtuous recreations, was the first inventor of angling," with much more to the same purport. It is a curious commentary on the aristocratic principles of the fifteenth century to find Dame Berners, in the aforementioned "Treatyse," confining the sport to the well-born. She could not imagine it a recreation of the multitude, or even of "ydle persones." With her it is emphatically "one of the dysportes that gentylmen use." Her enthusiasm for the sport knows no bounds, and must have made many generations of Englishmen anglers. The treatise evidently supplied the idea of "Walton's Angler," the book which next to "White's Selborne," has gone through more editions than any other secular work in the language. "It shall be to you a very pleasure to se the fayr bryght shynynge scalyd fysshes dysceyved by your crafty meanes, and drawen upon lande," she says; but, either fishermen have become less skilful since her days, or trout more timorous, if we may judge from her wonderful frontispiece of a man angling (and that successfully) with a rod like a flail, and tackle resembling the trace of a carriage.

Neither the salmon, monarch of the salmonidæ, nor the lovely grayling, which is only found in midland and Welsh waters, is to be expected in the Beck. Still the common river trout is no mean antagonist for an angler's mettle. Of all fish trout are most vigilant and suspicious; the least unwary movement, adventuring even a hand out of shelter or into bright sunshine, incautiously thrusting his head over the bank, or interfering in any way with the skyline, will certainly betray the angler. He may gain a slight advantage over their craft, however, by remembering that their habit is to feed with their heads to the stream. A beginner may rest assured that the golden secret of success in trout-fishing is to keep well out of the fishes' sight by availing himself of every natural cover, a tree-trunk, bush, &c., or by approaching the stream, if he is very much exposed, in a stooping position. He must, for the most part, learn, by observation, the many singular habits and characteristics of his quarry, and here it is that the old fisherman excels the tyro. The remarkable manner in which the fish's colours change with the nature of the stream in which it lives, is one of these curiosities of the trout. There is all the difference in the world between a fish taken from the chalky streams of Wilts and one that inhabits the dark peaty burns of Devon or South Wales, while both are inferior in beauty to the red-spotted lusty fish of a Nottinghamshire river. Internally they are of two types, one with red flaky flesh, like salmon, the other white; these variations, however, frequently run into each other. The practical fisherman only can appreciate the great diversity of activity which exists in fish of different sizes and streams, and probably in the same fish in the prime and end of the season. In one bickering rivulet the trout will all be vigorous and bold, leaping out of the water when hooked and dying hard, "game to the back-bone," in sporting phrase. In a sluggish brook the fish seem often to participate in its idiosyncracy, the larger ones tamely surrendering after a few monotonous struggles, the little trout diving to the bottom, and, like tench, hiding their heads in the mud. We have had to stir such fish up with the landing net before it was possible to do anything with them. Another curious fact is, that if a fish be taken out of a favourite hole, another will almost always be found to have replaced it the next day. Perhaps the most remarkable theory which has been advanced concerning the intelligence of trout is that of Sir H. Davy in "Salmonia," which he terms their "local memory." A brief outline may furnish one more subject of observation to the philosophic angler. Sir H. Davy asserts that if a trout be pricked with a fly (say a blue upright), and then escape, he will never rise again in the same pool to that particular fly while the surrounding circumstances are the same. Drive him, however, down to another hole, or wait till a flood has changed the aspect of his familiar haunt, and he will take it as greedily as a fish that has never experienced the deceit of an artificial fly. The associations of bank, stones, tree-trunks, &c., in his hole, act like visible mentors, and remind him, as the fly passes overhead, that it was when surrounded by their associations he was simple enough to rise to its fascinations. Solving such questions as these is one of the numerous secondary delights of fly-fishing. Another speculation which may be pointed out to anglers of an inquiring turn of mind, is to demonstrate why sluggish, muddy streams invariably produce better fish than the sparkling Devon or Welsh brooks. Thus in the Beck, down which our ideal fisherman is wandering, the largest fish which has been taken of late years weighed three pounds and a half, while trout of a pound and a half in weight are by no means uncommon. Three-quarters of a pound is a fair size for the fish of mountainous streams, while the majority of their trout do not exceed half a pound. Doubtless, the greater abundance of worms and ground bait in a muddy brook contributes to the larger size of its fish, but it certainly is not the sole cause of their superiority.

The flies which the modern angler imitates in fur and feathers, belong mostly to the families which entomology knows under the names of phrygancæ and ephemeræ. All anglers should know something of these curious tribes; and nowhere is a better account of them to be found than in that fascinating book, "Salmonia." The phrygancæ (the "stone-flies" of the angler) have long antennæ, with veined wings which fold over each other when closed. The eggs of the adult flies are laid on the leaves of willows or other trees which overhang the water. When they are hatched, the larvæ fall into the stream, collect a panoply of gravel, bits of stick, shell-fish, &c., to surround them, and after feeding for a time on aquatic plants, rise to the surface, burst their skins, and appear as perfect flies. The ephemeræ (or "May-flies") were noticed so long ago as Aristotle's time, in connection with the brevity of their life. They may be known by carrying their wings perpendicularly on their backs, and by several filaments or long bristles protruding from their tails. Their aqueous existence, like the stone-flies', sometimes lasts for two or three years; but as flies their life is thought never to exceed a few days in length, often but a few hours. In fact their life is, to all intents and purposes, over when their eggs are laid, and this function takes place directly they emerge into the winged state. Besides these, however, there are multitudes of nondescript flies used by those anglers who commit themselves to the persuasive powers of the fishing-tackle maker, and fill their fly-books with his gorgeously-coloured creations; but with the stone-flies, May-flies, and other simple flies previously enumerated, most real anglers are contented.

The greatest nuisance to the fisherman on the banks of the Beck are the hovering swarms of flies and gnats. Nature's profusion is almost inexhaustible in this division of her kingdom. In hot, sunny weather, they persecute the angler till he well-nigh gives up his sport, and betakes himself to moralize how his situation, lonely though it be, is no inapt type of a man's spiritual loneliness in the midst of that crowd of his fellows called Society,

"Where each man walks with his head in a cloud of poisonous flies."

Yes, here is the whole winged legion avenging, as it were, the slight the angler puts upon them by his grotesque imitations, in number and description more fell than Walton ever imagined in the marvellous flies he directs his disciples to dub—"the Prime Dun, Huzzard, Death Drake, Yellow Miller, Light Blue, Blue Herl," and all the rest! It would require a piscatorial entomologist to identify them; and when they buzz around their victims, how well can these enter into Dante's grim fancy of the wicked in hell being exposed naked to the stings of wasps and flies! It is useful, however, to be thus reminded that even so innocent a sport as angling has its drawbacks. Perhaps such small annoyances should be received as part of the discipline of fishing; winged blessings they then become, modes of teaching unpleasant, perchance, at the time, but none the less fraught with profit to the true angler, who is always more or less of a moralist.

It is time, though, to turn homewards. Our endeavour has been to depict some of the charms connected with angling, and to recommend it as a recreation specially adapted for the feverish agitation of modern social life. Over and above its immediate end, it is a school for moral virtues and the observing faculties which cannot be too highly honoured. The fisherman, like the poet, must be born; but he owes his success, even more than the poet, to perseverance and observation. However long the sport may be intermitted, when a man has once tasted its joys, and imbibed a thorough love of angling, he resumes it with eagerness on the first favourable opportunity. Nay, the taste is one which deserts not its votary in death. Few angling reminiscences are more touching than the scene which his daughter has described so pathetically, when poor Christopher North lay on his death-bed. In the intervals of his malady, he had his fly-books brought to him, and derived a melancholy pleasure from taking out his old favourites one by one, and lovingly caressing their bright plumage and carefully tied wings, as they were spread out on the sheets. It must be confessed that angling is justly open to the charge of being a solitary, taciturn, meditative sport, which shuts a man out from his kind. We are cynical enough to fancy that if he be shut up with Nature instead, he will suffer no great harm. Indeed, to admit the impeachment is only tantamount to owning that fishing, after all, is but of this world, and necessarily an imperfect energy. Herein lies its chief excellence in the eyes of hard workers; so there is no need elaborately to refute the objection. Let a man try it, and solvitur ambulando. So good is it that the aforesaid Dame Juliana indulges in no exaggeration when she says—pardon once more an angler's loquacity—"Ye shall not use this forsayde crafty dysporte for no covetysenes to th'encreasynge and sparynge of your money oonly, but pryncypally for your solace, and to cause the helthe of your body and especyally of your soule." Though it be to our own loss, we would nevertheless invite every reflective mind to the Beck, to derive inspiration and satisfaction from communion with the simple joys of nature. May skill and perseverance there bring the angler the usual happy results, and—blessing of blessings where fishing is concerned—may his shadow never be less!

M. G. W.

  [1] Walton's Life of Sir Hy. Wotton.

  [2] Life of Bishop Andrewes by H. Isaacson, his amanuensis. Andrewes' works, Anglo-Catholic Library.

  [3] "He makes a May-fly to a miracle, and furnishes the whole country with angle-rods."—Spectator, No. 108.