“Like father, like son” is a common enough expression, but seldom does a son, who follows the same calling, enhance the reputation of an already illustrious father. Alfred, better known as “Alf”, was born on 8th August 1897 in Houghton.
The second of four children to his father William and mother Emily, it was still evident from an early age that it would be Alf that would one day follow in the footsteps of his father. Whenever he was asked what he wanted to become when he grew up, Alf would reply ‘A fishing “gent”.
He attended junior school in the next village over, in Broughton, walking the two miles across country each day. But by the age of thirteen, with both his sisters still in school Alf found work outside, getting an early taste of the life his father so loved. He was employed, having finished school, as a Garden Boy, quite possibly at Houghton Lodge. Admiral Sir Lionel Wells and Lady Wells having purchased the property in 1910, would go on to become great beneficiaries of the village of Houghton. His older brother William worked similarly as a Hall Boy during the same period, but Alf would always prefer life outdoors. There was a brief period where perhaps Alf’s head was turned by another potential occupation. For during his late teens Alf found employment in the altogether more modern vocation of motor mechanic.
This love of machines was something that stood him well at the outbreak of the Great War, when he was called into service for the Royal Flying Corps on 22nd October 1915, aged just nineteen. Alf was to serve in France from February 1916, becoming among the first to fly an airplane in combat. Here he was in good company, with the Houghton Club’s own Lord Lucas similarly serving with the R.F.C as a Captain during the war. Lord Lucas however was to never return to banks of the Test, having met his death in a gallant reconnoissance raid over German lines in November 1916. Alf survived the hostilities and finally returned from France, following the end of the war, into a new Royal Airforce. A little time later, in 1919, he was to be transferred to the R.A.F reserves and to return to life at Houghton.
Alf’s joy at tinkering with machines would be something that stayed with him for the rest of his life, but his attention was by now firmly back with his first love the river. He was at this time aged 22 and under-keeper to his father. River-keeping at the start of the twentieth century was a tough job. The work was arduous and back-breaking with little or no assistance from the kind of mechanisation enjoyed by today’s workmen. The one place machines did start to help out was in travelling the length of the Houghton Club’s water. Originally the keepers had to walk the three miles between jobs at Houghton and Stockbridge and this lead to a great deal of wasted time. So for Alf getting about by machine was a real efficiency save as he was upgraded courtesy of the Club from solid tyre bicycle, to motorcycle and then to a new Morris car by the thirties. Such were the perks of working for such a prestigious employer.
By the 1930s Alf had moved from Houghton to a new house in Stockbridge which was renamed ‘Testlea’. He also had by now a young family, having married Alice Chalke in 1925 and together having a son Valentine, born the following year. Alice, who was to become better known as ‘Sally’, after after the Sally Lunn brand of cakes, was from a horse racing family. Stockbridge at the time having it’s own race course and a rich pedigree in the sport.
So it was that in 1932, Alf took over as head keeper for the Club from his father. Now there are three principal areas of focus for those who look after chalk-stream fisheries – fish, fly and river management, such as weed-cutting, tree planting and the like. After his father had concentrated so successfully on the entomological side of a dry-fly river, Alf had decided to make an especial effort to perfect the breeding of trout.
Like his father before him, Alf was a tireless student of nature and one of his many discoveries was the devastating effect that dyticus marginalis – the great diving beetle – had on populations of trout fry. For this beetle with its formidable pincers will decimate a nursery with insufficient flow of water. However, simply increase the water flow and the beetle will fly off somewhere else. He was probably the first person to discover this and saved a great deal of trout fry in the process.
His greatest discovery however was in using deep bore water instead of river water to hatch and rear trout artificially, this was to revolutionise the breeding of fish. When rearing trout fry in river water, even under controlled conditions and adequate flow, many trout will die after they have absorbed their egg sacs. In fact Alf had found that success rates were as low as 3%. Something clearly needed to be done if the club were ever going to keep up with the increased demand in fishing. The invention of the motor car, improved roads and a better rail connection with London had encouraged members to fish the water more often. As far as Alf was concerned, he had to find a purer source of water to avoid natural and man made pollutants impacting the fry. With the backing of some of the Club’s senior members he managed to get permission to drill a bore hole and prove his point. This was to be a near overnight success, with the clear spring water running at a constant 10ºC, raising the survival rate as high as 80%.
Alf was of course also naturally interested in entomology and he improved greatly the fly boards that his father had invented. He had found that many spinners failed to alight on the board because there was nothing for them to hit against. So he began placing wooden shields at intervals along the boards, so that the spinners strike the shield, fall onto the board, and crawl beneath it to lay their eggs. As with his father before him Alf also attempted to restock the Test with fly, in particular the grannom, that had disappeared from the upper and middle reaches of the river following the introduction of weed-cutting. He hoped that the recent introduction of weed racks, not present during his father’s time as head keeper, that permit the weed to accumulate in the river would allow his fishery to hold on to a re-introduced population of grannom. So he set out on the 20th April 1938 with fly boards stocked full of grannom eggs brought up from Nursling, lower down on the Test. The experiment was however a short-lived success. While the initial population faired well and there was a resurgence for a couple of seasons the grannom soon died out again and today it is considered extinct on the Middle Test; though on the lower stretches where they cut less weed, the grannom continues to flourish.
Alf’s experiments with the grannom where however, overshadowed that autumn when war was declared with Germany for a second time. For Alf this meant a return to uniform, initially as captain of D Company, 1st Battalion Hampshire Home Guard, then in 1943 as its major and commanding officer. The Second World War was grim for everyone, but for Alf it did have a lighter side. General Eisenhower and his Chief of Staff General Beddell Smith both having fished the Club waters during time off from the war effort invited Alf to fly over to France following the invasion. The only stipulation was that Alf had to wear his Home Guard uniform. Alf returned home after two days loaded down with French wine and Camembert cheese. With a ready smile his was to recount how he had overheard one of our soldiers say to another: “Things must be bad, mate, they’ve called in the Home Guard.”
Following the war, although rationing continued into the 1950s, much of life in the Test valley returned to normal, as it did around the country. It was at this time that Alf became in great demand as a consultant, advising owners whose waters had been neglected during the war. Here he was to give assistance to those such as the Driffield Angling Club in Yorkshire and even the Royal family at Windsor Castle, who had the idea of turning a small loop of the River Thames into a little trout fishery.
However it was’t all plain sailing, for one of the greatest challenges to face fisheries on the Test was to be the policy of land drainage as a way to prevent flooding. Back in the 1920s there had been a spate of severe flooding, which also took its toll on Stockbridge and Houghton, so the newly formed Catchment Boards were tasked with sorting out the problem. They turned to Mr. MacDonald, their resident engineer. His theory at the time, was to get the water into the sea as quickly as possible. This meant dredging the river bed and removing the weirs, although the plan was initially delayed by the onset of the war, work began at the bottom of the Test in the 1940s and they were soon making their way upstream. Recognising the considerable long-term harm this would do to the river, Alf got in touch with the high powered and like-minded experts of the Test and Itchen Association and the battle began. It took several months, with the dredging getting closer and closer to the Houghton Club’s water, but after a meeting with the minister in charge they succeeded in limiting the northern boundary to Kimbridge Mill. This initial victory however was not to last, for in 1949 the catchment area was extended north to Stockbridge and then in 1961 concerns were again raised by flooding in Stockbridge. However as a result of recommendations made by Alf the Board decided not to dredge the river and instead raise the bridges through Stockbridge. As Alf explained at the time: Nobody wants the land to flood, but water is too important a commodity to simply rush it down to the sea. The more practical solution to the danger of flooding is to have good controls which give keepers up and down the valley the ability to adjust the height of the water; opening the hatchway in high water times and closing them down in low water months. It seems this common sense approach even won over Mr MacDonald who it was reported had before his passing quite changed his opinion concerning dredging.
Alf like his father was a very gentle and patient man, but to look at he took more from his mother than his father. He was slight in build not weighing more than 10 stone and had smoked a pipe for most of his life. As such his fingers were heavily stained with tobacco, but were rarely still. He had been a very popular man both about the village, where he had played billiards and football at local level. He had a great sense of humour, and was forever telling new jokes he had heard from the fishing gents.
Alf passed away on April 17th 1970.