Derbyshire’s rich heritage of angling and natural history writing
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 November 2018
Andrew Griffiths meets Jim Dixon, the former Chief Executive Officer of the Peak District National Park.
It is a sign of age when policemen start to look younger, the stranger’s reflection caught momentarily in a shop window proves to be your own, and places in town you still think of as new turn out to have been there for a long time.
Such is the case for me with the Rutland Antiques Centre in Bakewell. When I stop and reckon up, it has actually been there for a while, though I still think of it as that new place I will get around to calling into one day. But that first visit had eluded me, in large part I think because it is there right on the edge of town, opposite the Rutland Hotel, on the opposite side of the traffic island, cut off from the main business of this busy little town by its own busy little road in.
The Antiques Centre consists of neat rows of stalls (do we call them stalls?), a most pleasing café, and runs over two floors. I am no aficionado of antiques, but even I could tell there is some seriously good kit in here. Then the second floor has a tardis quality to it: walk down its surprising length, along its gently creaking floors, and the stands of vintage clothes and arrangements of your grandmother’s gardening tools could dress the set of a lavish Sunday evening ‘Miss Marple’, and have you wistfully dreaming of not just another life but of another day to live it, too.
I was here to meet Jim Dixon. Jim has an antiquarian book business that specialises in angling and fieldsports. If the name ‘Jim Dixon’ sounds familiar to readers of Derbyshire Life, then you might know him as the ‘bloke who ran the Park’ – Jim was Chief Executive Officer of the Peak District National Park for 11 years – from 2003 to 2014. If the name doesn’t sound familiar then perhaps we do him a disservice: Jim’s time as Park boss saw him secure the lion’s share of the funding for the Moors for the Future Partnership, and so secure the restoration of the most pollution-damaged moorland in the world. He also oversaw the expansion of the trails network, which included the opening of the Monsal Trail in 2011.
Jim left the National Park three years ago to ‘pursue new interests’, of which this antiquarian book business is one.
‘I have an absolute passion for natural history writing,’ says Jim, as I step between the glass cabinets of gleaming antique silver and into the more sedate, book-lined cubby-hole of a gentleman’s study. ‘It is something I have always been very interested in. When I was a kid, I used to cycle to Selborne, and I learned all about Gilbert White. And when I went through my scientific and academic career I was always very aware of the heritage of natural history writing. People like Charles Darwin, Joseph Banks, and in the modern era, Richard Jefferies and W H Hudson.’
Jim has always been surrounded by books. To the working scientist, books tend to be tools containing essential reference material rather than objects of beauty and curiosity in their own right, but an early career in the RSPB and the Civil Service gave him access to some of the best natural history libraries around.
‘You could always get whatever you wanted,’ says Jim. No better environment to nurture the young bibliophile then, but it was when he came to the Peak District that his passion for the classics really took off.
‘One of the things that is really interesting, is that if you go a little bit beyond Gilbert White, the greatest natural history writers were fieldsports writers,’ says Jim. ‘It was people like Humphry Davy, it was Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton, and then, when I moved to the Peak District – wow! This was the kid in the sweetie shop! I could go fishing on Izaak Walton’s river!’
To hear these names trip off the tongue of a fly fishing enthusiast like Jim is not unusual – they do tend to be a reverential lot when it comes to the history and tradition of their sport. What is unusual though, is to have someone in front of you talking like this while gesturing to early editions of these authors, standing in neat rows on shelves in front of him.
Collections like the one Jim has put together are usually the preserve of a very few specialist book dealers in other parts of the country. In fact, in just three years, in this small corner of Bakewell, Jim has put together one of the best collections in the UK, and, with regards to Izaak Walton’s classic The Compleat Angler, his is in the top five collections in the world.
‘I invested some time collecting these books, and I’ve now got about 30 Compleat Anglers,’ Jim tells me, taking an 1835 third edition of the John Major (no, not that one, the publisher) Compleat Angler from the shelf. He flicks through the pages then settles on an illustration of anglers Walton and Cotton relaxing beside the Dove. Then flicks again and it is the tiny Pike Pool, but where the limestone ‘pike’ is looking very grand and at the hand of the illustrator has taken on the proportions of the Eiffel Tower. (Never trust an artist.) I instantly recognised both images, which have become iconic in the angling world.
I must at this point declare an interest. I am a keen fly fisher myself (endearing understatement) and I have fished in the footsteps of Izaak Walton on the River Dove, and have written many articles about it, one or two of which have appeared in Derbyshire Life.
Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler was first published in 1653 and has seldom been out of print. It has the rare distinction of being the only book on angling that practically everybody has heard of. For anglers, particularly for fly fishers, it is considered to mark the birth of modern fly fishing, as described by Walton’s collaborator Charles Cotton, detailing his fishing exploits here on the River Dove.
Cotton built a fishing house in honour of his friend Walton which still stands and can be seen today, their entwined initials carved above its door with the date ‘1674’. This is the birthplace – ‘the crucible’ as Jim puts it – of modern fly fishing in the world, never mind just England. It has always been a source of frustration to me that we do not make more of this in the Peak District, and I am delighted to see Jim Dixon finally doing something about it.
‘We’ve got one of the most important books ever written in the English language, one of the most important science books, one of the most important fieldsports books,’ says Jim. ‘Walton wrote about the natural history of the trout in the natural rivers. And he didn’t really write about the angling per se – in fact some people are quite critical of his angling writing. But the really important thing is that he wrote about the quarry species. He wrote about the fish, and the river.’
Americans, though, are not so slow to appreciate Walton. The Izaak Walton League in the USA is a major conservation body whose remit and influence goes far beyond fishing. ‘I was very struck when I went to James Cummins bookstore in New York, one of the world’s best traditional, antiquarian bookshops, that they have got over 100 editions of our book, the Compleat Angler,’ says Jim. ‘I thought: Bakewell can do better than that!’
There is more to natural history writing about the Peak District than Izaak Walton alone: the ubiquity of his work amongst the educated classes helped to spawn many others. The great estates used to be patrons of writers and their libraries published books, too. For example Haddon Hall published one of the great fly fishing classics in 1899, written by Sir Edward Grey, who would go on to serve as Foreign Secretary and take us into the First World War.
‘Here we are, four miles from Haddon, at the Rutland Arms Antiques Centre – it could not be more authentic,’ says Jim. ‘I was lucky enough to go to the Beaverkill River in the Catskill mountains of the States, and the Beaverkill riverkeeper first popularised dry fly fishing over there,’ says Jim. ‘That river is now renowned across the States. They call it “America’s stream”. Why don’t we have: “England’s stream”? Why don’t we celebrate the beauty of the landscape, the glorious Dove Valley, the Lathkill, the Wye and the Derwent?’
We certainly have plenty to shout about in the region when it comes to our natural history literary heritage, and it is has always been a puzzle to me why more hasn’t been made of it.
Perhaps it is up to anglers to do it for ourselves. And if we are going to start to shout, then there is no better place than Bakewell to begin making the noise. This busy little town with its busy roads, but at its heart the beautiful River Wye, which can be busy too, with its ducks, playing children, fish grown fat on tourists’ chips, and lovers’ everlasting declarations left clasped to its bridge.
But walk up or down stream from all this and in just a few minutes you have only the bedrock cool of the limestone river, the sharp clarity of its water, the soft flow of its trailing weed, the wagtails, the kingfishers’ flash, and the fish – always the fish, the steady set of wild trout in the flow of the stream. Why, Walton and Cotton could almost be here. England’s river indeed.