Sitting in her daughter’s sunny London sitting room on a day when stock markets are shuddering, Anne Voss-Bark, chatelaine of fishing hotel The Arundell Arms in Lifton, Devon, suggests the perfect antidote to the credit crisis. She describes how, in nearly 50 years of running her famous ‘fishing pub’ with its 20 miles of water on the River Tamar and its tributaries, she has seen fishing work its magic on a stream of stressed City types. ‘They come down all tense. But that’s gone when they’ve had a day’s fishing.
It’s totally therapeutic. ‘When you’re walking down the river, concentrating the entire time on what the fish and the river are doing, you can’t worry about daily life. The scenery is lovely, there’s wild flowers and wildlife along the bank you’re absorbed in the whole ethos of fishing.’ Mrs Voss-Bark’s particular thrill is night fishing for sea trout. ‘There’s a magic about it. All is quiet, you cast, suddenly a fish comes up, takes your fly, and then all hell breaks loose.’ For someone synonymous with the sport, it’s perhaps surprising that Mrs Voss-Bark is not a born fisherwoman.
She bought The Arundell Arms in 1961 with her first husband, Gerald Fox-Edwards. ‘As a Londoner and an actress, I knew positively nothing about fishing and little about hotel keeping. In the early days, I was far too busy to learn to fish, running the hotel on a shoestring and working as a marriage-guidance counsellor, plus having children.’ However, widowed in 1973, she decided that she needed to learn about fishing: ‘I can still remember the magic of catching my first wild brown trout on a dry fly work became a bore and all I wanted to do was fish.’
Since then, her eye for detail turned the male preserve of a coaching inn with one
(optional) private bathroom for 17 bedrooms into a beacon of civilisation for weary travellers, locals and regulars (accommodated fully en suite). Last year, in a Guardian review, restaurant critic Matthew Norman described the hotel dining room as ‘a teaching module for anyone in the business’. And, even after nearly half a century of hotel keeping, you’ll more than likely find Mrs Voss-Bark engaged in conversation in the hotel bar at lunchtime. ‘It’s terribly important to make people feel welcome.’ She is perhaps proudest of pioneering the teaching of fishing, with two expert instructors.
The witty lectures of her second husband, the fisherman and author Conrad Voss-Bark, were a feature of popular hotel courses where, today, women often outnumber men and former pupils bring their own children to be taught to fish. ‘Sometimes, we have three generations staying in the hotel. My youngest grandson Thomas is learning to fish, too.’ Mrs Voss-Bark’s legacy extends far beyond the hotel.
In 1996, she was awarded the MBE for services to tourism. She has promoted fishing and conservation across the world, yet it is perhaps on her own waters that she will have the most abiding effect. Mrs Voss-Bark was one of a group of friends, which included the poet Ted Hughes, to first address the problem of farm fertilisers leaching into the soil in vulnerable river catchment areas.
The resulting Tamar 2000 project and the Westcountry Rivers Trust is regarded a forerunner of its kind: ‘It has transformed the way we look at rivers.’ Although she admits to being ‘rather ancient’ now for fishing (Mrs Voss-Bark celebrated her 80th birthday on October 7), and to some bafflement at mobiles and emails, there are few octogenarians of my acquaintance for whom the idea of slowing down is trading in her Porsche for a Jaguar.
She has plans for a fishing holiday next year in Montana with her daughter, Jane, but first they must be off to catch the Eurostar to Paris, where Mrs Voss-Bark is to receive honorary membership of the Fario Club, the famous international fly-fishermen’s gathering, founded in 1958 by Charles Ritz. ‘I think I should make a speech in French,’ she muses. ‘What do you think of the toast A l’entente cordiale de pêche a la mouche?’ Mary-Vere Parr The Arundell Arms, Lifton, Devon (01566 784666; www.arundellarms.com)