The Compleat Angler – The Contemplative Man’s Recreation was first published in 1653 and has not only been in print ever since but is also the most frequently reprinted book in the English language, after The Bible.
One of the most-read and best-known books in the English language, it was written by Izaak Walton, who was born in Staffordshire on August 9 1593.
The 425th anniversary of his birth, in 2018, offers another chance to look at the lasting impact of his writing, and the major role he played in helping to portray – and even shape – angling during an expansive, but turbulent, period of English history.
Walton was 60 years old when The Compleat Angler was published, but he continued to add to it for a quarter of a century.
In essence, it is a celebration of the art and spirit of fishing, in prose and verse. Given its limited subject matter, along with its language and structure that are a challenge for the modern-day reader, the obvious questions have to be how has it endured for so long? And why do so many of us at least know the name Izaak Walton?
Experts tell us that the blend of charm and expert tuition more than repays the effort of opening-up one of the newest editions with its explanatory notes. Others, however, have also spotted what may be the first examples of two of the lifestyle terms we’re all so obsessed with today: “wellness” and “off-grid”!
Walton loved his fishing: “God did never make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling”.
More significantly, however, Walton regarded angling as a communal endeavour, and his descriptions of pastoral England – as he and his companions in The Compleat Angler encounter singing milkmaids and welcoming hostelries as they wander the riverbanks – offer today’s readers with a profound insight into how Walton’s awareness of the environment was centuries ahead of his time.
A book to dip into, rather than attempting to read in one sitting, the book is infused with good fun and good sense. “No man is born an artist or an angler,” wrote Walton – who, himself, learnt to be both.
The book was dedicated to John Offley of Madeley, in Staffordshire and there are references in the book to fishing in some famous spots in the county.
Born in the parish of St Mary’s Stafford, Walton was an Elizabethan, at a time when British influence was expanding around the globe.
As a young man, he grew up walking the grassy banks of the River Sow in Stafford, before going to London to be apprenticed to Mr Thommas Grinsell, an ironmonger. In 1618, he became a freeman of the Ironmonger’s Company, and became relatively prosperous through running a shop in Fleet Street.
The Ambassador to The Hague and Venice and Provost of Eton, Henry Wotton, became a friend, with whom Walton would go on fishing expeditions along the River Lea.
By 1644, Walton had become the author of several biographical books – on the Life of Dr Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker (theologian), George Herbert (poet) and Bishop Sanderson – which, in collected form, became one of Dr Samuel Johnson’s favourite books.
Walton, however, was a Royalist in Parliamentarian London; and in 1642 the English Civil War broke out, with King Charles I beaten at Marston Moor in 1644, and then executed in 1649.
Charles II was subsequently defeated at the Battle of Worcester, but escaped and distributed his jewellery and decorations amongst his personal bodyguard. One – Colonel Blague – found refuge in a house just eight miles from Stafford, where Walton was once again living, and hid the King’s diamond in the garden before being caught and imprisoned in the Tower.
The diamond was subsequently retrieved by a Mr Milward, who entrusted it to his close friend Izaak Walton.
Walton, in turn, was able to deliver it safely back to Blague. This was the only time he left the ‘comfort zone’ in which he lived most of his life, but it was enough to provide him with another, remarkable chapter in English history.
The first edition of The Compleat Angler – The Contemplative Man’s Recreation in 1653 proved so successful that a second edition appeared just two years later.
The book itself takes the form of a debate between Venator (huntsman), Auceps (fowler) and Piscator (fisherman) – each one arguing the case for their sport of choice – with the Piscator, not surprisingly, winning the day.
It illustrates Walton’s entire philosophy for fishing…and lifestyle: to rest one’s mind; to clear spirits; to divert sadness; to calm unquiet thoughts; to moderate passions and to procure contentedness.
In addition to introducing the world to a concept of “Wellness”, it is a book for anyone to read whether or not they have an interest in fishing. Some say it portrays a simplicity and freshness of the English countryside, and paints as clear-a-landscape of the countryside as any Constable.
The fifth edition of the book, in 1676, featured several additions by his friend Charles Cotton – also from Staffordshire.
All of the additional scenes portrayed are in Staffordshire, most notably around the River Dove, in Dovedale – a picturesque valley now owned by the National Trust, in The Peak District.
Walton lived to a grand old age, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral. But visitors to Staffordshire will still find several ways of following in his footsteps through some of the most scenic parts of Staffordshire, both in Dovedale and in and around Stafford.
There is a bust of Walton in St Mary’s Church, Stafford.
And the16th century Izaak Walton’s Cottage (http://bit.ly/2tJpR2e) in the hamlet of Shallowford, between Stafford and Eccleshall, is open free-of-charge every Sunday between May and August from 1pm to 5pm.
All tourist information about Staffordshire can be found at http://www.enjoystaffordshire.com.