Published Dec 14. 2020 - 3 years ago
Updated or edited Dec 15. 2022

Book review: Chalk and Cheese

Flyfishing on my French chalkstream

An English flyfisher acquires a house in France - which just happens to have a chalk stream running its property

Charles Hamer
Merlin Unwin
Publishing year: 
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For those of us not speaking English – or more specifically British – as a native tongue, the words chalk and cheese may just mean calcium and fermented milk. When you get an angling perspective and a French stream into the picture, we’re likely to think of chalk streams and French cheeses, and probably directing our attention towards the northwestern corner of France.

But to native Englishmen, it has another meaning: being like chalk and cheese, which is an idiom for being very different or almost the opposite.
I was wondering about the title almost all the time while reading through this delightful book. Because while there was lots of fishing and passion for the local chalk stream, there was very little about cheese. When I read the introduction to the book, I envisioned an Englishman being fascinated by the French trout as well as the famed French local raw milk cheeses, often lauded by cheese lovers for their great quality and local differences – "terroir" as it’s known from wine.

...there was very little about cheese...

That was when it dawned on me that there might be a different meaning to the title, and a quick search confirmed my suspicion, like in the Cambridge Dictionary where it says “If two people are like chalk and cheese, they are completely different from each other.”
That explained it. Because there’s a lot about people different from each other in the book and as I said, very little about cheese.
French people compared to the British that is.
The author returns again and again to the odd differences between the British and the French ways of doing things. And funny differences! Because they are presented in a teasing and jesting – but still kind and respectful – manner. It’s amazing how two people living with only a narrow sound between them, sharing so much common history and culture, can still be so different.

The book tells the story of how the author – Charles Hamer – came to own a French property with a nice bit of the chalk stream The Andelle running through it. The Andelle is located in Normandy near the town of Rouen. It’s a clear, cold stream with a constant flow like the famous streams in southern England. It’s fed from chalk based underground aquifers like its British brethren, and has the potential of being really good fishing water thanks to a constant flow of clear, oxygen rich and cold water, and the abundance of lush plant growth and insect life that follows.
And Hamer’s stretch of the stream does have great fishing.
But the book doesn’t actually dwell as much on the fishing, even though it is of course covered, but spends much more time on the people surrounding the house, the local village and the river. The mayor in town, the local craftsmen, the owner of the local cafe, the farmers and all the other people that you come into contact with when you arrive as a new land and house owner in a foreign country.

The story takes us through the background for the house purchase, brought about by the fact that Hamer’s wife is French, and the contact with France and the French fishing that this leads to through her family. It tells how the house almost slipped through the author’s fingers, and how, once it was bought, all kinds of chores were needed to make the house livable and the stream fishable.
All these chores involve locals – from river keepers over gardeners to plumbers and carpenters – as well as a number of persons from local authorities, like the aforementioned mayor.
And the people make this quite an entertaining adventure, which I read through with great joy and a smile on my lips. It’s kind and teasing without at any time being mean. More like wondrous or a bit amazed by how the French tend to live and work compared to the British.

The book is an easy read, and not that long with its 160 pages. Even though it doesn’t talk in detail about fishing, it does mention both fly patterns and good spots of the river. But it’s neither a whereto nor a howto. It’s purely entertainment, and very good entertainment, and can be read with equal joy by people not fishing.

A perfect last-minute gift for a fly fishing person in you life, who needs a small token of appreciation.


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