Dr Mark Everard’s new book, Barbel River, published by The Medlar Press is not a weighty tome by any stretch of the imagination; in fact I finished it in a few hours the afternoon it arrived. At £20 this doesn’t seem like great value, but at the same time, for a hardback, you couldn’t really call it expensive. It’s produced to Medlar’s usual high standard as well, and is one of those books which would nestle comfortably on the shelf as part of your collection.
Split into thirteen chapters running from June, through the year, and back to June again, it’s the story of the ‘lone angler,’ and Barbara, a mature, large, and wary female barbel living in a chalk river somewhere in the south of England. It follows the lone angler’s efforts throughout the year to catch Barbara, a fish he has caught before, as well as other members of her shoal, and other species.
While the Medlar press, as mentioned previously, have done a good job with the general presentation of the book, and the woodcut illustrations are lovely, I have to confess to being a little disappointed with the photographs. They are just not quite up to scratch, and though I can understand that they are all taken by the ‘lone angler’ - the author we assume - himself, if you’re going to use photographs and not solely illustrations, then those photographs should surely be up to the quality of the rest of the publication.
Being written by an aquatic biologist there are plenty of those details which you would expect about the ecology of a chalk stream, and coming from one so knowledgeable upon the subject these are details with which you can actually educate yourself a little. We may, as anglers ourselves, think we know a lot about the environments we fish, but there’s nothing like an expert to make you realise you may not know quite as much as you thought. There’s also a brief history both of barbel stocking, and their natural range in those rivers flowing east, from the Thames in the south, and north up the eastern seaboard. There’s an interesting element of barbel physiology too which I have to confess showed up my lack of knowledge; I didn’t realise that barbel not only have taste receptors in their mouths, but that in fact, they have taste receptors ‘on the gill rakers, the fins, and the whole of the skin.’ They also have very good colour vision.
The book is liberally sprinkled with quotes and lore from barbel anglers of days past: Walton, Venables, Walker, but also details the ‘lone angler’s’ experiments with more modern baits such as boillies.
Ultimately what comes across in this book is the author’s love for the rivers, their diversity and natural beauty, as well as their rich ecology and exciting, hard fighting barbel. He is both an extremely knowledgeable biologist, and an angler whose roots in classic Crabtree have not prevented him from experimenting; mixing the traditional with the modern, and throwing in a bit of the unconventional for good measure.
The book itself then is an amalgamation of the author’s huge knowledge, a year on a chalk river with its constantly changing personality, and its joys and disappointments. At its heart lies the philosophy of how and why we should protect this, one of our most precious and fragile resources.