A jaggy-toothed pike stares from a varnished case. The stairs creak as we climb breaking the silence of the cottage museum and five centuries of rural living. The stairwell smells of ancient timber, perhaps a hint of recent Pledge. There are dozens of rods and reels and a staged riverbank scene of a man in period costume fishing in reeds with a basket at his feet.
Fish, mostly stuffed and mounted by Victorians in tweed, are lined along the wall. The fish’s weight and place of landing are recorded for posterity in gold lacquer on gleaming glass. It’s peaceful and cool upstairs among the thatched eaves. We’ve tiptoed past the history enactment enthusiasts in their wide-brimmed, buckled hats and endless skirts and petticoats. I’m always fearful of stout yeomen and bossy housekeepers inviting me to take part in a period scene.
Thankfully they are not the sort to rush in but instead answer questions and offer help where they can. It’s a rare warm day in a wet and miserable year and the sun is beating down on the gardens of Izaak Walton’s Cottage. Typical seventeenth century fare is on display in the living quarters and kitchen. We’re standing in the kitchen admiring the spinning wheel when the scent of lavender drifts in, mingling with the pies and tarts.
‘They used to spread out the bed-linen on the bushes,’ one of the servants says. He’s being tormented by an itchy woollen jacket and cap, but won’t take them off. ‘The sun bleached the sheets and they smelt of lavender.’
Jake is asked old how he is by the cook. He says six. He’s horrified to be told boys wore skirts back then. There were too many buttons on trousers for them to manage.
The sitting room is crowded with trays of food from Izaak’s era. Food would all have been sourced locally and much of it bartered with neighbours. There are plenty of green leaves, a great deal of fish, rabbit and pheasant. Servants might have gone hungry and what was available was dictated by the seasons. There would’ve been no potatoes. We learn the pastry case would act as a dish, the contents being eaten and the fillings replaced time and again.
One of the guides confides in a whisper, and not without a little disappointment, that Izaak was young when he left for London to make his fortune. But Izaak returned to buy the cottage and did not forget his hometown, leaving it in his will to the poor of Stafford.
Everlasting fame among fishermen and lovers of the countryside came with The Compleat Angler, first published in 1653. The book is still widely read and celebrated today.
Izaak Walton’s Cottage is a few miles from junction 14 of the M6 near Stafford. It is open Sundays from May to August. Click here for details.