Its August and I’ve been sitting admiring my lake – how’s that for showing off? It’s about an acre in extent and stuffed full of hideous fat carp. It’s an attraction for local fishermen and there’s often one sitting on the bank although they hardly ever catch anything and when they do they put them back. Being vegetarian I have no interest in catching fish at all and I’m happy to just sit and look at the water and all the waterlilies we’ve planted. But lovely tho’ my lake is, I was a little envious of a little riverside lodge in Dovedale, which was up for sale recently. Built in 1674 in honour of his friend Isaak Walton author of The Compleat Angler, Charles Cotton’s one-roomed fishing temple looks a rather nice place to sit and contemplate, as does Bourne Mill near Colchester
so even tho I don’t fish, and don’t even understand why anyone would want to do it, this is the first of a few posts dedicated to fishing temples and lodges. Today’s looks at the few survivors from the 16th and 17th centuries.
In the mid-17th century Charles Cotton inherited Beresford Hall just a few hundred yards away from the River Dove. Isaak Walton apparently taught him to fish and the book, published in 1653, was written after many hours experimenting with fishing techniques along the river. Cotton had the very simple lodge built with their initials and the motto ‘Piscatoribys Sacrum’ (Sacred to Fishermen) over the door.
As the recent seller said in an interview: “It was a place to shelter in and take a break and have a spot of lunch. You can imagine servants coming down from the main house with trays of meats and cheeses.”
“Walton…pretty much invented dry fly-fishing and … also passed on tips such as the fisherman disguising themselves in khaki colours and bending down on one knee or behind a bush.”
Twenty three years later The Compleat Angler was updated with Cotton adding new chapters. The temple could have been yours if you had a spare £500,000 or so and if you want to know more there’s a detailed article about Cotton’s Fishing Temple in Derbyshire Life in March this year which you can find at:
There is also a youtube video about the temple and fishing there which you can find at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFyGGWf7lA0
But, of course, Cotton’s fishing temple was by no means the first. Fish formed a major element of the monastic diet and many monasteries would have had buildings dedicated solely to fishing and fish. I had thought that Abbot’s Fish House above, which belonged to Glastonbury Abbey, was one such: a spectacular mediaeval survival. It dates from the 1330s and stands beside what was a major fishery at Meare Pool, Somerset. It had two rooms thought to be for domestic use upstairs, above a ground floor where it was once thought fish were prepared, salted and stored. However more recent research and analysis by English Heritage has refuted this accepted usage and argues it was built as a residence for the official in charge of the abbey’s extensive fish ponds rather than any practical or leisure use. Unfortuntely I have been unable to track down any other monastic survivals – but if you know of any let me know. For much more information on the Abbott’s Fish House and mediaeval monastic fisheries follow the links from:
and Professor Stephen Rippon’s paper: “Making the best of a bad situation? Glastonbury Abbey, Meare, and the Medieval Exploitation of Wetland Resources in the Somerset Levels” as well as Richard Brunning’s “Wet and Wonderful – The Heritage of the Avalon Marshes” .
Apart from the importance of freshwater fish for food amongst the elite its quite likely that the sporting/leisure aspect of angling was also present very early on. Indeed Isaak Walton’s Compleat Angler was written about 200 years after the first known treatsise on the subject. This was The Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle written by Dame Juliana Berners, prioress of Sopwell in Hertfordshire in the mid 15th century. It was printed with her Treatise on hawkynge and huntynge as early as 1496. Other texts followed: The Arte of Angling (1577); Leonard Mascell’s, A Booke of Fishing with Hooke and Line (1590), John Dennys’s, The Secrets of Angling (1613), and Gervase Markham’s, A Discourse of the General Art of Fishing with an Angle (1614).
So, clearly angling was a popular pastime and doing it in comfort clearly appealed. Our database has 124 entries connected with fishing, including several other fishing temples, and a large number of fishing lodges, most of them dating to the 18thc whilst Historic England has listed 22 Fishing Lodges.
Queen Mary’s Bower at Chatsworth may take the honour for being the oldest surviving non-monastic fishing-related structure. It is thought to date from around 1560-70, although the earthworks surrounding it may well be much older. It is the only real survival of the famous formal water gardens that were begun by Sir William Cavendish in the mid-16thc. In the fields to the north west of the house Cavendish had seven large ponds dug, all rectangular, divided by terrace walks and formally planted orchards. The gardens covered about 8 hectares [c.20 acres].
It isn’t a fishing temple or shelter as normally imagined. Instead it’s an enclosed garden area raised high up above a surrounding quatrefoil moat and surrounded by massive blank walls.
It is thought that the Bower was probably designed as a lodge for fishing since, of course, the primary function of these ponds was to supply the household with fish to eat, rather than being a place of recreation. But it probably served that purpose too and doubled as a banqueting house, since it would have had wonderful views not only over the rest of the water but also over the surrounding of open parkland to the wooded horizon.
Tradition has it that the garden was specially created for Mary Queen of Scots when she was a prisoner at Chatsworth, but as usual tradition is probably allowed a little romantic embellishment and she merely had the use of an existing garden feature.
Its difficult to know exactly what the Bower was like in Mary’s time since the landscape around it was drastically altered by Capability Brown and Michael Millican in the mid-18thc, with the ponds drained and the land levelled. The Bower itself was heavily restored by James Wyattville in the 1820s, which probably accounts for the impressive arched and stepped bridge/approach and the substantial enclosing wall.
If Queen Mary’s Bower isn’t the oldest then another close contender [in theory] is the fishing lodge on the Rufford estate at Tarleton in Lancashire. This was built by Thomas Hesketh whose initials, wheatsheaf crest and the date 1568 are on the stone visible between the two windows in the photo. It stood close to the shore of Martin Mere, a vast lake that can be seen on Saxton’s map of Lancashire of 1579.
Attempts were made to drain the mere in from the late 17thc onwards and finally succeeded in reclaiming much of the land for agriculture by the late 19thc. The result was, surprise surprise that the fishing lodge had no nearby fish! It was converted into a farmhouse, extended and largely rebuilt retaining few if any original features apart from the inscribed stone. On a happier note the remaining water and boggy sections of Martin Mere have become a wetland nature reserve managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. More info at: http://www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/martin-mere/
However, one place where the tradition of fishing is known to have existed for centuries is in the ponds at Bourne Mill at Colchester. It was originally owned by St John’s Abbey and the ponds are first mentioned almost nine hundred years ago in 1120. At the Dissolution of the monasteries the abbey was seized, the abbot hanged and the church building itself sold to the local MP John Lucas. He built himself a grand mansion from building materials taken from the abbey. However he did not buy what is now Bourne Mill.
As an inscribed panel on the south gable wall shows, “Thomas Lucas / Miles / me fecit anno domini 1591”. This was John Lucas’s grandson Sir Thomas. He bought the ponds and the associated buildings, which included a mill. Then he used more of the stone from the ruined abbey either to extend or improve one of the former monastic buildings – or perhaps even to construct a new one. You can still see the occasional piece of carved decoration from the abbey if you look carefully enough. Either way it was probably multi-functional, as outlined in Christopher Thornton’s recent study of the site for the National Trust which has suggested that it served “as a fishing lodge or banqueting house on the upper floor, and probably a water mill on the lower”.
Nikolaus Pevsner described it as “a delightful piece of late Elizabethan playfulness with two wildly oversized end gables of the utmost exuberance”.
Shortly after Sir Thomas had finished John Gerard (1545-1612) mentioned the property in his Herball saying: “Marsh Cinkfoile groweth in a marsh ground adjoining the land called Bourne Ponds…. from whence I brought some plants for my garden, where they flourish and prosper well.”
The building did not last long as a fishing lodge. The Lucas’s were on the losing side in the Civil War and Sir Thomas’s grandson Sir Charles was the Royalist commander and was executed following the siege of Colchester in 1648. His house was destroyed but the mill/fishing lodge remained in family hands and probably survived because of its economic potential. It continued to be used probably as a fulling mill then, two centuries later, in about 1840, it became a flour mill, although the fishing continued. One of the family who lived there recalled large angling parties visiting and that on one occasion a particularly large pike was caught and sent to Queen Victoria.
The Lucas family finally sold the site in 1917, and in 1935 it was put up or sale again for £2,500. It was advertised as “being suitable for conversion into an interesting and valuable old residence or show place” and was bought by the National Trust.
In an interesting case of how perceptions and ideas of restoration and reconstruction change the Trust decided that the building had been built entirely for pleasure – ie for fishing and banqueting and that it was only later that it had been converted into a mill. As a result when they decided to convert it into a house they could rent out, they felt justified in removing much of the machinery.
More recently of course the Trust has been more careful to investigate extremely carefully before taking such drastic action. In this case they commissioned historian Christopher Thornton to research the mill’s past and you can read his findings in full at:
Click to access bourne-mill-historical-report.pdf
There is one more impressive fishing temple surviving from the 17thc. It is in the gardens of Beckett Hall, near Shrivenham in Wiltshire, once home to the Royal Military College of Science, and now a business school. It was probably built for Sir Henry Marten, in the decade or so before the Civil War. With its simple Palladian door and window mouldings it has traditionally been ascribed to Inigo Jones, although there is no documentary evidence to support that claim.
It survived the sacking of the house by royalists [Henry Marten’s son was one of the regicides] and the later rebuilding of the mansion in Tudor Gothic style between 1831-4 . Perhaps more surprisingly it survived the house’s use during the war as an Officer Cadet Training Unit and its conversion into a military academy. The China House stands next to the Chinese Bridge at the head of the lake and is mentioned in lots of architectural books as one of the oldest surviving garden buildings in the country. The terrace around it probably dates from the enlargement of the lake in the early 19thc.
A Book of English Gardens, by M.R.Gloag,  even has a whole chapter on the gardens of Beckett Hall which focusses very much on The China House describing it as, ‘One of the greatest treasures in the way of garden architecture…set like a rare gem in the midst of flowers, with a background of dark yews.’ His garden history is a bit ‘wobbly’ but you can read the whole vaguely romantic piece, at:
In the next post I’ll look at the way that fishing temples became ‘must-have’ garden buildings on the 18thc estate.
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