In 1961 Dennis Watkins-Pitchford, using the pseudonym ‘BB’, wrote “The White Road Westwards” and I am lucky enough to have a lovely first edition. The book tells of his journey, 60 years ago in May-July 1960, to Lands’ End.
In late May he stayed briefly in the Savernake Forest and then, on 3 June, continued his journey via Selborne, Dorchester, Taunton, Ivybridge and Liskeard, regularly stopping overnight along the route to Lands’ End. He returned via the North Cornwall and Devon coast. BB used ‘Winston’ his tilt Series II Landrover and his new white ‘Willerby Heron’ caravan. BB was a naturalist and countryman, he despised the trippers in their “vulgar, chromium-plated motor coaches“. The book was one of a series about the wildlife and scenery that he encountered on his journeys around the UK. My journey would start further east and would not reach Lands’ End. My destination was Dartmoor and I would focus on fishing.
I considered taking the Defender but decided that it would be enough of an adventure without dodgy electrics and worrying noises. I loaded up the boring, reliable motorway cruiser with tackle and headed west. I took BB’s book with me.
River Itchen – 18 June
I made a short detour at the start of my journey to stock up with sausage rolls and cake from the farm shop, all neatly wrapped in brown paper. No plastic. I would need the calories on such a long day. The road westwards was black and wet not chalky. The fields of the South Downs, where I played as a child, had not changed much since BB’s holiday.
A warning of thunderstorms had accompanied the usual non-committal weather forecast but I had taken no heed. I thought a shower-proof Barbour jacket would suffice. I arrived at lunchtime and admired the silky green river beside the track as I drove to the top Beat. The trees and bushes had been washed clean by overnight rain and a big Willow had been toppled by the gale force winds earlier in the week. The weed cut had been completed and the cuttings swept away. There was no debris on the surface of the water and a lot of the Ranunculus in the carrier had gone. Everything looked perfect.
I felt obliged to use the silk line, it deserved a fair trial. As I was setting up my rod a Trout rose in the fast water just above the bridge. I walked up the true right bank to the little corrugated iron hut, searching for fish. The swirling pool at the top of the Beat looked good and a fish drifted towards cover at the top of the carrier. It didn’t respond to my fly other than to hide under a bush. I returned to the start of the Beat and peered into the first pool. Several large fish were cruising in the deep water below a midstream riffle, revealing themselves when they passed over a patch of chalk. I fished hard for an hour, when the thunder and heavy rain started I ignored it. A shower-proof Barbour was insufficient and I quickly became soaked. My lucky fishing hat became heavier as the rain collected in the crown. I retreated underneath a tree and waited, bright red umbrella in hand, for the rain to stop. It lasted an hour and when I finally emerged the long grass soaked me to the waist.
I sat in the car, had lunch and felt restored. Wet but restored. There’s nothing worse than putting on a cold wet jacket but like a wetsuit, it soon warmed up. I crept along the open left bank, peering over the marginal cover, looking for targets. I found a couple of good Trout under my bank in an eddy below a bank of chalk. The faster water passed over their heads and they occasionally shifted position to intercept food as it fell. Each time I changed the fly I expected a thump on the rod but the fish sidled away, sometimes taking a loop downstream, to return a few minutes later.
Thunder clouds gathered, the water coloured a little and light rain fell. I’d steamed myself almost dry and I wanted to avoid another soaking. Moreover, the raindrops on the surface of the water meant I could no longer see the fish. I left earlier than planned to continue the journey westwards. The track had deep puddles but the chalky splashes were washed off by the biblical storms that persisted through Dorchester and Bridport until I reached Tavistock. BB never seemed to get wet.