The composer Sir Edward Elgar fished at Little Bognor. He rented a nearby cottage called ‘Brinkwells’ from May 1917 to August 1921. In June 1918 he wrote “plundered three decent fish, 2 1/2lbs the three” and at the end of his diary for 1918 he recorded in his ‘Fish Account’ for Little Bognor a total of “12 (large and small) and two returned“. During the summers of 1918 and 1919 while staying at Brinkwells, Elgar wrote four major works. It was his last creative surge and some of the music he composed was influenced by the magic of the woods and the Sussex countryside.
During the last few months of WW I Elgar could hear the heavy guns in northern France from his cottage. A few days before his fishing trip the German advance along the Matz River and subsequent counter attack at Compiegne, resulted in 65,000 deaths. Elgar was appalled and disillusioned by the suffering caused by the War and during the twelve months from August 1918, he expressed those feelings in his music. Elgar’s last major work, the cello concerto, was a lament for a lost world. Europe had changed forever. The cello concerto had an underlying tone of sadness and sorrow. The Armistice, which ended the fighting, was signed at 11:00am on 11 November 1918 at Compiegne. The final battles were therefore raging while Elgar strolled in the woods and fished.
In June 1918 Sir Edward Elgar wrote to Lady Alice Stuart Wortley, the daughter of John Millais, to tell her about his fishing trip on Saturday 15 June. It had been his first visit to the pond at Little Bognor with a fishing rod. I thought it would be good to mark the centenary of his visit by reconstructing the day.
Elgar was a keen fisherman who loved the countryside, particularly the woods around Bedham and Fittleworth. In 1918 there was only one lake at Little Bognor, to call it a pond is an injustice. A pond is something found in a suburban garden, it conjures up visions of gnomes and goldfish. Curiously, Little Bognor has two ancient stone gnomes, hidden memorials to Sir Edward and his wife. Moreover, Little Bognor was built to provide a constant flow of water to the Upper Mill. It was therefore a millpond. Nevertheless, I prefer to call it a lake.
Elgar had ordered his fishing tackle from The Army and Navy Stores and Lady Alice Stuart Wortley, his muse, sent him “a cheap knife with scissors (fisherman’s)“… “a bit of tying silk and some India rubber float caps“. An odd assortment of tackle. Was he fly fishing ? I doubt it, he refers to ‘this rough fishing‘ which implies coarse fishing with a float and worms from his garden.
Sir Edward and his wife, also Lady Alice, rose at dawn and walked to Little Bognor through the woods and across the fields. It was less than a mile, mostly downhill. He was aged 61 and Lady Alice was 70. Quite a walk at their age.
I listened to Elgar’s cello concerto as I drove towards Riverhill. I planned to walk from Brinkwells to Little Bognor but not at dawn, that would be taking things too far. There would be no float fishing or worms. Lady Alice helped with the landing net but I had no ghillie. It would be nice to catch three Trout but it was not essential, one fish would suffice.
The footpath from Brinkwells runs in a straight line towards Little Bognor through coppiced Chestnut and along the headland of a wheat field. The South Downs were shrouded in low cloud but it was hot, too hot for walking weighed down by fishing tackle. I followed the footpath south west towards the lake, relying on the landscape and GPS to find my way through the maze of modern fire breaks. Yesterday I had an excellent day at Little Bognor and I hoped that it wouldn’t overshadow the main event.
When I arrived at the lake I was disappointed to see another angler. The lake was covered in leaf debris and grass cuttings. Perhaps I should have arrived earlier. I used the same fly as yesterday and crept along the little path under the trees to a mossy hump where I could wait for the fish in comfort. The fish were active and after casting a couple of flies into the trees, I managed to connect with a small Trout just under the bank. I was a bit tense and the fish escaped. The pressure built. I lost more flies and had a couple of takes both of which I missed. I was spooking the fish so I returned to the car for a banana. The other angler departed having frightened all the Trout, causing them to take refuge under the trees on my side of the lake.
I returned to the lake and lowered a dry fly onto a cruising fish which threw the hook after a few seconds. It felt very small, probably a wild trout. I swapped the Neoprene Spider for an Iron Blue nymph which sank very slowly. I twitched it on a short line close to the bank and had a take from a sunken twig. On the next attempt a fish swirled at the fly just as I lifted it out of the water. I put the fly back and the fish swirled again but did not take. Several minutes later I saw the leader twitch and start to move so I lifted into the fish very gently. It was only ten feet away and as it took line I thought the tippet would snap. The Trout raced for the centre of the lake then dashed up and down under the trees. I tangled the rod in the bushes, got pointed several times and allowed the fish to wrap the leader around some twigs in the margin. Despite my incompetence the fish eventually slid into the net. I was surprised how small it was, I thought I had caught a three pounder but it was only half that weight. I released the fish, retrieved a previously snagged fly from the marginal ferns and moved further along the bank.
The fish had moved away from the disturbances to the shallow water in the corner of the lake. They were very spooky and disappeared after a few casts. I left the lake and drove home, content with one fish. That fish and the two I caught yesterday, replicated Sir Edward’s achievements exactly a hundred years ago.