There is an old photograph of eminent Victorian fly fishermen perched on the rails of the sheep bridge at Houghton. These tweed-wearing old men were members of the first incarnation of the Houghton Fishing Club, some of whom, Marryat and Halford among them, became familiar names through their writings and ideas about dry fly fishing. Wealthy and with no need to earn a living, they could devote much of their time to studying the ways of trout in the Rivers Test and Itchen. Years later the club suffered some kind of hiatus. The fishing was taken over by Wickham (who tied the eponymous Fancy), until a newly revived Houghton Club once again acquired the fishing towards the end of the century. But always this was fishing for the favoured few. A rather stilted account is given by Simon Ward in his video Chalk Stream Chronicles, which may be viewed online.
In the 19th century the life of a full-time fly angler would have been a pleasing way to spend one’s days. The Test was in better condition then. Old photographs show the water level much higher than today, brimming to the top of its banks even in summer. Fly hatches were bounteous, pollution was absent. Those bearded, pipe-smoking gentlemen would have wiled away many a summer’s afternoon pondering the flies in their boxes to tempt the numerous rising trout.
Now abstraction has lowered the river and fly hatches, apart from the mayfly, have collapsed. The Test is not the river of 150 years ago, though it still has wild trout swimming among the stocked fish and runs exquisitely clear over the swaying weed. Roger Deacon wrote in Waterlog, his book on wild swimming, of all the trout he saw when he took a dip in the Test below Stockbridge. Expecting to meet at any moment a fly fisherman of superior class, he swam and waded a few hundred yards downstream without encountering anyone but a strolling couple. On the Winchester College (coincidentally Marryat’s old school) part of the Itchen, he was less lucky and had an encounter with two College retainers, with whom he had a brisk argument about natural rights of access.
The Houghton Club, as most fly anglers will know, still exists. Today’s version is far more of a secret society than the old; the details of membership are speculated on but no one quite seems to know. In fact it is quite easy to find this out. The Houghton is constituted as a limited company and is therefore obliged to submit accounts to Companies House, available on its website. Rather than members, Houghton plc has directors, 29 in the most recent listing. A number of these belong to the gentry, including one duke, stating their occupations mainly as directors, presumably of their estates or companies. The rest are drawn from the legal profession or banking, with the odd surgeon. Most reside within the south of England but some live further away; several are quite elderly. The considerable length of the Test exclusive to the Houghton, between 11 and 15 miles, depending on the source you read, is therefore unlikely to see much fishing pressure. I suspect it sees most activity during the grannom and mayfly meetings held on the bank each year. The Houghton is more about belonging than fishing.
By the standards of fishing clubs, it is very wealthy with declared assets, which include property, of about £2 million. Given the notional value of the River Test, the full assets could be worth over ten times this, depending on how much bank the Houghton owns outright. Details of income, costs of shares or other subscriptions required of its directors are not shown: small companies do not have to submit full accounts. These details remain secret. Unclear also is whether speculations over Prince Charles, whom some say is a member, have any substance. It is possible the list of directors does not include all those with the right to fish.
Membership is by invitation only, as Deacon found when he wrote to the Secretary asking to join. One imagines only a member of the royal family or one possessing a dukedom could let it be known they wished to become a member with any chance of success. Connections and a lot of money are the only way in. The Houghton is one of the many anachronisms with feudal origins that characterise the forelock-tugging United Kingdom. So much fine fishing available to so few is an extreme inequality. Seventy percent of the land in the UK is owned by 0.3% of the population, a legacy of 1066 and all that. What applies to the land goes for rivers too, especially the chalk streams.
Nowadays more of the Test is open to the less privileged, a consequence of estates working their commodified assets, although fairly deep pockets are necessary. And yet would it be a good thing for the Test to be open to all as the rivers are in America? Wild swimmers, paddle boarders, coarse fishermen with swimfeeders do not sit well with fly fishing. The Houghton Club, which controls access to the Test in the village of Houghton, used to allow bathers to enter the river at the sheep bridge. This was stopped this year when the end of the Covid lockdown encouraged so many to enjoy (befoul) the countryside. The British place little value on the environment. Our response to inequality seems to be support it at the ballot box, then go out and defile what we do not own.
If by some unlikely quirk of fate I received an invitation to enter the rarified halls of Halford and company, would I accept? The prospect of so much vintage fishing would be very tempting. Yet the heavily stocked Test is a river whose attractions can soon fade. In the past I have found opportunities that seemed wonderful to begin with but soon palled. On balance I would prefer to see more access for those who appreciate and respect the rare fishing of an English chalk stream.
There is one thing these influential individuals cannot do, and that is stop the steady deterioration of the chalk rivers. They have already tried legal means to preserve the Test fishing but all their financial clout and access to government may in the end amount to naught. Consumption, to which the Houghton directors will not be strangers, and pollution may make all our fly rods equally useless in the end.