Introduction by John Blows.
RONNIE WILLIAMS AND THE THREE R’S.
I am what they call a senior citizen and I claim to be from one of the oldest families in the area. What I’m going to talk about are what I consider The Three R’s. These being the River Wye, The Railway and The Royal Hotel – all within 50 yards of each other in a place named Symonds Yat.
Before this century, the population of Symonds Yat was approximately 200 people. They chiefly consisted of just about four families. Williams’ the Jarretts, the Gardiners and the Morgans.
In those days all the people that lived around here were employed in industry of a kind, such as lime burning, charcoal burning and iron ore, but when the century finished and we come into the early 19’s, things began to change. They closed the majority of the lime kilns down, all the iron ore works had stopped working and things had changed slightly. What happened was the majority of the people who was here then put their hands to getting their living on the river. Most of the men were good boatmen and they got their living in that way.
I am one of the Williams family actually. The Williams family were always known as the Nineties. My great grandfather was one of the Nineties – he was supposed to be the only person who has ever caught a sturgeon in the river Wye. He caught that in the region of 1912. He caught it in the rapids, just below the railway station.
In those days they always had a Regatta – quite an occasion. It was chiefly amongst the locals but there was enough talent to have singles, doubles, the pair oar, the under fourteens and the over fifties, also the ladies singles and doubles. The regatta in the daytime and, more often than not, a Carnival in the evening. Now in our day and age no one seems to have any time to do anything like that. I think the last regatta that was held here was in 1929. That was the winter that we had the very high flood.
The three highest floods in the river I remember were in 1929, 1947 and 1962 – there was approximately 26’ of water above normal. 1947 I myself rowed a boat across the fields of Symonds Yat to the main road to where the Blue Star garage now stands.
The highest flood we ever had, actually, was the flood in 1947. That was after the very heavy snows. In the winter of 1947 I walked across the river every day to work for three weeks on the ice. The next high flood to that was 1962 – that was a very cold winter previous to the flood. A friend and I, we kept on breaking the ice to try and get across the river, but it was freezing and freezing and freezing and eventually we had to give up, but the ice got so thick that we actually, a neighbour Mrs. Gwilliam and myself, lit a bonfire in the middle of the river on the ice. That was in 1962.
In my school days there was no means of conveyance to get to school. I was one of the lucky ones, I only had a mile and a half to walk, but there were several children at school who had three or three and a half miles to go. Of course, there were such things as what we used to call a short cut – paths running through fields and lanes running here there and everywhere else. They were known as Church paths. The reason they were called Church paths was because, once again, in those days there was no means of conveyance for funerals and that sort of thing and everyone had to be carried to church in the coffin on people’s shoulders and in those days, no matter how far they had to go, there was always enough people turned out to carry them. Also, there was another way of getting to school quick. If you could find yourself a shilling, – that was twelve pence in old money, – you could go down to the local blacksmith and he would fix you up with an iron hoop which put a guide on and you could run all the way to school with the hoop. That would reduce the time probably by a half. Boys always had an iron hoop and the girls a wooden one.
Another thing I remember very well, just after leaving school, the picture house in Monmouth. It was in the days of when the first talkies came out. The first talkie I saw at Monmouth was ‘The Singing Poor’. Of course there were no buses or anything, you either had to walk there – in those days there were only about three people in the area who had a car. Two of them in particular, one was a farmer, the other was a grocer. If you could talk nicely to them they could take four or five of you, run you into Monmouth. You could go to the pictures for about sixpence in old money and he would come and fetch you back when it was all over, for a nominal fee of about one shilling per head. That was approximately five shillings for the return journey to Monmouth for four or five of you. Now when you go to Monmouth it costs you just over a pound.
Talking of schools again, the old system at school was much different to what it is now. They had a system whereby if you were in what we called ‘standard four’ and you were at the age of eleven, you could sit for exams and, if you were lucky enough to pass, you could go to Grammar School. I remember very well I was the age of eleven – I wasn’t brilliant at school by any means, but probably a bit above the average and there were nine of us sat for Grammar School exams, eight of us passed and out of the eight that passed there were only two of us who could possibly go there, because the parents in those days, they couldn’t afford to send us to Monmouth or to Ross to Grammar School because you had to buy all your own uniforms. You had to pay your way to get there and there were no grants of any description in those days. The other thing was the only way you could get into Monmouth or Ross in those days would have been by train. Living in the west bank of the Wye, to go to Ross or Monmouth by train you had to cross the river by ferry. That was a very limited thing, especially in the winter. Sometimes the ferry couldn’t work or the river was in flood and you would probably loose more time at school than what you were there, apart from the fact that, as I say, not many parents could afford to send anyone to Grammar School in those days.
Talking of sweets or toffees and such like in my schooldays, you could go to a shop and probably get a half penny’s worth of sweets or you could get a penny’s worth of liquorice – that would probably last you two or three days. Liquorice was horrible stuff to eat.
There was a particular shop in the area, and it was kept by a German in actual fact, and, as you know, Germans are very precise about things. If you went for a penny worth of sweets – which would be an ounce or whatever it was – he would weigh the sweets and if he couldn’t precisely get an ounce, I’ve seen him cut one sweet in half to have the precise weight. If your mother or father sent you for a loaf of bread -a loaf of bread was much heavier in those days, I think what we called a small loaf was 3 pound in weight – he’d do likewise with every loaf of bread. He would weigh the bread and if it was half an ounce under he would cut half an ounce off another load to make it up, or vice versa if it was too heavy he would cut an ounce off. That is how precise he was!
Going back to my school days again, there was always a school football team, but you had to find the money to buy your own kit with and you had to find your own way to get to the other villages that you were playing against. For instance, I walked as far as Goodrich, Llangarron or Llangrove, which is a distance of 4 or 5 miles and you had to walk all the way there and you also had to walk all the way back. After playing football and getting yourself all messed up – there was no such thing as showers or those sort of things, you had to put up with a cold bath, probably in front of a fire. Also, talking of football, the village itself of Whitchurch, they always had a wonderful village team. On one occasion they were in the final of the Herefordshire cup and the final was being played in Hereford. There were quite a number of spectators wanting to get there, but of course no one had any cars, and the only way to get there was by train which was, even in those days, rather expensive and this was a very difficult place to get back to. So about ten of the locals, they hired two brakes or what was known in those days as wagonettes. One horse and a carriage which would carry four or five persons. On this particular occasion I remember I was taken as a little boy and the driver of the wagonette lost himself on the way back, instead of coming down into Whitchurch from Hereford he took the wrong way and he finished up down into Abergavenny!
Another great sport in those days for children was when the farmers were doing their harvesting. Of course that was all done with horses and to cut a field of about four or five acres would take probably a couple of days, but the farmer would allow the children to go into the harvest field and follow the old binder round which was cutting the corn etc. and turn it up and allow the children to take a stick with them and kill all the rabbits as they appeared out of the corn. What would happen was if you killed four rabbits, the old farmer would let you have two and you had to give him two. Of course, a price for a rabbit in those days was something in the region of six pence or ninepence in old money. So if you were lucky and you killed four rabbits, the farmer had his two and you probably had 1/6d. in old money for yourself. In my day that was approximately a fortnight’s pocketmoney.
Right opposite the school at Whitchurch that I went to was a farmhouse which is now a hotel actually, called The Old Court. Every school day I had to bring a quart of skimmed milk back home. A quart of skimmed milk in those days was three ha’pence. The top price for milk was only two pence (per pint). On several occasions when the weather had been bad in the winter, by the time I got home I had about half a pint left. Consequently what would happen, my Uncle who brought me up, would send me back to get another quart. That was one of the perks I had to do to get my two pence a week pocketmoney.
During my school days I think there were about 120 or 130 pupils at the school and there were only 4 teachers. A teacher in those days, she started teaching you your scripture in the morning and would teach you all day. The same teacher took you for arithmetic, and history – she would take all the lessons.
SYMONDS YAT CHARACTERS & PUBS
I would like to talk now about some of the characters in the pubs in Symonds Yat, as they were in the 20’s and 30’s.
I would like to say, first of all, that practically every man in Symonds Yat had a nick name and half of the men of Symonds Yat also owned a rowing boat. Anyhow, I’m going to start, first, about the Saracen’s Head, which was approximately 100 yards upstream from the Royal Hotel. There were three premises there, the Saracens Head, the cottage adjoining to it, which also belonged to the proprietor of the Saracen’s Head and next door to that, another house which ran the post office.
Now these three premises belonged to 2 brothers by the name of Jones. The one that kept the Saracen’s Head was known by the name of Jack, nick-named Demon. The one that kept the Post Office was William, nick-named Gaiters. Now, Demon was a demon by nature – he was always full of pranks – he gave a man by the name of Johns (nicknamed Jumper) a pound to cut another man’s head off! That was in the late 20’s.
Talking of the Saracen’s, there was no music or dancing as such, but if you wanted a sing song there was just the old piano. The bylaw at the Saracen’s was if you wanted to sing there was no singing or dancing allowed on Sunday on licensed premises in Herefordshire, but there was in Gloucestershire. The Saracen’s Head, being in Herefordshire and the cottage next to it which also belonged to the Saracen’s, being in Gloucestershire, all you had to do was to carry the piano out of Herefordshire and put it into Gloucestershire, which was only five yards away and that was quite permissible.
I think that the Saracen’s Head was in the Jones family for many many years, as long as I can remember anyway. I think it changed hands somewhere in the late fifties. All the Jones family, they had a reputation of being a Police family. Jack Jones himself was a policeman, his wife’s two or three brothers were all policemen and the son, known as Les Jones, he was also a policeman. He was in the Metropolitan Police for a long while then I think he was drafted to the Thames Police in London. He was the last of the Jones family to keep the Saracens.
Talking of Bill Jones who kept the Post Office next door, as I say you were only a few yards away from the Railway Station and in those days the mail came down on the morning train and also we had our mail very early, which is much different to nowadays. We don’t get a paper at all and sometimes we don’t get our mail until ten or twelve o’clock!
Now, about another quarter of a mile upstream we come to the Old Ferrie Inne. The Old Ferrie Inne is a very old pub, reputed to be about six hundred years old. That is where the original ferry for Symonds Yat used to be. There are two ferries at the moment but the Ferrie Inne was the original ferry. In the days of the barges there was actually a horse ferry there where they used to ferry the horse across from one side of the river to the other to feed them etc. Its only quite recently that some of the structure of the horse ferry has disintegrated. There has always been a lot of controversy about which was the original ferry, but in my opinion the original ferry which would, I think, be something in the region of about three or four hundred years old, was at the Old Ferrie Inne.
The adjoining piece of ground to the Old Ferrie Inne used to be known as the barges, hence all the old boys who used to own barges in the area used to bring their barges there for repair work. Of course over the years that has been claimed by someone and that no longer exists. I can’t remember, but my parents could, the last barge and the last man to own a barge was a man by the name of Ballinger and that is where the last barge disintegrated. I think I’m right in saying that the majority of the land by the river in the late 20’s was more or less public property.
There is rather an odd story about the Old Ferrie Inne . . . In the late twenties there was a man (I’m not going to mention his name) he was suffering from a state of depression – in actual fact he had tried to commit suicide. In the first instance he cut his throat. Anyhow, he survived that, and after he cut his throat he then went and tried to drown himself – he also survived that. The Ferrie Inne, being rather a quiet select sort of place then, they decided to let him rest at the Ferry and they gave a couple of men the privilege of looking after him. That didn’t last very long (I’m not going to mention the names of the two men looking after him) because the man I’m talking about – he hung himself in the loft in the Ferrie Inne and that was the end of that!
Now the next pub we come to, if you climb up the hill slowly, you come to what was the main road and you come to what was known as the Symonds Yat Hotel. That was a very busy little place. Apart from the Yat people, there were tourists that they used to cater for in the summer time. It had quite a few activities – a long skittle alley and it also had an organisation there known as the Merthyr Unity Philanthropic Association which was a Welsh association whereby you could join and contribute a certain amount of money every month or every week or something like that and some of the proceeds went for very good causes in South Wales. Their annual day was always on 29th May which is Oak Apple Day. That was a grand day really, they had a band which would parade to all peoples’ houses and they had scarves for people belonging to the association and they also had a grand fair in the village of Whitchurch on that particular day. I remember as a boy I used to follow the brass band or silver band, which ever they employed for that day, for miles and miles and miles. The only trouble was, all the people that were playing the band were very nearly three parts drunk by the time they’d finished the day.
Now, climbing up the hill a little bit further, in actual fact half way up the Doward (The Doward is one of the hills in Symonds Yat) was another pub, the Old Yew Tree. That was a unique sort of pub. You very seldom saw any strangers there, it was more or less all the old boys pub. The landlord was a unique sort of a person, he was the landlord of a free house – he made all his own cider. Cider of course was the main product in those days. A pint of cider was something in the region of 2d. (two old pence) I know in my days it was 6d. for a pint of cider and ten Woodbines and a box of matches – all for 6d. When I say the Landlord was a unique sort of a man, he was the landlord, he was also the undertaker and he also played the Church organ. Saturday night was a very big night at that pub. Every Saturday night all the old boys used to congregate there and the landlord had what was known as a harmonium. He used to push that out into the bar and that was sing song night. All the old boys used to start at one end of the bar and they used to go along in turn all singing their own songs.
Coming back down the hill another couple of hundred yards there was another local that was known as The Grove, better known as The Jam Pot. Why it had the name Jam Pot, no one seemed to know, but there was a rumour that way back years ago, the landlord by the names of Jones (it was in the family for about 100 years) ran out of mugs – because it was all mugs in those days – stone mugs, they ran out of mugs and old man Jones had given out jam pots to drink from – hence the name – Jam Pot. That also was a very unique sort of pub, even up to the late sixties you could go in there and the floor was all the old flag stones and a great big old kitchen table where the old men could sit at the table and of course the dart board came along later. I should think it was one of the oldest original pubs in Great Britain really. Now, of course, that – like most other places – is all modernised.
Another little instance that happened at the Jam Pot or The Grove Inn – it is said that one of the old customers always used to arrive there with a donkey and a cart and he used to tie or tether the donkey to a gateway which lead down into the garden. Anyhow, this is the tale that I’ve been told:- While he was having his couple of pints of cider a couple of the other customers went outside and they took the donkey out of the shafts and put the donkey on one side of the gate and stuck the shafts through the gate with the cart on the other. After they did that they white-washed the donkey, which caused a bit of commotion.
There was one particular family, the Gardiners, I think there was about nine in the family, three girls and about six boys. Everyone of them was in a small business of some sort. They had a few rowing boats or kept a small guest house and that sort of thing. The boys, they all had nick names as I’ve said before. The elder one was called Frisky, another one was called Warrior. How they come by these names I’ll never know. They all seemed to survive and none of them ever had what you might call a regular job – they were all self-employed.
A couple of old inhabitants I would like to talk about are the two local coal hauliers. They each had a horse and a cart which would carry just one ton of coal. Now, to get the ton of coal and deliver it to a customer in Symonds Yat, they had to go all the way to Kerne Bridge, which was about three miles. They’d get their ton of coal from the railway siding there and bring it back and deliver it to Symonds Yat. That, of course in those days was a complete days work. Now one coalman’s name was Jones. He had a nickname – they called him Flannel – why I’ll never understand and the other coal haulier, his name was Jarrett and they called him Charlie D. That was their two nicknames. They were quite characters really. Anyhow, they both managed to get a complete living out of delivering coal, which, as I say, to deliver one ton of coal and fetch it all the way from Kerne Bridge, was a complete day’s work!
In the thirties we had another man living at Symonds Yat – a man by the name of Mr. Agnew Pratlowe. He was a retired engineer. He had tried for years and years and years to get a footbridge at Symonds Yat, which never materialised. But if he could get the council or the Forestry Commission or anyone else interested in it he was quite willing to engineer the job free. But it never materialised. Anyhow, some of the old boys, they made a song about this imaginary bridge. I think I know a few of the words from it. It went something like this . . .
“Come and view the bridge boys down at Symonds Yat
It will be a local structure and you can bet your hat,
It was designed by Agnew Pratlowe an engineer of skill,
It’ll be an ornament for Symonds Yat and boon to Doward Hill.”
That’s how it went and I can remember my old Uncle – he lived to 92 – I remember him singing that in one of the locals, The Yew Tree which I have spoken of before. The Agnew Pratlowe I’m talking about, he also compiled a guide to Symonds Yat. I can’t remember a lot about it now, I’ve been trying for a long while to get one, but one thing he did mention was the famous Seven Sisters Rocks. They were supposed to be named after a woman who had seven daughters. Whether that’s right or wrong I wouldn’t know, but he mentioned these Seven Sisters Rocks in his guide and he also made a little song about that:-
“About three miles from Monmouth town stands seven rocks to . . .
You may search the land from east to west,
You will never find in all your quests
As stately rocks as these.
There lies King Arthur’s cave close by
To which the monarch once did fly . . .”
I’m afraid that’s all of it I know at the moment.
I would like to talk about some of the early days of the old boatmen. In the days of the train, all the boatmen of Symonds Yat – which was quite a lot actually – used to do all their business from the same side as the Railway Station. As I told you before, the river runs parallel with the railway. All the customers had to do was to walk off the railway station and they were on the bank of the river. I have been told that a lot of the procedure was a visitor would come off the train and want a couple of hours on the river – to go down to the Seven Sisters Rocks etc. and he’d walk along the bank, inspect all the boats that were there – of course they were all rowing boats, all cushioned and carpeted – and what would happen was the customer would select the boat which he thought was the most comfortable. That was the way things were.
I remember one boatman in particular, he took a party of Americans from Symonds Yat, over the Rapids, down to the Seven Sisters Rocks and Martins Pool. You could almost guarantee that the customer would see a salmon jump. This particular party were Americans, all the way down the river they were enjoying the scenery and at the same time, like the majority of Americans, they were telling the boatman how quickly they could build a skyscraper and do this and that and the other thing in America and how things were done so much faster than what it was in England. Anyhow, the boatman digested all this on the way down, but when he came back, he punted the boat up over the rapids (which was the only way because there were no outboard motor boats or anything), the people walked up the bank.
He was just about to put the people back in the boat when the American said to him, “Well, boatman, I never saw that Hotel on the way down!”
(This was the Wye Rapids Hotel) And the boatman, being a bit witty said, “I think they built that while we were away!”
What a lot of the customers used to do if they could afford to spend 2 and a half hours on the river and the return journey, they would get the boat to take them right through to Monmouth and drop them off at Monmouth and the boatman would bring the boat back and the people would come back by train. The prices for these trips in those days of course was much different to what they are now. I think I’m right in saying what they used to call a large boat that would carry 6 people to go to Monmouth was something in the region of ten shillings old money and a small boat that would carry up to 4 people, that was six shillings. I believe I’m right in saying that some of the very old boatmen rowed people right through into Tintern and the cost of going to Tintern was £1.10s.0d and a small boat £1. That was to go 22 miles! This, of course, was a day’s work, because to row 22 miles down then bring the empty boat back, took quite a long time.
Later on as the railway was to become a thing of the past and eventually closed down completely, quite a number of people were touring the Wye Valley on bicycles, tandems etc. and it was quite a common thing for the boatmen to take six people through to Monmouth by boat with six bicycles on the boat as well as six people or three tandems. When that came along the prices had risen quite a bit £1.10s..0d. for six people to Monmouth with bicycles.
I remember some of the very old sizeable houses which existed in Symonds Yat. The Old Court for instance. Originally it was a farm house, they turned that into a gentleman’s house. It had beautiful grounds there, they used to hold a fete there. He used to employ a butler and three or four other domestic staff. The people that owned it in those days, the Brownings, their son was killed in an aircraft accident. They always used to give the children of the local school a tea once a year.
One of the other great houses in Whitchurch was Portland House. That originally was an asylum. Now it is developed into about four different premises. I remember very well the wrought iron gates in the front. People by the name of Walker used to own it in those days, just a man and a woman, stately old man and a stately old lady. I can visualise her now, coming to the old wrought iron gates, watching the children dance round the Maypole in the village square on May Day.
Another house half way up the village, The Grange. That was a beautiful house, they used to hold a fete there once a year, they even had their own Roman Catholic Church. Also another house, The Brook Farm, that was a very old building owned by people by the name of Lewis. You used to go there and get your pint of fresh milk. Unfortunately when the dual carriageway came through the village, half these places were destroyed. All you have now in those places is a council estate or an ordinary building estate. Another place between here and Monmouth which they destroyed, in my opinion must have been one of the oldest buildings in Great Britain I would think. In actual fact it was reputed to be one of the oldest leprosy colonies in the country. I have heard some of the older people say that it was the last one that was used in this country.
Now I’m talking about 1926/27 up to 29. There were two brothers came to live in the area, one was the Architect the other a builder. They built about 10 or 12 Tudor period houses in between Whitchurch and Goodrich, on the Ross road as it was in those days. Those are quite sizeable houses. I think in 1929 the cheapest of those was sold for something in the region of £2,000 which was, of course, quite a lot of money in those days.
What I’m coming to is the fact that during that period there was very few people out of work in the area. The brothers I’m speaking of, they employed a couple of carpenters and they produced all the materials they wanted off the land they built the houses on, even the sand, for the building. They made all the concrete blocks on the site and, as I say, they employed a lot of men. After the houses were built, well, if you were domesticated you very rarely saw a girl out of work, because the majority of these houses I’m speaking of employed domestic staff, which is more than can be said for the people who live in the area today. As a matter of fact, I think even the old Blacksmith’s shop in the village has been turned into a Guest House.
One of the features in 1912 was when a Norwegian Chalet came to Symonds Yat. The chalet itself was in the White City exhibition. It was bought by rather a wealthy man who had spent most of his life salmon fishing in Norway, he also had salmon fishing in this area. Anyhow, he bought this chalet at the White City Exhibition and it came to Symonds Yat by rail and it was carried approximately three or four hundred yards up the hillside and erected there. It still is there actually and its one of the features now. Some of the modern boatmen point out this chalet to the trippers but, unfortunately, they call it the Swiss Chalet – but its not – in fact it was a Norwegian Chalet.
About a mile upstream from Symonds Yat stands the old 12th century church – name being St. Dubricius. In my short spell of life I’ve seen two funerals go from Symonds Yat to the Church by river. One being one of the old gillies of Symonds Yat by the name of George W. He was conveyed from home (his home was on the banks of the river) to the church by boat and also my uncle – he lived near the river and were conveyed to the church by boat. I also remember one wedding by boat from Symonds Yat.
A GILLIE AT THE ROYAL HOTEL
The Royal Hotel was, in the early days, something rather unique in this area and had a lot to offer. It had ten miles of salmon fishing and, in those days in the early days, there was no electricity or mains water in the area except the Hotel, the water coming from The Royal Forest of Dean from a spring which was approximately 3 mile away. They generated electricity – their own.
The River, The Railway and The Royal were all closely related to each other because without the river, which had its salmon fishing and the railway to bring the people, the Royal would not exist.
I myself left school at the age of 14 – 1918. The first job I ever had was at the Royal Hotel. One of my duties was to clean 16 or 18 pair of shoes all by six o’clock in the morning. Various other jobs were to carry luggage from the railway to the hotel. For that I received ten shillings per week and my lunch. Anyhow, after I’d stayed there for approximately 12 months or so I eventually graduated to a gillie – that was because I had quite a lot of knowledge of the river. There were four gillies employed at the hotel in those days and they made me the spare one. I think the first salmon I ever landed, I was about 15 years or age.
One of the first clients I took on the river (all the fishing in those days was done from a boat which meant to say you had to have some knowledge of the river) – the first client I had was a local doctor, a doctor by the name of Dr. Bucanne. He resided in Coleford – he had a practice in Coleford and he also had a son who was blind. His son lost both his eyes during the first world war. Anyhow, I may talk about that later . . . The first client, as I say, I had was Dr. Bucanne. They sent me with him and the name speaks for itself. Anyhow, it was a very very cold day in February. The river was practically freezing during that period. We started about half past nine in the morning and fished ‘till about 4 o’clock and it was so cold that the rod and the line was freezing every time he cast and he also drank a half bottle of whisky during that period.
He said to me, “I’m very sorry Ronnie, I can’t give you any because you’re too young to drink!”
During the early 30’s the hotel had a lot to offer because of it’s salmon fishing. Some very good stretches of water and good salmon pools, known as Martins Pool, the Slaughter, the Lime Kilns and places like that which produced a lot of salmon. I’ve known myself – and you can say that without exaggeration there were 30 or 40 fish in one pool.
Owing to that fact that it was such a wonderful stretch of fishing, we had people like General Muskrat and General Swan. General Muskrat, a very brave man I would have thought, because I had heard him say on several occasions that twice he’d had his horse shot from underneath him. Those were the sort of people who we had in the early 30’s.
During the 30’s the hotel was run by two maiden sisters and their mother, by the name of Southern. Rather a coincidence really was that at that particular time there were three Southerns which ran the hotel, there were three Jarretts on the staff and also three sisters by the name of Stephenson. I was the odd man out. Other people had stayed at the hotel on previous occasions, like the Duke of Connaught, also Austin Chamberlain. All those people were deeply interested in salmon fishing, which of course was the sport of sports.
Now the war being over I returned back home after six years in the Suez, demobbed just before the Christmas of 1945. Things hadn’t changed very much, but like most other fellows of my age I had a job to settle down, I was still a single man.
I spent the first summer of 1946 rowing people who used to come to Symonds Yat on pleasure trips up and down the river. Having a good knowledge of the river I was, like a lot of other fellows, capable of taking people over the rapids, down into Martins Pool and places like that and could guarantee that they would see a salmon leap. There were several men like myself in Symonds Yat doing that sort of thing. One of our boom times was after speech day at Malvern College or Cheltenham College. Parents used to come to Symonds Yat and bring their sons and daughters, usually on the Sunday after speech day or the Saturday and they would bring a picnic hamper and enjoy themselves. They’d hire a boat and a boatman such as myself and I’d take them down into Martin’s pool and have three or four hours on the river. This was nothing unique really because this had all been done previous to the war, but it occupied me for the first summer after the war.
Anyhow, the next salmon season came round and one of the old gillies from the Royal Hotel, which still existed – still running as a salmon fishing hotel etc. – came and asked me if I’d consider taking up a gillies job. I thought about it and eventually I went over and saw the owner at the Royal Hotel – of course it had changed hands since the war. Anyhow, I went over and met the owner of the hotel, a man by the name of Mr. Sidney Balfour. He had several Chemist Shops. He was a qualified chemist and had several shops around London and I believe he had one or two in France. Anyhow, I had an interview with him and it was settled that I should take up a gillie’s job.
Now I’m back at the Royal Hotel as a full time gillie – or if you like to put it another way – a professional fisherman.
Things had changed quite a lot really. There were not as many people travelling by train and as I have remarked before, cars were getting more prevalent all the time. One big problem at the Royal Hotel then was there was no car park, which made things very difficult. To have a hotel without a car park was something like having a flock of sheep without a field! Anyhow, I met a lot of people. It was still the same sort of hotel actually, there were your generals and your air commodores. One person in particular I met was an air commodore, a grand old gentleman. He made the Royal Hotel his home for quite a long while. I always remember him – he used to sit outside in front of the hotel and talk to the parrot for hours and hours. The difference was that as a gillie I was in a position to tell some of the generals and the air commodores what to do, instead of them telling me what to do!
I would like to talk about one or two of the people that I had the pleasure to take salmon fishing. I’d like to speak first of old Commander Bradley. Him and I had been flogging away all the morning on a beat which we call the tunnel beat, that’s the other side of the railway tunnel from the hotel. He’d already caught one sizeable fish – about 20 pounds in weight and we were sat down having our lunch. Having a fish 20 pound in weight gave us a bit of a boost.
We were having a conversation as usual about various things and the old commander said to me, “Ronnie, do you ever bet on horses?”
I said, “Not very often – may have a bet on The National or The Derby or one of the classics like that.”
He said, “It’s the Grand National tomorrow.” Anyhow, he put his hand in his pocket and he gave me a pound note and said, “When you go home tonight, if you can get a bet on for tomorrow, put it on Early Mist.”
Of course a pound in those days, well, was a pound really – it was worth quite a bit. Anyhow, I went home, had my tea and even in those days I liked my pint of beer and my game of cards – crib was the game. I went along to the local which was the Jam Pot and there were quite a lot of the local lads in there and out of this pound I bought most of them a pint, had a couple of pints for myself, because in those days I could get 40 pints of beer for a pound, which is very nearly unbelievable now. But, anyhow, all I had left out of the pound to put on the horse Early Mist was half a crown. I put half a crown on, we listened to the racing next day and, sure enough, it won 14 to 1 and that’s something – it stands out in my memory.
The following week I had another customer to take, a gentleman by the name of Colonel Phillips. He came from Royston, in actual fact he lived in Royston Manor. He was a grand old gentleman and during one of our conversations he told me that when he was young he couldn’t decide quite whether he was to become a professional boxer or join the army. But, as you can imagine now he obviously joined the army, being a colonel – and he was a grand old gentleman. I caught several fish with him. Another thing that he told me was the fact that during his career in the army he had been ADC to two different Kings which is quite an achievement in itself.
Anyhow, I had to take him out fishing for a week. We didn’t have a very good week that particular week. I remember it very well because I think we caught a couple of small fish not very big – 8 or 10 pound or so I think and it so happened that he caught his last salmon with me and we caught that one in a pool called The Slaughter. I remember it very well because the old gentleman shook hands with me when he left the hotel the following morning then he was off back home. But, unfortunately he had an accident on the way home. That accident – it didn’t kill him, but he died shortly afterwards and that is another old gentleman that always stood out in my mind.
Directly in front of the hotel was the railway station, The Great Western Railway. To the right of it there was a tunnel, a symmetrical tunnel. It was only a quarter of a mile long.
I would like to have a few more words about a couple more people which were very interesting. Old Lord Borrick – he was quite a character really, anything goes wrong he knows exactly how to swear – also very very fond of the fair sex. I had some very good times with him actually and caught some very good fish! He was quite a character.
Another person I knew very very well was the Goodall family. They were all furniture manufacturers from High Wycombe. The old man, think he caught one of his first fish with me, immediately after he came to Symonds Yat, after the war. Later on I met his two sons Ronnie and Alan. Alan, being the elder of the sons, he was one of the best fly fishermen I’d ever seen.
As I say, things were much different then to what they are now. You could glide down the river in a rowing boat which all the fishing was done in. You could see the odd otter creeping across the river. The moorhen – you seldom see one of those now. You could also see the odd kingfisher sat on a wooden tree barrel, usually sat on a tree which was dead because that is much warmer for their feet. Might see the odd water snake going across the river. All those things have gone now because there’s too much traffic on the river, all you hear now is the buzz of an outboard engine or a dozen or more canoes coming.
I was fishing one day from Martin’s Pool, that is underneath what we now call The Seven Sisters and I was with Brigadier Westdroff, who was quite a gentleman. I believe I’m right in saying he was the first man to introduce the Bailey Bridge to the army. Anyhow, as I say, I was sat in the boat down in Martin’s Pool with him and we were having our lunch and the next thing we saw come down to the river very very quietly was a couple of fawn deer and, believe me, both of them got in the river and swam from one side to the other. That is something that you very seldom see now.
Here’s another little point which I’d like to mention. To become a gillie you have to develop a tremendous amount of patience because you could go day after day and you’d probably catch nothing at all. Patience is a great virtue in that respect. I remember one day in particular, I’d got a local landlord with me. I’d just took him out for a day’s fishing with me and he’d never caught a salmon on the Wye before. He’d been quite used to fishing on the Tweed.
It was early February and we’d been fishing all day. We went out about half past nine in the morning and we fished and fished and fished and fished – and nothing happened. You don’t usually get a lot of sport in early February, because the run of fish haven’t really started. But, anyhow, as I say, we’d got along all day and we’d fished and fished and we were coming back towards home and we’d got to the last decent salmon pool on this particular stretch of water known as the Slaughter and he said to me, “Ronnie, when the sun goes over the top of that hill we’ll pack it up – Oh no we wont!”
At that precise moment he said, “I think I’ve got something!” And you may not believe it but that was one of the biggest salmon I’ve every handled actually. It was just 41 pounds. Anyhow, Mr. Burnham was his name – he hadn’t been used to handling big fish, he’d fished on the Tweed where fish were only 8 or 10 pound in weight.
He said, “Well it looks like something big, Ronnie. Are you going to let me finish it off or are you going to do it?”
And I said, “No, you caught the thing – you finish it off.”
So, anyhow, he was very very lucky with it really, he had that 40 pound fish in the boat in less than 20 minutes. But, what I’m trying to explain is that that is how your patience has got to be. You go all day, sat in the cold, and nothing happens and suddenly the whole thing is changed.
Now the time has arrived and the hotel comes up for sale. To me this seems to be the end of the road. Anyhow, it was put on the market and everything is sold in bits and pieces. The hotel was sold separately, the lodge next to it, that was sold separately and all the fishing was sold in three different lots. Two lots of the fishing was bought by a very wealthy man from Leicester. After he’d bought the fishing he came to me and one more of the gillies, in fact two more of the gillies and asked us to stay on. That I agreed to do. The one beat he kept for just a matter of about three years, then he decided to sell that. There was a little bit of aggro as regards to access to it. To get proper access to it he would have to have bought another farm. So, instead of buying another farm he decided to sell it. He also sold I should think it would be one of the last persons in the world to be sold – he also sold one of the gillies.
Anyhow, the person who bought the hotel decided to change everything completely. No fishing belonging to it, so he decided to turn it into just an ordinary hotel and restaurant. That he tried to do but it wouldn’t work, so he decided (he only kept it for about 18 months) to sell again. Fortunately the people who bought it the second time, they decided to run it again as a hotel. A lot of problems because they had no car park. But there was a rumour now that the old railway was going to close down, which would have been, as I say, the end of everything. We would lose what everybody looked upon as one of the nicest railway runs in the country – right down through the Wye Valley, which was very very beautiful.
Anyhow, the crunch came and the railway was closed.
Now, with the new owner of the fishing, things were much different to what they used to be. We’d lost a lot of the old people, some of the real good ones such as Sir Stafford Cripps’ family, the Lord Borricks and a lot of people like that. What the new owner wanted, he wanted all the fishing for himself and, of course, his own personal friends, which made things much different to what it was. Anyhow, the railway being closed down – that made a lot of difference as well because lots of people that used to come to the hotel for the unique purpose of coming by train, well, that was all gone and forgotten. The fishing carried on for a while, two or three years or probably more than that actually, at the old Martin’s Pool and the Slaughter – the Slaughter was one of the best pools down there.
As I say, fishing went on very well for a while but there were a lot of things we missed. We missed the old steam train puffing up and down at about every hour. On a very still day you could sit outside the hotel and hear the old train blow its whistle when it was leaving Monmouth. That was something that was missed altogether. What was happening, you was getting a lot of canoes on the river, there was little camping sites on the side of the river and, of course, the whole thing come alive, not with normal life like we used to know it, with the odd rowing boat. In my opinion it spoiled a lot of things.
So what the owner of the water done then, he decided to buy another stretch of river. He bought another stretch up in mid-Wales. He used to go up there when the water here was too high, we used to go up there and we were back to square one actually, no canoes, no motor boats – no nothing, just how Symonds Yat was in the old days. Anyhow, that lasted for quite a long while, then he decided to sell that and he bought another stretch down below Monmouth. That was very very good, a wonderful stretch of river especially in the summer on a low river. Unfortunately that became the same – overrun with canoes, camping sites – all sorts of things. So, in the end he decided to sell the lot.
Of course, that was the end of my fishing days. Anyhow, I was coming up to retirement age then and what I decided to do as a gesture, after being in the fishing world practically all my life, I thought what I’d try and do was something which would help other people a little bit, so I formed an Invalid Children’s’ Angling Club which, with the help of some more people we still run. We entertain approximately 150-200 invalid children every season at Symonds Yat, and what a delightful thing to see, someone who has been in a wheelchair all their life and with no hope of any other life, to see them catch a little tiny fish. It makes me wonder sometimes what fishing is all about. Lots of people think that fishing is a thing that the old man goes away for on a Sunday morning, to get away from his nagging wife, but I can assure you that that is not so. Fishing does a lot, as I say, even to people in wheel chairs and it also does a lot to people who suffer a lot from financial worries, because when you do a day’s fishing, nothing in the world seems to worry you, except that fish which you might catch.
Talking of invalid children – what an expression on a child’s face when he does catch a fish, even if its only an eel about 5 or 6 inches long. It’s changed that child’s life altogether and that is something now that I’m really proud of. I’ve spent my whole life fishing. I’ve never made a lot of money, but I can honestly say that the whole of my life I have thoroughly enjoyed!