Under the surface

Chapter Five of Life Along the River by Kathryn Shreeve

Local historian and writer Kathryn Shreeve has been with Friends of the Rib & Quin from the very beginning. She has published several books on the area through the ages and in ‘Life Along the River’ tells the story of our river valleys through history, serialised into chapters on our website.

Chapter five looks at the rivers from a piscatorial perspective.

Under the surface

Just how many men and women, with rod and line in hand, have sat along the banks of the Rib and Quin over the millennia is incalculable.  Certainly, once man had discovered the principle in ancient times, it has proved not just a vital food source in difficult times, but also a soothing pastime. [photo] And not just for adults – small children have often been found catching minnows with a piece of string and a jam jar!

The first record we have for the fish that are native to these rivers comes from the same Iron Age archaeological site in Puckeridge mentioned in chapter one, where, from a well on the site, a number of fish bones were recovered.  Many were too small or degraded to be identified, but three river fish – eel, roach and chub – were found to be present.  As the archaeologist’s report states: “There is little reason to doubt that these fish would have been captured in the River Rib or one of its nearby tributaries.”  This was probably achieved using some sort of basket trap.  None of this is surprising, as these are fish that are happy in chalk streams today. 

It is interesting to note that eels were once such a lucrative resource that they were even recorded in the Domesday Book, nearly a thousand years after the Iron Age settlement at Puckeridge was thriving.  Ware was the place to go for these fish, recording “400 eels less 25”.  In the Middle Ages they were even used as currency, 375 of them could rent you a cottage!  They were still being caught near Thundridge in the last century.  It was also common in the early part of the 20th century to find pike and trout in the Quin.  “During my school days it was a common sight to look down from this bridge [in Braughing] to see several large trout, for the little river was always well stocked with them.  It was not an uncommon sight to see a pike at times but these always chose the deeper still waters.”  

The same newspaper article of 1880 mentioned in the previous chapter also lists the fish that could be found back then: “The fish whose names are given in the following list may on any day be taken from the waters of the Rib: trout, jack or pike, perch, chub, dace, gudgeon, minnow, eels, and occasionally tench and roach, and more rarely carp, have been captured.”  All these can still be found today, but just how high upstream is a different matter.  In 1866, an article in The Field magazine about fishing in the Rib records that at Aspenden “trout of goodly size abound, even in rivulets with water scarcely sufficient to cover them.”  This is not the case today.  The same article also tells us that for about three miles north of Standon: “there is very fair angling, the trout being large and full of bounce.  ….. Below Standon, the trout are scarce – jack, perch, chub, dace and roach in plenty”.  It’s unlikely that the trout are quite as bouncy today as they once were!

As for the right to fish, as far back as the medieval period there was the ‘lord’s fishery’ and the ‘common fishery’, and the penalties were harsh for anyone who didn’t know their place.  Several entries in the manorial court rolls show such cases of trespass.  And as late as the 17th century the then lord of Standon, Ralph Sadleir (the same otter-hunter as mentioned previously), went to court over one miscreant who not only persisted in fishing in his lordship’s fishery, but even went so far as to construct his own weir!  However, the same Victorian article in The Field mentions that an obliging farmer would happily turn a blind eye, particularly if “the angler should lay hold of a trout or two …. he could not do better than present them to his kind-hearted host.”  Nothing much has changed to this day – he who owns the land beside English rivers owns that stretch of river, and woe betide anyone who fishes, swims or even kayaks along the river without permission – which is often refused!

Nevertheless, throughout history poachers have carried on regardless!  Despite Youngsbury’s gamekeepers, riverkeepers and fishkeepers, in 1891 one man, Albert Camp, managed to snatch a pike with just a piece of string!  He was an old hand at this, with various previous convictions, and consequently received a heavy fine.  Ironically, George Harvey the riverkeeper, used to remove pike himself from the river as they ate other game fish, and a local man was paid 35d for shooting them!  Apparently, when soaked in brine and fried in butter, pike steaks taste just like cod!

The main reason for protecting the game fish was because the river-owners could sell the rights to come and fish their stretch.  To that end, the same George Harvey “used a dip in the Thundridgebury moat as a culvert to fill the pools for fish to spawn and the fry raised until large enough to return to the river”.  The paying clients were gentlemen from London for whom special wooden seats were provided on each side of the river!  And as late as the 1980s the coarse fish (chub, roach and pike) were removed from between Barwick and Fabdens fords by stunning them with electricity, so that they could then be re-stocked with trout.  Once the re-stocking had taken place, locals had their fishing permits rescinded!

Fishing permits are still required of course to use the Rib Valley Fishing Lakes at Westmill, but these are kept well stocked.  As for the rivers themselves, most of the same species can still be found.  Statistics have been kept for the last decade which show that on the lower reaches of the Rib a good variety of those fish listed in 1880 can still be found.  One notable absentee is the eel, however, which has suffered a catastrophic decline in recent decades, and is now listed as critically endangered.  Several factors are responsible for this, not least the large number of impediments they have to overcome on their migration up the Thames, the Lea and then its tributaries.  However, much work by the Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust and the Environment Agency is ongoing to try to address this.  

Lamprey in the River Rib, north of Puckeridge

Another species found today in the Rib and Quin is the Brook Lamprey.  This too is an endangered species which, in appearance is not dissimilar to the eel, but very different in its behaviour.  At only 10-15 cm long, it has no jawed mouth but a sucker with a few blunt teeth that enable it to feed on bacteria and algae whilst stuck to the bottom.  And another similar-sized fish, but much more common, is the Bullhead.  Also called the ‘Miller’s Thumb’ this little chap has, as his name indicates, an overlarge head in comparison to the rest of him, and a face that only his mother could love!  He too lives on the larvae of the river flies.

Unfortunately, nowadays, a couple of unwelcome introductions can also occasionally be found: Goldfish and Koi carp!

1 See FORQ website for more on the geology of the area
2 Natural History article – see ‘Sources’
3 High/Nokes, memory of Lillian Allen

Blowers, Emma: Around Cold Christmas – 4th edition, 2020
Gover, Mawer & Stenton: The Place-Names of Hertfordshire, 1938
High, Val. and Nokes, Mary, ed.: No Washing Machines Then: Braughing People Remember, 2004
Partridge, Clive: Skeleton Green: a Late Iron Age and Romano-British Site, 1981
Perowne, Christopher: A History of the Parish of Standon, 1967
Plumb, Philip W., compiled by: The Archive Photographs Series: Buntingford, 1995
Rowe, Anne: Medieval Parks of Hertfordshire, 2009
Short, David, ed.: An Historical Atlas of Hertfordshire, 2011
Tott, Victor: A Braughing Countryman’s Diary, 2010
The Braughing of Victor Tott, 2010
The Way It Was: A Collection of Memories of Country Life in and around Standon and Puckeridge over the last 100 years, 1999
Hertfordshire Mercury, 26.6.1880: article entitled: “Hertfordshire Natural History and Field Club”

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