Ellie Tennant has been scouring the shelves of secondhand bookshops in search of vintage tomes.... This month she came across 'The Compleat Angler' by Izaak Walton, first published in 1653.
As spring creeps in and tiny, bright green leaves appear on the willow tree in our cottage garden, I find myself longing for long, lazy summer days ‘messing about on the river’. The Thames winds sleepily around our village and, at this time of year, glittering dragon flies and kingfishers flit and dance across the sparkling, deep waters. Nothing beats a day spent lounging on a picnic blanket, soaking up the sunshine, watching the wildlife through the long grasses and reeds.
Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler is the perfect book to dip into on such a day. An exploration of the art and spirit of fishing in prose and verse, it’s also a rich celebration of riverside life and nature and is the second-most reprinted book in English after the King James Bible.
The book takes the form of conversations between Piscator (Fisherman) and Venator (Hunter) as they travel north of London through the valley of the river Lea, with the older Piscator teaching young Venator how to become an angler.
Their long hours spent in a riverside meadow ‘chequered with water-lilies and lady smocks’, are days of stillness, observation, wildlife and simple pleasures.
Walton seems to pity men who choose the pursuit of money over the enjoyment of life’s simple joys.
‘Men that are taken to be grave, because Nature hath made them of a sowre complexion, money-getting-men, men that spend all their time first in getting, and next in anxious care to keep it; men that are condemned to be rich, and then always busie or discontented: for these poor-rich-men, we Anglers pity them perfectly, and stand in no need to borrow their thoughts to think ourselves so happy.’ – The Compleat Angler.
Piscator concurs that if a man can’t take the time to stop and enjoy the present moment, soaking up nature’s beauty, then material wealth is of no use.
‘As I thus sat, joying in my happy condition, and pitying this poor rich man that owned this and many other pleasant groves and meadows about me, I did thankfully remember…for anglers and meek quiet-spirited men are free from those high, restless thoughts, which corrode the sweets of life.’ – The Compleat Angler.
The river itself is portrayed as a place to retreat to – a setting where man can find contentment and respite in water-side nature.
‘I will walk the meadows, by some gliding stream, and there contemplate the lilies that take no care.’ – The Compleat Angler.
My vintage Penguin edition has the added bonus of beautiful wood engravings by Gertrude Hermes, showing fish and men fishing or dining in taverns. I spotted these engravings – lovingly blown up, printed and framed – on the wall of the cosy Welsh fisherman’s cottage owned by fforest founder, Sian Tucker and her partner James Lynch when I shot their home for a book recently, and thought they looked splendid in such a simple yet stylish setting.
One theme that stays with me, long after reading The Compleat Angler, is the power of water. This element is portrayed as revitalising – the giver of life itself.
‘The water is more productive than the earth. Nay, the earth hath no fruitfulness without showers or dews; for all the herbs, and flowers, and fruit, are produced and thrive by the water…’ – The Compleat Angler.
As I slip from a grassy bank or rowing boat into the clear river water for a cooling dip on a hot summer’s day, the magical ability of water to refresh and revive washes over me all over again. For what could be sweeter than a swim beneath the willows?
The Compleat Angler, by Izaak Walton, published in 1653. (My edition: 1939 Penguin reprint with wood engravings by artist Gertrude Hermes).