Caught by the River

The Maggot Train

12th January 2012

An extract from Jon Berry’s new book, A Train To Catch:

The Wessex rivers owe much to the railways, and may never have flourished without them. Until the final years of Victoria they were ostensibly salmon rivers, but that changed in the 1890s when two fishermen – the Gomm Brothers – used the new railway network to transport Thames barbel to the Dorset Stour and Hampshire Avon. On later journeys the wooden barrels in the freight carriages contained carp and tench and silver fish, all captured from the waters around Staines by rod and line. The extent of their activities is shrouded in some mystery, but there can be little doubt that these two Londoners, working in league with a local hotelier called Newlyn, did much to transform two of the south’s premier salmon rivers in to equally desirable coarse fisheries.

Their actions were timely; the Thames was about to enter an extended decline, and Midlands anglers were already deserting the polluted Trent. England’s fishermen decamped to the Throop and Royalty fisheries in numbers, and the London and South-Western Railway took them there. Within forty years, the Royalty was home to record-breaking barbel catches, and the early morning train from London now brought biscuit tins full of maggots from Midlands bait farms to meet demand in the tackle shops of Ringwood and Christchurch.

And so the south-west line from London brought the fishermen, the bait, and even the fish themselves. For all these reasons, only a day after washing Southsea’s sand from my shoes, I took the early morning Maggot Train from London to Christchurch, the harbour town where the two great rivers of Wessex meet.
I packed a split-cane Avon rod, a favourite centrepin and some floats. Nigel at the tackle shop had told me when I’d booked that the silver fish were shoaling up below the weir and there was a reasonable chance of sport from them, and perhaps the big perch which had followed them there. I also took another old railway guide to read on the train, and so the final slow miles through Sway and Brockenhurst and Hinton Admiral were given over to Fishing in the South by J.W.G. Tomkin. The author researched his book in 1934, and the Southern Railway Company published it in the following year. Curiously, no mention is made of Tryon’s record barbel, but his notes on Christchurch are otherwise detailed.

Quite recently it has been found that the lower reaches of the Avon hold immense barbel, which actually average from 6 to 7lbs., in the Royalty Fishery stretch at Christchurch. The nearest station is Christchurch, which is five minutes walk from the water and about ten minutes from the centre of the town.

Accommodation is plentiful and varied, but it may be noted that the King’s Arms Hotel caters especially for anglers. The telephone number is Christchurch 69 and visiting anglers may be well advised to book in advance if they intend to stay there. The special tariff for anglers is 15/- per day all-in, including an excellent luncheon basket for those who intend to take their mid-day meals by the river.

Little has changed. The Royalty’s reputation as a venue for holiday anglers is a strong as ever, and the infamous crowds of the ‘thirties are there, three or more generations on. The tackle shop is still there, though it has moved from the bailiff’s hut to its current premises on the high street, and so too is the pub – albeit re-named The Royalty Arms, and with a hand-painted sign which shows Royalty hero Jack Harrigan with a 13-pound barbel in his hands. Suburbia and industry has gradually enveloped the land around the fishery, but many of the landmarks which Tomkin would have enjoyed are there still – the bends of the House Pool, the reinforced banks of the Piles, the secluded Parlour and the great iron bridge over the Railway Pool, on which a commuter train once stopped and allowed its passengers to watch one of Wallis’s companions land a monster.

It is all too tempting to get swept up in the history of the place when fishing the Royalty – I certainly do – but the challenges facing the angler are very real, and wholly modern. There are the poachers in the harbour at Mudeford who net the salmon and sea trout before they enter the river, and who are hunted themselves by police using night scopes and walkie-talkies. Then there are the perennial threats to water quality of low summer flows and pollution from local industry. Talk of mink and otters is common, though the current management do much to moderate predation. Finally, there is the challenge of the fish themselves – these are canny creatures, well-versed in bolt-rigs, back-leads and other traps laid by twenty-first century specimen hunters.

The barbel were not to be found in the Top Weir. Nigel assured me there would be a resident fish or two in the white water, but that time might be more profitably spent trotting maggots down the far bank from the pitch known as Jack’s Corner. According to the local sage, the rest of the barbel were further down the fishery between Trammels and Harrigan’s. The first afternoon’s fishing confirmed this – the roach and dace came readily to maggots, while the cries of successful barbel hunters could be heard in the distance. I was particularly pleased to catch some roach; the Avon was once famed for them, but like many rivers has witnessed a decline. Mine were bright, scarlet-finned fish, and the biggest topped a pound.

In the evening I set up my leger rod, and waded out in to the froth. Nigel had suggested I bounce a cube of luncheon meat around in the white water, allowing the undertow to whip it back up under the sill, just in case a barbel was foraging. One certainly was. It weighed eight pounds and put up a thumping fight that would have reduced my old Wizard to splinters.

The train journey home the following morning was slow, but that didn’t matter. I thought about the Maggot Train and wondered what had happened to all those biscuit tins – were they ever returned to the Midlands bait farms? Was there a stockpile of them hidden away somewhere in Bournemouth, rusting away and reeking of another generation’s sawdust and ammonia?

The flat scrub of the New Forest gave way to the over-development of Southampton, and then the tracks swung north to Eastleigh. There, the train sat still for almost an hour as undisclosed problems up the line were resolved. I watched the ‘planes landing and taking off at the adjacent airport, and remembered the ill-fated local campaign to rename it Matt Le Tissier International.

The diesel engine finally grumbled back in to life and pulled us forward, towards the Itchen valley and beyond. Ahead lay more delays, more platform coffees, changes at Basingstoke and Reading – and then twelve weeks of teaching. Dreams of record barbel would have to wait.

A Train To Catch is published by the Medlar Press