In my last post I mentioned A Year on the Test by John Waller Hills. Where I first picked up a paperback copy of this fantastic book is lost in the mists of time, all I can say is that I know that it rarely ventured anywhere near my bookshelves as it was usually bouncing around in my car or shoved into a rucksack to take on a holiday or tedious work related overnight stay. Despite having a vast array of fishing books to go at, this always seemed to be to hand and a constant source of good reading. It’s thanks to this man that despite being hundreds of miles away and fishing it very little the River Test will always have a fascination for me.
The first edition was published in 1924 and rather than being a fishing diary it relates to what the angler can expect on the southern chalk streams and on odd occasions further afield, in any given period of time. Chapters titled The beginning of the Season, May and the Mayfly, A June Day, High Summer and End of the Season gives an idea of the format of the first edition. The more popular second edition 1930 added further chapters on flies and fishing and completed this classic.
I recently gave my battered paperback copy to Carl in advance of our Test trip and acquired a Flyfishers Classic Library edition. I’m a self confessed book fiend and it’s lovely to have a favourite old book in a new copy with the added bonus of engravings and illustrations which were omitted from the paperback edition.
JW Hills takes the reader back to the halcyon days of the river Test, a world that to a greater extent has vanished, but this is no surprise to the author, back in 1924 he is warning about road building, the tar poisoning of trout and particularly the abstraction of water “The Test will only remain if growing towns populations do not abstract all its pure springs”. The crystal clear Test, flowing in mile upon mile of un-interrupted water meadows recounted here, reads like a nirvana that is long gone. The massive population growth in this crowded part of a crowded country puts the all too inevitable strains on the environment, a estimate plucked from the internet reveals that places in the Test Valley have a threefold and rising increase in population since the time of writing.
JW also makes the point that as fisherman we are only passing through. He comments on an old photograph of the early Houghton club members probably taken in the 1830s remarking how old fashioned they look in their “immense top hats, their clumsy square tailed coats and sea boots”, “their whiskers and fourteen foot rods”. He asks “that is it possible that we will ever be like that?” he knows the answer – a hundred years from now you and your Leonard rod and your fashionable boots and smart wading boots will look as old fashioned as that old photograph looks. Everything will be changed, the rods, the nets, the clothes, the faces the very figures. Only the Test will be the same, and it’s trout and the sport of fishing and possibly the Grosvenor Hotel. Throughout he makes the point that he in 1924 and even we reading 91 years later are at certain point in history and the only constant is the ever flowing Test.
Despite the book not reflecting neither a contemporary environment or technique, it’s full of sage advice that serves the modern angler well, after a lifetime on the water this is no surprise but the great wit and charm in JW Hills writing is what shines through for me and I’ll end with another quote which had me smiling for along time. “Chalk stream trout except at certain seasons, do not rise much after dark. There is no regular midnight rise as there is in northern waters. But they move at anytime during daylight. I have known them busy at five in the morning and earlier. But if you take my advice you will not go in for fishing before breakfast, unless it is the only fishing you can get. You will spoil your temper and catch little“.