A Life Well Fished – Roger Wyndham Barnes
This will be the first in an occasional series, to be hosted on the Angling Trust website, of tributes to anglers who have made a remarkable contribution to our sport and who have recently passed on to that ‘great river in the sky’. It is not intended to be an encyclopaedia of the famous, rather an opportunity for friends and colleagues to mark the passing of those who touched their lives in a particularly special way.
I can think of few more appropriate souls whose passing typifies the allure of this shared watery world than Roger Wyndham Barnes – the last of the Thames professional angling guides whose recent death, following the diagnosis of a brain tumour in 2013, prompted a flood of affectionate tributes from far and wide. John Bailey, Keith Arthur, Jon Ward-Allen, Keith Elliott, Ian Welch, Steve Wozniak and many more have penned generous memories of this lovely man. But we start with the words of his good friend John Buckingham.
Roger was many things, artist, writer, bluesman, biker and great storyteller, but above all he was a natural countryman and had the ability to read a river or a landscape. He wasn’t just in the countryside he was a part of it, and the spirit of the river, its moods and its seasons, flowed in his blood.
Although an accomplished writer Roger never sought a high profile for himself, preferring simply to pass on his skills and love for the river to others. He wrote not to deadlines but when the spirit grabbed him and some of his observations in publications such as Waterlog and Thames Guardian and for the Golden Scale Club are heartfelt celebrations of the natural environment. Hardly surprising then that he was a staunch supporter of the old ACA and subsequently a member of the Angling Trust. I first came across his musings in a series of delightful contributions he provided for our local Twyford & District FC newsletter. I loved the way he always signed off with the words ‘Enjoy the River’ – something we should do over and above just catching fish.
Roger featured in a number of broadcasts including weirpool fishing with Chris Yates, and in this rather lovely episode of On the Fly with John Bailey:
And it was not just anglers like Peter Wheat, Keith Elliott and myself who packed into that church in Twyford for Roger’s funeral on August 12, for Roger Barnes was known for his music as much as for his fishing. As lead singer for Jive Alive he has performed with some of the best Blues artists of his generation, including Alexis Korner and members of the Yardbirds, as this great obituary by Alan Clayson in the Guardian illustrates:
Whilst, sadly, I never had the opportunity to fish with Roger, as a fellow Thames angler I have been aware of his exploits and his remarkable effect on those who did have the chance to share a little magic with Old Man River.
Goodbye Old Man River
John Buckingham – Roger’s fishing friend
Roger invited me out for a days fishing in his boat, (a small dinghy called Natty Dreadnought) and we fished all those wonderful places that you can’t reach from the bank; I found him to be an easy companion, as happy to be quiet as to talk (a much underrated quality), and with a real desire to put his companion “on the fish” and give them a memorable day. In addition he could name pretty much any bird, butterfly, insect, tree or plant, had a comprehensive knowledge of the history of the river, the origin of place names and a ready supply of wit and humour. A day in the boat with Roger was never dull.
It was the first of many trips and we had some great adventures (and a couple of very close shaves) in that boat. He also took other friends out and one of these suggested that he could become a fishing guide and make some money from his expertise and offered to lend him the money for a bigger boat Muddy Waters. On our next few trips I was his practice client and it wasn’t long before he started to build up a list of regular paying clients, setting out from Lower Shiplake where he kept the boat. After some time one of his clients, who was disabled, offered to help Roger buy a boat that would be more suited to his disability and Roger bought a Suffolk Punt The Compleat Angler which is the boat you will be familiar with at Marlow. At about the same time Roger managed to get himself installed as the “angling guide in residence” to the Compleat Angler hotel in Marlow, hence the name of the boat and it’s location. From then on his trips were centred on Marlow weir and Temple and Hurley, the two weirs upstream, and his knowledge of these three weirs, and the waters in between, grew with every trip. His main focus seemed to become pike fishing, at which he was very successful, but he could also find you perch, roach, barbel, chub, pretty much whatever took your fancy. Roger was an old-fashioned fisherman who had a preference for simple methods and traditional baits; although he did experiment with pellets occasionally he couldn’t tell you what a helicopter rig was to save his life. It was this approach, and his writing, that led to his induction into the Golden Scale Club where he fully embraced their enthusiasm for centrepin reels, “creaking cane” and the “pink indispensable” (luncheon meat!). Much of Rogers’ tackle had seen better days but his success with it proves that it’s not what you use but how you use it that counts. His disdain for the modern world included technology and many of us tried to explain to him how e-mail and the internet could help to boost his business. Instead he steadfastly stuck to a landline telephone and beautifully written letters to communicate with his clients which became part of the charm of the enterprise. It was one of Rogers’ regrets that as his business grew he had less time to take friends out on the river or to fish himself but he was proud, and I think a little surprised, to have become the latest chapter in the long history of fishing guides on the Thames, which he researched in detail for a possible book.
Although it was probably his dream occupation being a fishing guide was not always easy. In adverse conditions when the fish were not cooperating it could be a long and hard day to keep a client satisfied and send him home with the feeling that the day had been worthwhile. I accompanied Roger on a couple of these trips and it is not something that I would want to do twice, but Roger would work tirelessly and with infinite patience to secure some sort of result. Even when fish were abundant there were some clients who lacked sufficient expertise with the tackle or the technique to succeed, and again Rogers’ patience and fortitude were put to the test but he would always remain upbeat and humorous whatever the challenge. If he hooked a good fish on his own rod he would always hand it to the client to land; he gave up some of the best fish of his angling career that way. Again, it is a measure of the man that these days never dented his enthusiasm for the job in hand. Summer days could be long, with an early start and 12 hours or more in the boat, and in winter he could find himself out in all weathers, and river conditions, sometimes three or four days in succession which began to take it’s toll in later years (Roger was 65 when he made his last trip). Over the years he featured in several T.V. appearances with such people as Chris Yates and John Bailey, his first appearance being on Countryfile where he came across as a quietly spoken and knowledgeable waterman. He could have made more money than he did from his endeavours but never really had an idea of what his expertise and service were worth in the modern age. Many of his clients would provide a generous tip at the end of the day (sometimes as much as the daily fee) and Roger was always reluctant to accept and never really understood what he had done to deserve such largesse.
A day in the boat with Roger, even a blank, was always a joy, a delight and an education. His company, knowledge and humour was worth the fee alone; the fishing was a bonus. It is a testament to the man that several of his clients visited him during his illness and attended his funeral, including one who came all the way from California to pay his final respects. (Roger would be completely bemused that nearly 300 people attended his funeral). There is no doubt in my mind that the world is a poorer place for his passing but for me his spirit will always be alive in the river. I have only covered his angling life as I know it, but he had as deep an influence in his other roles, especially as a blues musician. His band, Jive Alive, are one of the tightest and most accomplished little house bands that you will ever see, and all members of it, both permanent and transient, pay tribute to Roger as one of the best band leaders that they have worked with, without any of the ego or self regard that usually accompanies the role of lead vocalist; he only cared about the music. Roger called their output “The Loddon Delta Blues”, and to those of us who knew him well, especially the anglers, there is no doubt that the Loddon Delta exists as an identity, and that Rogers’ spirit was, and always will be, woven deeply into it’s very roots.
John Bailey – Writer and Broadcaster
Roger was the most lovely, gentle, unassuming, generous and fun angler
you would ever fish with. Old School is an overly used phrase and I
don’t really know what it is meant to convey however Roger was the time
of decent values personified. I first saw the man fish for roach all
day from a boat in Northern Ireland. The fish weren’t especially large
but Roger put style over weight and just enjoyed himself, in a boat,
away from the worries of his world. And he was bloody good at it too.
I fished with him on the Thames, from his punt and I count myself hugely
lucky. It has been said Roger was the last of the Old Thames
Professionals and there is truth in that. A day with him was what the
Victorians would have recognised and cherished. It was like Roger rowed
us back in time, to a better age somehow.
Roger would have been amazed at this outpouring of tribute I know. He saw himself as nothing special
but we all know differently. Special does him nowhere near justice.
Uniquely magnificent I would say and the angling world is poorer and
will miss him.. The loss of Roger is a loss to us all who know what
fishing at its best truly is.
Keith Arthur – Tight Lines Presenter
Roger Wyndham Barnes died on a Tuesday, on a bright summer day west of London. We knew it was coming – he had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor a year before, and he had been on borrowed time for a good while. It was quiet when it came, peaceful. But the world is a sadder place because of it.
I got the news well into the California evening, when a grieving John Buckingham, one of Roger’s best friends who had been by his side every step of the way, sent me the email. I didn’t read it at first. I knew what it was going to say, and I cried before I read it and cried after. Roger was a fishing guide west of London, who I met in 2003 and who became a close friend, even though I only saw him a few times a year. He was a quiet, gentle man, a great friend, truly a kindred spirit, and he deserved more time than this.
DO READ THE REST OF STEVE’S MOVING TRIBUTE HERE
Although I met Roger on a few occasions I fished with him just the once; writing a feature for my angling column in the local newspaper, the ‘Maidenhead Advertiser’.
At that time I was, I am ashamed to now admit, a brash ‘big fish or bust’ angler, totally obsessed with size and really not at all interested in angling other than the result.
So what if a kingfisher settled on my rod, who cared if a herd of deer swam across the river in front of me? Certainly not me. The sort of angler I was back then found a cane rod only suitable for growing beans up, luncheon meat was a barbel scarer, not a barbel catcher, and a 5lb chub was a damn nuisance if it picked up my milk protein barbel bait; indeed a 10, 11 or 12lb barbel was a damned nuisance too if I was in a swim that I knew could produce one over 15lb…
Roger was, of course, my antithesis at the time. His delight was for the moment, not the result; for the beauty, not the beast and for the pure delight of being at one with the environment, not for what he could get from the environment. Our tackle was poles apart, there was a chasm between our philosophies and our ambitions and I was impatient to get the session over so I could head off to the venue my current campaign was centred upon.
It was a collision of different worlds.
Now is not the time, or indeed the place, to go into the exact details of our day perch fishing in and around Marlow Weir all I need to say is that, although I will still never qualify for Golden Scale Club membership, I am now, I hope, much more the angler Roger was back then.
Although I would not go so far as to say that particular day spent in his company was my ‘Road to Damascus’ moment it certainly helped to show me that there was indeed more to fishing than just catching fish; and for that I shall always be grateful.
Thank you Roger.
Keith Elliott – Chairman of the Angling Writers Association
We should probably have given the Bernard Venables Trophy to Roger. This was a rather elegant award named after our one-time president and presented to the writer who most embodied the principles that Bernard represented.
Roger won it year after year.
Our annual get-together and prizegiving was once held at Belle Isle in Northern Ireland. Then area offered a superb choice of fishing, from trout and salmon to pike. Even sea-fishing only meant an hour’s drive.
Being both journalists and anglers, most of the motley crew just dangled a line in the river and lough in the estate’s wonderful grounds. John Bailey, I recall, caught a pike of at least 25lb. But Roger anchored his boat 20 yards from the main bridge over the river and spent all day. trotting for roach.
When I chugged past him in the late afternoon sunshine, he was smiling beatifically, at peace with the world, running a stick float down to the bridge and catching roach to 12oz every cast.
“Well, Roger?” I asked.
“Wonderful,” was all he said.
Another time, another trip. We had a fly-fishing day on Grafham and I allocated the boats. Mischievously, I thought about pairing Roger, who as many will know, was profoundly deaf in one ear, with Mac Campbell, the Angling Times journalist whose left-ear hearing was permanently damaged by an IRA bomb.
The idea of the two of them shouting at each other all day and never hearing a word the other said filled me with mirth, but in the end I decided it was too cruel.
I told Roger about the jape that never happened at the end of the day. He convulsed with laughter, and said: “You should have done it! You should have done it!”
That was Roger.
Jeff Woodhouse – Compleat Angler Hotel
I suppose I’d known Roger for around 16 years, ever since I became involved with The Compleat Angler Hotel and, in a sense, run the syndicate there now. It was always good to touch base with him and try to find out what was being caught in parts of the river that we couldn’t reach from the banks of the weir. One day in 2008 I’d just had my ailing spaniel euthanised in Marlow and had gone to the weir for some time to reflect, Roger was there, sympathetic and very helpful.
We’d also meet up sometimes whilst he was giving his boat a make-over. Once he’d told me how he’d taken his lunch up to the weir shelf and sat high on the wall overlooking the shallow water there. He said he’d seen this bulky shadowy shape mooching around when it came up in the water and it was, as he described “Like the back of labrador and about as long.” It was a carp that he’d estimated around 35+lbs, it saw him, turned and slipped back into the depths.
Since then I’ve seen that same fish, unless there are more than one which is always likely, and it seems to turn up every year being seen by someone. Even this year it was seen by one of the hotel employees together with 2 x 20 lbers. Roger never did catch it and I don’t believe anyone else has, unless it was that unseen, unbanked monster that one or two have hooked and it stripped them of 70 yards of line before throwing the hook.
What Roger did catch was lots of other really good specimen fish, pike on the fly was one of his specialities. He also had a nice trout of 4lbs in there, or rather directed a youngster to catch it and that must have made the day worthwhile for the kid. Roger was never selfish with his information either, if he knew something he would share it.
One of his last trips was when he took out the actor Timothy Spall and another associate whilst they were researching fishing for Timothy’s part in the film Mr. Turner, about the artist who was also an avid angler. Again I caught Roger as he was loading his car after the event so I asked had it been a successful day. Roger gave me one of his exasperated looks and said he’d spent most of the day untangling their lines and freeing them up from snags. He was worn out.
He’s been badly missed for a year or so already due to his illness. We still have his boat, which was brought onto dry land by one of his friends just prior to this year’s floods when a crack willow came down almost sinking it. Someone at the funeral suggested that it should be installed in a museum, but that will be up to his family. For me it’s still a reminder of a fellow angler who was always keen to share his experiences.
From the hotel management and all of our syndicate members we extend our deepest sympathies to his remaining family and would say to Roger – ‘ farewell old friend and thanks for the sharing.’
Roger Wyndham Barnes died, aged 66, on 29th July 2014. He is survived by his daughter Katy.