John Bailey: History shows that anglers have never had it so good

10:57 20 June 2012

John Bailey, seen here with a tench, feels there has never been a better time to be an angler.

John Bailey, seen here with a tench, feels there has never been a better time to be an angler.


The Diamond Jubilee surely has cast us all back to our roots.

We have to think of the 60 years of Elizabeth’s reign and the colossal changes that have taken place on the world stage, within the UK and within our own lives.

As I’m football and fishing mad, I can’t get another summer out of my head. Another soccer tournament just like the present Euros is coming up but this time, it’s the heady days of ’66. As we were Manchester United crazy kids, we had our Nobby Stiles day on the sixth of the six, nineteen sixty-six in honour of his legendary shirt number.

Nobby went on to win World Cup glory – not without a bit of controversy on the way – whilst I went on to dismal ‘O’ level results (GCSE’s to a lot of you) because of football, fishing and a lamentable lack of any revision. How on earth could I go roach fishing on the eve of a geography exam when for two years I’d done next to nothing still baffles me.

I’d recovered professionally by the time of the Silver Jubilee but still the fishing and football worlds ruled.

At that celebration I played soccer for Foxley in a street football match whilst the excitement of Norfolk’s tenching and Wensum roach were the fulcrums of my fishing world.

Teaching at Sprowston High School was demanding, exhilarating and those classroom days stay with me forever.

Unprofessionally, though, mine was the first car out of the gates each and every afternoon, forever rushing to the Wensum before nightfall.

The Diamond Jubilee weekend just gone I’ve been writing the book to go with the TV series ‘Fishing in the Footsteps of Mr Crabtree’. The smallest of things have been making me realise what conditions were like then, in the late 1940s, when the cartoons first appeared in the Daily Mirror and, from 1947, in book form, to the very eve of our Queen’s accession to the throne in 1952.

You realize that Bernard Venables was writing a book to celebrate freedom, the freedom to fish unchallenged by what could so easily have been a German occupation.

You quickly understand that in the cartoons and the accompanying illustrations, Bernard Venables portrayed England as a wonderful land, a paradise on earth, so unique and so irreplaceable that any of the hardship suffered between ’39 and ’45 were worthwhile and just had to be made. Crabtree’s waters were fit for returning heroes to fish in. In some ways, Mr Crabtree was a celebration for what had been saved.

However, there are endless hints of how austere the years immediately after the war could be. You sense rejoicing was muted after the relief of victory had faded.

How about Mr Crabtree’s lesson on how to preserve dead baits... ‘wash the dead baits in cold water and put them in a shallow dish containing a syrup of one part sugar to four of the water. Nowadays sugar is not to be had for such a purpose. So, after washing them, bottle them in a very much weaker solution of formalin.’ It’s easy to forget that sugar was rationed until the 1950s.

Or how about these thought provoking words in one of Mr Crabtree’s cartoon bubbles? ‘I’ll throw in some ground bait before we tackle up.

Good ground bait is bread, bran and boiled potato but we must manage with stale bread scraps, sand and boiled potato peelings these days.’ That’s why pretty well everyone is lean in the newsreels of the periods!

But we live in the present and we look to the future.

As anglers, we probably have never had it as good.

Let’s remember that when we slip our nets under nine pound tench, thirty pound carp and when we cast with our superb rods, our Rolls Royce reels and shovel in so much sweetcorn and luncheon meat as bait that, in 1947, would have kept a family for a month.

And whilst we rightly worry about the state of our waters, think, too, how much they have improved as well. If on June 3 our own Queen had fallen into the Thames whilst saluting a thousand ship sail past, she would have been hauled out wet, cold but not much worse for the experience.

A hundred years ago, had George V suffered the same fate, he’d have been dead within hours.

And a hundred and fifty years back, if Queen Victoria had even sniffed the summer vapours rising from that river, she would probably have been hospitalized for a month.


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