Sir John Whitaker Fairclough was a man I never met but whose fly-fishing tackle is now in my possession.
Fairclough was a key developer of IBM’s System 360 computers in the 1960’s, machines that set industry standards in the era of mainframe computing.
His reputation grew and in 1986 he was appointed Chief Scientific advisor to Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government. Fairclough’s business like approach and attitude to British Scientific research may have divided opinion amongst his peers but certainly suited Conservative attitudes.
During his tenure he was called on to address issues away from his own field of expertise, such as the fall-out from the Chernobyl disaster and the future of Britain’s own nuclear power industry.
When he died in 2003, his memorial service at St Martin in the Fields was attended by Royalty and Heads of State, but it was for other reasons that I learned of him.
I worked in a garage at the time, and regular customers Dr and Mrs Baits were friends with the recently late Fairclough and his widow. Among other duties (such as organizing the memorial service) they were charged with finding a home for Sir John’s fishing jacket. They knew I was a fisherman and asked if I would like it. I gratefully accepted and was amazed to receive not just a jacket, but also a fly-rod, reels and two boxes of flies.
Despite living in chalk-stream rich Hampshire, my experiences of fly-casting were, up to then, pretty much zero, and I became a little anxious as to where I could test out my newly acquired gear. I have never been a particularly good pupil – preferring instead to teach myself and give-up fairly quickly if I am clearly no good at it, but was also aware of how embarrassed I might feel making virgin attempts in front of seasoned fluff-chuckers.
Then came an email that solved my dilemma. Nell’s godfather owned a stretch of the Test near Chilbolton and had offered it to her and husband Jules for a day of their choosing. Did I, and fellow friend Ron, care to join them?
This was perfect, not only for the pleasure of seeing old friends, but also because all four of us were fly-fishing tyros. Ron had some experience having caught plenty of trout in the past and is also the last person in the world who would mock anyone else’s inabilities.
Ron picked me up on a lovely late July morning and we made the short journey to the river where we met our hosts.
From the cars we headed south, through a couple of meadows and some thick undergrowth, before the roof of a salmon hut appeared above the reeds with the Test sparkling just behind.
Half a mile of river was ours, though in truth we had walked far enough from any roads or buildings to feel that we owned the whole of the stream. It is always a wonder in such isolation as to how a building such as the salmon hut here was constructed. This was not just any old hut either, it had two rooms, comfy sofas and enough space for a party should we have wanted one.
There seemed no great rush to fish, for a while we were all content to poke around and breathe in the scene. It may have been mid-summer but there was still plenty of birdsong – dominated by the sedge warblers dotted among the reedbeds on either bank.
The breeze was a little stiffer than would have been ideal, novice casting is tough enough without the wind tangling your line. Fortunately though, in the hut were a couple of pairs of chest waders which meant we could get into the river itself and take the overhanging trees out of the casting equation. I booted up and worked my way slowly upstream, scattering a few trout and making a couple of half hearted casts before I saw Ron wading below me and hooking a fish on his first cast. It was a grayling – not a big one – but a fish on a fly. I waded down to see what he had caught it on, and to see if I had anything similar.
‘Nothing special…’ Ron suggested, offering his fly for inspection. He was right, I doubt this pattern had a name, it was just a wad of green on a big hook. Ron pulled a small bag from his pocket and passed it to me.
‘Help yourself, Kev.’
There were a dozen or so of the same pattern but in a variety of colours, all squeezed into a small plastic sleeve with a 99p price tag on the side.
My flies, all careful imitations, would have cost more than that each but Ron’s presentation was clearly better than my own, as he proved by hooking a second grayling.
I snuck one of his glitzy specials into my fly box and worked further upstream to where the river swallowed slightly and a thin slip of island jutted up from the central channel.
There was a nice brownie lying immediately above the upstream point of the island, and though the overhanging undergrowth looked a likely place for my line to tangle, it also offered a bit of cover. I had a few practice casts below the fish, and got a feel of the distance I would need to find and then fired my line right to the tip of its nose.
In a flash it rose and the line briefly tightened but before I could react it had dropped limp and the fish had zig-zagged away upstream. Wow! I didn’t care that I hadn’t hooked it, the fact that I had risen it was prize enough, and though he spooked, he hadn’t gone far would surely be back.
After fifteen minutes or so he returned. I didn’t notice him come but he simply materialised in the exact same spot.
I didn’t practice this time, just freed some line and twirled the rod and my impatience showed as I splatted the line just a few yards in front of me.
The trout remained though, and the next dozen casts were so inaccurate that they didn’t come close to spooking him. Finally, I got it right and he rose again and this time I was ready, lifting the rod as he thumped his tail and shot off downstream.
The reel buzzed, but only briefly, as the line again went limp and my hopes were again thwarted. The hook seemed okay, certainly sharp enough, but that trout wasn’t going to come back this time.
As I pondered my next move, a shout went up downstream. It was lunchtime.
I hadn’t given food much thought through the morning, and certainly hadn’t brought enough with me to share, but that mattered not, as the spread in the hut was incredible.
Jules and Nell had folded out a table and covered it with food. There were pastas, rice dishes, cold meats and olives and then in the middle were cheeses and fresh bread.
A bottle of wine was already open and a second was waiting and all thoughts of lost fish and crap casting dissolved into a Rioja haze.
For maybe two hours we sat and ate and drank and laughed. Such is the liberation gained from fresh air and good company that though the alcohol may have loosened us a little, it was the circumstances that gave us so much to smile about.
We finished the wine outside in the sunshine as the air began to cloud with a hatch that the swallows and martins dived among. Glorious – and the fishing was not lost to the afternoon either, even if the weather changed.
I must have cast for one fish forty times, and tried every fly in the box in vain. Eventually the only fly left was Ron’s kitsch special and I tied it on as raindrops began to fall and the first roll of thunder echoed through the valley.
It worked first cast, and I this time I managed to bundle my first ever fly caught brownie into the net. Judging by the shape of him he looked as though he needed a meal, but I still had to show him off, and ran back to the hut where the others were sensibly sheltering in order to give them a glimpse before I slipped him back to the river.
It had been a fabulous day, crowned by the catering and I couldn’t care that the walk back was so sodden.
We rounded off the evening with a pint in the village pub, though the adventure did not end there for Jules and Nell.
Jules’ car did not have a roof (I cannot recall the model but it may have been built in part by Jules himself) and with the rain still falling they could not drive home. Instead, they secured the car with a tarpaulin to keep out the worst of the weather and made back for the salmon hut with a blanket, another bottle and a rather enviable night beside the river with the a summer storm rumbling around them.
I bet they slept like stones.
If you have enjoyed the extract then please buy the book!
Available from shops and online, but easiest method is direct from the publisher here.
copyright Kevin Parr printed courtesy of Medlar Press