Aristocrats offer war veterans sanctuary

A group of former soldiers has found a unique way to rebuild their lives. Jonathan Rendall joins them in Surrey

It is going to be their worst nightmare, surely. As the men of the Combat Stress Angling Society watch their floats, a military helicopter heaves into view above them. The men are veterans of conflicts from the Falklands to Iraq. Each has the imprint of war on their lives in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Only in fishing together – just them, no one else – can they find temporary solace from the flashbacks.

The only taboo subjects among them are details of combat and death.

Now the calm of the small lake near Farnham in Surrey is about to be shattered by that most chilling reminder of warfare: an attack helicopter.

As the thump of rotor blades becomes audible, only Mad Dog, otherwise known as John, a veteran of the Falklands and the first Gulf War, bothers looking up. "Apache," observes Pete the Painter, adding, "Yeah, I suppose there's a large part of each of us that hasn't left the military." In his late forties, a few years older than Mad Dog, he could pass for a suburban accountant but for his eyes, which flicker with a manic alertness.

The group's founder is Frank, 60, a grizzled former paratrooper who served in Northern Ireland. Thirty other men have joined since he formed the club with Bones, aka Alan, a medic on HMS Sheffield, sunk during the Falklands conflict. Both were receiving help from Combat Stress, the veterans' mental health charity.

Frank takes new recruits to the lake because of its seclusion. Until diagnosed, many PTSD sufferers become reclusive. "It's ideal because it's quiet, and I know they'll catch fish, but the important thing is the lads feel safe," he says. "We look out for each other here. Bones calls fishing here 'therapy for the soul'. A lot are in denial. They won't admit their PTSD problem."

At first, Frank made fishing rods himself with odd bits of tackle from car-boot sales. As numbers swelled, he solicited local tackle shops. He decided to make the club official. "We wanted to register ourselves as 'Fine', but they said it was an inappropriate name." Why? "Because it stands for Fucking Incapable of Normal Expression."

This small group has just been granted free access to fishing at more than 50 stately homes, including Blenheim Palace. A therapist at Combat Stress brought them to the attention of a philanthropic aristocrat, Lady Victoria Leatham.

Lady Leatham, a keen salmon fisherman and former honorary colonel of the Royal Anglians, says modestly that facilitating such venues was not difficult. "All you have to do is ask. My problem has been trying to get in touch with the soldiers, and some people's attitudes. People say, 'Oh well, they got through the First and Second World Wars all right'. But look at the number of these men who are living on the street. A backfiring car can set them back."

William Montgomery, whose family has lived at Grey Abbey in County Down, Northern Ireland, since 1606, said: "Lady Victoria rang us, and I know her of old, so I said 'yes', subject to the approval of the angling club that rents my waters. The club said overwhelmingly they'd be delighted to host them."

Peter Sinclair, of the 1,500-strong Historic Homes Association, said: "It's a great cause and I hope it's something that can grow. Most members have very large estates with some fishing. We encouraged them to sign up. Victoria must take the credit. She gets things done."

Combat Stress has 30 beds at Tyrwhitt House treatment centre in Leatherhead, not far from the lake. It has 4,500 patients on its books, some still from the Second World War.

Pete the Painter first came to the lake just to paint. When two rods had bites at once, he took one over. Pete reeled in the biggest fish of the day. "I was hooked, so to speak," he says. "The main thing about fishing is the same as painting. The rest of the world goes away."

His paintings reveal his talent. Of one, a series of disturbing, transparent images, he says: "That was my PTSD painting. There was a solid figure in the back, and every image in front was see-through. It was looking through at your former self, trying to get it back." He didn't display it. "I put my boot through it, threw it away."

Today, no fish are landed until Pete reels in a small carp and then another. Each is held tenderly before being returned to the water. He is an incompetent, if lucky, fisherman, he insists. "I've caught every tree round this lake, and brollies, I even caught a rod from my bag once and cast that out."

So far, they have fished only Burghley of the stately homes, after a personal tour with Lady Leatham. "She said she would set up a fund for us, but we said we just want somewhere where there's not a lot of general public."

Later, inside Tyrwhitt House, Bones admits: "I was struggling a bit. I don't mind if I catch nothing. It's safety in numbers. Safety as a unit."

HMS Sheffield's sinking by an Exocet missile in May 1982 killed 24 and seriously wounded 20 more. TV footage of the event horrified Britain. "The incident was three hours long. But in that time I saw more than 30 incidents,'' he recalls.

Before diagnosis with PTSD he was bewildered. His wife left him. "She'd had enough of being with a hand-grenade with the pin pulled out. You feel ashamed. You were highly motivated, highly trained; everything you did was with gusto. You go from that to having your brain broken. At reunions, it's 'There's Bones, he's lost the sodding plot'."

He now regards his stints at Tyrwhitt House as necessary. The angling society is equally important. A year ago Bones, so called because he is 6ft 6in and "lanky", was intent on suicide. Mad Dog talked him out of it.

"I've got this constant video in my head," Bones admits. "When you've seen the horrors of war and you're sat by a place like that lake, the beauty calms you, it turns the sound down. It really does soothe the soul."

Suggested Topics
News
Jennifer Lawrence was among the stars allegedly hacked
peopleActress among those on 'master list' of massive hack
Sport
Radamel Falcao
footballManchester United agree loan deal for Monaco striker Falcao
Sport
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
Voices
A man shoots at targets depicting a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a shooting range in the center of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv
voicesIt's cowardice to pretend this is anything other than an invasion
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
News
Fifi Trixibelle Geldof with her mother, Paula Yates, in 1985
people
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Upper KS2 Primary Teacher in Bradford

£21000 - £30000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Upper KS2 Primary Teacher...

KS1 Float Teacher

£90 - £130 per day + Excellent rates of pay : Randstad Education Southampton: ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree are seeking Trainee Recruitmen...

KS1 Primary Teacher in Bradford

£21000 - £30000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: KS1 Primary Teacher in Br...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor