Fishing: Smugglers break all the rules

Annalisa Barbieri on fishing
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ON EVERY genuine House of Hardy fishing rod there appears, just a little way up from the cork handle, white, handwritten branding. The maker's name, with the group name of the rod, "Smuggler" for instance for the lovely, covetable travel ones; a serial number; the length of the rod and the line it takes. Sometimes, too, customers ask for dedications. "To my darling Annalisa, on her birthday: 7 July." That type of thing.

I had heard that all this hand flourishing was done by one woman and it was for that reason that I had hankered a desire to visit the Hardy headquarters in Alnwick, Northumberland. So up I went.

The HoH headquarters sit at the back of the HoH museum and shop. Andy Murray, one of the main men at Hardy's whose many responsibilities include developing the new rod and reel ranges, showed me round the shop floor. But not before discussing which of us did the craziest things in the name of fishing. We drew by both admitting that we had "lain in the bath, underwater to get a fish's eye view of the fly".

Andy showed me the Bougle reel, which was reintroduced last year to mark Hardy's 125 year anniversary, but was first manufactured in 1903 and named after the man commissioned it, a Monsieur Bougle. All fishermen have their favourite reels, made by all types of manufacturers but Hardy's are regarded by many as some of the finest (in Sportfish's shop in Hereford, before they started locking them away, Hardy reels were the most stolen). Now the Bougle is barstock made (originally it was cast, as all reels were in those days) which means it is made out of a single chunk of metal. This makes it more expensive and difficult to make but also enables it to be made lighter without loss of strength.

As the tour continued, I learnt that it takes six whole weeks to make a split bamboo rod. (After referring to a "split cane" rod for about half an hour, Andy gently told me that there is no such thing; readers, remember that in snooty tackle shops and get one over on them.) Now I began to understand why they can cost thousands of pounds. A carbon fibre rod takes only six days which seems positively production line in comparison.

And if you've ever wondered what those funny ridges you see in your carbon fibre rod are (look carefully) I can tell you. They are made by taking a stainless steel "mandrel" (a long rod shape). Carbon fibre cloth is rolled under pressure around this mandrel so that it will take the width of the mandrel (hence there are different lengths and thicknesses). Shrink tape is then wrapped around the whole thing and it is cooked for an hour at 120 degrees Celcius. It then cools down veeeeeery slowly, the mandrel is pulled out (think of making brandy snaps) and the shrink tape is unwrapped, leaving those marks. The CF rod can then be polished, coloured or left rough depending what the finish specification is. Andy told me that Hardy's build different rods for the Italians (who cast faster, a fact that surprises me greatly - the French or Norwegians cast the slowest). They are also the only company in the world that makes telescopic canes for the blind, a Millennium-award winning product.

The cork for all the handles comes from Portugal where it is stripped from the trees every seven years. In the 1970s when there was a craze for cork soled platforms, the cork trees were stripped more often and they have never recovered from this pillaging, apparently. But finally we came to the room where the woman - Cath - who was the purpose for my visit worked. If you possess a Hardy rod that was made from the mid-1950s onwards, take a look for it is her hand-writing you'll see on it. Cath's been doing it for 42 years and is now training an understudy, Sarah, for the day when she retires.

Cath has a method of numbering the rods, a very secret method. "The numbers don't follow on numerically," she told me, "it's a unique system and you'd never crack it." She can immediately tell if a rod is not a genuine Hardy one, simply by being told the number. In her "office" also works George, the "final check man". For quality control purposes, his word overrides even that of the MD's. If George finds anything wrong with the rod at this point ("which is very unusual as it would have been spotted along the line at each checking stage") he rejects it. No arguments. He can't remember how many times he's had to do this, but not very many in all his 45 years of service. So, despite several attempts to tell him that the Smuggler he was checking was dodgy, he would have none of it.