If fly-fishing has a

sacred place, a holy of holies, then it lies within a tiny bend in the River

Dove near Hartington, where the counties of Derbyshire and Staffordshire meet.

It was on this spot in 1674 that Charles Cotton, devoted friend and follower of

Izaak Walton and author of the fly-fishing chapters of Walton’s Compleat Angler, built

his fishing house.

It stands there to this day, just as

described in the book, “in a kind of peninsula too, with a delicate clear river

about it”. Entwined into a cipher above the stone doorway and carved on either

side of the mantelpiece are the initials of Cotton and Walton. Step inside,

toast yourself before the crackling log fire, and you can feel the weight of

history around you. Whether Walton himself visited the fishing house after it

had been completed is not known: he would have been 81 years old and the

journey from Winchester, where he lived, to what was then a remote part of

England would have been long and arduous. In previous years, however, Walton

had been a regular visitor to Cotton’s home, Beresford Hall, which stood

nearby, and that he and Cotton – “Piscator Junior” in Part II of The Compleat Angler – fished

this pretty stretch of the Dove together is beyond doubt.

“It seems highly probable that Walton was

coming up every May, spending time fishing the river and staying with Cotton,”

says Tony Bridgett, a local game-fishing instructor and fishery manager at the

Izaac Walton Hotel in Dovedale. Bridgett has an encyclopaedic knowledge of

Walton, Cotton and the fishing house. “Although Walton called his book The Compleat Angler it was

not all that complete because he didn’t know a lot about fly-fishing. It seems

likely that Cotton taught him the art, and when Walton was about to publish the

fifth edition, he invited Cotton to write a piece on fly-fishing.”

FISHING PISCATOR’S POOLS

Though they were different in age and outlook, the men,

brought together by their common love for fishing, clearly got on well together

and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. “I can just imagine the pretty

little girls coming down in uniform with a great, big silver platter, bringing

all the food down from the hall, hot, to the fishing house for lunch,” says

Michael Collins, present owner of the fishing house. “I imagine there’s many a

fisherman’s tale that has been told beside this fire.”

Collins inherited the 3 -mile Beresford fishery, with the fishing house, from

his grandfather: “It is unique, it’s rather elderly and we had trouble with the

roof. I was lucky in finding a mason who’d just finished repairing the Emperor

fountain at Chatsworth. He spent a month here. He took all the stone off the

roof, got an expert carpenter to replace the rafters, then put the roof back

with a big, heavy weight on top and the weather vane. The doors have been

replaced. It floods occasionally, but it doesn’t make any difference to this

place.”

Even the river is once again as Cotton

described it. The stream is clear and there are trout and grayling present. It

was not always thus. “There were plenty of fish in my grandfather’s day, but

during the last 11 years we’ve had continual industrial pollution and a bit of

pollution from sheep dips,” says Collins. “They were particularly nasty,

killing all the invertebrates. The pesticide didn’t affect the fish, but it

neutered the river, so there was no food whatsoever.” One culprit was a cheese

factory, a small family business that had grown into a large industrial

enterprise. This has now closed, elim-inating a

major source of water pollution. Meanwhile, sales of cypermethrin-based sheep dip were suspended in 2006.

There remained, however, the issues of

nutrients leaching into the river from nitrogen fertilisers and from animal

effluents such as slurry run-off. These problems have been ad-dressed by the

Upper Dove Restoration Project, run by the Trent Rivers Trust in partnership

with the Derbyshire County Angling Club and with the support of a range of

agencies such as Natural England, the Environment Agency, the Peak District

National Park and Derbyshire Wildlife Trust.

“Our aim is to bring about an improvement in

the con-dition of the river, including fish populations, other wildlife and

water cleanliness,” says project officer Andrew Heath. A keen fly-fisherman, Heath

is one of the architects of the Peak Passport fishing scheme, which aims to

open local rivers up to day-ticket fishing by visitors. Total fishing in the

scheme is almost six miles, some of it restored, depending on need and budget,

and this year Michael Collins has included his fishery in the scheme, making the 800yd Cotton’s Fishing

House beat

available. Anyone who cares to buy a day ticket for £50 may now fish in

Piscator’s footsteps.

“The passport scheme brings income from

fishing to local farmers,” says Heath. “This encourages them to look after the

rivers and brings about good stewardship. We organise the scheme, do the

marketing, create the fishery and do the habitat work. We take 15% of the

revenue and the rest goes to the landowner. Effectively, he gets provided with

a viable fishery and we manage it for him.”

Long-term habitat improvement has been

fundamental to the restoration of wild brown trout to the upper Dove. Fences

have been erected to keep livestock away. Eliminating poaching by cattle has

restored structure to the banks and prevented them crumbling into the river.

Spawning gravels are cleaner and wild trout production has increased. Farmers

still have access to the water for their stock through fenced-off watering

bays, each with a hard bottom to avoid sediment being stirred up and washed

downstream.

SIGNAL OF HEALTH

Trees have been removed to allow more light into the

river. While shade from overhanging trees is beneficial in keeping the water

cool, open sections of river encourage weed growth which provides cover for

fish and a wider variety of invertebrate food. The project has coppiced

riverside trees, some of which, where they do not interfere with the fishing,

have been felled into the river to create additional cover from predators and

to channel the water, increasing its speed and cleaning the gravel to create

more spawning places.

Where there was heavy erosion, the team has

built “soft” revetments by driving stakes into the river-bed, back-filling with

tree brash and then wiring over the top. This allows the eroded bank to be

recolonised by plants and stabilised. Mink rafts have been installed and are

checked daily by volunteers. Last year, 16 mink were caught in six weeks.

Students from Hull and Loughborough

universities monitor the fish population and the diatom algae growth

respectively. Anglers also monitor the fish, and like what they see: there is

now a good stock of 6in to 7in brown trout as well as some larger wild fish

alongside the stockies released by fishing clubs. “We’re

delighted to see the small fish,” says Bridgett. “It means that the fish are

spawning here. What we want now is a good natural head of wild fish, and we’ve

been seeing that develop for a year or two now.”

About 100yd below the fishing house, the Dove

flows into a limestone gorge. The spring-fed river is crystal clear as it

dances downstream over the rocks, while swarms of gnats hover and mayfly skip

across the surface of the deeper pools such as the Pike pool with its towering

limestone monolith standing up from the water as it did when Cotton’s “Viator”

described it as “one of the oddest sights that I ever saw”. “When we talk about

the Pike pool, the majority of fishermen think it is a place where they used to

catch pike,” says Bridgett. “They don’t realise that the ‘pike’ is the

monolith.”

Unlike Viator, we caught no grayling in the

Pike pool but there is no shortage of trout here. Fish are on the rise

everywhere and although some of them are stock fish, released by Derbyshire

County Angling Club, which leases and manages the lower part of the fishery, a

large and growing proportion are wild brown trout native to the river. It took

only a few expert casts for Bridgett to have one of them in his landing net – a

small one-year-old fish: “See the pink spots? They’re typical of the Dove fish.

Our fish here are just so pretty.” Minutes later Heath had another on his fly,

this time a wild Dove brown trout of about a pound, which signalled beyond

doubt that this river has returned to health.

The trout was released, carefully and

reverently, and just as reverently we walked back along the bank to the fishing

house. “Hats off, no swearing,” quipped Michael Collins as I noted Cotton’s

inscription over the door: PISCATORYBIS SACRVM. This is, after all, the temple of

angling.

Cotton’s gin-clear water

  • Cotton’s Fishing House beat of the River

    Dove is 800yd, double bank. Day tickets are available via the Peak Passport

    Scheme at £50 worth of tokens per day. You can buy tokens online at www.peakpassport.co.uk.
  • Two rods only to fish at one time,

    Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays only. Booking is required: call the Charles

    Cotton Hotel, Hartington on 01298 84229 to check availability and to book.
  • Fly only,

    catch-and-release. Trout, 18 March to 7 October; grayling, 16 June to 14 March.

 

  • Richard Garland

    Article from “The Field” covers Michael Collins’s beat on the Dove – interesting historical connection I had not appreciated

    Malcolm