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.”


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

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


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

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

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.