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Tales from the riverbank

PUBLISHED: 11:23 09 November 2007 | UPDATED: 14:55 20 February 2013

Stories and anecdotes by Ron Holloway, riverkeeper for 30 years on the Upper River Itchen, record the life and times of a chalkstream river, its wildlife, its history, its people and its future...

Hampshire Life, October 2007

You should have been here last Thursday is not a how to fish book, but a series of stories, musings and anecdotes about the world renown chalk stream river, the River Itchen, written with humour and tenderness by Ron Holloway. Ron spent 30 years as riverkeeper maintaining the wild brown trout beat of the Upper River Itchen at Martyr Worthy, and his recently published book draws on his passion for the Itchen and his riverkeeping experiences. Ron entertains with descriptions of the diverse wildlife, the people he's met and how he learned to understand and manage the river. There are recollections of 'carpet slipper' fishing when owners expected the riverbank to resemble a manicured lawn, and explanations of the hard labour of weed cutting.

He is an innate storyteller; this book is a sitting-around-the-bar-at-his-local (the Chestnut Horse in Easton) sort of read - informative yet soothing, instructive, yet gossipy.
This is a way of life captured in a series of tales that are easy to dip into, not just for anglers and naturalists, but for all of us who simply love Hampshire and want to understand its country ways.

Treasured memories
Publisher and Easton resident George Mann has also created a book that is as much an old-fashioned keepsake as a good read. He has incorporated delightful wildlife drawings by local illustrator Marilyn Bechely throughout. He also commissioned her to create a River Itchen alphabet - intertwining kingfishers and dragonflies, trout and frogs with the capital letters at the beginning of each chapter. And the inside covers are adorned by a charming map of the River Itchen at Martyr Worthy (in a style reminiscent of a childhood favourite - Winnie the Pooh's 100 acre wood).

This is a treasury, giving insight, interest and pleasure in what Ron describes as 'the fragile beauties of the chalkstreams and water meadows of Hampshire, with a hint of the scent and sounds of the seasons'.

Born at Stockbridge by the River Test, Ron describes the 'Darling Buds of May' days of his childhood when he would go quadding for eels at night with his granddad accompanied by an eight foot hazel pole with a length of cuttyhunk line wound around the top, a Hessian west of England wheat sack, a tin of garden worms, an old woolen sock and a gentleman's silk umbrella which was used to hold the caught eels.

There was the time he caught his first wild brown trout in the River Blackwater, a tributary of the Test: 'the gravel was sparkling gold and the water appeared gin clear, so I trotted my worm down the run and almost immediately caught the bottom, or so I thought until the bottom got up and moved downstream. I lifted my rod and the bend in it made my heart leap as the fish leapt out of the water still attached to my line. The fish finally came ashore and as I unhooked it, the sun caught its flanks and for a few seconds I just held it in the water and marvelled at the beauty of the animal, the brightness of its spots and its dazzling colours'.
He was poacher turned riverkeeper as, during the war, he constructed homemade fishing rods to poach from the quality beats of the Test as the war meant 'there were few active fulltime riverkeepers to deter an agile and keen youngster from fishing'.

You should have been here last Thursday is not only an entertaining read, but also includes a useful glossary of terms, a list of Ron's favourite fly fishing books, and a fascinating chapter on the history and geology of the Itchen - described by Ron as 'perhaps the best example of a chalk groundwater fed river that exists anywhere in the world'.
Overall, he captures a labour intensive, but idyllic existence and queries its future...

Diary of the River...

September: Insect life awakens. Hatches expected each day increasing as the month progresses. Timing of insect hatches similar to that of May. Weed growth slows, little or no need to cut.

Days shorten.
October: October 16 fishing season closes (legal date October 31). Harvest moons and mellow fruitfulness excellent for fishing. Evenings cool and insect activity peaks around midday and early afternoon. Autumn weed cut commences to open up and prepare the gravel for trout. Accumulated silt removed. Withered bankside vegetation tidied up. The river is 'put to bed'.

November: Spawning gravels checked and enhanced where necessary.
December: Spawning trout protected from predators and untoward human interventions on vulnerable areas. Structural repairs planned and commenced: banks; bridge building; general repairs.

January: As December - plus tree management: pruning; lopping; pollarding.

February: As December. On warm days some insect activity with large dark olives hatching out around midday. Odd trout rising to feed off the surface.

March: Days lengthen, day temperatures rise, the first signs of spring appear around the river margins. Major structural work is finalised.

April: First signs of a successful spawning season observed by the appearance of masses of young trout fry in margins of the river below known spawning areas. Fry habitat enhanced by setting twiggy branches into the riverbank to collect floating debris for extra cover and planktonic food for vulnerable trout fry. Peak grayling spawning activity occurs during the middle two weeks of the month. First weed cutting of the year.

May: May 1 fishing season opens (legal date April 1). Weed cut allowed for five days only. Insect life improves with appearance of large dark olives and medium olives and maybe some iron blue at the later end of the month on cold wet days.

June: Long warm days. Migratory birds back to the valley. River weed grows apace, further cutting may be required. Fishermen out in force requiring my attention. Bank vegetation runs wild. Bank paths kept open with regular cutting. River margin vegetation trimmed back to give reasonable access to the water for the fishermen. Insect activity at its height with every expected species. Fishing goes on into the evening with some anglers not leaving till well after dark.

July: Quieter times. Insect activity wanes during the day with some increased activity after the sun goes off the water on hot days. Weed cutting heaviest of the whole year - allotted days seldom sufficient to complete the cut. The blue-winged olive most abundant insect hatching from early morning through to late evening, sedge fly activity most evenings and good sport with this insect's imitation.

August: Dog days of summer. Little or no appreciable insect activity to interest trout during the day. Remedy: sit in the shade, read a book and drink river-cooled white Burgundy. Weed cutting. Footpaths kept open.

Available from

You should have been here last Thursday, by Ron Holloway, £25, is available from
l Alresford: Laurence
Oxley Bookshop
l Chandlers Ford:
The Arcade Bookshop
l Kings Worthy: The Rod Box
l Stockbridge: Robjents
l Twyford: The Post Office
l Reading: Sportfish
l Salisbury: Cross Keys Bookshop
And direct (plus £2 p and p) from the publisher George Mann publications, tel: 01962 779944 or email: georgemann@gmp.co.uk

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