Fishing lines: Bowing to a king of the country

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The Independent Online
INTERVIEWING Keith Elliott proved a grave disappointment for one eager young journalism student last week. She seemed to assume that sporting superstars were forever popping round for a cup of cocoa, and that I would pass on phone numbers of the dishier ones. Just imagine her disillusionment when I said my most memorable interview was with Jack Hargreaves.

I should have said Andre Agassi or Jeremy Guscott. But some old gaffer wearing trifocals? "Er, how do you spell Hargreaves?" she said.

Still, it's true. I spent seven hours with the great man, and I could have spent seven more. For more than two decades, Jack Hargreaves was the voice of the countryman, through his television programmes Out of Town, The Old Country and even How? So perhaps it's no coincidence that his name should pop up in the week that the countryside marched on London. Hargreaves died almost four years ago to the day - but he was there in spirit.

He was in his 80s when I met him at his Dorset home. But he was still spry and alert - and no country yokel either. That rich burr that reminded you of warm summer days hid a sharp mind. He was a director of Southern Television at one stage, and had kept the rights and copies of every programme he had made.

I treasure one incident. We headed to the pub for lunch, where he was greeted by locals. But the landlord said nothing, just poured two glasses of an amber liquid and offered them for Jack and me to try.

The pub fell silent. Jack sipped it, swilled it round his mouth, and paused. "Not as sweet as the last one," he said. That was clearly praise indeed. I learnt later that his final project (never completed, alas) was to write a book on the home-made cider-making pubs of Dorset. What a way to go.

His eyes were going a bit but he had forgotten nothing of how to set an eel trap, mend a gig or ferret a warren. Inevitably, I asked why he did not film more episodes of Out of Town.

He replied: "Because I would spend all my time railing against town people who buy a house in the country, pop down at weekends and then complain because cows crap on the roads."

I can scarcely claim to be country born and bred, but I know what he means. Even in my riverside Cambridgeshire village, life has changed in the past 15 years. Yellow lines decorate the high street. Dogs must now be on leads. A few years ago, I led a successful battle to stop more than 1,000 homes being built. But the developers will be back, casting their covetous eyes over those unused fields.

Our local lakes where I took the youngsters fishing have been wrecked by cormorants. The birds were never a problem until bureaucrats who wouldn't know a cormorant from a corncrake slapped a European-wide protection order on them. How long before a multi-million bid sees those acres of water and trees replaced with photocopier homes, swamping the village's old thatched cottages?

I'm not anti-progress, nor one who goes misty-eyed over all aspects of rural life. The bus service is dire if you want to stay out after dark. Local farmers have hacked out the hedgerows to grab a few more quid from European grants. When it snows, drifts block the roads.

I don't hunt, though I often walk with the local mink hounds. This isn't for bloodlust; it's just that the hunt gets access to some superb private rivers and lakes. The pre-hunt stirrup cup and the post-hunt nattering offer a unique chance to chat up the landowner and nobble some top-flight fishing.

And mink are a nuisance round here. One woman lost all her chickens. You wouldn't mind if the mink snaffled a few for lunch, but they get this bloodlust and kill everything, as foxes sometimes do. I never knew things like that until I moved here. Now I'm more careful about condemning mole catchers, grouse shooters and rabbit trappers. They probably can't understand what I see in fishing.

Half my life has been spent in cities, half in the country. I know which I prefer and I know which is more in need of protection. Of course, I could be wrong. But I doubt that Jack Hargreaves was.