A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 100
The debate has been going on for centuries. Is there greater pleasure to be obtained from action or contemplation? It’s a question I am in a quiet way able to relate to. Did I get greater satisfaction from cycling around the five countries or from writing about the experience? Or is the distinction not so easy to delineate? Where does action cease and contemplation begin? In watching birds, is it the country walk, the climb, the river crossing to get to the haunt of the birds you watch? Is it the physical drawing out of binoculars, the sketching of scribbled drawings and notes? Or is the quiet world of thought; the almost spiritual oneness with nature that comes as you absorb your concentration into it?
Is action physical and contemplation mental? The distinction is an important one, but a confusing one at the same time. Cycling is a very physical action and I do it for the exertion and the exercise. But I do it because I find it immensely thoughtful; almost philosophical. Birdwatching and stargazing appeal to me for the same reasons and if I had ever taken up fishing, that would be its appeal.
All of which brings me round to the reason why I made Eccleshall my point of call and why, armed with the map that was my primary goal in stopping there, I leave the town by a winding back-route. I’m bound for Shallowford near the village of Chebsey and a little pilgrimage to pay homage to a man who has become something of a hero to me and a guide in not just making sense of life but it making the most of it. I’m cycling in search of Izaac Walton.
The Compleat Angler is one of the most re-printed books in the language. It was first published in 1653 and hasn’t been out of print since then. I know of very few readers who haven’t heard of it and I know a few, a very few, who have read it. If you go to Goodreads you will find well over a thousand of their members have listed the book, but a closer inspection will show you that over eight hundred of these have listed it as a book that they intend to read. Of the few who have read it, a small number hate it and the rest have been swept away by its unique charms.
If I was cast away upon a desert island and was only allowed to take eight books with me, one of them would be The Compleat Angler.
It would serve, to some extent, as a survival guide as it does tell you a great deal about how to catch fish. I’ve never been an angler but I find myself drawn to it as I read through the chapters. I’m against hunting but that doesn’t stop me wanting to ride along with the pink coated clots while reading Siegfried Sassoon’s memoirs of his early life. Good writing is good writing and if you only read about things you agreed with then you’d rule out an awful lot of good books.
It’s role as a handbook for fishermen is bourne out by the fact that the few remaining seventeenth century editions are in a state consistent with having spent a good deal of time on grassy banks and in creels. It isn’t for insights in catching dace, chubb or grayling that I love the book. I love it as a bible of the art of finding contemplation through activity. I don’t think I would find sitting in a beautiful place enormously pleasurable in its own right. To comprehend that beauty I have to be doing something active and this is what I have learned from Izaac Walton. I’m not much of a hand at drawing but I keep a sketchpad and tin of pencils with me wherever I go. I don’t draw well but I see as keenly as Michelangelo when I’ve got a pencil in my hand. I can identify a large number of birds but I’m not in any way a naturalist. I like to note the stars in the night sky but my claims to be an astronomer run out at GCSE level. But I do all of these things and by doing them I am transported to a higher plane of thought altogether: that of contemplation. And it is when I contemplate that I learn the most.
It fits in with that over-used line of Socrates about the unexamined life not being worth living. I always found that a little harsh and rather more know-allish than the old market place philosopher comes across elsewhere in the dialogues. It isn’t that the unexamined life isn’t worth living, it is more that the contemplative life is a better life. I have all of my best thoughts when riding my bicycle, I see more when I have a pencil and sketchpad in my hands, I feel more at one with the world when I watch finches gather in the blackthorn and I owe a deal of these pleasures to Izaac Walton.
He’s a Staffordshire lad. The son of an innkeeper. He served his apprenticeship and opened an ironmongers shop in Fleet Street in 1614. He took religion seriously and in his role as verger of his church he became good friends with John Donne. He seemed to have the knack of fitting easily into society. He married twice; once to a relative of Thomas Cranmer and once to a relative of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. He was a supporter of the way things are and as such took the Royalist side in the disputes that were to lead to the English Civil War. He took no part in that though. It was during the military conflict that he returned to where I now pedal the back roads of rural Staffordshire. The River Sow provided him with good fishing and the cottage provided him with a retreat from events that were shaking the country to its roots. In the middle of military and political upheaval the like of which England had never seen, Walton wrote a book that captured the timeless pastoral beauty of county pursuits. He’s not one to impose his view on his reader and as a man he was much remarked for his gentleness and willingness to accept all sides of an opinion. It was natural that he chose a dialogue form for his book.
All around these lanes are small acknowledgements that he was here. The cottage has been preserved in a way that is decidedly more highly polished than I imagine the old fellow would have kept it. He made a good living but used his wealth to benefit those who shared his background. He’d given the cottage and the farm and lands that went with it away during his lifetime. He maintained the fishing rights on the Sow though.
In his later life Walton turned to biography. He is seldom credited with having a significant place in the development of prose writing in England but there is something very modern and readable in his work. He had the inclination of a poet but restricted himself to writing in sentences. Somewhere in any piece of rural England is a beauty waiting contemplation. The beauty of this reflective life is captured in the pages of his work and has enhanced my own life enormously.
There were many more logical ways of making my way from Wales to my own front door. I chose this route because it brought me to where Izaac Walton wrote one of the truly great books in English. His generosity and willingness to share ideas was such that he even allowed a friend to add a whole section to the end of the book. A fine man in his own right; an aristocratic fellow by the name of Charles Cotton. His section is more about telling people how to catch fish. It’s set in Dovedale, a lovely part of Derbyshire that I will pass through later in the day. And it makes an interesting companion piece to Walton’s more meditative words. There is a big difference between teaching and telling. Cotton tells you how to do things but you learn an awful lot more from the quieter man who sits on the bank and contemplates the world around him.