The Compleat Angler has something in common with Lady Chatterley’s Lover: while many know the title, few have actually read it. Yet it’s the most frequently reprinted book in the English language after the Bible, so it obviously still has an audience.
The question is: why bother? First published in 1653, its archaic language and discursive structure are a challenge for the modern reader, though the comprehensive explanatory notes in this attractive new edition, small enough to slip into a fishing-jacket pocket, guide us smoothly enough along the path.
Yet its blend of charm and expert tuition more than repays the effort required. Walton loved his fishing – “God did never make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling” – and enjoyed teaching beginners how to lure fish on to their angles (hooks), and then how to prepare and cook them (no catch-and-release nonsense for him).
For perch, “a bold biting fish”, a “worm, minnow or little frog” as bait were recommended, while his recipe for pike includes stuffing it with pickled oysters, anchovies, oranges and garlic, then basting it with claret and butter.
Walton regarded angling as ideally a communal endeavour, and many scenes are positively pastoral as he and his companions encounter singing milkmaids and welcoming hostelries as they wander the riverbanks. But what raises The Compleat Angler far above a mere manual or series of jolly outings is Walton’s profound understanding of natural history and the particular ecosystems fundamental to angling. In his awareness of the environment, he was centuries ahead of his time.
One to dip into rather than devour at one sitting, this book is infused throughout with good fun and good sense. “No man is born an artist or an angler,” wrote Walton, but he learnt to be both.
Published in hardback by Oxford University Press, £14.99