Greville Fennell’s The Rail and the Rod appeared as a series of six paperbacks in the 1860s and early 1870s, inspired by the brilliant idea of writing a series of guidebooks about all the fisheries within reach of a determined Londoner brandishing a day train ticket. Fennell, a friend of not only Dickens, but Thackeray, was well placed to write the booklets, having been on the staff of The Field since the paper’s launch in 1853, and wrote for the Fishing Gazette under the pseudonym ‘Creel’, although to many he was better known as an artist. Only a few years after he finished The Rail and the Rod series, Fennell would earn a kind of immortality with The Book of the Roach, which capitalised on the craze for roach fishing on his beloved Thames and achieved classic status, making him something of something of a father figure to anglers and bringing in its wake some interesting tasks, in particular the refereeing of the epic ‘Champion roach fisher of all England’ match between William Bailey and Joe Woodard. The Rail and the Rod, however, occupied much of his spare time for half a dozen years and a very agreeable project it must have been, judging from the sunny tone of the series, which in some of the volumes describes the fishing inch by inch and pitch by pitch. Such were the certainties of the time that Fennell not only gave descriptions of the best hostelries, but also named their patrons, the river men and even the stationmasters, something which is totally unimaginable now. Conscientious man that he was, Fennell avoided the pitfall of modern angling guides and wrote about the fishing from personal experience wherever he could, his descriptions of the Thames being so vivid that they make you feel as if you could go and sit next to a particular tree stump and make a bag today, if only a hundred and fifty years of progress hadn’t gotten in the way. There is a copy of The Rail and the Rod in the library and you can download and read it by clicking here.
The series was very popular and Fennell’s postbag was filled with letters, many of them, to his great surprise, being from readers who hadn’t the slightest interest in angling, but who enjoyed his diversions about the sights to be seen and the lore of the river, and used the books for guided walks. By the time the last couple of booklets appeared, Fennell had begun to concentrate far less on the fishing and far more on general interest side, writing in a style with which the Reverend Gilpin would have found much in common. Although he didn’t gush about the views, or make helpful suggestions about taking a hammer to ruins to make them look more picturesque, the change is inescapable and while he always wrote for fishermen, the latter volumes do make quite good general guidebooks, full of interesting stuff, such as the way the Wandle was landscaped where it ran through Lord Nelson’s Merton home to resemble the part of the Nile where his famous victory was won.
The series makes a valuable record of what the fishing around London was like in that far off time, but unlike most record books, The Rail and the Rod also makes a fascinating read, particularly if you know any of the places he describes, the comparison not always being to the our century’s disadvantage, given that the Thames in particular was beset with weirs and pollution in Fennell’s day. A place that caught my eye was Sproughton Mill on the river Gipping, because it happens to be on the outskirts of the Suffolk village where my parents live. The fishing there was in the hands of the Gipping Angling Preservation Society, who ran it well and had the most imaginative approach possible to subscriptions, with tickets to suit every pocket - one stretch was actually free as long as you lived locally and used a single rod and line.
‘Sproughton,’ writes Fennell, ‘is a neat Suffolk village, forming, with its elevated church, several pretty tableaux, as we wind round the Gipping. Its principal inn is the Wild Man, the sign depicting an Orson, slightly clad in skins, wringing a rabbit as a scullery wench would a dishcloth. It is clean in its interior; the hostess is attentive; and the malt excellent.’ Eat your heart out, Gilpin, but hold on, the Wild Man is still there, at the junction where my brother nearly died aged 17 when he made an unexpected right hand turn on his bike and ended up lying in the back seat of a BMW, having gone straight through the windscreen. I read on.
‘Sproughton Mill-tail is a picture in water-colours that the anglers cannot fail to enjoy. Looking down the river from the waste-water gate, we have on our left the old camp-sheeting bursting and jutting streamward, with its weight of garden mould dropping through its yawning timbers, as the undermining stream threadles in and out, and robs the miller’s cabbage-garden of its alluvial wealth; the trees, the roots of which, half-immersed and bare in the current, and half-embedded and tenaciously clinging to the soil, with their trunks impending threateningly, cross the landscape in the truest harmony of composition, while the mill, with the ever picturesque accessories of such structures - the wooden, white handled bridge straddling the shallows with its moss-grown starlings; the handsome church, proud, noble, and majestic, on the rising knoll, backed by bare trellissed limbs of stately elms, through which we get peeps of the immortal hills and perishable lattice-paned and straw-clad cots, with the shimmering and reflective water bringing down blue bits of sky and fleecy clouds into its bosom - all are present to the eye from one stand-point. Yet each spring day will change all this. The same objects will be there, but, like the pieces of coloured and shapeless glass in the kaleidoscope, every recurring tremulous touch of Nature’s mysterious hand will clothe it in a varied beauty equally rustic, sylvan and enchanting.’
At this point, I had my fingers in my ears, convinced that the book would self-destruct any second in a vicious puff of purple prose, but I reminded myself that Fennell’s sensitivity had probably been dulled by being force-fed Gilpin as a child. You have to hand it to the man that, as attempts to compare the views offered by the ditch-like Gipping to the mighty Wye go, the passage deserves marks for trying. But there is more. ‘What could art-angler desire more than to sit amongst such scenery and fish, or to be lulled into a holy half-dream by the monotonous fall to which the mill-wheel beats harmonious time, and to which the winds, as they catch the descending waters, and furtively arrest its torrent, give a wild cadence like the weird complaints of an Æolian harp?’
Maybe the author had one too many in the Wild Man, because most of The Rail and the Rod is devoted to sober discussions of baits and casting distances and the problems caused by pollution and has virtually nothing in common with Gilpin’s Observations on the River Wye, apart from these two aberrant pages on Sproughton. But I would be the last person to laugh at a man for saying what he felt and the spot must have made as strong an impression on Fennell then as it does on me now, every time I look past the ‘No Angling’ sign to the mill itself, which, improbable though it may seem, survives yet, albeit with a light coating of scaffolding clinging to the northern side. The paint, growing more and more pastel where it hasn’t peeled off completely, may be the same coat that Fennell saw, for all I know, and although the upper windows of the old building are boarded up and the wheel beats harmonious time no more, the pool is dark and inviting and the wind blows in the willows as it has done for a thousand years and will do for many thousands more. Yes, the wooden, white handled bridge has been replaced by a concrete span which would make the average art-angler spit blood, but either by art or design, it isn’t too noticeable from the road, and beyond the fact that most of the roofs are tiled and that the street leading past the church from the mill to the Wild Man is full of aggressively-driven hatchbacks instead of dawdling carts and the clientele are drinking spritzers rather than malt and watching the footie on Sky, precious little else has changed and you know what? I can see what Fennell meant. Sproughton must have been idyllic then and under the veneer of modernisation the only things that have been lost in a century and a half are a single wooden, white handled bridge; the knowledge that life is long; and a certain lack of self-consciousness. Of the three, the bridge is the one I suspect Fennell would have missed the least - that and the Gipping Angling Preservation Society - there is a No Fishing sign posted on the mill pool.