John Bailey: Captain Lloyd’s old style river management

John Bailey and Harry Waye Barker at Taverham Mill Picture: John Bailey

John Bailey and Harry Waye Barker at Taverham Mill Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

Taverham Mill is well worth a visit whether you are an angler or not.

True, there is good fishing on stills and the river Wensum there, but the wetland walks are enchanting and there is even one that is dog friendly. Harry Waye Barker and his colleagues are welcoming and knowledgeable and any questions you have later over a coffee in the lodge are bound to be answered.

As for me, I love to pop in from time to time and last Sunday I was blown away by a collection of diaries and shooting and game books on display. Taken together they provided an in-depth look at the area from around 1914 to 1960, especially its fish, flora and fauna. They were all compiled by a certain Captain LW Lloyd, evidently a sporting gentleman of some note in mid-Norfolk a century ago. There were some breaks in his records, notably the war years, but there was enough there to build quite a picture of how the Wensum once was and how the valley was managed.

I'll confess at once that as a one-time professional historian, I know this piece is somewhat lacking. I should have done far more research into who Lloyd actually was and established his exact role in the story of Taverham and its mill. I apologise to him and to you, but I hope the contents of his chronicled sporting life compensate. In all there are four or five books to go at, if you fancy checking them out for yourselves. What they give is more than a whiff of a watery world largely disappeared today.

As you would expect, we will look at the fish of the early 20th century first. The first thing that grabs the angler's eye is the number of trout Lloyd caught right until the 1950s. Not only were they numerous, they were big. Three- and four-pounders were run of the mill, if you'll pardon the pun, and he details fives and even sixes I believe. This was the era of the Wensum weir pool monsters so I shouldn't be surprised, but I was not expecting so many trout of such a size. It must have been a game angler's paradise.

Eels too were prolific and of good size too and pike seemed to abound. The Captain's best appears to have been a 28lb fish, a monster for a river anywhere, any time. Roach were numerous it would seem and he does not seem to get excited by two-pounders either. There is no mention of chub and barbel but they didn't begin to appear till stockings in the 1950s and 1960s respectively.

I think we all would all love a day at Taverham in the good Captain's heyday. Imagine trotting those gravels before abstraction had hit or chemical run-off had done its work. Imagine fly fishing in the mayfly season when those beautiful insects swarmed thick and large as snowflakes. It's a vision lost to us today, tragically – criminally some would say.

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However, it was the gun that did much of Captain Lloyd's talking. The game books make it clear that rooks, magpies and stoats were especially unwelcome, anything in fact that could threaten his song birds. Coots and herons, though, weren't spared. Neither, shockingly, were swans. I love swans but if we want to answer the present debate on where our river weed has gone these days we only need to look at the flotillas of these birds now present in numbers that were never tolerated in the past.

Lloyd also bagged quite a number of coypus, which younger readers might not remember. They looked a little like beavers and were brought from South America I believe for the fur trade. Once they escaped, or were released, they munched their way through every skerrick of bankside vegetation in the land. And much of the bread flake I was using for river roach back in the 70s as well!

And now to rub. The game books feature a number of popped off otters. I didn't do an accurate count but I can say for sure Tarkas did not hang around Taverham pre-1960. They were counted in the Captain's vermin column decade upon decade.

I'm not coming out with any judgments here because times change and I find it hard to be objective about habits of the past. As I have said, rivers change too. Lloyd's Wensum hadn't had its guts ripped out by dredgers yet, its spirit weakened by abstraction and its DNA tainted by chemical pollution. His river had all the advantages that our weary Wensum does not have today and he obviously worked hard at keeping it pristine, as he saw it. The Wensum today? It's a miracle to me that the old girl, like all our upper rivers equally, still rolls on like she does.

Which is why I thank the Eastern Daily Press for its headline in last Friday's edition. It announced the abandonment of plans for a 10,000-home town close to the upper Wensum around Billingford and North Elmham. Had this gone ahead, the demand for water would have inevitably drained the river to its bare bones within a decade. Well done to the hundreds, no thousands, of Wensum Valleyers who campaigned so successfully to save our river's future, our county's integrity. Captain Lloyd would be proud.

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