Jon Berry - A Train to Catch

Medlar Press £20
ISBN 978-1-907110-31-3

Two hundred years ago, few people had ever been more than fifty miles from home. Traveling to Scotland from London was enough of an adventure that Francis Francis, the angling editor of The Field, referred to catching a salmon as being like "killing a gorilla". The fastest method of travel was a stagecoach, the best of which averaged ten miles per hour and the poor condition of the roads meant that it frequently took all day to get to Oxford. Then the railways came along and within a generation journey times (if you excluded getting to and from the station) dropped to near enough what we would expect today. The economy boomed and thousands of miles of track were laid to service it, in the process creating a new idea - leisure. Mechanisation and better transport meant that working conditions improved and as fishermen found the time to travel more widely, the railway companies, encouraged by The Fishing Gazette, started to offer cut price travel to club members. It wasn't long before guides began to be published, notably Greville Fennell's The Rail and the Rod, which gave literally pitch-by-pitch descriptions of the waters which could be reached using London's railways.

In the 1870s the railway hadn't been around long enough for anyone to imagine that it wouldn't last forever and Fennell was confident enough to list the names of the station masters at each halt, but eighty years later, very different economic times resulted in the Beeching report, which slashed the rural network in an attempt to save an industry from collapse.

A Train to Catch is an imaginative and thoroughly readable attempt to travel around Britain with the mindset of a nineteenth century angler. Jon Berry is an accomplished writer best known for his history of barbel fishing, A Can of Worms, so this is a new venture for him, the result being one of the most pleasing and original books about fishing that I have read in a long time. The journeys that Jon made took place over a period of three years and he took them just as the Edwardians and Victorians would have done, in his holidays. Given that this is a book which is as much about the journey as the arrival, much of the interest lies in how Jon ended up reaching his destinations (all of which had stations pre-Beeching) and the folk he travelled with, not to mention the guest-houses he stayed in.

Half the charm of A Train to Catch is tied up with the sheer variety of fishing that ends up getting done, ranging from shark angling at Looe to perch at Marlow, spiced with a mini Grand Tour of Scotland and a quest for Broads pike. I was vaguely reminded of Eric Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, which is a similarly delightful book and leaves you with the same sense of wonderment at why the author went there and what he achieved, apart from leaving his readers a wonderful story, but then maybe the journey is the reward.

A Train to Catch is potentially the angling book of the year and I would be disappointed if it doesn't pick up some kind of award, because it is engrossing, original and they truly do not come up with this kind of stuff more than once in a blue moon.

Review 1st February 2012