Fishing for a bargain?
Paul Whitehouse is casting off his home
‘I’d been coming here for years but I’d never seen a house with its own stretch of river’
The quiet, contemplative Paul Whitehouse I find on a late summer morning, fishing from the banks of the River Test in Hampshire, is unrecognisable from the manic grotesques (remember Rowley Birkin QC and Ron Manager?) that he portrayed in sketch shows such as The Fast Show. “I started fishing with my dad on the River Lea in London,” he says, eyes on the swirling eddies that are the calling cards of trout. “With my first cast I caught a little roach and it all started from there. It has given me enormous pleasure and it certainly helped me bond with my father.”
Over the years his love of fishing has taken him as far afield as Arctic Russia, the Seychelles, Cuba and Costa Rica. Apart from the chance of snatching a few hours on the river, the main purpose of today’s rather shorter jaunt down to Houghton, near Stockbridge, from his main house in London’s Islington is to oversee the sale of his weekend home. Whitehouse bought the two-storey, modernish property five years ago when he was financially flush from having appeared in the highly successful adverts for a certain insurance company. Online quotes and sales were up by a third over the period of the ad campaign.
“Buying this place was just a dream to me and it was all to do with that – probably the best trout fishing river in the world,” he says, gesturing towards the water.
“I’d been coming down to the Test for 20 years – sometimes renting a place – but I’d never seen a house for sale here with its own stretch of the river. When this came on the market I had to have it.”
Looking across the watery scene, overhung by willows, to the meadows opposite, nobody could deny that this is all very pretty. “The timeless wonder of the English countryside,” Whitehouse jokes, slipping into his oleaginous character from his spoof of The Young Ones. But being able to fish this 50yd stretch of bank adds the small matter of around £300,000 to the value of the house. What is so special about it?
“What you are looking at here is a unique ecosystem – there’s nowhere else like it,” he says. “The river flows over chalk and it seeps into an aquifer, a layer of permeable rock that makes a kind of underground reservoir. So the Test never floods and it has gin-clear water with a high alkaline content – ideal for trout.”
Whitehouse is becoming increasingly caught up in his tussle with the fish by now. When the photographer puts him off his cast he loses a fly and is disgusted with himself. Doing this is a beginner’s mistake, apparently.
“There’s more to fishing than catching fish,” he explains. “It’s being lost in a timeless world, away from all the chaos outside, doing something that’s elemental. It’s hunting, but unlike shooting, which is noisy and intrusive, fishing is all about quietness and stealth.”
His fly stolen, Whitehouse packs away his gear and leads the way across the acre of lawns up to the house.
He had always intended to change the present structure. However, the pressure of work has meant he hasn’t been able to get down to Houghton as often as he’d have liked recently, making the cost of major updates an extravagance too far. Today the house comes with planning permission to demolish it and replace it with a four-bedroom, two-storey house. Inside, it’s easy to see what has caused Whitehouse to be so critical of his weekend home. With its bare brick fireplace, brick pillars and low ceilings, it is an homage to Seventies kitsch. Yet it has potential: a designer makeover could transform it into a wonderful retreat. Its large kitchen and open-plan ground floor could be reconfigured. More could be made of the main room with its sunken floor and cosy television area. The tall windows that open on to that gorgeous view of the Test Valley could be extended and further along the corridor a real feature could be made of the indoor pool. The property is for sale for £1.5million through local estate agency Myddelton and Major (01264 316000; myddeltonmajor.co.uk)
There are signs that Whitehouse is already having regrets about selling. “There’s nothing better than going down the lawn to the river for a few hours in the evening and catching your own supper,” he says. “And there’s The Boot Inn, a fisherman’s pub, just a few plots along, where you can go to talk about it all later.”
Whitehouse has three films coming out in the next few months – The Death of Stalin by Armando Iannucci, Ghost Stories by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, and Night in Hatton, another yarn about the infamous Hatton Garden diamond heist, in which he stars alongside Michael Caine, Ray Winstone and Jim Broadbent.
“You can never tell in my game how things are going to go,” he says. “But if some of these projects work well it may not be long before I start looking to buy around here again.”
Fisherman’s friend: Paul Whitehouse, main and below, bought the Hampshire house as it had its own stretch of Test riverbank with fishing rights
Comic turn: Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson as Ted and Ralph, below, in BBC comedy series The Fast Show