Famous for its gin-clear waters and manicured banks, the river Test in Hampshire is one of the world's most impressive fishing spots, a favourite of presidents and prime ministers – and of a certain combative television interviewer. The reason: copious brown trout.
But this autumn the river where Jeremy Paxman is fond of casting a line has been discoloured by pollution, angering members of the exclusive fishing club that enjoys rights to fish there and threatening the livelihood of local businesses that rely on famous visitors' passing trade.
The Test is home to the Houghton club, founded in 1822, where a quarter of members are lords and knights. Among those who have taken their rods to this exclusive stretch of water – the 11 miles of banks are valued at £600 a foot – are Jimmy Carter, George Bush Snr and Prince Charles, as well as other highly recognisable anglers such as Eric Clapton, Vinnie Jones, Ian Botham and Marco Pierre White.
The wader-wearing gentry are gesticulating upstream at a sewage treatment works, and have hired consultants to take samples of the water to try to prove their case. And they are now embroiled in a legal battle against the Environment Agency for not handing over all its files on the matter.
With things turning ugly, the Information Commissioner's Office has now intervened and ruled that civil servants must open their files and help the celebrity anglers get to the bottom of their whiffy problem.
The Commissioner noted that the river "is known as one of the primary chalk streams in England. It is noted by some as the birthplace of modern fly fishing and has been mentioned in literature for its fine fishing."
The chairman of the local Test and Itchen Association, whose members include those of the Houghton club, the Duke of Northumberland and Mr Paxman, is Sir Chips Keswick, a director of the Bank of England and the former chairman of De Beers diamonds. He said: "The middle and lower Test remained coloured... It becomes more and more obvious that we must be prepared to do more ourselves to provide the protection which the rivers require."
Shaun Leonard, director of the Wild Trout Trust, said the problem was recurring and needed to be tackled urgently to make sure that the spot didn't lose its prestige. "The Test has massive historical significance as one of the homes of traditional fly fishing methods," he said. "It's retained that cache through to today.
"There are some very, very famous fishing clubs there – the Houghton Club, Mottisfont Fishing Club. They have attracted the higher-profile members, and it's become a self-perpetuating thing." Most of the trout are farmed, although there are small wild populations.
The initial victory over the Environment Agency has not prompted wild celebrations. Robert Pryor QC, president of the Houghton Club, said: "Naturally we are pleased and we hope to get the information we requested. We have nothing more to say."
The Test river is also noted for an incident in 1998 when the television presenter Chris Tarrant broke his arm falling out of a tree while trying to get a better view of the teeming waters.Reuse content