Tales of the riverbank, part 25. The lean years…


I’ve always wondered under what circumstance a hidden talent would reveal itself. We all have one I’m sure of it, laying dormant until that eureka moment, driven by chance or coincidence, pulls it from the depths of our subconscious. Mine would have to be something random of course, like roller skating, or being a dab hand at reversing 5-ton trucks into confined spaces. It troubles me that I still don’t know what it is.

My husband tries to placate me, “you could be really good at… umm, fly fishing?”. I know this is a thinly disguised attempt to get me to do something he wants to do. But what if he’s right? So we find ourselves in the Cotswolds, enjoying a somnambulant end to the summer months at the Old Swan and Minster, a charming six hundred-year-old, log-fired inn that’s set in sixty-five acres of glorious gardens on the banks of the River Windrush. Georgina Prickett, the Host Manager, is our new favourite person: bubbly, welcoming and professional, her first of many errands is to organise us a lesson in fishing for trout.

The trouble is, we haven’t started and already I’m doubting my staying power. As far as I’m concerned catching nothing frees up infinite hours for all the fun stuff: wistful meandering along the riverbank paths, hip-flask of gin in-hand, taking a snooze under the dappled September sun, hip-flask of gin in-hand.

But my husband has different ideas. Apparently, a fishing rod and a river full of trout is like a red rag to a bull. That fishes. Or something. Either way, I think he might combust with the excitement – and I thought it was meant to be a calming pursuit.

We spend the morning being coached by the local Ghillie, Tristan – a fishing rod ninja. His graceful instructions on how to cast a fly (we begin on the lawn, no need to get ahead of ourselves) are mentally taken in, then reenacted with diligence and a level of ineptitude that’s attracting the attention of passers-by.

“Good day for it?” I enquire, hopefully. I sidle up to Tristan and subtly attempt to remove my hook from his lapel. He hands it back politely. Yes, we’re told, but – and this seems like quite a significant but – being sunny, today’s weather is against us. And the white T-shirt (the fish will never see us coming!) might have been an unwise choice. We set off cheerily nonetheless, un-camouflaged and wielding our rod-weapons that have an unhelpful knack of entangling themselves in the surrounding shrubbery.

We find ourselves a quiet spot near a bridge with just the light burbling sound of the river and an occasional low-flying Mallard for company. A significant period of time – much longer than I anticipate – is spent hovering with intent: breaths baited, nets poised, squinting into the water. Nada. Not since Miley Cyrus penned the first few words of her novel, Miles to Go, has a woman and her medium been so badly matched. From time to time we catch a glimpse of one of our nemeses splashing through the reeds, mocking. It doesn’t take long before I’ve sensibly written the experience off as one of those bucket-list things with no need for this actual bucket. But by now any attempt to coax the Husband away from the river has morphed into my own personal challenge. Hmmpf. I set down my rod and go in search of gin.

This, I’m amazingly quick at, as there’s a decanter of the sloe-infused kind waiting for me in our snug but spacious room. Fine linens and tartan woollens are draped elegantly over turn-of-the-century furniture, under the low wooden beams. The Swan and Minster is cosy, comfortable and craftsy, everything you want from a restorative weekend in the English countryside. An old haunt of Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Harold Wilson, it’s one of the most recent additions to the de Savary empire, acquired in 2010 and extensively, stylishly refurbished.

The wafting scent of beurre blanc rising from the kitchen through our lead-paned windows makes my mouth water, so I venture out to try and retrieve my husband for lunch. Trees along the riverbank are bursting with wildlife, leafy hues not yet at the full mellowed richness of Autumn, but a hint at things to come. I stroll past the hound-friendly riverside rooms, each with its own wood-burning fire pit and endless supply of marshmallows. Cotswold locals have spent decades striving to live up to the intensely manicured aesthetic for which the region has become famed; quaint film-set like thatched cottages that attract tourists by the busload. But the Old Swan is more than just a tourist spot, it manages to feel effortlessly homely and jauntily picturesque at the same time.

Head Chef, David Mwita, creates honest-tasting food; fresh local ingredients are crafted into hearty dishes. Seafood fans will not be disappointed. Besides home-caught Windrush grilled crayfish, there’s succulent roast lobster and salt-baked bass on the menu (if I’d have considered this in advance I’d have never attempted to catch my own). But as I approach the riverbank, my heart sinks. Even from this distance I can identify that frown of concentration on his face, mixed with – the warning sign – a faint glimmer of hope. Lunch for one, then.

We’re in the epicentre of olde-worlde charm; the real rural-idyll. This is limestone country; honey-hued villages, drystone walls and quintessentially english gardens are like catnip for groups of arts-and-craftsy folk and leisurely ramblers. I can’t deny the experience has had a dramatic effect on me, not to mention my penchant for sloe berries. No skills have been unearthed this weekend; certainly no fish have been harmed in the process. But fortunately for us, the Cotswolds already houses people who know a thing or two about catching our slippery targets.

My husband has finally given up. I raise a glass in celebration, and contemplate giving the roller skating thing a go. Yes, d’you know I think I could be quite good at that.

Rooms from £155 a night, Old Swan & Minster Mill, Cotswolds. www.oldswanandminstermill.com.