A person who is born in the town of Usk or has lived there for forty years or more can qualify as a ‘Usk butterfly’. The butterfly symbol was used by Usk craftsmen who created Japanned finished wares, it distinguished their work from nearby Pontypool who created similar work. Last week I was fortunate enough to meet a Usk butterfly for the first time…
Thursday I found myself driving to South Wales with fellow photographer, angler and friend, Nick Moore to cover the stills for an advertising campaign. We were staying at the famous Gliffaes County Hotel that sits on a rocky outcrop in the Usk valley. The hotel is very much of the arts and crafts Edwardian style, and mainly caters for the brown trout, sewin and salmon fisher. As anglers we were both quite frustrated by the prospect of staying at this hotel in earshot of the river Usk, unable to fish, only to work! Ever an optimist I packed a spinning rod, reel and waders hoping that I could grab an hour before or after dinner and winkle out a salmon. The previous day I was talking to John Andrews of Acadia about our predicament and his reply was ‘do yourself a favour and drop into Sweets of Usk…’ I had heard of this old style tackle shop but had never been there so during our drive up to Wales I mentioned this to Nick and the possibility of a detour to visit the tackle shop, after a short conversation a decision was made and we took the turning to the town of Usk. On arrival we found a tiny wooden-clad shop front with the glass panelled door covered in various notes and signs obscuring what was hidden within, to be honest we thought the shop was closed. On close inspection I could see the smiling face of a well dressed lady who was reaching for the locked door, before long we had entered into another world.
When we first stepped inside Sweets we were overwhelmed at the sheer array of things to look at, there were trays of hand-tied flies, old books, stacked boxes, photographs old and new, wooden carved salmon, tweed jackets, bags, cane and carbon rods, we were struggling to know what was for sale and what items were on display for sentimental reasons. The air smelt of wax and old books, the sun had just come out and shafts of light shone through the gaps in the glass illuminating the shop in dappled light, the atmosphere was thick and there stood behind the wooden counter our host with her infectious laugh and sweet smile. Nick and myself were actually quite dumb struck like a couple of school boys, but we were soon put at ease with Mrs Williams offer of tea and stories that were attached to every object that we pointed out. We felt that we had entered someones front room for the first time and with that in mind turned down the offer of tea for we felt that we were intruding. Instead we turned our attention back to the shop, its history and the content. I spotted a delicate looking cane trout rod that turned out to be a Harry Powell rod who originally opened the shop in the 1930’s and was told that “Harry’s rod would never be sold, it is far too special.” Mrs Williams told us about Lionel Sweet who took over the shop from Harry Powell and of his legendary fly casting skills (in 1953 he became the Casting Champion of Europe which he held for twenty years) while his wife Molly hand-tied the flies in the shop. In the early 1960’s Mrs Williams started work in the shop after her parents were looking to find her some temporary work, then in the 1970’s she took over the shop with her now husband, Mike. Over forty years on Mrs Williams, the Usk Butterfly continues to offer her time and hospitality that is warm and genuine, in truth we felt after an hour that we should leave but I think she enjoyed our visit as much as we were. The shop is very much orientated to fishing the Usk which is literally a stones throw from the shop. I spotted a cupboard of boxes with labels from bygone Redditch tackle firms, stacked in a higgledy-piggledy manner. From this cupboard Mrs Williams showed me some of the contents including some floats, “I have a few floats for the boys in the village, you have to get them started somehow,” it was almost as if this was a rite of passage, from float to fly. By five o’clock we had to leave, we could have stayed longer as I know that Mrs Williams had many more stories to share, time was not an issue in this shop, it looked like it had stopped many decades ago, but we had to move on and step back into 2014. A meeting had been laid on for us to discuss the photo-shoot that was to take place on the following day, the contrast was quite extreme.
In hindsight there is a slight sadness about this shop as you realise it won’t be around forever. When Mrs Williams locks the door for the final time I can’t see this business being passed on or sold as it stands, the vintage tackle dealers and auction houses may buy up the contents and the shop will be lost. The stock is probably worth very little but some of the historic photographs and wood carving are worth considerably more, but as a collection under one roof it is priceless. On a historical and social level Sweets is a very rare place to discover. For now it still stands as a business supplying the Usk fishermen with flies, spinners and line, it is a very honest place and certainly not a parody or museum. For anyone who remembers fishing tackle shops that precede the 1980’s when the owners were normally a husband and wife duo, this is a place you have to visit and spend a few pounds. Sweets is a tackle shop that survives where many others were lost to Angling Centres with departments run by ‘experts’. My experience in Sweets reminded me how far we have come as a country over the last thirty years, we seem to be in a big hurry. Sweets is a real lesson in customer care and understated knowledge, an antidote to modern shopping. This little tackle shop is in no rush, run by a lady who has time for anyone who steps through the door, I’m just looking to find an excuse to go back soon, this time though I will accept the offer of “a nice cup of tea with welsh water” as Mrs William would like to say.