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Victorian salmon fishing

For almost a hundred years, British anglers dominated the Numedalslågen – traditionally one of Norway’s best salmon rivers. But for some incomprehensible reason, this important, exciting and historic era is hardly documented.

I grew up by the Lågen, and ten years ago I decided to write a book about the angling pioneers. All I had when I began researching, were a few names and conveyances, an old photograph, some dubious tales and the sad ruins of what locally is known as the “Salmon Castle” (below).

If I knew, then, how extremely difficult and time consuming the project would be, I would probably never have started.

Like mountain climbing, hunting and other sports, angling was introduced to Norway by British aristocrats in the 19th Century. Well off adventurers, officers and other upper class gentlemen were impressed and enthusiastic with the wild, beautiful and unspoilt country. For a salmon fisherman, Norway was a dream come true.

Hundreds of travel books were published, filled with superlatives, lovely sketches and photographs. These accounts tempted even more tourists to go, and by the 1880s, Norway experienced what can only be described as the early days of mass tourism. The tourism led to several major changes in poor, rural Norway.

To mention a few of them, Thomas Bennett, an Englishman who had moved to Christiania (now Oslo), started the country’s first travel agency, the roads were greatly improved, the steam ship companies made a lot of money, and big, luxurious hotels were built in the most beautiful surroundings you can imagine.

But this story begins half a century earlier, when only a very, very few British anglers had discovered Norway and her possibilities.

Take, for example, Sir Hyde Parker, 8th Bart. What a huge contrast it must have been, leaving the grand, comfortable Melford Hall in Sudbury, coming to Norway. Hopefully, the salmon runs made the long, tiring journey worthwhile.

The former MP bought a small property on the Lågen, and he was probably the first British angler to fish the river on a regular basis. A newspaper article from August 16th 1838 reveals that Sir Hyde Parker’s cutter recently had put off, after a long stay in Larvik, the small town at the river’s mouth.

 

It’s interesting to read how the Victorians regarded the Lågen. It was mentioned in “Jones’s Guide To Norway” (1848), but more importantly, was described in detail in “The Field” in 1853. The article has no byline, but was most likely written by Sir Charles Taylor. He was not much impressed with the “Lauven”, as he called it:

“The Lauven is a very considerable stream, as broad usually for the last dozen miles of its course as the Thames at Richmond, but far deeper and stronger. Salmon here run large – from 20 to 30 pounds being a very common weight, and far larger fish by no means unusual. It has the name of being the first of the salmon rivers in the south. Although this is not quite my opinion, I will not say that its reputation is altogether usurped. The worst of it is, in my mind, that it is not generally (for Norway, s’entend) a rapid river. Salmon, as every fisherman knows, don’t rise in deep, unbroken water, flowing calmly over gravel or sand, and such is the nature of a good part of the Lauven”.

In my book, which I hope to publish in a couple of years, I start one of the chapters like this:

“The flames are merciless. Black smoke pours out of the burning villa, and there is nothing the local fire brigade can do. Soon, the only monument after the Victorian anglers is gone”.

The villa that burnt down in 1993 is usually referred to as the “Salmon Castle”. But there was nothing royal about the building, which Frank Keene Hawkins erected on the banks of the Lågen in the 1860s. On the contrary, even though the villa was conspicuous and stylish, it was fairly small.

The location, however, was perfect. Just a three minute walk down to the river, and from the veranda, the naval officer and his friends had a magnificent view over the different falls and pools.

It was quite common for British anglers who came to Norway in the 19th Century, to build fishing lodges. The reason was usually the desire to live close to the river, or the variable level of the local food and accommodation.

Sir Horace Rumbold (above), a diplomat and, at the time, ambassador to Sweden, wrote this after a Lågen fishing trip in 1884:

“Our quarters at the farm-house at which we put up were about as rough as they well could be. Gaardbruger (farmer) Hannevold and his belongings being thoroughly untidy and slovenly in their habits and household arrangements, which struck me all the more, coming as I did from neat, cleanly Sweden. The food they gave us, too, was coarse and unappetising. Fortunately, we had brought with us an ample supply of tinned things, which, with the fish of our own catching, broiled fresh from the river, and the great wash-hand bowlfuls of fragrant wood strawberries and the delicious cream set before us, made a menu fit for a king”

Locating relatives of the Victorian anglers has obviously been very important. And, with one exception only, people I have been contacting have been very helpful. Some have even offered me accommodation and salmon fishing… I am most grateful.

A very pleasant memory is my 2004 visit to Boars Hill, outside Oxford. There, I spent a day in the company of 84 year old Sir Ludovic Kennedy (above), who I’m sure needs no further introduction.

His grandfather, Edward Briggs Kennedy, was a keen sportsman, and he fished the Numedalslågen on at least two occasions. When he passed away, he left behind a giant scrap book, which now is in the possession of the BBC personality.

I believe I spent four, maybe five exciting hours going trough it, taking notes and photographs of material relevant for my project. The only concern was not spilling white wine, which I was kindly offered several glasses of, in the scrap book.

The first British anglers who came to Norway, no doubt provoked merriment and created a stir. Even though a few locals did fish with a rod and line, the farmers regarded the strangers as funny characters. Why use a stick and string, when nets, fishpots and other traditional traps were easier and more productive?

 

As the number of tourists increased, however, so did the number of locals that adopted the British way of salmon fishing. And, in 1918, the last British landowner in the Lågen valley, Frederick Richard Thomas Trench Gascoigne, sold the family’s properties and fishing rights to a Norwegian business man.

Why the Leeds officer chose to do so, I don’t know. But rumours of a water power plant being planned may very well have scared him away. Also, four years of brutal war may have reduced or ruined the pleasure of going to Norway. Money was certainly not the problem.

No matter what the explanation was, the British dominance was definitely over.

Do you have information or photos related to these angling pioneers? Please contact me on post@mortenharangen.no


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