The diversion of water from the chalk springs which should feed the rivers into new housing estates has greatly diminished their flow; changing farming practices have eliminated the water-meadows whose intricate networks of drainage provided a wonderful habitat for trout and their food, and replaced them with heavily fertilised fields running almost to the water's edge. The run-off of fertiliser has clouded the water with algae.
There was a time, so the old cliche goes, when these waters were 'clear as gin and twice as expensive'; now only the second part is true. A day on the Test in high season can set you back pounds 200. And the high prices have made the fishing even worse, by bringing in a breed of City types who demand results for their money, so that the native brown trout of the rivers are driven out by farmed rainbows.
It is possible to catch more pleasing fish. The nearest places to London for this, and the best hotels, are in the West Country. The only drawback of the Arundell Arms, at Lifton, where the A30 crosses into Cornwall, is that it is expensive. It is worth the money if you have it, though. The food is extraordinarily good in an imaginative, Frenchified way. The hotel has 32km (20 miles) of river fishing on the small rivers that come off the surrounding moors. These have salmon and sea-trout in season, and fair-sized small brown trout all the year round.
The rivers run in farmland, between banks which are sometimes so deep that you must climb down them on fixed ladders to reach the water. This can give a wholly illusory feeling of privacy: my wife, one summer afternoon, waded an inch too deep in pursuit of a fly she had stuck in an overhanging tree. She filled her waders to the brim with river water, but remained upright. No one was in sight. So she emptied the waders, spread her trousers out on the bank to dry, and climbed back into the river, where she almost caused an agricultural tragedy when a farmhand passed on his tractor.
The trout fishing is good rather than earth-shaking. But you can expect to catch a few trout on a dry fly every day. In spring, an expert can catch 30 in a day. If you are a beginner, the teaching available from the two resident ghillies is very good indeed. The hotel runs courses ranging from 2-4 days of trout fishing, to night-fishing for sea-trout - a specialised, exciting and sometimes frightening sport.
The rivers are not clear, but that adds to the pleasure of dry-fly fishing, since the basic technique is to prospect where you suppose the trout will be, and then wait for the perfect, magic moment when a neb breaks into your half of the universe and swallows the little fly.
By contrast the Barle river, at Tarr Steps in Somerset, is very clear. Trout can be seen lying deeply, like stains in glass, long before you catch them or fail to. The Tarr Steps Hotel has little in common with the Arundell Arms except trout. But for anyone who wants remoteness, it could hardly be bettered. The food is good, but not in the same class as at Lifton.
The Tarr Steps Hotel was once a country rectory of the sort which could make anyone experience a call from God. It stands at the end of a precipitous lane, deliciously isolated except from the other side of the river, which is crossed at the steps by a medieval slate footbridge. The hall and bar are lined with fangs: there are stuffed otters, deer, fox-heads and even a badger. It is a wonderful place to huddle round the stone fireplace in the evening.
The Barle runs through countryside that feels much wilder than the rivers of the Arundell Arms. In America, it would be called a small canyon, but in England it's only a valley. There are unfishable rapids separating the fast bits, and only one deep, slow pool. For the most part, you cast where you can, rather than where you would like to. Often the path rises high above the river and you must scramble down to reach it. There are trout and the occasional salmon there, but its value to the jaded urbanite lies in the seclusion and silence.
At bank holidays, this is disturbed by picnickers, but it is still possible to reach silence by walking either upstream for a couple of miles or downstream around the edges of a field, between barbed wire and a succession of salmon pools. Lower down are the pools to which Negley Farson, the foreign correspondent who wrote a moving autobiography called Gone Fishing, would always return from his travels.
Arundell Arms, Lifton, Devon PL16 0AA (0566 784666). Half-board per person pounds 420 per week, 2 nights pounds 128, 3 nights pounds 192. Fishing supplements: salmon pounds 21.50 per day, trout (river or lake) pounds 14.00. Individual fishing tuition pounds 18.50 per hour, including tackle; beginners' weekend course pounds 120.
Tarr Steps Hotel, Hawkridge, nr Dulverton, Somerset TA22 9PY (064385 293). Half-board pounds 330 per week, mid-week break pounds 47.50 per night, fishing free for hotel residents.
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