Friday, 30 October 2015

How genius endures


This month Orvis celebrates 30 years on the English high street and it is an odd thought but I write this from the very same room from which the Orvis operation was run in 1985, the American firm having acquired Nether Wallop Mill and Dermot Wilson's famous mail order company four years earlier.

For nearly two decades the Orvis HQ remained at The Mill, the Stockbridge shop the first of a chain that now numbers close to 20 nationwide. The mail order operation and the logistics for the shops were all run out of here and as the firm expanded it truly became a hub of activity. First one of the Perkins, the family that still owns Orvis, came over to oversee the new venture and lived in the Mill Cottage to be succeeded by a UK managing director John Russell who raised his family here.

I don't think anyone would disagree but the foundation of the Orvis enterprise was the genius of Dermot Wilson. I never met Dermot, but I suspect he was restless soul. He came to fly fishing by way of Winchester College where the Itchen runs beside the sport fields and a distinguished service in WW2 where he was awarded the Military Cross. He dallied with the Foreign Office (he was fluent in Mandarin Chinese) before joining the advertising colossus J. Walter Thompson to become its youngest ever director.

But selling cornflakes was clearly not his thing. As his wife Renee told me he arrived home one day in 1968 announcing that he had found the most wonderful mill in Hampshire and that he intended to resign his job to start a mail order fly fishing business.

I am not sure if Dermot was entirely truthful with Renee about the condition of Nether Wallop Mill. It was in a truly dreadful state so they set about restoring it, living in the cottage and making offices of the mill building. To boot Dermot dug the trout lake which within three years produced the British rainbow trout record (9lb 12 ½ oz in case you ask) which to this day remains the spot where countless fly fishing lives have begun.
Not much changed today .....

There were two secrets to Dermot's early success: the first and most obvious was that he was the first to offer a full service mail order company which combined with his marketing genius and considerable expertise, to make his catalogues annual bibles to the temple of fly fishing. But I think more than that he realised the British fly fishing industry had fallen woefully far behind its American counterparts. In the post-war years all the innovations were coming from the US so he set out to find the best tackle and sold it to an eager market that was exploding as the craze for stillwater fishing took off.

The Mill became something of a Mecca for all the greats of the 60's and 70's: Frank Sawyer, the man behind the lake construction, and Ollie Kite lived just up the road. Charles Ritz, Lee Wulff, Ernest Schwiebert, Bernard Venables .... well the list goes on. Even our very own Charles Jardine lived here for two years as 'the apprentice' when he was fresh out of art college.

Dermot was always a marketing man to his core; he understood that the fishermen he sold kit to would appreciate somewhere to fish so he bought what are still the two Orvis beats at Kings Worthy on the Itchen and the Ginger Beer beat at Kimbridge on the Test. Here at The Mill his tuition, largely done by Jim Hadrell and Charles Jardine, was the pipeline for a new generation. At the height he had fourteen people working here.

If that seems a lot (if you have ever visited The Mill you will agree it is) Orvis took it to a new level; I think I am right in saying that by the time Orvis were ready to leave in 1998 to a less lovely but more suitable warehouse in Andover there were close to forty full and part time employees. The phrase quart and pint pot comes easily to mind. To this day we still get the odd rod delivered for repair and there are plenty of Orvis employees who tell me wistfully where they had their desk or office. I have to tell you they made a clean job of clearing the place out; I never found a cache of Battenkill reels. In fact all I ever found were two empty rod bags.

Anyway congratulations to Orvis; 30 years is a mighty achievement for a specialty retailer on the brutal battlefield of the English high street but maybe a quick glance to the heavens in appreciation of Dermot Wilson might not go amiss.

Sawyer's Lake

In dangerous company ......

Somehow I've been invited to talk at the Petworth Festival, that includes best selling authors such as Andy McNab (hope I don't say anything to offend him...) and David Starkey.

I'm up at noon on Thursday November 5th so if you live locally do come along to hear my 'Life of a Chalkstream' show. Tickets from the on-line or from the festival box office 01798 343055.


The usual random selection of questions to confound and amaze. Answers at the bottom of the Newsletter. It is just for fun!

1)   Who won the 2015 World Carp Fishing Championships?

2)   How often does an otter have a litter of cubs?

3)   What is gault?

Sporting hospitality

Congratulations to The Greyhound in Stockbridge who have just picked up an award for Britain's Best Sporting Pub 2015, organised by Country Life and the Countryside Alliance. It is a great accolade for Lucy and the team (you may remember her from her days at The Peat Spade) that is fully deserved and we wouldn't expect anything less of the inn that very kindly hosts the River Test One Fly.

There's Lucy ....

On that thought entries for the 2016 contest that takes place on Friday April 22nd are now open. The Iron Man Fly Tying Challenge and the Fly Fishing Film Tour will be in Stockbridge the previous evening. Get those rooms booked! More details .......

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director  

1)   England. River Ebro, Spain October 7-10th. 2) Once every two years. 3) A thick, heavy clay found under southern England.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Cut off in it's prime?

Nether Wallop Mill, Stockbridge, Hampshire, UK - Tuesday October 13th 2015


The death was swift. A brief press release from the offices of the CLA (Countryside Landowners Association) consigned the annual Game Fair to history. The biggest event in the rural calendar, at least measured by the number of people that attended, was to be cancelled. No reprieve was offered. Even though dates for the 2016 event at Ragley Hall had been in the diary for two years, it was all over forever. The show, despite being visited by around a 150,000 people, was a loss maker for the CLA and the membership could no longer support the losses.

Heady days. Kate Middleton at the 2004 Game Fair.
There will be many of you out there who will never have visited the Game Fair and plenty more abroad who are not familiar with the concept. In a nutshell take three glorious English summer days at the end of each July. Against the backdrop of a magnificent stately home erect a show ground amidst the oak parkland and alongside the Capability Brown lake. Invite the best of British rural sports, trades and craftsmen to showcase their wares. Throw open the gates to make this a celebration of all things great about the countryside. A place where old friends reconnect and new eyes are opened. What could go wrong? Well, apparently quite a lot. 

I must admit I always thought the Game Fair and the CLA odd bedfellows. The latter, as the name suggests, is an upmarket association. I always rather enjoy its glossy, quarterly magazine but the contents are more suited to Downton Abbey that your local dentist surgery. If it had a problems page (maybe it should ....) the letters would read: "Dear Edgar, My gardener has announced his intention to take his annual two weeks vacation in July. Does he not realise this is grass growing season?" I am probably being a little cruel but you get the general idea.

I don't want to describe the Game Fair of its last few years as downmarket but, in what was clearly an effort for survival, it was chasing an audience that was a very long way from both the magazine and my Utopian vision of what it might be. As an exhibitor and visitor I have been unfulfilled. Certainly financially. As an exhibitor it was a black hole. As a visitor the £35 entrance fee in 2015 was eye-watering. The first ever Game Fair in 1959 was 13p; that is Weimar Republic scale inflation. But setting the money issues aside the show had lost its way. It's USP, unique selling point, that opportunity to offer a glimpse of the magic of country sports, was lost in the melee stands more suited to an urban weekend market. 

Has the Game Fair died in it's prime? Well, probably not. At 56 it was showing its age in a world that has moved on, where I doubt even the term "Game Fair" in itself means anything. It will leave a hole in the summer calendar and plenty will mourn its passing, but maybe in its place will rise something that will inspire future generations as the shows of the 1970's did for me.

Knotweed and other menaces

Ever wondered why the 2012 London Olympics cost us taxpayers so much? Well, I don't exactly know but I bet nobody surveying the Hackey site prior to construction gave the Japanese Knotweed a second glance. They should have done. It took £70m to eradicate before the first concrete slab was poured.

Japanese Knotweed
This I know because I have been re-reading Balsam Bashing and How to tackle other invasive non-native species by Theo Pike who I bumped into at the Wild Trout Awards last week. Though he likes to deflect, Theo is the undoubted authority on all things invasive.  

I know the title of the book is a bit prescriptive but it truly is a good read. I never knew that the Freshwater Shrimp Gammarus pulex, a staple diet of chalkstream trout, was entirely absent from Ireland until misguidedly introduced in the 1950's to Northern Ireland. Now spreading south it is devastating the native population. Our good friend Himalayan Balsam (Britain's tallest annual plant) gets a mention as do rabbits that took me up short. My daughter, a keen spotter of crayfish, was horrified to read Theo's advice "It is illegal to release or allow to escape non-native crayfish ..... crush underfoot."

Anyway it is very good bible to the law of unintended consequences; it should be mandatory reading for anyone keen on introducing beavers, wolves and their like.

Which all leads me in a very roundabout way to congratulate John Wyett who wins the September Feedback Draw winner with a signed copy of Theo's book on its way to you. 

John you, like everyone who has sent in a form this season, goes back in the draw for the fine Hardy Cascapedia reel to be drawn on 31st October. 

Hardy Cascapdedia reel

Jonny's trout

If you ever wondered what a river keeper does at lunchtime, well wonder no more. Jonny Walker, with a deftly placed Daddy Long Legs, plucked this monster trout out of Wallop Brook here at Nether Wallop Mill. Got to be six pounds or more ......

It actually caused a little bit of debate when I posted it on Facebook. Nice stockie said some. Others were not so sure. The truth is Edward leads something of a gilded life in the mill pool. Life is easy. The water is slack and the food plentiful from the bread he steals from the ducks to a multiplicity of small fish that he snacks on for a pastime.

Is he a stockie? Well, he may of been a very, very long time ago but no more than half a pound in weight way back then. Anyway he is back in the river, hopefully relishing his momentary fame.

Mystery fish

We had our end-of-season Guides party last week (yes, we went fishing .....) and Bob Preston bought along a photo of this fish he recently caught. Could we guess what this salmonid was? You can just see the adipose fin, so it is no coarse fish or sea fish but even with that clue we were all bamboozled. 

It was caught on a fly, but not in any traditional method. As Bob describes: "About 15 years ago I finally found out the method that the locals use which is a team of about 6 tiny buzzers with a decent sized lead underneath to get the flies down the 20 metres or so where the fish seem to spend most of their time feeding on plankton."

Maybe you know? Answer at the bottom of the page.

The Invisible World - award winning film

Great work takes dedication; this film is that. The director and film maker Andrew O'Donnell arrived at my home at 9am in July to film
the chalkstreams. 'Come far?' I asked, 'Glasgow' he replied. Yes, they drove down and up in a single day to shoot a few hours of footage. 

Andrew's short film The Invisible World has just won the Salmon & Trout Conservation UK video competition which in the words of the organisers seeks to 'to explore the beauties as well as the threats that face our underwater environment - the invisible world that no-one sees, but which surrounds us all and is so vital to our well-being.' 

Well done Andrew. The £2,000 prize will go some way to paying for the petrol!

View the film on You Tube click on the image or here.

Have a good week.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director  

Mystery fish: It is a European whitefish Coregonus lavaretus. We did briefly think it might be a Houting, a fish that is technically extinct, but still caught from time to time in Norway. That said this particular whitefish, caught by Bob in Austria, is pretty rare in itself listed in the vulnerable species category. More about it on Wikipedia.