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Fly fishing in the Peak District – in Izaak Walton’s footsteps


An early summer evening as the alder, hawthorn and oak leaves unfurl is a wonderful time to be fishing the Rivers of the limestone landscape of the Peak District in the heart of England. I had been casting across the 15 foot or so wide river Dove for half an hour with little luck. But just a few feet upstream a fish rose: that lazy, languid summer rise that gives mixed hope that it might take my fly. I cast again, this time my Derbyshire double-badger fly settled gently, just about a foot upstream of where the fish had risen. A second later the fish emerged and took the fly. I paused and then gently lifted the tip of my rod, not really a snatch, more of a gentle pull.

The fish, a 10 inch brown trout, was on and it slowly realised it was caught too. The English brown trout is not much of a fighter, but it makes up in its brute strength and guile. It pulled erratically, but I had learned to use the curved tip of my 8ft rod to ‘play’ the fish, gently hauling it towards me, shortening my line and positioning myself into a place to land the fish into my net. I pulled the small cane landing net off the clip on my back and placed it spoon-like in the water to receive the fish. Guiding the hen-fish gently with the rod, the bar of gold and black trout glided into the net with only one angry fit of resistance.

‘Is that your 3rd or fourth tonight?’ called Andy the River keeper from above me on the bank. Startled, I stumbled on the slippy, stony riverbed and turned answering with some defensiveness that it had been my first and only fish in the hour. I loosened my hook from the trout’s mouth and let her go to watch her scuttle off into the bank of reeds behind me. I climbed up the steep bank through the reeds, rosebay willow herb and a menacing bank of stinging nettles up to greet Andy. ‘Kettle’s on’ he said.

As we walked along the narrow path towards the fishing hut a group of ramblers passed by on the other bank ‘caught anything?’ They hailed. My thumbs up told them all I wanted them to know. It was surprising to me that it in the heart of a national park reputed to be the second busiest in the World after Japan’s Mount Fuji, this clutch of walkers were the only people I’d seen out that mid-summer evening. ‘They’re all in the pubs’ said Andy ‘it was crawling with walkers here earlier today ’.

As we stopped to place my rod gently against the wall of the fishing hut I was reminded of the great antiquity and significance of this place in angling history. This spot, this stretch of river and the very act of casting a fly to a rising fish combine in a great crucible of historical importance. This is no mere hut, rather it is a temple to fishing, indeed ‘The Temple’, built by the poet and angler Charles Cotton here 350 years ago to commemorate his famous fishing partnership with fellow angler and author Izaak Walton.

Walton’s ‘Compleat Angler’ is probably the most famous and arguably important book on fishing ever written and one of the most widely reprinted books in the English language since Walton published the first edition in 1653 . In its discursive text Walton describes the techniques, passions and philosophy which game anglers would be familiar with the world over today. The book starts famously in the friendly competitive banter between the hunter ‘Viator’ and the angler ‘Piscator’. Andy buys up old copies of ‘The Compleat Angler’ on e-bay and gives them to his guests to take away – the authentic book from the Fishing Temple.

The river Dove rises some 10 miles north of the Fishing Temple on Axe Edge in the dark peak gritstone moors of the north Peak District. It runs mainly through pasture used for raising dairy and beef cows and sheep in the broad valley of the upper Dove before entering a series of spectacular and steep-sided gorges between Hartington and the busy tourist hotspot of Dovedale, famous for its stepping stones over the river. Andrew sees the value of farming but also the threat it is to the rivers ‘Silage, the winter stored grass, can release a lethal cocktail into the river and dung stores can wash equally virulent toxins into the river’. But Andrew is a friend of the farmers too.

By fencing short stretches of the river, allowing streamside vegetation to create homes for the flies which feed the fattening trout and stopping the cows poach earth from the fields into the river Andrew is helping the farmers and the fish. Through a small local charity, the Trent Rivers Trust, Andrew and fellow enthusiasts sell ‘passport tickets’ to fish these less well known beats. For under £10 you can fish one of these stretches of the Dove and, whilst not of the premium variety that the Temple Beat is, you can take your chance knowing it’s in a good cause.

After a brew of tea we locked up the Temple with its great iron key and scrambled over the wall into Andrew’s ancient Mk 1 Land Rover to head for Hartington and dinner. Driving up the damp evening meadows, we watched clouds of swallows swooped over the heads of the young pedigree Hereford calves feeding on the organic pastures. We reached the farm yard and then the road before making the half mile journey into Hartington. This picturesque Peak District village also sits on the River Dove and was once the centre of a famous creamery manufacturing English Stilton. The ‘King of Cheeses’ is still made in the area but the large factory is closed now and Hartington today mainly caters for the visitors to this glorious landscape in the heart of the Peak District National Park.

Dinner tonight would be in the Charles Cotton Hotel, named after Walton’s fishing friend and mentor. Cotton was a poet, author and a civil war Royalist. His book ‘The Compleat Gamester’ defined many of the standard English rules for pursuits such as including billiards, card games, dice, horse racing and cock fighting. In the bar of the small but elegant hotel lounge we ordered pints of the local Hartington Bitter beer, brewed in the village by an offshoot of a Scotch whisky distillery. We ordered organic Hereford steak fillets, raised on the very meadows bordering the River Dove we had just driven through by local farmer Andrew Sebire.

It’s possible to experience great game fishing over much of England. But, to me the Peak District has a unique draw. The 360 year Walton heritage, the great range of rivers from tiny streams to the great Derbyshire Derwent and the fantastic national park landscape make any fishing visit here a charming experience. To the West of the Dove the rivers Manifold and Hamps are tiny limestone rivers with a tendency to dry in the summer but which can in the right conditions be fun rivers to fish. To Charles Cotton these brooks were ‘streams supplied below, which scatter blessings as they go’.

On the Eastern flanks of the Peak District the rivers have a more aristocratic lineage, and you can choose between the Dukes of Rutland on the Wye or Devonshire on the Derwent. The Wye is a much more reliable river than the Dove and you can buy tuition and rods from the elegant Peacock at Rowsley which also has one of the best restaurants in the Peak District. Winter fishing for grayling is possible on the Wye and on the Chatsworth beats of the Derwent at the Cavendish Hotel at Baslow.

A great introduction to fishing in the Peak District is a short trip to Pete Arfield’s Bakewell Flyfishing shop. Upstairs in Hebden Court, a classy collection of shops and tearooms in the centre of this charming Saxon market town. Actually, few visits to Pete’s tiny shop stacked to the ceiling with rods, reels and waders, are ever short. Think fly-fishing seminar, complete with audience participation from the lengthening queue of fishers waiting patiently in line. Pete knows the rivers well, remains a very active angler himself and gives generously of his expertise. He is delighted with your custom even if your purchase amounts to a handful of flies only. He offers tuition in casting and river craft and is a great river guide for a day you will never forget on any of the Peak District rivers.

Fishing can be booked on the Beresford beat on the River Dove through the Charles Cotton Hotel. Peak Passport fishing vouchers can also be bought at www.trentriverstrust.co.uk or the Bakewell Flyfishing Shop. Other great Peak District fly-fishing opportunities are at the Peacock at Rowsley and one of the greatest English country houses Chatsworth  which also has a variety of accommodation options. Excellent local bed and breakfasts include www.oldshoulderofmutton.co.uk and www.beechenhill.co.uk . More information from www.visitpeakdistrict.com.

Jim Dixon is a travel and countryside writer who has worked in and written about countryside and landscape for 30 years. He lives in the UK Peak District. More about him on his website

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