He is probably best known to history as a Liberal politician who was British foreign secretary from 1905 to 1916 — tumultuous years. He is the man responsible for saying, at the outbreak of the First World War, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We will not see them lit again in our lifetime” — though ‘lamps’ is commonly mis-quoted as ‘lights’. He is not so well-known today for his beautiful writing about wildlife and fishing.
I took down two of his books from my shelves. One is simply called Fly Fishing and the other is a collection of essays called Fallodon Papers. I’m on the look-out for a third book he wrote called The Charm of Birds. There is a fascinating chapter in Fly Fishing about trips he made to Ireland when he was in his early twenties. As a schoolboy and an undergraduate at Balliol College Oxford he had learned the new art of dry fly fishing from the pioneers of it on the River Itchen at Winchester. He brought the new techniques with him on his Irish holidays and tried them out, eventually with considerable success, although he wasn’t fishing at the best time of year. He may have been the first fisherman to use classic chalk stream dry fly techniques in this country.
In the first edition of the book in 1899 the place he fished in Ireland was not named, perhaps deliberately. But a second edition was published shortly before his death in 1933 and he asked to make some small amendments. One of these is a fascinating footnote. “The river was the Suir, and the part of it described was at Graiguenoe, not far from Thurles. Before 1880 I do not think any one had ever fished it with a dry fly. I was never there after 1886, but I heard that the merits of the water for dry fly fishing were afterwards much appreciated by many anglers.”
In the other book I opened there is a long essay called ‘Pleasure in Nature’. It explores the satisfaction to be got from watching wildlife. He had a special interest in birds, particularly commoner garden birds, and his description of a long-tailed tit building a nest is a classic. In later life his eyesight failed and he ended up totally blind. This resulted in a special appreciation of bird song and he is probably the man who invented the phrase ‘the dawn chorus’. Grey’s other possible claim to fame is that he may be a descendent of the man who gave us Earl Grey tea.
Bladderwrack is that brown seaweed with blister-like swellings that look like the bubbles in bubble-wrap that you often find washed up on the beach. It is the commonest seaweed around the Irish coast. The bladders are flotation devices that help keep the seaweed upright. Seaweeds are not plants, they are algae. Bladderwrack has a thing that looks like a root at the bottom of the stem but this is actually a hold-fast and it’s only function is to anchor the seaweed to the sea bed —- it does not extract any nutrients in the way the root of a plant would. Almost all seaweeds fall into one of three groups —- the brown ones, the green ones and the red ones. They need light in order to photosynthesise and the red end of the light spectrum penetrates deeper into water than the blue/green end. Therefore the red sea weeds tend to grow in deeper water, the green ones in shallower water and the brown ones in an intermediate zone.