Bakewell: Celebrating Ogden’s Day in the town where dry fly fishing began
PUBLISHED: 00:00 21 August 2015 | UPDATED: 20:25 23 October 2015
Andrew Griffiths joins in the commemoration of an unsung Derbyshire hero and champions the county’s place in the history of fly fishing
Fly fishers have a reputation for being an eccentric lot, and nothing that happened in Bakewell on 5th June 2015 did anything to dispel that notion.
The day marked the 150th anniversary of the day Derbyshire angler James Ogden cast the first dry fly onto the River Wye, and ever since that day the famous Haddon Estate fishery has had a dry fly only rule on its rivers – the first river in the world to introduce such a fly fishing technique, and one of the few remaining rivers in England still to preserve its exclusivity.
James who? You might ask, with some justification. But in local fly fishing circles, James Ogden is something of an unsung Derbyshire hero; he is the first person anywhere in the world to have been recorded using a floating artificial dry fly.
Perhaps a brief explanation is required for the uninitiated. Fly fishing has two main schools of thought: dry fly fishing, and wet fly fishing. In dry fly fishing, the artificial fly sits right on top of the water, and if you are to catch your fish, your fly has to entice it to ‘rise’.
In wet fly, the angler’s fly is designed to sink, and the fish is tempted and caught beneath the surface. Now this might seem to you a small thing, arcane even, but to fly fishers, passions can run high over the different approaches – indeed, duels have been fought over less.
In truth, neither method is ‘better’ than the other, but it is fair to say that dry fly is the more classical approach, and the image of the gentleman angler casting a dry fly to a rising trout on a long summer evening is right up there with warm beer and cricket on the village green as many people’s idea of quintessential ‘Englishness’.
England is known around the world as the home of dry fly fishing, but Ogden is seldom credited as its chief innovator. This honour is usually bestowed upon Hampshire chalk stream angler Frederic Halford, who first published his book on the subject in 1886 – this despite the fact that James Ogden is recorded as having cast his dry fly onto the Wye at Bakewell in Derbyshire in 1865 – more than 20 years before Halford’s record was published. So if England is the home of dry fly fishing, then Derbyshire is its true hearth.
Bakewell fly fishing historian and keen angler Richard Ward explains why history has not been kind to Ogden.
‘It is ever so simple to understand,’ Richard tells me, as we stand on the banks of the Wye. ‘The world is London centric, and so it was then. You had more people down there who were educated and could write and communicate.
‘Ogden was a self educated man, who wrote only one very slim book, but all the great volumes were written by people from London,’ he continues. ‘They would use the railways to get to the nearest chalk streams, which were in Hampshire, and they ended up getting the lion’s share of the publicity.’
The history of fly fishing, it seems, like that of empires, is written by the winners. But Richard would disagree with the generally held view that Halford is the ‘Father of modern dry fly fishing’.
‘If Halford was anything he was the grandson of fly fishing,’ he declares.
There are stirrings in Derbyshire within the fishing community. It is time, they think, that James Ogden got the attention he deserves, and this, the 150th anniversary of that first cast of the artificial dry fly onto the River Wye, was as good a time as any to make a stand.
‘His light has been under a bushel for long enough,’ says Richard, firmly.
With this in mind, local historian Richard Ward, Head Riverkeeper on the Haddon Estate, Warren Slaney, and Assistant Riverkeeper Jan Hobot decided to re-enact that momentous day in 1865.
James Ogden was an expert angler from Matlock, Derbyshire. He was also a successful businessman and entrepreneur. He first began to experiment with his ‘floating flies’ in 1839, but also invented a number of innovative products for anglers, including a creel that was strong enough for a man to sit on, a folding landing net, and an 8ft cane rod which could cast further than rods of the day which tended to be anything up to 16ft long. Ogden called his rod ‘Multum in Parvo’, meaning ‘much in little’.
Ogden moved to Cheltenham during the 1850s to set up his fishing tackle business, but often returned to Derbyshire and his favourite River Wye to fish. It was on one such visit that Ogden was approached by the Duke’s Steward on the Haddon Estate, Robert Nesfield.
In those days, during the mayfly season, people would fish for the trout using live insects as bait, and the steward was concerned that too many fish were being killed. Would Ogden’s artificial floating flies catch enough fish to provide sufficient sport to keep the anglers satisfied, but not kill so many fish?
‘Yes, my flies will catch fish,’ said Ogden.
‘Prove it,’ said the steward – or words to that effect.
This was what Ogden set out to do.
And so it was that Richard Ward found himself 150 years later, on 5th June 2015, in costume, re-enacting James Ogden’s historic 1865 day of breakfast at the Peacock Hotel at Rowsley, before taking a horse and carriage into Bakewell to fish his artificial fly before a sceptical crowd of villagers – and despite their mocking go on to confound them all and catch his trout.
It is never easy catching a fish to order, still less in front of an audience, and the task was made even more difficult because Richard was fishing with one of Ogden’s ‘Multum in Parvo’ rods dating from the 1870s.
There was much ‘Ooohing’ and ‘Ahhing’ from the crowd lining the bridge in Bakewell town centre as a succession of trout eyed Richard’s floating fly then thought better of it and swam away. But fortunately, one fish in the river had enough sense of occasion to fall for it and take the fly, then came in for a quick photograph before being released on its way.
The crowd cheered and waved their hats, and Assistant Riverkeeper Jan Hobot uncorked a bottle of champagne and let the bubbles spray and fall over the bridge to join those of the River Wye.
Now, as a justifiably proud Richard Ward posed for the cameras with his fish, Ogden’s Day had been duly marked.
This had all been great fun, but there was a lot more than some celebration of an arcane tradition going on here. The introduction of the artificial dry fly was in its day a conservation measure – the steward was concerned that too many fish were being killed fishing with a real fly as bait.
But today, remaining as one of the few dry fly only rivers in England brings with it its own conservation challenges. However, the story of managing the Haddon Hall fishery – one of the most famous fly fishing rivers in the world – is for a future issue of Derbyshire Life when I will go fishing with Head Riverkeeper Warren Slaney. For the moment I can reflect on a splendid morning in Bakewell and the pleasures and challenges of dry fly fishing, that all started with a single cast of his new fangled artificial floating fly by James Ogden, 150 years ago.
Could Ogden’s fishing rod have been found?
Four years ago a man climbed the stone steps into Bakewell Fly Fishing Shop in Hebden Court and asked owner Peter Arfield if he would be interested in buying an old, wooden fishing rod. Nothing unusual in this, it happens all the time, and the rod in question is usually nothing spectacular and may be worth a few tens of pounds at most. But something about this rod caught Peter’s eye – not least, the name ‘Ogden’ engraved on the handle.
The rod was undoubtedly made by Ogden – further investigation dated it prior to 1870 – it was one of the older, longer rods Ogden used to make before inventing his 8ft long ‘Multum in Parvo’ – the rod Richard Ward cast to commemorate the day. But could this actually have been Ogden’s own rod, the one he used on that historic day in 1865? It has a distinctive handle, which suggests it was something special when it was made.
When Tim Wonnacott’s BBC TV show, ‘The Great Antiques Map of Britain’ came to Bakewell in March this year, he featured Peter Arfield and his rod. Wonnacott consulted a specialist antique fishing tackle dealer, who valued the rod around £100 but if it could be proven that it was Ogden’s own rod, and that he used it to cast that first dry fly, then such would be its place in fly fishing history that it could fetch many thousands of pounds – which just goes to show how much a good story can be worth!
Such things can be difficult if not impossible to prove. But there is one fact that at least adds weight to the theory: the gentleman who came in with the rod was the grandson of a luminary in a now defunct Derbyshire fishing club. This particular rod had been handed down for generations to any newly appointed Chair of the club, for ceremonial purposes.
Now why would a rod have such importance in a Derbyshire angling club that to possess it was considered to be an honour of holding the office? What gave it such significance? It at least presents us with the tantalising prospect that it might just have been Ogden’s own rod, the very rod he used to cast that first artificial fly 150 years ago – a fly that first landed on the River Wye at Bakewell but then went on to soar again, and land on every other fly fishing water in the world that now practices the dry fly!