This month Orvis celebrates 30 years on the English high street and it is an odd thought but I write this from the very same room from which the Orvis operation was run in 1985, the American firm having acquired Nether Wallop Mill and Dermot Wilson’s famous mail order company four years earlier.
For nearly two decades the Orvis HQ remained at The Mill, the Stockbridge shop the first of a chain that now numbers close to 20 nationwide. The mail order operation and the logistics for the shops were all run out of here and as the firm expanded it truly became a hub of activity. First one of the Perkins, the family that still owns Orvis, came over to oversee the new venture and lived in the Mill Cottage to be succeeded by a UK managing director John Russell who raised his family here.
I don’t think anyone would disagree but the foundation of the Orvis enterprise was the genius of Dermot Wilson. I never met Dermot, but I suspect he was restless soul. He came to fly fishing by way of Winchester College where the Itchen runs beside the sport fields and a distinguished service in WW2 where he was awarded the Military Cross. He dallied with the Foreign Office (he was fluent in Mandarin Chinese) before joining the advertising colossus J. Walter Thompson to become its youngest ever director.
But selling cornflakes was clearly not his thing. As his wife Renee told me he arrived home one day in 1968 announcing that he had found the most wonderful mill in Hampshire and that he intended to resign his job to start a mail order fly fishing business.
I am not sure if Dermot was entirely truthful with Renee about the condition of Nether Wallop Mill. It was in a truly dreadful state so they set about restoring it, living in the cottage and making offices of the mill building. To boot Dermot dug the trout lake which within three years produced the British rainbow trout record (9lb 12 ½ oz in case you ask) which to this day remains the spot where countless fly fishing lives have begun.
Not much changed today …..
There were two secrets to Dermot’s early success: the first and most obvious was that he was the first to offer a full service mail order company which combined with his marketing genius and considerable expertise, to make his catalogues annual bibles to the temple of fly fishing. But I think more than that he realised the British fly fishing industry had fallen woefully far behind its American counterparts. In the post-war years all the innovations were coming from the US so he set out to find the best tackle and sold it to an eager market that was exploding as the craze for stillwater fishing took off.
The Mill became something of a Mecca for all the greats of the 60s and 70s: Frank Sawyer, the man behind the lake construction, and Ollie Kite lived just up the road. Charles Ritz, Lee Wulff, Ernest Schwiebert, Bernard Venables …. well the list goes on. Even our very own Charles Jardine lived here for two years as ‘the apprentice’ when he was fresh out of art college.
Dermot was always a marketing man to his core; he understood that the fishermen he sold kit to would appreciate somewhere to fish so he bought what are still the two Orvis beats at Kings Worthy on the Itchen and the Ginger Beer beat at Kimbridge on the Test. Here at The Mill his tuition, largely done by Jim Hadrell and Charles Jardine, was the pipeline for a new generation. At the height he had fourteen people working here.
If that seems a lot (if you have ever visited The Mill you will agree it is) Orvis took it to a new level; I think I am right in saying that by the time Orvis were ready to leave in 1998 to a less lovely but more suitable warehouse in Andover there were close to forty full and part time employees. The phrase quart and pint pot comes easily to mind. To this day we still get the odd rod delivered for repair and there are plenty of Orvis employees who tell me wistfully where they had their desk or office. I have to tell you they made a clean job of clearing the place out; I never found a cache of Battenkill reels. In fact all I ever found were two empty rod bags.
Anyway congratulations to Orvis; 30 years is a mighty achievement for a specialty retailer on the brutal battlefield of the English high street but maybe a quick glance to the heavens in appreciation of Dermot Wilson might not go amiss.
In dangerous company ……
Somehow I’ve been invited to talk at the Petworth Festival, that includes best selling authors such as Andy McNab (hope I don’t say anything to offend him…) and David Starkey.
I’m up at noon on Thursday November 5th so if you live locally do come along to hear my ‘Life of a Chalkstream’ show. Tickets from the on-line or from the festival box office 01798 343055.
The usual random selection of questions to confound and amaze. Answers at the bottom of the Newsletter. It is just for fun!
1) Who won the 2015 World Carp Fishing Championships?
2) How often does an otter have a litter of cubs?
3) What is gault?
Congratulations to The Greyhound in Stockbridge who have just picked up an award for Britain’s Best Sporting Pub 2015, organised by Country Life and the Countryside Alliance. It is a great accolade for Lucy and the team (you may remember her from her days at The Peat Spade) that is fully deserved and we wouldn’t expect anything less of the inn that very kindly hosts the River Test One Fly.
There’s Lucy ….
On that thought entries for the 2016 contest that takes place on Friday April 22nd are now open. The Iron Man Fly Tying Challenge and the Fly Fishing Film Tour will be in Stockbridge the previous evening. Get those rooms booked! More details …….
Simon Cooper firstname.lastname@example.org
Founder & Managing Director
1) England. River Ebro, Spain October 7-10th. 2) Once every two years. 3) A thick, heavy clay found under southern England.