The wily teachers of a craft that looks so easy

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In the world of fishing, I hear two names over and over again. I've lost count of how many times I've heard that these two individuals have taught someone to fish. Roy Buckingham and David Pilkington, bailiffs from the Arundell Arms hotel in Lifton, Devon, have, in the piscatorial sense, spawned thousands of offspring.

At least two people on this newspaper were taught by them, and David taught Ted Hughes to spey cast for salmon (on the very spot that he took me night fishing for sea trout). Roy joined the Arundell Arms in 1969, from the Cornwall Rivers Authority, where David also worked and that is where they met. Although David didn't join the hotel full time until 1976, he would occasionally help Roy take the fishing courses for which the hotel has become famous, from day one. "I think when I first met David," says Roy, "he was still in short trousers."

"I thought I knew a lot about fishing when I met Roy," says David. "I had caught fish, sea trout even. I could cast. I knew about fish and rivers. But when Roy first saw me cast – I was casting like a maniac – he burst out laughing and said 'try it like this' and with half the effort I cast out twice the distance." David had first taught himself to fish from the How to Series... remember them, with their black and yellow covers?

Roy taught himself too (and later, taught his dad!), but by watching members of the Launceston Angling Club who fished the waters 150 yards from his childhood home. Aged seven he joined them, but wasn't made overly welcome by certain members. "I won the senior cup two years running, then missed a year, then won it again. One guy was slightly jealous that I caught a bigger fish than he did. At one of the meetings he said 'Oh, to be beaten by a mere quarter pound [I'm not sure if he was talking about Roy or the weight of the fish!], the championship would have been mine'. And I thought that was a bit sad, you should encourage kids."

By all accounts, Roy was a natural, never struggling with casting, and went on to win various championships. In the 1969 Welsh Open, out of 10 events, Roy won seven.

And this is what they have been doing, for the past 30-odd years, encouraging children, and adults to learn to fish for trout and salmon, tie flies, improve their casting and this year, in an attempt to satisfy the fishing bug within the restrictions that foot-and-mouth imposed, taking people sea fishing. (Although it's worth pointing out here that they don't recommend serious fishing tuition for children under 11 years of age "before then they don't generally have the co-ordination and concentration skills needed.")

The art of teaching someone to fish is not to be underestimated. Apart from patience, one has to be able to work out what each individual needs, when to push them, when to back off. The night before a course Anne Voss-Bark, who owns and runs the hotel, gives people a pep talk, telling them what to expect and that they might very well be suicidal by lunch time. Anne is ideally suited to this, as, unlike Roy or David, she learnt to fish as an adult and so remembers the sheer frustration of trying to master a craft that looks so damn easy. Luckily, the hotel provides a very good packed lunch and I can recommend seeking solace in their steak pasties.

Most people have the same problems when they first start, indeed some of the very same problems that David had with is casting before he met Roy. They put too much energy into a cast, have poor style, break (i.e. bend) their wrist and reach forward from the elbow on the forward cast. All of these things can be put right "if they do as they're told!" The hardest people to teach are those that come to the courses (there are several to suit various levels) having taught themselves to fish.

On the course I attended, some years ago, David and Roy took a group of seven people who, aside from I, had never fished before and couldn't really see what all the fuss was about. By the end of that first evening, I remember going up to bed, leaving the rest of the group still discussing the wonders of fishing – over brandies by the fire – with a passion that suggested they had just discovered the meaning of life. To Roy and David it had probably been just another day's work, but to those people, the world had suddenly become a different place.