Angling for change

19 September 2023
A fish lies in a net after being caught, the rod with reel above it.
Book cover for 'Fishing for Change' by Ken Barlow. The book cover shows a pond with reeds and lillies, trees are overhanging.

This year’s festival is inviting Galloway-based authors to do readings from their work on weekday mornings. It’s a great chance to meet and enjoy an abundance of talented folk who have written on a multitude of subjects. Here we meet one of them, Ken Barlow whose book Fishing For Change: Tales from A Galloway Guest House tells of his adventures in leaving behind life as a nurse in Tyneside to lead a very different life running a guest house for anglers – and others.

What prompted the move from Tyneside to Galloway?

This was a decision only reached after much soul-searching and consideration. It was partly based on the need to answer the question… “Is this it?” Would I really be treading this same path for the next 40 years? But it was also prompted by disillusionment in my job as a nurse tutor.

My wife and I both knew Dumfries and Galloway well, we’d holidayed here for many years so it wasn't unknown territory, though running our own business definitely was.

Why focus on anglers as guests?

The business we purchased, The Palakona Guest House, was established with a history of catering for anglers and shooters. In the early years we concentrated on these two target groups of customers but gradually developed into catering for golfers, cyclists and the passing trade.

As an angler myself I knew what was required to make a fishing trip work.

Any famous guests over the years?

We did have some famous guests as are referred to in the book. Jack Charlton who was the Eire national football manager at the time being one. The book describes how approachable and down to earth he was.

We also had Ant and Dec stay with us. Known then as PJ & Duncan they caused quite a stir in the town, particularly with the young ladies. Embarking on their careers in entertainment, they were friendly, polite and easy to chat to.

How was it settling into Galloway life?

Being residents in a wee town like Newton Stewart was very different to being repeat visitors. When writing the book I tried to capture both the pluses and negatives of the transition. The frequently used bad language, the friendliness, the anti-English element, the warm and welcoming sense of humour, all combined to make adapting to change interesting, challenging and satisfying all at the same time.

Were you involved in improving local fisheries?

The need to improve the one established fishery that I’d negotiated for when also purchasing the guesthouse was crucial. Thankfully the owner was of the same opinion and a major facelift was initiated and is described in detail with accompanying photos within the book. It was back-breaking work but we emerged with a beautiful, well stocked estate loch.

As an angler I knew that certain waters could be very temperamental, varying in performance day by day and thus a choice of venues was essential. To this end I identified various waters, negotiated lease agreements for fishing rights and set about making them attractive and productive. It was physically and mentally demanding but very satisfying too. Techniques, baits, access, secrets and foibles of all the different waters, all was very time consuming

Of course I needed to establish a good working relationship with the local fly-fishing fraternity. Many guests wanted to fish for salmon and trout. I was far from experienced in game angling and had to direct them to the many folk in town who were.

So what actually is the appeal of fishing?

Oh my word! Far better authors and anglers than myself have tried to identify just what the magic of fishing really is. It is of course a mixture of many, many factors in my opinion. No two anglers will agree on every aspect but in my opinion it is the following…

Perhaps there is a hard wired, innate challenge born of the ancient hunter/gatherer. A primal need to provide for those dependent upon us.

A liberating sense of freedom. Being at one with nature and being in awe of Mother Nature’s incredible powers.

Mindfulness; in the sense that fishing is so engrossing that all the troubles and stresses of one’s life cannot intrude and spoil the here and now of the fishing experience. Fishing isn’t relaxing in the sense of tying a line to your big toe and lying back to await a bite. But… it does see one immersed in an alternative world where bait presentation is more important than anything else!

Individualism… It's all about fishing, not catching, and furthermore, it’s all about “you”. You don’t rely on a teammate or a coach or a partner. The holiday angler decides upon the venue, bait, technique, tackle and approach. A personal challenge with personal success or failure.