Isaak Walton, 1593-1683


Walton’s book, The Compleat Angler, is the third most reprinted book in history after the Bible and Shakespeare’s Works. A new edition has been published recently, just one more of over 300 reprints in its 350-year history. Yet who has read this classic and curious book on fishing? And what does it have to do with Stanstead Abbotts?

    Whilst writing about other rivers, the Lea was one of Walton’s favourite fishing rivers when he lived in London and the area of Amwell down to Rye House was one of his favourite stretches. He mentions fishing near Amwell Hill and a favourite Oak Tree field at the Rye House. Although he does not mention our village by name, when he was on the river fishing, it did not matter what the village was called. He would stay overnight in riverside hostelries as it was a long trip back to his London home where he had an ironmonger’s shop. In the 1895 edition of the book, edited by Andrew Lang, amongst the illustrations were pictures of our Red Lion and the Baesh Grammar School, together with one of St. James Church, obviously claiming some association with the village. As he fished in the area which is now the Amwell Magna fishery, it is possible he popped in the Red Lion for a swift one. We know that he fished near Rye House, where the old Kings Arms pub later become a famous angling inn due to his association with Stanstead Abbotts, and although there is no specific reference to this inn, he may have stayed there overnight.  Coincidentally, Walton died at the age of 90 in Hampshire in the same year the Rye House Plot was exposed.  Although Walton would have been familiar with the ancient Rye House and its nearby pub, his path would not have crossed with Richard Rumbold and his fellow-plotters as Walton spent the last years of his life in Hampshire.

He is buried in Winchester Cathedral. He was writing this book during the troublesome years of the Civil War and as a keen Royalist and Anglican, it can easily be imagined that fishing was for him an escape from the troubles of life as it is for many people.

    For over three centuries the Lea Valley, Stanstead Abbotts and Amwell became famous in England and in the U.S.A. for their connection with Isaak Walton and to keen anglers the area is still well-known, although not visited as often as it used to be. But this curious book is not just about fishing. It is a book about life. Walton is also famous for some of his sayings. One I like is I have laid aside business and gone a-fishing, for that is what fishing is all about. He described the Lea as having Danish blood, referring to the battles between King Alfred and the Danish Vikings of 895/6. The Compleat Angler was first published in 1653, but Walton spent another twenty-five years adding to it. Even today, his words continue to be printed, but it is not an easy book to read.

Opened by 1600 as the King’s Arms, it was claimed that Isaak Walton stayed there. It was named Ye Olde Rye House Inn by Henry Teale in the 1840s and renamed The Rye House Tavern in 1908

    Rye House railway station probably owes its existence to the fame of Isaak Walton and the famous fishing inn, the old Kings Arms, today just the Rye House. Circa1849 when Henry Teale took over the old pub at the Rye, the inn was a busy anglers inn, claiming some fame from Isaak Walton, with many staying overnight for the fishing. Teale even had his own fishing club. As there was no railway station at Rye House in those days, he persuaded the railway company to allow him to sell train tickets in the pub to his fishing club members. The train was stopped there during the day with a red flag and in the dark with a red lantern. Eventually he was allowed to sell tickets to anyone and later still the railway company built a one-platform station there. The fame of Isaak Walton scored again. Today the Lea is often described as Isaak Walton’s river and I think old Isaak would have enjoyed that.

Ron Dale