THE MYSTICAL LANDSCAPE
Of course, it’s completely impossible to capture the entire story in a few words, not least because it extends back to a time when the entire region was a warm tropical sea, more than 80 million years ago.
On the other hand, we wanted to mention just a few passing ‘myths and legends’, just for the sake of interest…so that perhaps more people can appreciate the river, its landscape and not least, its unique atmosphere.
At Paul Witcher Productions, we are sure that readers will have many more ‘Myths and Legends’ to recount, and we very much welcome your stories, so please feel free to send them to us, via the email address on our ‘Contacts’ page.
In no particular order, these are just some of the stories about this mystical place which we hope you will enjoy…
The Pagan God Woden
Anglo-Saxon tribes worshipped the God Woden up until the 8th and 9th centuries and folklore has it that he lies asleep under one of the ancient burial mounds, over-looking the Vale of Pewsey….and therefore the source of the Hampshire Avon.
Woden has a day of the week named after him, Woden’s Day, hence Wednesday. Many of the place names in Wiltshire are attributed to his worship, like Wansdyke and Wednesbury for instance.
This landscape is dotted with burial mounds which are a testament to the people who lived and died, possibly in battle, all those years ago. And whatever your beliefs, it’s always fascinating to know that when we watch the sun set over the Hampshire Avon, people from an ancient civilization might have been looking at the same sight thousands of years ago, with religious awe.
Interestingly, Wednesday seems to have been our most successful day for fishing, if you take our angling diaries as anything to go by…but then again, that has probably more to do with it being mid-week, when there are fewer anglers around to frighten the fish…
…or maybe something a little more mystical?
From Tropical Seas to Iced Tundra
When we think of the valley of the Hampshire Avon these days, we might think of a temperate English climate and rolling green hillsides, with pastures, crops and the occasional rude interruption of road noise in the distance.
But this is only the blink of an eye in the geological timeframe. In the Upper Cretaceous period, about 80 million years ago, give or take a few million, this entire region was a vast tropical sea, swarming with life. The fact that we have little or no understanding of that life, other than the fossil records, leaves only our imagination to wonder how it might have looked.
Can we possibly imagine how many changes we would have seen in this extraordinary timescale?
Here’s another more amazing thought: If we flip our limited understanding ahead, to only 50,000 years ago, the woolly rhinoceros was roaming around in exactly same place, but on frozen tundra, at the tail end of an ice age. And as late as ten thousand years ago, it was a forested landscape, when wolves howled at the moon and wild boar were hunted with spears and arrows.
So, whilst we might believe that we understand the Hampshire Avon and its place in history, a glimpse into the past gives us a totally different perspective on the passage of time.
The Mystery of Crop Circles
Somewhere in the Vale of Pewsey is the source of the river. That much we understand. But there are some odd things that happen around this area that we do not understand at all.
Perhaps the most bizarre of these is the phenomenon that we all know as Crop Circles.
For some reason (about which we cannot even begin to postulate) the Vale is renowned as the Crop Circle centre of the world. And on those rolling hills, above the Hampshire Avon there have been some of the most beautiful and complex examples ever formed and then photographed.
How are they formed? The answer to this question is the Holy Grail for all observers of so-called ‘super natural’ phenomena around the globe. Interestingly, ‘true’ crop circles (and by ‘true’, we mean those that have not obviously been stomped out with a stick in rudimentary fashion by drunk farm lads, after a night out at the pub), seem to have several common factors.
For what its worth, the following is a summary of those common factors. Please remember, we are not scientists, just observers of other peoples’ writings, and these points are all readily available on the web:
Firstly, they seem to appear extremely quickly, often only noticed by their appearance overnight. Secondly, the finest examples are unbelievably complex, with a mathematical precision to their design and dimensions. Thirdly, the crops are not crushed at the base, but ‘bent’, showing their stem nodes ‘blown out’, also with vertically split stems above those. Fourth, the soil within the crop circles show tiny (15-50 micron diameter) magnetized iron spheres scattered around in a linear fashion. Finally, they show no tracks by machine or footfall into and out of the field of crops where they were initially formed.
Interestingly, Crop Circles have been studied by no less a body of brainpower than M.I.T. (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Students of M.I.T. are widely regarded as the best of the best, in terms of their intelligence and capacity to advance science and technology into the future.
Some of them were tasked with creating their own crop circle in front of TV cameras for a documentary which has since been shown all around the world.
In short, they failed…’kinda’…as Americans like to say. Yes, they managed to make a decent circle, but it wasn’t anything more than that, just a circle by squishing down the crops with a stick and a rope, breaking the stems. Also, they did manage to bend the crops and burst their nodes, using microwaves, but only after they had already made the circle and only in a few ‘samples’. They even managed to create a spray of magnetized iron spheres, using a small bomb in the middle. And yes, they managed to do it in all in one night. But it wasn’t anything like the wonderful Crop Circles that we find in the Vale of Pewsey.
Maybe they are messages from extra-terrestrial life forms, as some people think, or perhaps an as-yet-unknown meteorological effect. The fact is, nobody knows.
Sometimes, as a casual observer of nature, in all its amazing diversity, isn’t it wonderful to be completely and utterly mystified?
Not all the legends of the river are myths. Some of them are real people, who have helped to shape the history of the place, notably by their skill as fishermen, who seemed to have a magical ability to catch fish, when all around, mere mortals watched quietly, scratching their heads and wondering what they were doing wrong.
We thought long and hard about these characters, before coming to the infinitely arguable conclusion that, in the pantheon of Hampshire Avon legends there are two figures who sit proudly above all others. These are: F.W.K. Wallis and Frank Sawyer, for entirely different reasons.
The case in support of our argument is firstly, that both of them were colossal figures of their time, before the advent of modern media.
In Frank Sawyer’s case, as a river keeper on the upper Hampshire Avon in post-war England, he was able to translate his observations of the river and the behaviour of trout and grayling into practical and brilliant writings that anyone could understand… and use to their own advantage with a fly rod in hand.
His writings about nymph fishing (including ‘Nymphs and the Trout’) were almost sacrilegious to the purists, to whom the ‘only’ way to catch trout was with a dry fly, fished upstream, of course. But now his fly patterns and methods are emulated all around the world.
So, what about G.E.M. Skues, you may be asking? George Edward MacKenzie Skues is often regarded as the grandfather of nymph fishing and there is no question that he was a genius in his own right. But he plied his trade on the River Itchen, the sister of the Hampshire Avon, so he must be excluded from this list of legends. Equally, it must be fair to say that the fly patterns that Frank Sawyer invented really do carry his legacy into an entirely different scale of fame.
So, on these points, we rest our case for his inclusion as a true legend of the Hampshire Avon.
FWK Wallis has a place in history that is rather more difficult to define, partly because he wasn’t much of an author, therefore he left fewer memories behind. But as a coarse angler and barbel fishing ‘expert’, he laid the foundations for a new and exciting era for the Hampshire Avon.
His name has been attributed to the devilishly tricky ‘Wallis Cast’ using a centre pin reel to throw a long line, but it has to be said that he didn’t actually invent the method and nor did he claim to. Salmon fishermen had been using centre pin reels for spinning, long before FWK was born and it was known, even in his day as the Nottingham Cast.
But he was an astonishing exponent of the art, giving demonstrations of his skill and even entering competitions, in which of course, he excelled. He won an International Casting Tournament in 1904, in the freestyle float casting event, with an amazing 235 feet. (Next time you slide a light float onto your line, bear this in mind, because it really is almost unbelievable).
Perhaps his defining moment was the capture of a 14lbs 6oz barbel in 1937, from the equally legendary Royalty Fishery and most appropriately from one of the most famous swims on the Hampshire Avon, the Railway Pool. Even in these modern days of high protein baiting regimes, when fish are becoming ever fatter and heavier, FWK’s fish would have been a giant. It’s worth noting that another skilled angler by the name of Aylmer Tryon caught one of the same weight, a couple of years before FWK made his mark. Also, that an even bigger fish, of no less than 16 pounds had been caught by a salmon fisherman on a spun dace.
Having said this, FWK strode in seven-league boots along the banks of the Hampshire Avon. He was a celebrity and the Dick Walker of pre-war England, to such an extent that Hardy Bros of Alnwick, makers of the finest fishing tackle in the world, were forced to take notice. The impish and lovely Hardy FWK Wallis Avon rod was named after him, as was the Hardy Wallis centre pin.
FWK Wallis was obviously a skilful angler and brilliant caster, so to our way of thinking, he thoroughly deserves his place on our list.
Of the many other wonderful anglers who have fished the Hampshire Avon, there are several who could take the place of Frank Sawyer and FWK Wallis, for a variety of reasons. Richard Walker, Fred J Taylor, Bernard Venables and Peter Stone are just a few names that spring readily to mind. Some of them are surely more famous than FWK Wallis and Frank Sawyer. Certainly, each of them made their own indelible footprint on the river bank.
Richard Walker fishing the Avon
But should they really be remembered as Hampshire Avon Anglers, or as famous anglers who became established elsewhere? That’s a tough question and the same could possibly be said of FWK (but not of Frank Sawyer).
To this point, we should also mention that arch dream-weaver Chris Yates and his outright brilliance with a pen, including the ‘The Deepening Pool’, creating images in our minds possibly second to none.
Now here’s the claim of the heart over the head: The status of a legend develops a beautiful patina over the slow passage of time. Rather like Brian Lara in the sport of cricket. A modern day player, some may say that Lara is the most exciting player of any generation, scoring a World Record of 501 runs not out, in a single innings. But if you ask any cricket fan the question: Who is the greatest cricketing legend of all time? The common answer will be Sir Garfield Sobers.
So the aura of a legend, we suggest, matures with time. Rather like the Hampshire Avon itself, there are no shortcuts in history.