A woman of charm and acumen

Wednesday 21st November 2012 12:00 am
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THE West Devon woman who created the home of fly fishing in the West Country this week died, aged 84.

Under the guidance of Anne Voss Bark, The Arundell Arms at Lifton has flourished as one of Britain's best fishing hotels, remaining the Good Hotel Guide's top country sporting hotel.

Anne Bennett was born in London and brought up in the sort of family environment that is almost unknown today. She and her brother, Ronnie, were educated initially by a French governess and then at separate day schools.

In 1938, Anne's father, a barrister, decided to give the children an understanding of rural life. He rented an estate in Lincolnshire, took on a governess to continue their education and joined the Territorial Army. When the second world war began, he and two of his hunters went off with the regiment to Palestine. The family was not to see him again for five years.

Despite the lack of continuity in her education, Anne passed her exams and was offered a place at London University. But she loved poetry and Shakespeare, had become passionate about acting and was impatient to prove herself on the stage.

When she was 17 she obtained a job with the actor and impresario, Donald Woolfitt, initially doing Shakespeare repertory in Camden Town and touring initially England then Canada and America.

In the mid-1950s, her father died, leaving the family hard-up and Anne in need of more stable employment. With her stage and film experience, she was taken on by Crawfords, the oldest of the English advertising agencies, initially in the film and television department and then as a commercial television executive.

Anne met Gerald Fox-Edwards, also in the advertising business, a passionate fly fisher and something of a rebel.

Torpedoed while serving in the Royal Navy during the war and a heavy smoker, he suffered from bronchitis and pneumonia. His doctor advised a move to the country. Thus in 1961, Anne and Gerald, now married, bought the Arundell Arms Hotel in Devon and its 20 miles of trout and sea trout fishing on the River Tamar and its tributaries.

Built in the early 1700s, it had been a fishing hotel since the 1920s, but in 1961 had few comforts. It offered one optional private bathroom for 17 rooms; a coke boiler regularly smoked out the dining room; and the traffic on the A30 — the main trunk road to the West Country — rumbled past the front door or, in high season, sat fuming for miles on either side of the village.

Yet Anne and Gerald developed the Arundell Arms to a point that its name became synonymous with wild fishing and the model for a country sporting hotel.

They started fly fishing courses and introduced thousands to the sport. She took the restaurant to three AA rosettes and the Good Food Guide's nomination as 'Devon's Restaurant of the Year'.

In 1971 she won the Cavendish award for top woman hotelier in the UK. Anne built the hotel's reputation to one of the most friendly and relaxing places, a wonderful blend of unpretentious elegance and comfort, great food and superb fishing.

Running the hotel, bringing up two children and working as a marriage guidance counsellor allowed Anne no time to learn to fish and it was not until after Gerald's death in 1973 that she asked the hotel's instructor to teach her.

The need to learn fly fishing through necessity sparked an interest that became an abiding passion for the rest of her life.

In 1975 she married Conrad Voss Bark. Conrad greatly encouraged Anne's rapidly developing love of fishing which created a special bond between them and through which they made many lasting friendships.

Anne was a ceaseless champion of environmental causes related to rivers. Along with Poet Laureate Ted Hughes and Michael Martin, a local businessman, she founded the West Country Rivers Trust. This was the first time that one organisation had considered a whole river catchment as an integrated system. Due to her unremitting enthusiasm and quiet yet sensitive diplomacy, this Trust thrived and then became the role model for other river systems and was copied throughout the UK.

When the National Rivers Assocation was created, she accepted Lord Crickhowell's invitation to become chair of the Regional Fisheries Advisory for the West Country.

She was presented with a lifetime achievement award for services to angling in 2001 and was vice chair of the Salmon and Trout Association.

She also produced a book now widely acknowledged as a classic — West Country Fly Fishing, a collection of essays by such luminaries as Ted Hughes, Dermot Wilson, Brian Clarke and, of course, Conrad.

Anne had a quiet, modest charm concealing the acumen, enthusiasm and energy that enabled her to excel in everything she did.

She was awarded the MBE for her services to Westcountry tourism; won the Woman Hotelier of the Year award; was a magistrate for many years, and a member and then chair of the Board of Prison Visitors to Dartmoor.

Her second husband, Conrad, died in 2000.

Anne continued to run The Arundell Arms until her retirement in 2008.

She died on 18 November 2012 leaving a son and a daughter.

Her son Adam Fox-Edwards continues to run The Arundell Arms as a successful hotel.

A private funeral will be held in Lifton on Tuesday next week.

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