Itchen for fishing

Good fishing, books and beer remind us that not everything is awful

Country Notes

This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I don’t cast particularly well but on my third attempt, the mayfly pattern dropped onto the water just upstream of the trout on the edge reeds. The fly came round right over the fish, then it drifted up towards the surface, knocked it with its nose, then descended again. 

I was fishing on the Itchen, just downstream from Twyford with Mark Hedges, the long-standing Editor of Country Life. The river, he kept telling me, apologetically, should have been alive with hatching mayflies and the surface should have been dappled with trout rising to gorge themselves on the insects but all was still. 

The river, on account of the rain there had been over the previous few weeks, was high and rather than being gin clear like it tends to be in June, lots of the fish were hardly visible in the silt. When fishing a chalkstream, like the Itchen, you don’t simply cast your fly hopefully, like you do when you’re salmon fishing. Instead, you stalk the fish from the bank. Rivers like the Itchen are where fly fishing began and there’s something timeless about their beauty. The Vikings came up the Itchen in boats to attack Winchester, Mark told me, as a kingfisher flew by. 

People who know about fishing will tell you that really it’s all about barometric pressure — when it’s low the fish become lethargic and when it rises they come to life. I’ve always thought that the wonder of it all is that nobody really knows. It’s like reading tealeaves or trying to guess when the snipe will fall in Autumn. But at that exact moment, in front of an elder bush, Mark and I both hooked a fish. “So what happens now”, I asked him. “Well I bring my fish in”, he replied, “then I’ll help you with yours.” 

I first met Mark in the office kitchen of what-was-then Britain’s biggest magazine publishing house a little short of a decade ago. “You’re the new editor of Shooting Times”, he said to me as I waited for the kettle to boil. “Yes”, I replied. “Well”, he said, as he walked off, “we should go for a beer sometime. I used to edit it.” 

I’m not sure we ever did go for that particular beer but we’ve been for plenty since and I realised fairly quickly that Mark has a rare eye for magazine editing. He once said to me he doesn’t really have an idea of what a country life reader looks like — and there are almost 60,000 people who buy a copy each week — but he absolutely knows what makes for a good Country Life piece. My suggestion to recreate Jerome K. Jerome’s skiffing trip from Three Men in a Boat ended up being their cover feature, as did my week in a cave on an uninhabited island, but despite asking three times, he told me he that my pitch on going to see a foie gras farm in France to write about how cruel it is or otherwise wasn’t for them. 

What you’ve got to understand, he explained, as he sat at his desk — a desk which comes from the original Lutyens-designed Country Life office — is that most of the media in this country tells you why you’re wrong or why somebody else is. What Country Life does, he explained, is it makes people feel good about themselves. It sounds simple but Country Life is one of the only magazines in Britain that sees its profits jump year on year. As the world becomes more miserable, people seek it out more and more. 

I like the dogs and the chalk streams and the literature and the food

I think, though, there’s something else going on too. We live in a period when everybody wants to talk Britain down. “Tell me”, a well-known novelist’s husband said to me recently at a book festival we were both speaking at, “about how awful it is to be a young person in Britain.” The thing is, I replied, I quite like it. I like the dogs and the chalk streams and the literature and the food. I like English cheese, pubs, and London in winter. 

We walked back along the bank, each of us with our fish, then we sat in the pub in Twyford and had a beer. “What I think it is”, I said to Mark, is that Country Life provides an antidote to this bleak and self-fulfilling narrative that everything here is awful. 

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