A pile of oyster shells on Whitstable beach, Kent
Fishing derives from one of mankind's oldest hunting activities. Ancient settlements tended to congregate around coasts and estuaries where food from hunting and gathering could be supplemented by food from the sea. Archeological study of ancient cave settlements often reveal huge numbers of discarded shells from shellfish. Go to Kent's Cavern at Torquay in Devon, to see reconstructions of a stone age settlement where people lived off the sea in this way. Sea shells are much in evidence, and not just as the remains of ancient meals; guides demonstrate the use of shell lamps, large shells holding a supply of animal fat which is burnt to provide illumination in dark caves. With fish providing food and light, fishing played a fundamental role in human life and survival for millennia. Angling as a modern recreation, divorced from the dictates of survival, began during the years of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For the first time in history an urban population came to outnumber a rural population. In reaction to this unprecedented shift towards living in towns and cities, nature and rural life came to be idealised. Parks and gardens were artfully created to appear as natural landscapes. The rise of angling was an aspect of what John Lowerson of the University of Sussex calls this "popular arcadianism".
Fishing on the River Annan
In many ways the culture of modern angling is based on a mid-seventeenth century book called The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton. This book contains the reflections of a staunch royalist who had faced defeat for his side in the English Civil War. Following the war and the execution of Charles I, Walton had to keep a low profile in a London dominated by Cromwell and Parliament. Angling provided a peaceful escape from the stresses of life in a hostile city. By the nineteenth century, Walton had become a guide for many other frustrated city dwellers looking for peace. The Compleat Angler described the refreshment of body and soul provided by a long visit to a peaceful world of water and greenery. This image set angling apart from the image of other field sports such as fox hunting or shooting. Angling was also set apart from other field sports by its wide social appeal. The working class were to adopt angling as one of their favourite pastimes - a fact which in years to come would cause a few problems for the more extreme opponents of field sports in the Labour Party. Inevitably there was a degree of social division to separate aristocratic fishermen from the rest, expressed in the divide between "game" fishing, in clear waters for salmon, sea trout, trout and grayling - and "coarse" fishing, aiming to catch bottom-feeding fish in slow rivers and streams. But it was as a working class sport that angling really took off, becoming part of a social scene based on the local pub. Most pubs had an affiliated angling club. These organisations were similar, in fact, to working class benefit societies, since most organised a fund for members in financial difficulty. The coming of railways from the 1850s allowed town and city workers to travel easily into the countryside in search of fishing. In the 1890s John Lowerson describes Sheffield as running 120 trains for 40,000 anglers in the main season (Sport In Britain ed Tony Mason P20). Extended fishing weekends became in effect the first major working class package holiday. This mass experience of working class fishing lent itself naturally to the establishing of competition, and in 1903 the National Federation of Anglers was set up to administer the sport of angling. Being a sport of working people, angling from the beginning largely avoided acrimonious disputes over amateur and professional status which bedeviled other sports.
Bewl Water Reservoir, Kent
Fishing re-emerged following World War One much as it had been before, but was changed fundamentally by the upheaval of World War Two. Pubs went into decline, and the clubs based on them suffered similarly. Group holidays also became gradually less popular, which changed the ethos of fishing. This change was driven by a switch from mass travel on trains to the dominance of individual and family travel in cars. There was a move away from loyalty to place or club, to a more business-like style of fishing. Perhaps the best demonstration of fishing in its new guise is reservoir fishing. In the inter-war years there were around 150 major still water fishing locations in England. The building of reservoirs increased this to 1000 in the years following the war. On a reservoir people can fish by the day enjoying a predictable catch from a managed stock. This is mass market fishing - democratic, dependable, and designed around an independent consumer.
But if resevoir fishing illustrates modern fishing it is also a reminder of fishing's roots in idealised nature. Reservoir fisherman do their fishing in an artificially created, carefully managed landscape that is nevertheless naturalistic in appearance. Perhaps these huge landscaped reservoirs are the ultimate expression in angling terms of Walton's sixteenth century arcadian fantasy. By the mid 1980s, according to Lowerson there were over 700,000 reservoir anglers. Since then according to the Household Survey of 2002, the popularity of angling has remained fairly constant, with 6% of people saying that they go fishing at least once a year. Fishing is still seen as an escape from urban living into an idealised lost rural landscape. The peace of the surroundings is enhanced by the experience of fishing itself which in its quiet concentration on the float can be, in effect, a form of meditation.